By Cindy Leuch <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Submitted: September, 2004
Summary: Lois Lane finds out that her mysterious masked companion at a costume party isn't exactly who she thought he was.
Lois sighed and pulled at the tight waist of her dress as the heavy backbeat of the band began to pick up again. Couples that had previously mingled harmlessly throughout the cavernous ballroom began to make their way toward the large dance floor, surrounding her, swaying to the rhythm. She was acutely aware of the fact that she was alone, her "date" to the party late as always, but she didn't mind all that much. After all, it wasn't socialization that brought her there in the first place.
As her eyes swept across the dancing masses around her, a slightly overweight man in a loud, sequined white jumpsuit brushed by her, his dark hair well greased and perfectly coiffed. It was an Elvis get-up that would make even the most devoted impersonators nod with approval, although most impersonators didn't have a dead ringer of Pricilla as a dance partner. Lois raised an eyebrow in appreciation, but she soon found herself smiling as she finally caught sight of the man's face. All the sequins and hair goop in the world wouldn't make that face any less recognizable, she thought as she sauntered toward him, deftly avoiding those dancing in her path.
"Senator Stone," she said with a smile as she approached the man, but he didn't acknowledge her. "Senator Stone?" she repeated more loudly, now mere inches from her target. He still seemed blissfully unaware of her presence, although she swore that she could see his jaw clench as she spoke his name. With a sigh, she glanced skyward, cursed under her breath, and then cleared her throat as she regarded her subject again. "Elvis?" she said, and, finally, he turned toward her.
"Yes darlin'?" he drawled, his voice lower than she was expecting, his smile sly. Lois gritted her teeth and smiled as sweetly as she could.
"As chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, what can you say about rumors that certain regimes in the middle east are secretly plotting against U.S. interests?" she asked quickly, anxious to hear the response. She had been waiting for weeks to ask that, counting the moments until she was able to be in the same room with the man and present the question that no other journalist seemed brave enough to ask. She was aware that maybe she seemed too eager, that maybe the question was too direct at the start of the impromptu interview, but all her excitement and nervousness quickly morphed into shock. The senator's eyes seemed to flash with recognition at first, but quickly his expression turned blank, and a vacant smile quickly worked its way onto his face.
"I'm sorry, darlin', but I don't know what you're talking about. Ask me about Ann-Margaret or blue suede shoes and I could talk all day. Leave politics to the politicians, not the rock and rollers." With that, he nodded and turned away from her, leaving her to fume. Well, this party was turning out to be a real disappointment, she thought, shuffling through the crowd to the edge of the dance floor. Of course she had known that the biggest political event in town this election season was a masquerade ball, and yes, she had known that part of the ground rules of this particular Halloween party was that the attendees were to act the part, but somehow she had figured that the rest of the attendees would see that particular rule to be as dumb as she found it to be. But politicians being politicians, and being rather flexible when it came to reality, seemed to relish being other people, and all she had gotten so far was a whole lot of nothing. And a few bites of some rather awful free caviar.
Lois sighed as she leaned against a bare section of wall, watching the dancing politicians, regrouping. It was funny how so many of them were dressed as either beloved historical figures or beloved fictional characters, all of whom she was sure that they aspired to be in real life, generally falling well short. One of the New Troy senators, for example, was dressed as George Washington, although she doubted that he could utter the phrase, "I cannot tell a lie," with a straight face. The Governor of New Troy was masquerading as Uncle Sam, but Lois was sure that the line "I want you," when said to the ladies, was nothing new to him, if the rumors were to be believed. Maybe those strange discrepancies by themselves would make good copy, she thought with a grin, but the thought was soon squelched as she became aware of a presence next to her.
With a start, she turned to her side, her eyes first catching sight of a hand, clad in a black leather glove, firmly planted on the wall beside her. She followed the arm, covered in a loose-fitting black shirt, toward the body of the man. It was hard to stifle an appreciative gulp as she found the shirt cut open in a V at his chest, revealing a very well-defined set of muscles. At his neck, a silver chain held a heavy black cape, which was slung over his shoulders. Only as her eyes reached his face did she begin to smile, recognizing immediately the features that were hidden beneath a black mask and shadowed by a black, wide-brimmed hat.
"It is truly a crime that a beautiful woman such as yourself is all alone at a party such as this," he said with a bad Spanish accent, his free hand reaching for hers, clasping it, and drawing it toward his face for a gentle kiss. "Would you like to have this dance, miss…?" He looked at her questioningly, appraising her outfit. Lois laughed lightly.
"Grant," she said, wiggling her upper body ever so slightly. "Cat Grant." Lois couldn't be entirely sure, but her new companion appeared to raise his eyebrows ever so slightly at the name. "And I would love to dance, Senor Ke—"
In a split second, his gloved hand hastily dropped her hand and flew up to her lips, stopping her in mid-utterance. "Tonight, I am Senor ZORRO, my lady."
Lois couldn't stop herself from rolling her eyes, but she didn't resist as he pushed away from the wall and wrapped his arm around her back, leading her toward the dance floor. "This whole thing is so silly, Clark," she said as they took their place among the masses on the dance floor, positioning themselves so that they were tastefully apart from each other.
"Have a little fun with it, Cat," he answered, dropping the fake Spanish accent, putting an emphasis on her stage name for the night. "I mean, how often do you get a chance to interact with the political elite under circumstances like this?"
"It's like interviewing fictional characters," Lois said flatly, her eyes wandering toward the crowd around her. "Take Senator Elvis, over there. He could tell me enough Elvis parables to put Perry to shame, but when I ask him one question about his job, he acts like I'm from outer space or something."
"Maybe it's the dress," Clark, Zorro, answered with a chuckle, his eyes twinkling under the black mask. Lois felt her cheeks redden, her arms unconsciously pull themselves in toward her body. The dress she had picked out would've been at home in a movie about space and/or "the future," produced sometime in the 1950's. It was metallic silver and entirely too skimpy, but Lois couldn't deny that she had the body to pull it off. Besides, it really was something that the real Cat Grant would wear, and it was a real steal. Still, it didn't scream journalistic integrity. But she wasn't about to admit that to Clark.
"It wasn't the dress," she said, although he seemed unconvinced. "It's the whole concept of this ball. I don't know how Perry expects us to get anything worthwhile out of a party where everyone is pretending to be someone else."
"It just takes patience," Clark said, still smiling. "You start off talking about things related to the character, but as time goes by and the conversation deepens, part of the fa‡ade begins to fall away and the real person behind the costume comes through."
Lois looked at him, surprised, and then looked away. Maybe he hadn't been late to the party, after all. Maybe he'd just been hanging around, coaxing the secrets of the state budget from the New Troy Treasury Secretary while talking about the social merits of whatever comic book character he had come dressed as. Or maybe not. "I guess," she answered, not especially willing to concede that he had a point, and not entirely convinced that he even had one in the first place. If anyone had the patience to sit through long, boring minutes of meaningless, contrived conversation, it was Clark, but it seemed like a lot to put up with in order to get a nugget of story. In the case of politicians, the story behind the fa‡ade probably wasn't worth waiting for in the first place.
They danced in silence for a moment, his hand positioned on her back locking her in a comfortable embrace, one that felt so natural, it was almost disarming. But he was just a good friend, she told herself. Sure, they had grown close over the year and a half or so that they had worked together, close enough that she could read his moods and expressions, but their closeness was that of colleagues, and nothing more. Still, she thought as she let her eyes wash over him, nobody looked quite as good in black as Clark did. It was hard to deny how handsome he was; it was hard to deny the look he got in his eyes whenever he saw her. It was that look that had always scared her, because it was that look that told her everything she ever needed to know about him, and how he felt about her. She knew before he ever said it that he was in love with her, and even though he had taken back that declaration, she knew deep down that it was still true. It was flattering, of course, but Lois wouldn't let herself view his affection as anything more. To acknowledge it, to explore it, to try and decipher what her feelings were toward him, would take the kind of emotional investment that she just wasn't willing to make. It was better like this, she told herself. To love Clark as a friend, a colleague, a brother, was so much easier, and wouldn't lead to the heartache and devastation that would probably await her if they ever deepened their relationship.
It was a shame, though, a part of her said. How many truly honest men were there in the world? Who else could possibly be as kind and considerate as Clark? Who else would always be there for her, without demanding anything in return? Maybe one man, she thought with a smile, the form of Superman materializing in her vision. Superman didn't have a bad bone in his body. He was polite to a fault, kind, and had never let her down. He was in every way her ideal man. But she was beginning to realize that he was also an illusion, someone who cared for her, but could never give her what she wanted. It was easy enough to see in his eyes that same look that Clark always seemed to hold, but unlike Clark, Superman kept himself distant, never told her his secrets or feelings, never let her see the man inside. In some ways, Superman behaved toward her as she behaved toward Clark. With so much in common, maybe it was no wonder she was attracted to him, she thought with a sigh. That spandex outfit certainly helped, too.
"So, how man people did you save on the way over tonight?" Lois asked, the subject of Superman reminding her that her partner was now masquerading as a hero. He blanched, a surprised expression coming across his face, coaxing a laugh out of her. She gestured toward his costume. "Zorro. The whole do-gooder thing suits you."
His expression softened, the smile coming back to his lips. "The alcalde decided to give the peons a break and take the day off," he said, slipping back into the Spanish accent. A mischievous twinkle glinted in his eyes. "I did, however, save a stranded motorist from the clutches of a bandit."
"Ooh," Lois said, acting suitably impressed, finally enjoying indulging a little fantasy. "My hero," she continued, the arm behind his back drawing him in a little closer.
His smile faded again, an expression clouding his features that she couldn't quite read under the mask. Maybe she'd gotten a little too comfortable with their closeness, Lois thought, but Clark wasn't pulling away from her. Even as he seemed to study her face, he drew his arm tighter around her back. What was she missing? She didn't think there was any kind of double meaning to her words — she was just playing around. He knew that, right?
After a moment, he seemed to relax. "I just help when I am needed," he replied, although his smile didn't seem quite as natural as it had earlier. Yes, she had definitely missed something, but she wasn't going to go crazy trying to figure out what. If Clark was nothing else, he was an enigma. He disappeared at weird times, making the dumbest excuses, often leaving her in situations that no polite man would leave a lady in. She tended to overlook those instances, if only because they ran counter to all his other considerable charms, but she had begun to realize that there was something strange going on with him. Maybe he had some sort of ailment that caused him to run off — a weak bladder, perhaps, or something else that was potentially embarrassing. Clark should know that he had no reason to be embarrassed around her, that she accepted him no matter what the flaw, that he could trust her. On the other hand, she didn't tell him everything about herself, did she? Well, not purposely, anyway. Still, there was plenty that he didn't know about her, that she hadn't told him, but none of it was earth shattering, and none of it was important enough to cause her to run out on him. His disappearing acts and odd behavior were always lurking in the back of her mind when they were together, and she hated it. She hated that he let her wonder about whatever it was, agonize over it, and get angry at him because of it.
With a sigh, Lois looked away from Clark, desperate to get her mind on other things. "So tell me, how did you manage to get that thing in here," she said, pointing to the sheathed sword attached to his belt.
Clark looked down, his eyebrows knitted together in question. His features had softened again when he looked up at her, the nervousness now completely gone. It was almost as if they had never shared that vaguely tense moment. "It's plastic," he replied, his eyes locking into hers. "I couldn't even slice a Z into a loaf of bread with this thing. Probably had an easier time going through the metal detector than that dress."
"Maybe if this was a whole dress, it would've been a problem," Lois said, although she remembered that Clark had never been present during Cat Grant's more notorious moments, when she tended to wear just enough to not get an X rating. But he knew her reputation well, and a quick bob of the head told her that Clark caught her drift. "As it was, they probably didn't think that this dress constituted a lethal weapon."
Clark smirked, and he didn't even need to formulate a response. She knew quite well what he would say if weren't the gentleman that he was. "I guess they don't know…Cat Grant that well, do they?" he said instead, and Lois just smiled.
They wordlessly enjoyed each others company for a few more moments, and then, as the song ended and a more upbeat tune replaced it, they made their way off the dance floor. Quite a few couples had taken the occasion of the song change to have a seat, and they both knew that this would be an opportune moment to get down to work. Although, Lois thought, she doubted that she would be more successful than she had been so far that night. "Back to the old grind," she said as she and Clark finally split apart.
"Yeah," he said, obviously disappointed. "Save another dance for me," he continued, that soft Kansas sincerity in his eyes, then finally dropped his hand from her back. Lois nodded, and with that, he turned away, his eyes sweeping the room for a moment. She watched as he seemed to find his target, a woman dressed in Victorian garb seated alone at a table, then strode confidently toward her. As he reached her, he gave a bow, probably acting the part of the charming don, obviously opening her up. The two quickly became locked in animated conversation, and Lois had to look away as the embers of jealousy began to burn within her. She told herself it was a professional jealousy, that Clark was just that much better with the one-on- one, touchy-feely interaction, but she knew that the somewhat smitten look on the woman's face was a large part of the problem. Well, she thought, absently tugging at the dress, two could play at that game.
Her eyes locked onto a man standing forlornly next to the punch bowl, alone. If she were to guess, his short stature and French-looking military outfit would lead her to believe that he was dressed as Napoleon. No wonder he didn't have any friends if he was trying to play that part, she thought with an inward smile. Cat Grant probably had no idea who Napoleon was, and because of that, the dictator would have a new friend.
"Hello short, dark, and handsome," she said as she approached the man, her voice deep and husky in her best imitation of Cat Grant. The man turned toward her, his eyes wide. He was just tall enough that eye level for him was about mid-chest on Lois, and he wasn't shy about keeping his gaze at an even keel. This was going to be a very short conversation if that continued, Lois thought, fighting her urge to tell him that her face was up a little higher. "Who are you supposed to be?"
The dopey expression that had affixed itself on his face morphed into mild surprise, and he finally looked up. "I am Napoleon," he said with a passable French accent. Lois couldn't tell if his consternation was part of the act.
"Guess I shouldn't tell you what a great time I had when I visited Russia a few years ago," Lois quipped. Napoleon's mouth went flat. She wished she knew who he really was, so she could find the right buttons to press, but she couldn't quite place the man's face. He probably wasn't anyone important, which was just as well, because she didn't know how she would be able to turn the conversation away from late eighteenth century European politics. Lois sweetened her smile, and her new companion seemed to forget his consternation.
"So, uh, how about you, mon cherie? What shall I call you?" he asked, inching ever so slightly toward her. "And why do I feel the sudden need for a TV dinner?"
Touche, Lois thought, although her smile didn't falter. She was a professional, she told herself, and it would take more than a few verbal jabs to raise her hackles. And besides, if she played the game right with this guy, she might actually get something resembling a story from this party after all. "Name's Cat Grant," she said, limply holding out her hand. He just looked at it, then looked up toward her, a confused look on his face.
"Who?" he asked, the French accent momentarily gone.
Lois's smile faltered as she pulled her hand back. "Former gossip columnist at the Daily Planet," she said, although he still seemed puzzled. "Too obscure?" she asked.
Napoleon nodded. "A newspaper reporter? Nobody here would know one by sight unless they hung around the capitol on a regular basis." He took a sip from his cup and raised an eyebrow, his eyes never wandering far from her form fitting costume. "You do appear to be quite intriguing, Ms. Grant," he continued, the accent back again. "Maybe you could tell me some Metropolis gossip and I can tell you about the glories of the revolution."
The look on his face was somewhat sleazy, his eyes hungry, and Lois could feel the bile begin to rise inherthroat.But,shethought,noddingand plastering a smile on her face, this was business. And if he tried anything funny, well, four inch heels definitely helped in self defense situations.
As Napoleon launched into the mind-numbingly boring details of the battle of Austerlitz, Lois glanced over toward Clark, seeing him locked in what appeared to be a much more interesting conversation. He seemed to sense her gaze on him and turned his head, locking eyes with her, giving her a reassuring smile. His eyes left hers momentarily, looking toward her companion, who was now visually groping her in a way that she could practically feel. Clark's forehead wrinkled slightly, his eyebrow no doubt arched underneath the black mask, as a teasing smile settled across his face. Lois puckered her lips ever so slightly and twitched her eyebrows, causing his smile to broaden. They were flirting, she realized, her mind flashing warnings that she roughly pushed aside. Nothing wrong with a little harmless fun between friends. Clark's cheeks reddened at her gesture, and he quickly looked away, giving his attention once again to his companion.
"And that is the story of the incredible triumph of the French army," Napoleon continued as she turned back toward him. "Perhaps I can give you a more intimate view of the…French armaments?" he asked, his eyebrows raised in anticipation, his hand now reaching for hers. Lois took a step backwards, trying valiantly to stifle a shudder.
"Well, ah," she started, trying to think of the most diplomatic way to tell him to take a long walk off a short pier. Her thought process was disturbed, though, as a large boom jarred the room. The music stopped very suddenly, and all eyes were drawn toward the entrance to the ballroom, which was now clouded in smoke.
Even through the haze, Lois's eyes were drawn toward a flurry of activity at the periphery of the room. Large potted plants dotted the walls, creating dark spots and shadows that hadn't seemed sinister before that moment, but now, in the midst of what could only be some sort of hostile attack, she almost expected to see terrorists with guns emerging from those shadows. What she saw instead, though, were people whose presence she should've anticipated. Of course Washington would send secret service agents assigned to guard the powerful politicians in the room. And, she thought darkly, anyone bold enough to launch an assault on such people would have to anticipate their presence.
Another loud bang echoed through the room at that moment, this one shaking the floor and knocking many of the partygoers to the ground. The punch in the large bowl on the table next to Lois sloshed around enthusiastically, covering Napoleon's shirt with bright red, cherry-flavored splotches, although he seemed too frightened to notice. Indeed, many of the people around the room were now starting to panic, and with good reason. Her eyes widened as she glanced around the perimeter of the room again, noticing with alarm the darkly clothed bodies rapidly sloughing to the floor. She turned her gaze upward, toward the darkened skylight in the ceiling, and noticed the glint of light off the tip of a gun barrel. Someone up there was taking out the secret service agents, and nobody else even seemed to notice. She had to do something.
Lois took a quick step away from the table, but was stopped as a hand reached out and grabbed her arm. "Wait," Napoleon said, pointing to the center of the room. Several men had now surrounded the majority of the crowd on the dance floor, their large guns displayed prominently. Certain members of the crowd seemed to be singled out, immediately being plucked from the masses and dragged, guns to their temples, to separate corners of the room. Only a couple of men were left to guard the remainder of the partygoers, most of whom seemed too scared to do anything other than stare wide-eyed at their captors.
Gently, Lois pulled her arm away from the pseudo Frenchman. "Don't tell me you've never been held hostage before," she said, smiling lightly at his wide-eyed look of horror. There probably wasn't anybody in Metropolis who had been taken hostage more than Lois Lane, not a fact that she necessarily prided herself on, but she certainly knew her way around the twisted mind of a gunman by now. Of course, she was usually rescued by Superman just in the nick of time, which generally emboldened her to do things that ended up with her being held hostage in the first place, but Superman never complained. Tonight's situation wasn't her fault at all, which she would be sure to
point out to her hero if and when he came to her rescue this time, but until that time came, she wasn't about to sit around and wait. And Napoleon, the great French warrior and egomaniac, sure wasn't going to be any help tonight.
Pondering her next move, Lois scanned the room, her eyes eventually falling on Clark. His companion seemed somewhat panicked, although he appeared to be absolutely calm. Well, no, Lois thought, that wasn't true. He seemed a little too calm, his eyes locked almost too sharply onto their captors, his jaw muscle twitching in a way that only happened when he was nervous or tense. His expression was quickly becoming one that Lois was very familiar with, one that he only held right before he disappeared to wherever it was that he always ran off to. But there was nowhere to run off to tonight, not with gunmen at every exit. And she needed his help.
Lois stared down the nearest gunman, willing him to look away long enough for her to move toward Clark. After a few moments she got her wish, and she slinked toward her partner's table as quietly as a metallic dress and four inch heels would allow. As she neared him, she noticed that he was still fixated on the gunmen, so much so that he didn't even appear to see her approaching. She laid a hand on his shoulder, causing him to practically jump from his seat. As he turned toward her, raw determination seemed to burn in his eyes for a moment, but only a moment, enhancing his fa‡ade as a hero of some sort, and making her believe, if only for a second, that he could fulfill that role.
"Lois, what are you doing?" he asked, a hiss in his voice, his expression quickly morphing back into the tempered worry more typical of Clark. He gestured toward the chair, indicating that she should sit. "You're going to get yourself hurt."
"Something tells me that I'm pretty low on the priority meter for these guys," Lois said, dismissing him with a wave of the hand. She glanced toward the woman in the Victorian garb, recognizing her for the first time. No wonder Clark wanted to interview her, Lois thought, well aware that she, too, would be more than happy to chat with the wife of the governor. Right now, though, Lois and Clark seemed to be the last thing on her mind as her eyes shifted around the room, no doubt in an attempt to locate her husband. Lois felt a burst of sympathy for the woman, and she tried in vain to see if maybe the governor wasn't one of the hostages taken by the gunman, but the terrorists kept their charges well hidden. After a moment, she gave up, turning her attention back to Clark. "Can you see who they have taken hostage?" she asked.
Clark gave her a long look before turning toward one of the corners. "Several high ranking senators are in attendance," he said. It never failed, Lois thought. Clark seemed to have the eyes of a cat, able to pick things out that nobody else could ever see. Strange for a man who wore glasses, but then again, maybe he had a really good eye doctor. "Senator Stone, for one, as well as a couple others who are intelligence committee members."
"You think they want information?" Lois asked, biting her lip, her mind churning. The intelligence committee was briefed on all the highly classified state secrets that any terrorist would love to know. These men knew the limits of the nation's security system, as well as the home phone number of the CIA and FBI directors.
Clark nodded, cocking his head slightly to one side, a frown forming on his face. "Sources," he muttered, something in his expression telling her that he was entirely sure of what he was saying. "Snitches, plants. They want to know who's inside."
Lois opened her mouth, ready to ask him how he could possibly know that, but she quickly closed it again. It was better to just add it to his other eccentricities and focus on the bigger picture. Important members of the senate were being threatened, and she didn't like sitting idly by when she could do something about it. What that something was, she wasn't entirely sure, but sheer will and several years of tai kwon do surely had to account for something.
Lois sighed, looking away from the activities of the room and focusing absently through the table in front of her. Martial arts didn't mean a whole lot when the other guy had a gun. If only there was some way to level the playing field. With a start, she turned toward Clark, her eyes widening as she caught sight of the sword strapped to his belt.
"Your sword!" she said, pointing toward it. Clark, who was still absorbed in whatever conversation he was apparently overhearing, turned sharply toward her.
"What about it?" he asked, confused. Lois smiled and scooted her chair closer to his.
"It's perfect," she said.
"It's plastic," he answered, although he still appeared to have no idea what she was getting at. Lois couldn't help but smile more broadly.
"They don't know that," she said, pointing to one of the gunmen. "And I bet when it's jabbed lightly into someone's back, it feels just the same, too."
Recognition finally shone in his eyes, although the frown on his face told her that he wasn't buying it. "They have hostages. They see anything funny and bam, I have the death of a senator on my head. I'm not willing to take that risk," he answered, and Lois couldn't deny that it was the logical answer. But that didn't make it the right answer.
"What if you do nothing and they kill the hostages anyway? Could you live with that?" His frown seemed to deepen at her words, and the light blush on his cheek and his diverted gaze indicated to her that he wasn't comfortable with that scenario, either. "I'm not saying that you should go out there and do anything obvious. Start by catching one of the stooges off guard, then discretely steer him to some dark place and take him out. Nobody will have to know."
Clark's eyes scanned the huddled groups of terrorists and hostages, no doubt noting the total disregard that the men seemed to have for the rest of the room. Even the terrorists in charge of the majority of the partygoers were out of direct line of sight of each other, and most seemed too preoccupied to notice much around them. It really would be fairly easy to, say, blend into the crowd and slowly approach one of them, catching them off guard. And Clark apparently knew it. If he had any doubts, they seemed to disappear as his eyes caught sight of the seemingly lifeless bodies of the secret service agents lying around the room. He looked down toward his sword and then at Lois, resolve in his eyes.
"Wish me luck," he said, the corner of his mouth tugging up in a self-depreciating half grin. Lois smiled despite herself, and, as he stood, she found herself reaching out and grabbing his arm. He stopped, looking at her with a question in his eyes, and she had to fight the urge to stand up and kiss him. Instead, she just squeezed his arm and nodded.
"Good luck," Lois said, aware that her voice betrayed her momentary, totally irrational lust. His smile widened, a spark growing in his eyes, before he gave her a tip of the hat and headed away, blending into the crowd. She followed him as best she could, noting how natural it seemed for him to hang back and become one with the group, observing his target without being too obvious. When the time came for him to make his move, he quickly slipped into place behind one of the gunmen located very close to where Lois was seated. Clark drew the plastic sword from its sheath, slowly bringing it up and jabbing it lightly into the back of the man with the gun. The gunman stiffened, his eyes growing wide.
"Do not move, senor," Clark said, dropping back into his Spanish accent. Why did he have to do that now, Lois wondered, fighting the urge to go over and elbow his ribs until he decided that maybe he should be serious again. The fact that the attention of half the people in the room seemed to be drawn toward him at that moment only made it worse.
"Or else what?" the terrorist asked, his voice smug. "You might have a blade, but I have a semiautomatic, and it takes just one twitch of my finger to kill half the people in this room. If you don't believe me…" He trailed off, a sadistic smile forming on his face. Lois couldn't help but notice the man's finger tense on the trigger of the gun. Clark evidently noticed, too, although he didn't seem necessarily scared at the prospect. Clark turned toward Lois briefly, his eyes sad, his mouth turned down in a small frown. It was almost as if he was conveying an apology to her without speaking, although, as far as she was concerned, he had nothing to apologize for. After a moment, his expression seemed to steel again, and his attention was turned back to the gunman.
"Who IS that masked man?" the lady in the Victorian garb asked, drawing Lois's attention away from the scene in front of her, if only for a moment. As far as anyone in that room was concerned, he was just Zorro, the mysterious hero in black. This woman surely had no idea that underneath the fa‡ade was an ordinary farm boy from the heart of the nation's breadbasket, as normal and average as anyone else. He wasn't the prototypical hero; in fact, Lois wouldn't have known before tonight that Clark had it in him to face down something like this.
"That's just…" Lois started, intending to tell the woman that it was her partner up there, a mild-manner journalist, but suddenly he wasn't there anymore. In a blur of motion, both Clark and the gunman were gone, although the gunman quickly reappeared again, dazed, tied to one of the chairs at Lois's table. In a matter of moments, before anyone in the room could comprehend what was going on, all the other gunmen disappeared, reappearing only after being bound to other objects around the room. After a moment, another figure also materialized, this one dressed in blue and red, his uniform unmistakable, although his eyes were obscured by a black mask and his head was covered in a black hat.
"Superman!" the woman said, completing Lois's sentence, which was just as well, because Lois could only manage a squeak as she looked at him. In his arms were the guns that had previously been pointed at various dignitaries, guns which were now twisted and mangled, guns which were being dropped to the floor with a dull thud even as she watched. As soon as his hands were free, Superman reached up and pulled off the hat, revealing dark, slicked down hair, then removed the mask. He had never had his glasses on, Lois realized as his face was revealed. That whole night, there had never been lenses between his eyes and hers, and she hadn't even noticed. But that wasn't the worst. They had been partners, friends…more? And he still hadn't said anything, not one word. She wanted to scream, she wanted to cry.
Amidst the gasps and the cheers from the grateful crowd, Superman turned toward Lois again, his expression no doubt full of regret and apology, but she wasn't going to humor him, not this time. With as much dignity as she could muster, which probably wasn't much, considering the attire, Lois turned away from him, toward the door, and walked out without looking back.
It was getting late by the time Clark finally made his way to Carter Avenue, a quick glance upward toward the well-lit windows of Lois's apartment telling him that she was still awake. He wasn't sure if he was happy or scared at the prospect, although there certainly was a part of him that had hoped to see darkness behind the sheers. It would be the easiest thing in the world to just keep walking toward his own apartment, to go into work in the morning and slip into the status quo, conveniently forgetting that anything had happened. But the genie was out of the bottle now, his secret at last revealed to her, and there was no going back. The world was a different place, whether he liked it or not.
He lowered his gaze, fighting the urge to look past the wall and see how bad it was inside the apartment. His mind had long ago conjured up several images of what was going on behind those walls, none of them especially pleasant, none of them especially comforting. The one he tended to believe showed used tissues strewn across the floor, and remnants of broken dishes or vases scattered along the base of the wall… maybe a picture of himself or his alter ego amongst the rubble, mutilated in effigy. Of course, it was entirely possible that his overactive imagination was exaggerating the situation, and she was up there doing something else entirely, seemingly untouched, not giving him a second thought. But did it really matter what picture was painted in that apartment? All the emotion or lack thereof exhibited by her wouldn't change how he felt about her, it wouldn't take away the fact that she now knew his secret, and it wouldn't stop the inevitable confrontation that had to happen. As he stared at the dark blobs of ancient bubblegum that dotted the sidewalk in front of him, he decided that it would probably be best for both of them if they got the confrontation over with sooner rather than later. He didn't know if he could take several days worth of significant glances, uneasy silences, assumed feelings, and general suffering.
With a sigh, Clark tugged the brim of his black hat lower over his eyes and slowly made his way into the building and up the stairs, the black cape swaying behind him with every step. He supposed that, in a way, he had intended to reveal his secret to her tonight. All the clues were there — the cape, the heroic fa‡ade — and his glasses were sitting on the nightstand in his apartment. All it would take was a wink or a heroic deed for her to make the connection, and a part of him had wanted nothing more than for her to do just that. But another part had been just fine with keeping things the way they had always been. He wasn't going to make his other identity obvious by using his powers in front of her or by taking off that mask. But when the terrorists arrived, it had all become academic.
It could've happened differently, he supposed. If those guards hadn't been left to die on the floor, he would've been content with riding the situation out, with exploring all his options, and then, if there was no other way, with finding a nice, dark corner and having Superman make a visit. If Lois hadn't been there, he could've acted in the blink of an eye, before any of the guards had gotten hit. But her presence had caused him to hesitate, because she was the only one in that room who had any idea who lurked behind the black mask. Clark generally tried to stay away from politics as a rule, and had never so much as been in the same room with any of the people at that party, either as Superman or as himself. He was also very careful to stay in character throughout the night, never making his interviews seem like interviews, never letting on to his true reason for being at that party. As far as anyone there was concerned, Zorro might as well be John Doe, a man who they would've never known about if they weren't told. Superman could emerge from underneath the dark costume, and nobody would be any the wiser. Nobody, that is, except Lois.
It was strange, but Lois had never doubted that it was Clark under that mask. After months of coming through her window disguised only with a little misdirection and some gaudy spandex, she was able to see the real Clark through a much heavier disguise. That should give him some hope, he supposed, although it probably shouldn't be too surprising, since she had expected to meet Clark there. Still, given their history, he wouldn't have been in the least bit surprised if she had gone the other way and greeted him as Superman instead. It would've been easier that way. It would've meant that he didn't have to see the pain in her eyes after the revelation.
Clark didn't blame her for leaving. In her shoes, he would've left, too. But understanding her pain didn't make it any easier to digest. After she left, the crowd, and eventually the press, descended upon him, marveling at his costume, bringing up questions that he would've preferred to not be brought up. Was he in disguise often? Did he favor the political party that the assembled politicians belonged to? Where else had he gone undercover without revealing himself? They had asked him to put the costume on again, to pose for some pictures, but he would have none of that. It hadn't been until after he left that he contemplated putting the cape and the hat back on. It was only a couple minutes later that he had found himself on Carter Avenue.
Clark sighed and shook his head, telling himself to focus as he finally reached Lois's door. His conjured doomsday scenarios flashed before his eyes as he focused on the dark swirls of the wood grain, making his hand pause even as it came up to rap on the door. Almost unconsciously, he caught himself zeroing his senses in to the world on the other side, his eyes squeezing shut as a new mental image was allowed to form. Soft, soulful music was coming from the stereo, although a sharp, high- pitched whine indicated that the television was also on, the sound muted. Underneath the music was the steady sound of Lois's breathing, punctuated by the beating of her heart, its rhythm not so fast as to indicate that she was upset, but not slow enough to signify that she was asleep. Every now and then, the gentle rustle of paper came, the pitch of the sound giving away that it was a newspaper being read. It was a perfectly ordinary scene, certainly nothing he should be afraid of, although it didn't tell him anything about any mass destruction wrought by an angry Lois at any point in the recent past. Still, he caught himself smiling, the memories of other nights spent inside that apartment giving him the hope that maybe, just maybe, there would be more memories to come, ones that wouldn't have to be kept carefully hidden away and colored depending on what outfit he had been wearing at the time. Clark opened his eyes, hope welling inside of him, and finally knocked on the door.
"Who is it?" Lois asked, her voice even.
"It's me," Clark answered. There was a momentary pause, but he could hear her stand and move toward the door, stopping again for a moment before undoing the locks and cracking it open. Her eyes widened immediately upon seeing his attire, a sly smile forming on her face as she planted her free hand on the wall next to the door.
"Howdy, stranger," she said, shifting her weight and leaning against the door frame. If she was upset, it didn't show.
"Can I come in?" Clark asked, trying not to let any emotion seep into his voice. With a curt nod of the head, Lois stepped aside and swung the door open. She had changed out of the skimpy silver dress, Clark noted with a bit of relief. It had been hard to form rational thoughts when he first saw her in that dress from across the room. Now, he was sure, the finer nuances of whatever speech he had prepared long ago in anticipation of her figuring out would be lost if she approached him in that. She had graduated into an oversized t- shirt and pair of jeans, her hair pulled up loosely at the back of her head. It was meant to be casual, he knew, the dress of someone who didn't expect any company, but he still couldn't help but think that she exuded a certain amount of radiance, even when she wasn't trying.
Lois closed the door behind him, casually appraising him as he wandered toward one of her couches. She didn't say a word, waiting instead for him to make the first move.
"Listen, Lois, I…" he started, ready to offer any number of excuses or apologies for deceiving her, for leading her on, for running out on her all those times, but in one swift motion, she was immediately in front of him, her finger flying up to his lips.
"Shhh," she said, smiling lightly. Her eyes wandered over to the radio, then back toward him, her grin deepening. "Weren't you going to save a dance for me?"
Clark felt his jaw drop every so slightly, his brow furrowed in question. His eyes quickly swept the room, and he couldn't help but notice that the trash can and the floor seemed devoid of used tissues, the vases all seemed to be in one piece, and there were no broken picture frames or torn photographs. There was only a stack of newspapers and a spiral bound notebook on the coffee table in front of the couch. The apartment didn't present the image of someone who had been upset or angry or hurt.
As he turned back toward Lois again, he couldn't help but notice the gleam in her eye, the one that gently encouraged him to play along, so he did. Without another thought, he stepped forward and wrapped his arm around her waist, taking her hand in his. A steady, mellow beat came across the speakers, the song from an era when music was still played by big bands without the aid of any electronic enhancements.
They didn't speak for a few moments, content to sway to the beat and absorb the music. It felt so good, holding her in his arms, that he forgot for a moment all the question marks surrounding their relationship. He forgot all the frustration and heartbreak over Lois's different treatment of his two personas, forgot even for a moment that he had two personas. Because, as far as Lois was concerned, he was just one man now, and he had never realized how good it would feel to have her know that. As the song stopped, Clark
decided that, as nice as it was to lose himself in the moment, it was time to talk.
Clark loosened his grip, stepping away from Lois, but to his surprise, she didn't allow him to escape. Her arm remained locked behind his back, her hand still gripping his. He looked down toward her, trying to wordlessly convey his surprise, but Lois merely smiled in response. Her gaze was sly as the next song started, and he found himself momentarily unable to move. Lois's touch urged him along, and in a few moments, he was dancing again, although now he and Lois were far enough apart that they could look at each other, talk to each other. And Lois was the first to break the silence.
"So, you saved a motorist from the clutches of a bandit tonight, huh?" she asked, her eyebrows raised, and Clark could feel the blush rising in his cheeks. The statement had been another one of those subtle clues that he tended to drop, breadcrumbs that he'd always hoped she'd follow to the truth, but had led to nothing, at least until tonight. Superman had stopped a carjacking downtown on the way to the ball, it was true, and he was sure that the story had been picked up by evening news, which would've been just wrapping up as he arrived at her apartment.
"I did," Clark answered, not knowing what else to say.
"My hero," she said as she had earlier in the night, but this time he allowed himself to smile. Because this time she knew the truth.
"You don't know the half of it," he answered with a teasing smile, drawing a chuckle from her.
"Oh, yes I do," she said, studying his face for a moment, her smile fading somewhat as the moment ticked by. "So, mysterious hero, what happened at the ball after I left?"
Clark smiled inwardly, making a mental note of the game that she seemed to be playing. She had yet to call him by either his given name or his assumed name. It was as if the ball was still going on, and he was her interview subject, a man who was only what his costume suggested he was. Clark
certainly appreciated the gesture for what it was, and contemplated playing along and slipping into his Ricky Ricardo imitation. But it didn't seem right to try and play a part right now, even if that seemed to be what she wanted. He, for one, was tired of wearing masks, especially around Lois. "Well, about a dozen senators asked me if I would make an endorsement. I told them no as tactfully as possible, but I'm sure that some of the pictures that were taken of me talking with them will make the campaign ads."
Lois snorted. "Politicians. None of them have any shame."
Clark laughed. "The press descended less than a minute after the police arrived. They asked about El Zorro, and if he'd make any more appearances."
One eyebrow arched up at the comment. "And you said…?"
Clark smiled, slipping into the accent for one last time. "There is only one reporter who will have the pleasure of seeing Zorro again." He gave her a challenging glance, although she seemed somewhat skeptical. Ducking his head in concession, he reverted to his usual Midwestern drawl again. "Not that I told them that."
"I guess that means that I'm the luckiest reporter in town," she said suggestively, heavily. Her eyes locked into his, studied his, and for a moment he swore that she wanted to do something more.
"No, I can assure you that I'm the luckiest reporter in town," he said, and suddenly her face lit up and all traces of doubt were erased from her expression. Slowly, deliberately, she reached up and grasped the top of his hat, pulling it upward and then flinging it across the room. Next she reached behind his head and untied his mask, pausing slightly before dropping it to the floor. It was strange how right it felt to look at her like this, unobstructed, unmasked. He had expected to feel naked, exposed once this moment came, but those feelings were far from his mind as her eyes studied his face. There was only one thing he could think of now, and judging by Lois's expression, it was the foremost thing on her mind as well.
Her hand worked its way up behind his head, and suddenly he found himself leaning into her, kissing her, and all conscious thought suddenly ceased. For a long while there was only emotion, need, and hunger. It was as if all the months of teasing and flirting and unrealized sexual tension between them were finally all coming together at once, and there was nothing that could be done to stop it, not that either of them wanted to. It was the culmination of all his daydreams and fantasies, yet it still managed to put them all to shame. He didn't want it to stop, but deep down he knew it would have to sometime, and that time was approaching. The thought caused time to lurch forward again, and as he became aware of himself, he gradually began to pull away, telling himself that there would surely be more opportunity for such moments in the future.
Lois groaned lightly as their lips separated, although there was nothing but satisfaction on her face. "I can't tell you how long I've wanted to do that," he said, breaking the silence between them.
Her cheeks reddened, and her smile was shy. "Yeah, I have too, Clark."
His arms tightened around her as his heart threatened to burst with pure joy. He had wondered, worried, what she would call him when they finally dropped the Zorro act. With her words, though, any long held fears he had harbored fell away, and he let the happiness course through him. He contemplated at that moment telling her that he loved her, that he had always loved her, but decided that it was too soon. The time would come for those words, but for now, he wanted to keep it light, pleasant.
He let himself enjoy the moment, the silence developing between them not in the least bit uncomfortable. After a few long seconds, he pulled her hand up toward his mouth and planted a light kiss on it. "Not that I'm complaining, but I must confess that I had expected to come here to find that hurricane Lois had been unleashed," he said. Lois's eyes narrowed for a moment in mock consternation, but soon she was smiling at him.
"Oh Hurricane Lois came, all right," she said. "If you'd have showed up even a half hour ago, I would've told you what a rotten, no good, two-faced liar you were. I probably would've accused you of a lot of horrible things and then would've said that I never wanted to see you again."
"So what changed?" he asked. Her smile was the widest he'd ever seen.
"I thought about it for a while, and I figured out that once you get to talking to someone, and once you pry your eyes open, you can always see the real person behind the fa‡ade. Even if it isn't Halloween." Her eyes shifted downward, her hand changing its grip in his. "And I decided that lying to me was probably the last thing you wanted to do."
"No, I didn't like misleading you," he answered quickly, his voice soft, his tone earnest. "I kept telling myself that it wasn't lying, because I never told you that I WASN'T Superman, I never denied any of the things I did. There's a fine distinction between a half-truth and an outright lie, I know, but it's the only way I could justify all the times I ran out and told you I had a prescription to pick up or an appointment to get to. Because I don't think I could've lived with myself if I'd have lied to you."
"You must've dropped dozens of hints, left me a dozen clues that I could've easily translated into the truth, but I never saw them," Lois said, a note of frustration in her voice. Her eyes looked up again, locking onto the Kerth awards that were displayed prominently in her cabinet. "The lighting. Makes them look…bigger."
Clark blushed momentarily, then sighed. How much time had they wasted, tiptoeing around the truth, denying their feelings? All he had to do was say three little words, 'I am Superman,' and all this could've been his a long time ago. But…would it have been the same? He knew exactly why he had waited, why he had dropped all the clues without flat out telling her the truth. All that she had felt for Superman had been emotions directed toward someone bigger than life, someone who was a collection of good looks, strength, and virtue; a fa‡ade, but nothing more. She loved the superficial things that made Superman, but didn't love the man that Clark was inside. If she followed his hints to their logical conclusion, it would mean having to throw away her prejudices and recognize a new truth. It would mean having to accept that Clark was more than the invisible nobody that she used to think he was, and it would mean accepting that Superman was something considerably less than a god in a cape. By letting her make the choice to recognize the clues given to her, it gave her a say in the revelation. Granted, things hadn't exactly gone to plan, and his secret had been revealed by him rather than discovered by her, but she had already been on the path of discovering it on her own. He could tell just by the way she had started to look at Clark, the hint of something more than friendship lurking just behind her pleasant smile. Still, he could help but wonder if maybe she held onto that hero worship, if maybe the truth didn't chafe a little bit.
"So are you disappointed?" he asked softly, causing the contemplative expression on her face to fall away, and her eyes to focus on his face.
"Disappointed?" she asked, studying him, finally looking down toward his chest. She smiled lightly, bringing her hand out from behind his back and gently playing with the ends of the chain that held his cape on. "I was in the middle of a scoop and walked out just as the good part was getting started. That disappoints me."
"Lois…" Clark started, but her smile only widened.
Her hand released the chain and moved upward. Gently, she ran her finger along the edge of his brow, around his eye, and down to his cheek bone. "Someone's eyes can tell you a lot about them," she said, trailing her finger along his jaw and finally resting her hand on his shoulder. "Their face might say one thing, but the eyes are the windows to the soul, and that's generally where the truth can be found." Her eyes looked towards his again, and he found himself mesmerized. "I noticed a long time ago that Clark and Superman both looked at me with the same eyes. Whether you were pulling me from certain doom or giving me advice on proper usage of the English language, I could see the barely contained affection behind those eyes. But only recently did it start to bother me that I felt threatened by one man's love and frustrated by the other's."
She looked down, her voice growing soft, her body pressing closer to his. "I'm not disappointed, Clark, because I realize that I would've been upset if one of your personas didn't end up being just like the other. If Superman hadn't had Clark's sense of humor, or if Clark didn't have Superman's quiet strength, then I would've been disappointed. But now I have the total package, both sides of the same coin, and I realize that it's everything I wanted."
Clark leaned over and kissed her forehead. "I love you, you know," he said, the words coming before he even had a chance to stop them. He wanted to hold onto her forever and never let her go. He wanted to tell her how wonderful she was, how glad he was that she knew, but somehow those three words seemed like more than enough to convey all that.
Lois rested her head on his shoulder, nestling her forehead against his neck. "I know," she said, so softly that he had to strain to hear. They stood for that a moment, the music still playing around them, content. But after a moment, Lois raised her head, a mischievous half smile forming on her lips. "You realize, off course, that that doesn't get you off the hook," she said.
Clark blinked, caught off guard by her change in direction, but found that he was smiling despite it. "Off the hook?"
"I might love you, Clark, but that doesn't mean that I'm going to readily forgive you for all those lousy excuses and little white lies."
His smile only grew, even though he knew he should be feeling dread at the thought of a revenge plot hatched by Lois Lane. "Would it help if I showed you the great chocolate shops of Europe? Or swept you off to a nice tropical island in the middle of the winter sometime?" he asked with a wiggle of the eyebrows, causing her eyes to widen somewhat, but only for a moment.
"Yes, it would," she said, leaning back in his arms, giggling.
"For you, Lois, just ask and the world is yours," he said, serious. Her smile didn't falter at his words, although her eyes softened somewhat.
"Just promise me that, from here on out, there will be no more misdirection, no more half-truths."
She wasn't teasing, he knew, no matter what her smile said. "I promise," he answered. He didn't need to tell her that he had never wanted to deceive her in the first place.
Lois nodded, her grin radiant, and Clark knew that the night had reached its end. He dropped arms, and Lois stepped away, although her eyes never left him. "Tomorrow, if you're not doing anything for dinner, there's this great little French bistro that I know of," he said.
"Is that a date?" Lois asked, the teasing tone back in her voice. Clark nodded. "I'd be honored," she answered.
"Until tomorrow, then," he said with a small bow, continuing the motion downward to retrieve his mask. Once he straightened again, he detoured to pick up his hat, then took a step toward the door of the apartment, Lois watching him curiously all the while. Her gaze was different than it had been before, different from the naked attraction she regarded him with when he visited as Superman, different from the friendly, familiar smile she gave him every day at work. Her expression now was a hybrid of both, a new face for a new reality. With a smile, Clark realized that he didn't necessarily have to leave through the front door. Tonight she had seen plenty of Clark Kent and his other secret identity, the mysterious stranger in black, but she really hadn't seen Superman outside of his brief appearance at the ball. And Clark felt like showing off.
Two strides took him to her window, which was cracked open by habit, the sheers fluttering gently in the breeze. He placed the hat on his head and pulled back the drapes, taking one step up and into the window frame. "Good night, Lois," he said.
Her grin was beautiful, as always. "Good night," she said. He gave her a smile and turned toward the tempered darkness outside, willing himself gently up into the air. As he was about to take off across the sky, he became aware of her saying his name. With a start, he turned back toward her apartment, suspended in midair a few feet from the front of her apartment building.
"Clark?" she said again, taking a step forward.
"Yes?" he answered, floating closer to the building.
She was now at the window, her hand resting on the frame. "I think, tomorrow, I deserve an exclusive, behind the scenes account of everything that happened at the big party."
"You?" Clark asked, a half smile forming on his face.
"Okay, we," Lois said, mirroring his smile. "That is, if you can spare a moment to give yourself an interview."
"Wouldn't be the first time," Clark said, causing her eyes to narrow as that particular revelation came to her. He laughed, taking off into the night sky at last, leaving her to fume as her eyes followed him across the horizon.
"That is so unfair…" he heard her say from afar, causing him to laugh harder. In the morning, he was sure that the gossip columns would be filled with tales of laughter from the sky, of the city's famous hero being seen dressed in black and grinning like an idiot, but he found that the prospect didn't bother him at all. Why? Because he was a man in love, and was happy, truly happy, for the first time in a long time. And he was no longer a man who had to hide behind a mask, who had to be someone else, a secret identity, when in the presence of the woman he loved. Yes, he thought, executing one last barrel roll before taking aim for his apartment, this was the beginning of something wonderful.