By Doc Klein's LabRat <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Submitted: October, 2004
Summary: Stranded in a snowbound wilderness and caught in the middle of a dangerous situation, Clark and Lois are forced to take refuge in a lakeside cabin. There, they find that relying on each other's strengths in the midst of crisis help them come to a new understanding of just what they mean to each other.
I was listening to Sting's beautiful ballad, Shape Of My Heart, just before embarking on this and just knew I had to write something with that title. The lyrics don't really fit, but the title spoke to me somehow. <g> I'd been looking for a waffy, PWP vignette because…well just because…and this is what I ended up with. As it turned out…well, it isn't *entirely* a waffy PWP vignette. But what the heck. It's close enough. <g>
The poem which nags Lois is Robert Frost's beautiful and evocative "Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening". Always one of my favorites.
Oh, and this one is set — loosely — around HoL, but I've tweaked events and timelines to suit myself. Basically, just took what I needed and ignored what got in my way.
My thanks to Wendy and Lynn for some speedy, thoughtful and very helpful beta reading, not to mention much ego boos (that's ego boosts or boosts to the ego for you non-Glaswegian people ;) ) when necessary and slaps upside the head with a two by four when required. :)
I'd also like to pay due credit to Real Player's continuous play feature and my growing collection of Stargate music videos, which, between them, kept me supplied with a steady intravenous drip of soppy ballads, which paid dividends in inspiring the Muse. ;)
This is for Kaethel. Who refused to give up on the Muse.
"When we get back to Metropolis," said Lois conversationally, "I'm going to slice Perry White into very, very small pieces. Probably," she mused with a certain degree of malicious relish, "with that brass and silver letter-opener he keeps on his desk. You know, the one with the lyrics to Love Me Tender inscribed on the handle? 'It's just a quick hopper flight into Albany, Lois'," she mimicked her boss in a vitriolic tone. "'And then a short drive up to the Adirondacks. You'll be there and back in time for dinner.'"
She stopped abruptly in her pacing of the short line alongside the car and glanced up into the sky. It was getting dark. Something wet flicked against her cheek. And a few tentative snowflakes were starting to drift down out of the heavy-laden skies. Great; just what she needed.
Ahead, just visible still, the black shadows of the wood beside the road seemed to linger like rubberneckers, crowding close to witness the humiliation of the Planet's top reporter stuck in the wilds of nowhere with a rust-bucket rental car that had choked out its last breath two hours ago and a partner who had all the mechanical skills of a jackrabbit. The last of the snowfall that had finally ceased a bare half hour previously, rustled and shifted among the branches of the pines, making them whisper like disapproving aunts.
Lois scowled out into the darkness that lay at their heart. She hated trees. She hated woods. She hated long, dark narrow country roads that led from nowhere to…even more nowhere…even if they had a car that would take them…nowhere.
She'd give anything right now for a car that would take them fifty yards, she thought irritably, giving the offending vehicle the benefit of a cold glance and wondering whether a few hearty kicks at its tires would count as trying to keep warm through exercise. Which didn't seem to impress it into suddenly roaring into life and making amends for its appalling tardiness at all.
She sighed, pushing her gloved hands deeper into her coat pockets. It didn't help much. The temperature was plummeting even as she thought. Her fingers felt stiff as iron rods. She watched her breath explode into the air on a white plume and narrowed her eyes again on the interloping pines.
The woods. Thick with snow and silent as sentinels. Watching. Waiting. Timeless.
Deep. Dark and deep…
<The woods are lovely…dark and deep…> The stray thought wove its way into her head, the remnant of something long-learned and long- forgotten, and she frowned.
"'But I have promises to keep'," she murmured in response and then sighed. "Like meeting Lex for dinner." She tipped her wrist over and glanced at her watch with a grimace. "He'll probably be waiting at the restaurant now," she added wistfully, visions of the warm ambiance of his favorite Italian trattoria wafting tantalizingly into her head. Zucchini. Linguini. Light opera whispering among the subdued conversation and potted palms…warmth…heat…comfortable, warm, heat…
A wistful sigh escaped her before it morphed into a growl. She put her cupped hands to her mouth and breathed on her iced fingers. Oh, Perry White was so dead!
"Did I say brass letter-opener?" She turned abruptly with the question. "Too quick. I'm going to garrote him first with one of those appalling ties you insist on — Clark? Clark, are you listening to me?"
A grumble came from beneath the hood of their rental car.
"What?" she yelled back.
Clark's head popped up, coming into abrupt view over the edge of the metal ridge between them. "I said, I give up." He slammed the hood back down and came towards her, wiping his oiled hands on the rag he'd found beneath the back seat of the rental Taurus. He gave the car a frustrated glance across his shoulder as he neared her. "I've got no idea what's wrong with it."
Lois stared at him. "You're joking, right?" she said and then, when his glance told her otherwise, "Well, why *can't* you fix it?" she growled a peevish demand at him, waving her hands in agitation. "You're supposed to be the farm boy, aren't you?"
He gave her a confused look. She sighed. "You know. Aren't you supposed to have been tinkering with farm tractors before you leave the womb or something?"
"Oh." He shrugged. "Sorry, Lois. I guess while the rest of the kids were learning to be mechanical geniuses at their father's knee, I was busy milking the pigs."
Lois gave him a scathing look. "Don't be cute, Kent. Even I know you don't milk pigs." She hesitated and then swept him a cautious glance from underneath her lashes, before snorting and tossing her head as she looked deliberately out into the woods. "You do *not* milk pigs," she declared firmly, folding her arms.
"No, really," he said, giving her his patented wide-eyed and sincere expression. "Special kind of pig. The Royal Garden pig. They come from Venezuela. They're very big for pig milk in Venezuela. Huge. It's a very ancient breed. Venezuelan kings began it six centuries back. They say that the milk has special healing properties and —"
"Don't they have *cows* in Venezuela?" Lois interrupted with a frown and then, her expression changing instantly to exasperation, "Don't answer that." She glanced skywards, rolling her eyes. "Why am I even asking?" she implored the heavens. "Why do I even let you sucker me into these ridiculous conversations?"
Clark grinned at her and then frowned. "Anyway, why can't *you* fix it?" he said. "This is — as you keep reminding me — the twentieth century, Lois. We guys don't always have to be the mechanics, you know."
"No, seriously," he insisted. "I'd have thought you'd have learned the basics by now. One of those skills a good reporter needs to know?" he prodded. "You know, the ones on that list you printed up and left on my desk my first day at the Planet."
Lois felt her cheeks grow hot, despite the frigid air surrounding them. "Those were perfectly valid," she muttered and then quickly, "Anyway, Clark, I don't pay my garage half my salary each month to do the work myself."
"Half your salary?"
"Well, seems like."
"Your mechanic can't go with you everywhere. What if this had happened while you were out chasing down some story?"
"It did happen when we were out chasing down some story, Clark, remember?" Lois said caustically.
"You know what I mean. What if you were stuck in some back alley at night in the mean part of town and —"
"That's what cabs are for."
"Lo…is," his deep growl protested. "You know there isn't a cabby in Metropolis who'd go within a hundred yards of Hobb's Bay at night. They have more —"
He'd been about to say 'sense'. She gave him the look. The one he had once — quite unfairly and without justification — labeled her "Right, okay, I know I'm losing this one, but it's only because you keep using logic, which is so below the belt I should win by default anyway, Cheater" look.
Clark, however, seemed already to have judged the wisdom of finishing that sentence and decided, judiciously, that maybe changing tack was a better idea.
"Okay. Well then, yes, what if I hadn't come with you today? What if you were stuck out here, right now, alone?"
She shot a low glare at him. He looked smug. "Don't have an answer for that one, huh?"
"Well, having you here hasn't got me any further, has it?" she grumbled. "Might as well be on my own for all the good you — oh, get out of my way, let me see that thing!"
Lois, ever up for a challenge, nudged him out of the way with a little more force than was strictly necessary and peered dubiously into the car's innards. She continued to grouse under her breath about being alone at least meaning you didn't have to put up with smart-alecky, know-it-all partners pointing out the obvious.
"I'd have brought my Jeep," she muttered after a moment. "That's what I should have done. My reliable Jeep."
Clark snorted. "Lois, driving all the way up here instead of taking a flight wouldn't have got us here any quicker and you'd still have spent the entire time complaining about missing your…date. With even less chance of getting there."
Even with her attention riveted to the mess of bewildering spaghetti she'd discovered beneath the car's hood — did it really take all of that to make the thing move? — Lois didn't fail to hear the note that had crept into her partner's voice with that last. Especially that bite on 'date'. At least he'd had the grace to hesitate before bringing in the 'D'-word, she thought in annoyance. How many times did she have to tell him, there was no dating involved here. Lex and she weren't…that was, they were…well, they were…
Her expression darkened.
Okay, she was so *not* getting into Lex right now. Not that old chestnut. Not with him, and most especially not with herself. Especially right now, when what she really needed was someone to blame for the mess they were *currently* in and the main culprit was several hundred miles away, no doubt listening to Elvis's Summertime Hits and enjoying cappuccino with his feet up on his mahogany desk.
Hot, frothy, hot, milky, hot, chocolately, *hot* cappuccino…
A small sound close to a moan as made no difference escaped her with the thought. She could almost smell roasting chicory. She brought herself back to the matter at hand, thoughts of all that heat she was missing raising her irritation levels markedly.
Yup, any other mess she was in could wait for later. She had enough to concern herself with right here. Still, she couldn't resist prodding at that longstanding nerve, that old, old dissension between them. She knew if she let it lie, Clark's suspicions would be instantly aroused. He would want to know what was wrong with her if she passed up on the chance to make comment on that deliberately provocative nudge. And right now, Lex was one conversation she wasn't ready to have with him. She wasn't sure she wanted to talk about that one to anyone.
So…just for form's sake…
"Which you are more than happy about," she accused grumpily, but with no real heat. Even if she'd been genuinely keen on arguing the same old points with him, she wouldn't have. They'd pretty much maxed out their argument quota on his unreasonable dislike of Lex and her refusal to listen to him on the subject right back when she'd first started…when she'd begun being *friends* with…the billionaire. These days, thanks to an unspoken but rigidly maintained mutual non-aggression pact, they limited their difference of opinion to Clark's obvious but silent disapproval and her ignoring of it. It had seemed healthier that way. The constant bickering on it had begun to seriously damage their friendship and neither of them was quite prepared for that. So it festered.
"Don't pretend you aren't," she added now.
Clark shrugged. An eloquent and truthful enough response. And well within the boundaries of their treaty. And, fully cognizant of her own responsibilities to adhere to the surrender terms and despite her better instincts to bristle at his interference — who gave him the right to disapprove of her…um…of who she chose to have dinner with, she thought sourly? — Lois let it be. The effort almost killed her, since it was in direct contradiction to her nature. But she let it be.
Safer that way.
"Well, anyway, anything would have been better than some heap of junk rental car that couldn't make — is this where I'm supposed to whip off my pantyhose and save the day?"
Clark, who had begun studiously watching the landscape, his shoulders grown taut and his back stiff, perhaps anticipating another spat, choked. His head whipped around as he stared at her, round-eyed. "What?"
She glanced up at him earnestly. "You know." She gestured vaguely at the car. "Use them as a…slingshot…or…something…well, it works on TV," she defended herself as he looked at her in obvious amusement. "Stop laughing at me, Kent," she demanded.
"I'm…not. Really." He looked away, biting at his lower lip and she sighed, looking away from her partner to scan the forest and the long, empty stretch of road that disappeared over the horizon.
"It's not bad enough I have to be stranded out here in the boondocks," she muttered. "I have to be stranded here with the boondocks' answer to Chevy Chase."
The word seemed to echo ominously in the still air. Clark's grin faded. "Yeah, well…" he said uneasily, following her gaze along the deserted track.
The blizzard they'd run into had blown itself out — at least for now — but the sky that met his gaze as he tipped his head back was thick with gray and there was a familiar, laden heaviness to the air that promised more snow on the way. One or two errant flakes fell silently and softly, already. Beside him, seeming to sense that too, Lois shivered violently and pulled her coat tighter around her.
He gave her a quick sideways glance. "You should at least get into the car," he said. "You'll freeze to death out here."
She looked at him, and he saw a worry in her eyes that, he realized abruptly, with her tirade against Perry, her sharpness and her impatience, she'd been trying to hide for some time. He opened the door for her. "Look, why don't you get as warm as you can, and I'll go see if I can find a garage back in that town we passed? It can't be more than a few miles behind us."
Lois looked doubtful. "I don't know, Clark. What if you get lost out there? Maybe we should wait for a car to come by or…" She tailed off. She knew as well as he did the road hadn't been disturbed by any car in the two hours they'd been stuck here already. Why hadn't the darned car cut out on them ten miles back? he thought ruefully. It had seemed fine when they'd driven out of Haven after stopping for lunch at the local diner.
Never had a name sounded more apt. The cold wasn't affecting him too much, thankfully, not at the moment anyway, though he couldn't be sure of anything as far as his powers went right now. All the more reason to take advantage of what little was left to him now, just in case even this small respite was lost to him later. In the situation they were in, they needed every advantage they could get to get themselves back to town and shelter.
He glanced worriedly at Lois as she took his advice and huddled into the driver's seat of the Taurus. The thought that they might have to spend the night out here…
And Superman would be no help. Not this time. He couldn't. He didn't dare. With the cold not currently affecting him, he guessed that for the moment his powers had stabilized after their frightening fluctuation of the previous day. But he simply couldn't risk them cutting out on him again. He rubbed a tired hand across his forehead, suddenly nostalgic for the days when all he had to worry about was finding an excuse to duck out on her and a spot to change clothes in so that Lois wouldn't catch him in the act. Had life once been that simple and uncomplicated? Up till yesterday, yes, it had. But then had come the bank holdup and afterwards…
He shook off the darkening turn of his thoughts, aware that the red panic that had had him in its grip since the previous day's…incident…was ready to rear up and trample him again if he wasn't careful. He didn't have time for it, he couldn't fall apart now.
But he couldn't trust his powers either. Not until he was sure what was going on with him. Until he was sure of them.
This time, they were just going to have to get out of this without the superhero's assistance.
"I'll be okay," he said quickly. "Just wait here, okay? Don't go wandering off or anything. I mean it this time, Lois," he added as she looked up at him. "Trust me. I'm the wilderness kid, remember? People get lost all the time up here. It's not as tame as it looks."
Lois rolled her eyes. "Clark, if you think for one minute I'm going to get the urge to go hiking in this weather you're more addled than I thought. I'll stay here, don't worry," she added impatiently as he looked dubious. She waved a hand at the desolate landscape outside the windshield. "It's not as though we're in the middle of a crime hotspot, is it? I mean, unless aliens decide to drop their flying saucer right in front of me and ex-sanguinate a few cows, it's not likely I'm going to find a Kerth-potential story dropping into my lap needing investigation, now is it?"
Clark paused. "I guess not," he said dryly. "Although…" He glanced up at the sky, considering.
"What?" Lois asked quickly.
"Well…the waitress in that diner was talking about how people in town had seen these funny lights out here at night and —"
Lois rabbit-punched him in the arm. "Funny guy."
He grinned. "I'll be back quick as I can," he promised as he closed the door between them with a thud that sounded dull and ominous in the echoing stillness of the encroaching night.
He glanced back once as he trudged up the snow-filled track. Lois was already nothing more than a shadow behind the wheel of the Taurus. Clark frowned. The heater was out, of course, just like the rest of the car.
Maybe he could try…
He hesitated, tried to bite back the pulse of unease that formed unbidden in him, the thought that maybe he shouldn't try this, not with so many failures already. If he failed…again…as he'd failed so often since that bank raid…
No. He couldn't give in to pessimism over this…blip…yes, he was sure it was a blip. That was all. A slight…temporary…failing. Something that he would solve. Would recover from. Like flu. He pursed his lips wryly at the thought and then sighed. Whatever. He had to hold on to hope that it was something he could overcome. Because if he let himself sink into the belief that this problem with his powers was at all permanent…
With a frown, he cut the growing thought off sharply and the deepening fear that it provoked. He wouldn't think of it. Not now. He had other things to concern him. One of which…
He gave a mental shrug in armor against the small, unwelcome voice in his head that urged him not to try, to avoid more disappointment…and then surreptitiously, he pulled down his glasses and directed a burst of light heat-vision at the vehicle, sweeping it from trunk to hood. He did it quickly, not pausing to let the thought of failure overcome him, and tried to ignore how strong the relief was in him — and surprise — when it actually worked.
<Of course it worked> he admonished himself. <You see? It's fading already. They're coming back.>
He wasn't sure if he entirely believed that counterpoint thought, that defiant hold on hope part of him held fast to, but nevertheless his lips quirked in a satisfied smile as he jammed the glasses back into place. That should keep the car cozy enough for at least a small time. Long enough to keep Lois warm until he got back.
The satisfaction faded rapidly as he headed out along the dark and deserted road. Reality bit as cold as the air around him. It was going to be a long and freezing walk back into town and with fluctuating powers that could cut out on him at any moment, it wasn't going to be a pleasant one, he imagined.
The problem with his powers had begun the previous afternoon.
Put like that it seemed such a simple, uneventful thing. Not the shocking, frightening event it had been. A…problem. Something which could be solved, overcome, surmounted…
He had had no warning. No inkling that his day — his life — was about to change. That the resurrected green ghost of kryptonite would insert itself into his world like a sliver of thorn beneath his skin.
He had responded to the bank alarm. One of a dozen minor incidents Superman attended every day. He had dealt with the bank robbers quickly and without effort. It had only been when he was leaving that the terrifying, distinctive sickness had washed over him in a wave of weakness. Weakness he'd only known once before in his life, but which had struck so hard at the core of him that it could never be forgotten, never fail to be instantly familiar. To his alarm and growing panic, he almost hadn't been able to make it off the ground.
He had looked around him wildly, seeking his attacker, but the sidewalk had been crammed full of people; it had been impossible to pick one out of the hordes. Finally, he had opted for prudence as his only defense and his relief as he'd finally been able to surge upwards into the sky had been overwhelming.
He'd expected — had hoped — that the debilitating effects would fade the further he got from the source of the unexpected attack. But it seemed that the damage had already been done. In the middle of the flight back to the safe haven of his apartment he had suddenly and terrifyingly lost his powers. They had simply winked out on him like someone had switched off a light. He had plummeted in freefall several miles down towards the ground before they had reappeared as quickly and unexpectedly as they'd vanished on him. He had been sweating when he'd finally made it home, badly rattled by the incident.
Of course, he knew — didn't he? — that he really had nothing to worry about. He knew the cause of his sudden problem and although the memory of Trask's assault on him, so many months before, still had the power to give him nightmares and form a tightly clenched ball of tension in his belly every time he thought about it, he also knew that any damage to his powers, any loss of his abilities, was unlikely to be permanent.
Of course…strangely…things weren't happening as they had then. The kryptonite stored at the farm had taken his powers from him completely. There had been none of this disorientating there-and-then-not about it that had plagued him since he'd first felt the dizzying nausea yesterday afternoon. And if the stuff was affecting him differently this time…couldn't that mean that any final outcome was plunged disconcertingly into the realms of uncertainty too?
No. No, he had to believe that things would come out right, that this was a temporary blip, that his powers would return once the effects of the green rock dissipated from his system. Just like before.
He had to. Because to believe otherwise…
He shook his head fiercely, squinting out into the black night and even blacker road ahead, jamming his fists deeper into the pockets of his coat as he trudged onwards, refusing to give in to anything other than positive thought.
His powers would return.
The alternative was unthinkable.
So…he wouldn't think it.
And…really…he wasn't *too* concerned.
Well…maybe no more than a little.
He paused in the darkness, listening to the silence, thick and heavy- laden with the promise of more snow to come, and sighed. He watched the puff of breath show white among the darkness for a moment before it faded, and then morosely, he shrugged the collar of his coat higher around his neck and moved on.
Okay, so he was worried. Who wouldn't be?
What troubled him more than losing his powers for good was the unmistakable conclusion to the sudden unpredictability of powers, the onset of a debilitating weakness that was all-too familiar — somewhere in Metropolis, someone had kryptonite. And, worse, along with the deadly crystal they had something even more dangerous. Knowledge. They *knew* of its connection to him, how it could affect him, what it could do to him…they had the knowledge of how to use it to hurt him.
The thought sent a chill skittering down his spine that had little to do with the frigid bite in the night air surrounding him.
The only chunk of kryptonite he'd ever seen had gone into the lake near his parents' farm. It seemed unlikely that someone could have discovered it there, or retrieved it. Even if Trask had left behind some documentary evidence of his find and his theories about it. Which led to an even more sobering thought. There was more of it. There was more kryptonite out there in the world; a deadly, unpredictable trap he couldn't guard against and had no clue how to fight. How much of it? How many knew? What enemies were plotting even now to bring him down? Was he destined to find himself attacked at every turn? Any moment? What would repeated exposure to kryptonite do to him? Would he one day lose his powers for good? Could it even…kill him?
Tracking down whoever had the crystal and had attacked him with it had just become a priority, he thought grimly. As soon as he and Lois managed to get back to Metropolis. This assignment couldn't have come at a worse moment for him. But he hadn't been able to figure a way out of going.
But, for now, he had the more pressing problem of getting back there to begin with…
Lois shifted irritably in her seat. What was taking so long? She pulled her gloved hands free from where they'd been snugged into the sleeves of her coat and leaned forward to pull disconsolately at the toggles of the heater. For a time there the heating system had seemed to be working. But in the last twenty minutes or so the welcome blush of heat that filled the car had faded. It seemed the heater had belatedly woken up to the fact that it was letting the team down by chugging on alone and it had given up the ghost in solidarity with the rest of this scrapheap of rusting metal the rental company had had the gall to call a car.
She sighed, glancing out through the windshield. The wipers, of course, had always known where their allegiance should lie and hadn't worked from the outset. Snow had piled up thick as a wool blanket against the glass, making it almost impossible to see beyond its smothering presence.
Where had Clark gotten to? Surely it couldn't take this long to make it back to town? They hadn't gotten that far out of the town limits before the scrapheap had given up on them.
"There and back in no time," she grumbled under her breath as she put up a gloved hand and swept it across the glass in front of her, clearing a swathe through the steamed-up surface. She peered out through the porthole she'd created and the small borehole of clear glass that remained, into the swirling blizzard beyond. "Just like Perry. Just like…men."
Had the storm thickened since last time she'd looked? It had only been ten minutes ago. Hadn't it? She chewed on her bottom lip as she leaned closer to the glass, squinting into the unnaturally early darkness. A tinge of guilt pricked her as she thought of Clark, trudging through what was rapidly heading towards a whiteout. Alone. In the dark. What if he got confused and lost his way? He could trip over a buried…something…and fall into a crevasse. There was always a crevasse waiting for the unwary in these kinds of situations. Even she knew that. Fall and break a leg. Knock himself unconscious and end up being buried in a snowdrift where no one would ever find him till spring and then there'd just be bones…
A deep shiver coursed down her spine and she hitched her jacket closer around her, biting at her lower lip anxiously. Her mind helter- skeltered through the long list of possible dangers that could meet the unwary and unprepared traveler in this kind of country and in this kind of weather. Hah. Those cutesy Christmas snow parades and snowy landscape cards never mentioned any of *those*, now did they? Oh no. Norman Rockwell and Walt Disney wouldn't want to sully their fairylands with reality. They left that kind of thing to the Discovery Channel.
At that moment, Lois didn't know whether to bless cable or damn it. At least those documentaries had meant she wasn't dumb enough to go wandering out there in that whiteout. And if she was dumb enough and just happened to end up buried in a snowdrift she had a slim chance of knowing how to build an igloo to get her through the night (that particular documentary on the Inuit Indians had been *really* informative)… But, on the other hand, they seemed to have leeched themselves to her imagination and were cranking her anxiety levels up to hyperdrive.
She glanced over her shoulder, peering to try and see through the rear windshield, half hoping to see her partner trudging back towards her, though she knew it was hardly likely.
Clark would be okay. It wasn't as though he was a city nerd. He was a farm nerd. So he knew what he was doing. They probably taught them how to navigate blizzards in pre-school out there in Kansas. Build themselves igloos too. There was probably a scout badge on that or something. Arctic Survival 101.
Actually…he wasn't really any kind of nerd, she thought on the heels of her wandering. Her face softened in the car's shadowed interior. It had been a long time since she'd thought of him that way. And she'd been wrong then. She knew that now. Clark was…sweet…and intelligent and -
A thump from outside interrupted her thoughts, freezing her for a second, muscles bunching taut in instinctive readiness for fight or flight, before she relaxed slightly, identifying it as just a clump of snow sliding off the car's hood and onto the ground. She expelled the breath she'd been holding and watched it plume out white in the car's interior. With a small flicker of momentary unease, she realized that her posture had drifted along with the lingering thoughts of her partner. Lulled into that warm meandering, she had begun to slouch into her seat, huddled into her coat, and her eyelids had grown heavy. She couldn't fall asleep now. Even this city girl knew that would be a very bad idea, under the circumstances.
With a grimace, she forced her back to straighten, shifting into a more rigid sitting position against the back of her seat and briefly rubbed her gloved hands vigorously over her face in an effort to stimulate a brain turning slowly to mush.
Where had she been? Oh…right. Clark.
Who was still out there all alone. In the dark. Her mind spun full circle, back to its starting point. And the snow. If he vanished into some disaster en route to the town, no one would ever find her either. She'd starve to death.
<Just a few miles out of town and on the main road in and out, Lois?> a more rational part of her asked wryly, but the rest of her wasn't listening. The rest of her was already trapped on the highway of irrational fear, racing like a juggernaut towards panic, and it was inexorable in its rush to get to its destination.
He could have been struck down by frostbite by now, she considered worriedly. How long had he been gone anyway? How quickly could you lose a leg? Frostbite was bad, but hypothermia would be worse, and those were just the…well, the tip of the iceberg to coin a phrase and pardon the pun…there were so many other things to worry about too. Like…like…
That last was one panicked thought too far for her sensibilities to cope with. She snorted.
<Now you're just being ridiculous, Lois> she chided herself and then started as, out in the fading day, far in the distance, a sharp, lonesome howl reached her through the dark.
<Oh my god! Wolves!> her mind repeated in shock, all thought of sense and logic exiting the vicinity.
"It's just a dog," she said aloud.
"Of course it is," she agreed with herself.
Far from soothing her, the sound of her voice, more trembling and wobbly than she'd expected it to be, reminded her of her isolation, that she was alone. She huddled deeper into her seat as another soft shiver wracked through her.
Clark would be okay.
The soothing thought reassured her for only an instant. And then an image of her partner rose up in her head and scattered it into the gnawing concern that was knotting in her stomach. Wan, drawn…he'd been unusually quiet during the trip up here and he'd looked tired.
Yes, she mused, chewing absently at her lower lip as a shiver raced through her. She huddled as deeply as she could into what shelter her jacket provided. He'd been looking pretty sick all day.
That little realization intruded into her attempts to convince herself that her partner wasn't right at that moment lying in a ditch while snowflakes slowly covered him in a smothering blanket. Sluggish, tired. A little too pale. But when she'd asked he'd claimed he was fine. She hoped he wasn't coming down with something. She was bound to catch it. She didn't need a bout of flu taking her out of work right now. She made a mental note to make sure she had plenty of vitamins and ensure she had supplies of zinc and Echinacea over the next few days…
Her musing was interrupted as what had been an absent gaze sharpened abruptly on the black columns of the woods through the car's side window. Had something moved back there? She put up a hand to clear the misted glass and peered as close as she dared to the barrier, every horror movie she'd ever watched rearing up in the back of her mind as she did. A sudden thought occurred. One that had her sitting bolt upright in her seat. One not just unwelcome, but utterly shocking as she abruptly realized she was somewhere she had never intended to be. Somewhere she couldn't contemplate being. Not her. Not Lois Lane! Her mouth dropped open as humiliated horror swept through her.
Dear god, she was the helpless victim in this scenario, wasn't she? The poor female left alone in the car in the woods while the hero went for help. Just waiting for the serial killer or vampire or…werewolf…to jump up out of the dark, jaws slavering, fangs flashing, the thin glass of the window shattering, offering no protection as -
Lois scowled. Quit that, she told herself. It's just woods. That's all. Trees. Who ever heard of trees actually killing -
Well, there was that movie she'd seen about those man-eating plants eating blind people…
…and she guessed a few unwary loggers here and there had been crushed by…
…and, of course, if you happened to be dumb enough to be standing next to one in a storm…
She sighed heavily. "You are losing it," she murmured. "You are definitely losing it."
She was so *not* a victim. Definitely *not* helpless. And if anyone out there was hoping she would stick to the script on that one, they were in for a very unpleasant awakening. She scowled out into the darkness, just in case she was the object of speculative eyes, and then rolled her own as she realized what she was doing.
"There's no one out there," she told herself, scathing. "You've been watching too many late night movies."
Still, no matter how ridiculous the meandering of her thoughts had become, no matter how she tried to laugh off the small, but growing, knot of unease in the pit of her stomach, she couldn't entirely shake it.
<The woods are lovely, dark and deep…>
The words of Robert Frost's haunting poem popped into her head for the second time that evening. She'd never understood that poem. What was inviting about dark, deep woods? Woods full of snow, besides. What had the traveler meant by that? There was a longing in the words, a sense of wishing to linger. She shook her head. The man was clearly an idiot, she decided, wanting to wander around in freezing cold, damp and wet woods in the dead of night. The sooner *she* could get out of here the better she'd like it. Dark and deep those woods over there certainly were and they didn't call to her at all. She shivered and forced her glance away.
She yawned. A bone-cracking stretch of her jaw.
She wished Clark would hurry.
She hoped he was okay…
The chair was digging into her back. Dimly, she seemed to remember there was a reason for that, a positive — a necessity — to being uncomfortable, but she couldn't quite grasp what it might be. She shifted onto her side, snuggling down into the seat, the smell of old leather heavy in her nostrils. Her eyelids drooped. Somehow, it didn't seem as cold as it had been. Maybe the heater had kicked back into action, she thought drowsily. She'd check on it. In a moment…
Yeah. In a little bit. She'd check.
<Miles to go…>
"'…before I sleep'," she murmured.
She closed her eyes.
Clark scrubbed a tired hand across his cheekbone, feeling the acid bite of the chilled air against his skin. He was beginning to feel as though he was living in a wilderness movie. Any moment now, Gentle Ben would wander into view around the curve of the darkened road up ahead.
The road had been perfectly clear just an hour or so ago, when they had driven through on their way to…disaster. It was only in movies that the lost motorist returned to find that a tree that was probably fifty years old and had never thought about doing anything more exciting in all those decades than staying rooted right to the spot where it had first seeded tentative fingers into the earth had suddenly, inexplicably decided to jump right into his path and mess up his evening even more than it was already.
It certainly didn't happen to normal people. In real life.
There the tree was. Huge of girth to match its advanced age and fallen smack dab across the road, blocking his way. The splintered stump it had left behind on the roadside showed its wounds raw, but already that scar was vanishing under a new fall of snow. Clark looked back thoughtfully to the tree. Scrambling over it would be an adventure and lose him some time, but it was probably the sensible option to get him back into town. Problem was, it was also going to make it impossible to get help back to Lois. Nothing other than two feet or four was going to make it over this barrier. Certainly not the tow-truck he needed.
He could always work his way over, leave it behind him, and rely on the aid of the tow-truck driver and whatever help he might bring with him, to clear it on the way back to the car. That was the sensible plan too. It was crazy to think about dealing with it all on his own. His current…disabilities…being what they were.
He definitely wasn't running at full strength. Once the curve of the road had taken him safely out of sight of Lois, he'd tried putting on a spurt of speed. He could think of some way out of her wondering how he got to town and back so fast. It would be worth the excuse to cut down on the time he had to leave her back there, in the cold. Except, his powers simply weren't co-operating on that front at all. He'd barely gotten half a mile before they'd simply vanished on him, so abruptly that they'd left him staggering and almost put him flat on his face before he recovered his balance. And even when he'd been running at full stretch for that distance, he'd been painfully aware that he wasn't moving as fast as he'd been able to in the past. His powers, his strength felt curiously…vague. As though he was reaching for them through a viscous barrier that impeded him. Tantalizingly there…yet just out of reach of achieving full potential. Weakened. Vulnerable.
The thought wasn't a comforting one as he stood there in the frozen heart of the night. It was probably not a good idea to push those powers too hard right now. Or rely on them at all.
Easy to think. Harder to do. He'd spent too many years relying on his advantages to not instinctively reach for them now when he needed them.
His gaze fell on the tree again. He sighed. He really should be sensible about this.
Still… He put a hand on the rough bark, hesitating. It…galled him.
Okay, so maybe that wasn't the right way to be thinking. But it did. It irked him. He was used to dealing with things like fallen trees as simply and without conscious thought as another man might pick up a newspaper on the way to work. One of the many mundane minutiae of daily life that he just simply didn't have to think about too hard. To have to ask for help with it…to have to admit that he couldn't move even a tree right now…vexed him more than he liked to admit.
He blew out a breath. Yes, it was. But it still gnawed at him. He glanced up at the road ahead, beyond the tree, and narrowed his eyes. Of course, there was no telling what might happen if he left it behind him and came back with help to clear it. The road here was in a sharp dip. In the dark…another car could come up over that rise and be on it before they even caught it in their lights. This was no well-lit city street.
No, really, he told the accusatory voice in his head. He pursed his lips in a grimace. Okay, admittedly, he hadn't seen another car pass by in all the time he and Lois had been working on the car…but that didn't mean one *wouldn't* come along before he got back.
Really. He couldn't take the risk. Could he?
Satisfied with this logic, Clark nodded to himself, consigning to oblivion the argumentative voice in his skull that was now telling him sardonically that the likely result of this unwise venture would be that he'd probably put his back out and how humiliating would *that* be for a superhero?
He snorted. Nope, there was only one thing for it. He was going to have to shift it. Clear the road.
Course, any other day of the week, that would have been a snap.
He rolled his shoulders heavily inside his coat and flexed his fingers into hard fists at his sides, easing their stiffness and wishing, not for the first time since he'd set out from the car that he had thought to bring gloves.
Well, standing here wasn't going to get it moved. And powers or not, he had to give it a try.
Whether his powers helped he had no idea, certainly he doubted that he would have managed to make much of an impression on the tree if they hadn't been there. On the other hand, there was no real, obvious burst of energy that enabled him to pick it up one handed and toss it out of his path. He sensed…something. A tickle, a trickle…a tingle…that enhanced his strength and helped him along. But by no means was he super-powered. A little stronger than the average bodybuilder maybe. But that was all. He tried to concentrate on the task at hand, rather than analyzing his strength or depressing lack of it.
By the time he managed to manhandle the tree around and dump it on the edge of the road, he was sweating heavily and feeling more than a little dizzy with the exertion. The sensation, unpleasant, was dismaying. He paused on the side of the road to catch his breath, letting the maudlin worry that had been gnawing at his nerves leap suddenly into the forefront of his mind like an ambushing tiger.
What if he stayed this way? What if this was it? What if his hidden enemy had caused enough damage to…
He shook his head. His powers would come back. They had last time. He had no real reason to think things would be different now. Except…he *felt* different. This time wasn't the same as the last.
Well, perhaps that was more hopeful. That his powers hadn't left him entirely this time.
He hauled in a deep breath and surprised himself into a coughing fit as he sucked in a lungful of frigid night air. He straightened with a sigh. He'd just have to see. Assume things would turn out okay in the end. For the moment…it was enough that he'd cleared a path into town. He frowned and checked his watch. And Lois was waiting for help back there. And likely to not remain patiently in the car for long. No matter how much she said she would. He should be going, instead of lingering here, wallowing in self-pity.
He pulled the collar of his coat tighter around his neck — now that he'd been standing around he was starting to lose the false heat of perspiration and feel the chill again. As he did so, light speared out of the darkness into his eyes. He threw up a hand against the glare and then peered into the road ahead. Some miles ahead a car was coming up over the rise, its headlamps skittering as it came before settling into a vapid yellow glow.
Clark grinned at the unexpected salvation. He stepped into the middle of the road, raising a hand, thinking of how happy Lois was going to be when he returned so quickly…
The car was approaching fast. Clark's eyes narrowed as he assessed its speed with the jaundiced, automatic eye of a superhero who'd attended one too many fatal road accidents. Way too fast for the conditions. Even as he watched, he heard its engine race higher. Just as he was considering that standing in the middle of a dark country road in the middle of darkness, wearing dark clothing no less as a car sped rapidly towards him, was one of those things his father had tended to warn him about when he was a child and which was foolish to be doing now when he was an adult…it became clear that he had in fact been noticed by the car's occupants.
He heard the distant crack first. For a moment he thought in confusion that it was the sound of snow snapping and slipping in the branches to his right. It wasn't until he felt a hard tug at his sleeve and glanced down to see the tear in his coat and the bloody furrow in his bicepss beneath that he realized the men in the approaching car were actually shooting at him.
Shooting at him?
After a year of partnering Lois Lane and working as Superman, he had become accustomed to being shot at, of course. But usually there was a reason for it. No matter how banal or twisted. He usually had to have done something to tick someone off, first. Or, more usually, Lois had. Having complete strangers shoot at him just because was a new experience.
And then an angry buzz against his ear and the growing sting of pain in his arm persuaded him to stop gawping at the oncoming car rushing for him and get into cover.
He lunged for the blackening shadows of the trees to his right, hearing the quick spit spit of bullets hissing into the foliage around him as he went. Instincts kicked in and it seemed his powers were listening; he was several miles clear of the road and deep into the trees almost before he realized it. He came to a ragged stop, breathing hard and fast with shock as he turned back to peer into the twilight.
Faintly, he could hear the angry mutter of voices, but, though back to being augmented, his hearing wasn't clear enough to make out words. The tone definitely spoke of some kind of argument though. Then silence. Followed by the heavy clunk of closing car doors. A moment later, the sound of a burring engine headed off into the night.
Clark closed his eyes in relief, letting out a heavy sigh, and then popped them open again in another instant. Lois! Dear god, Lois was only a little way up that road. A mile or two at best. Dozing probably, lulled into a defenseless sleep by the warm cocoon of the car…she'd have no chance if those killers caught her unawares.
Knowing he had only seconds to get to her first, he twisted around to get his bearings, and a wave of dizziness thudded him up heavily into the tree at his side. He staggered, put out a hasty hand to its trunk to steady himself — "No…" he groaned, "…not now…please…" — clinging to the tree's solid support, feeling the rough bark abrade his palms as he clenched his fingers against it. Nausea welled up in his throat and he groaned, screwing his eyes tight shut and forcing it back until his head cleared. His leg muscles trembled with weakness and -
- he had no time for this. <Focus!> He balled up a fist and slammed it into his thigh <Dammit, focus!> and then straightened warily away to stand, drawing in a sharp, harsh and steadying breath, his strength, willing his powers not to fail him now, appealing to whatever higher power might protect damaged superheroes…then plunged back into the woods in the direction he'd last seen Lois.
Lois skated further out into the gleaming white surface, the whish- whish of her gliding steps the only sound as she pirouetted gracefully and bladed to a sudden halt. A small spray of white preceded her as she stood for a moment, breathing a little fast with the exertion. Her breath puffed out around her as she scanned the woods surrounding the frozen pond.
Everything was still.
As the dead.
After a moment, she pushed off with one foot, letting the natural momentum of skates on ice slip her gently backwards, back towards the middle of the pond, using the minimum of effort to propel herself.
Somehow it felt safer out in the middle. Away from the trees.
There were watchers in the trees.
She frowned with the thought and came to a halt once more, cocking her head to listen intently to the silence surrounding her, almost certain that there had been…something. Some small sound, something almost but not quite heard, just buried beneath the swish of her blades, something she would hear if she just stayed still and quiet.
Nothing, but the feel of those eyes itching between the blades of her shoulders and tightening the muscles of her spine. The hair at the base of her neck prickled. She whipped around, almost losing her balance and then recovering it as she windmilled her arms. She froze.
The wolf sat on the very edge of the woods. A huge grey-brindled beast, wind stirring fitfully in the thick fur around its neck. Its ears were pricked and its amber eyes glowed with disquieting intensity as it stared at her.
A low rumble filled the air. The wolf, she thought at first, growling deep in its throat, and her own tightened, muscles bunching in alarm. But this was coming from behind her — had he brought along family? She twisted sharply around, almost losing her balance again on the icy surface, skates wobbling before she brought herself back under control. No. Not more wolves. This was a soft roar that was almost…familiar…swelling in the trees around her, growing louder, coming closer…
She was on the cusp of recognizing what it was when the wolf suddenly leapt forward and sunk its teeth into her arm. Lois started, looking down into the yellow eyes of the beast. It had gathered itself into a crouch, back legs braced and digging claws into the ice for momentum as it began to tug her forward and though she tried to resist, a skates- and-ice combination proved not much good for digging in your heels. Inevitably, she found herself being jerked along inexorably. The wolf snarled, clearly frustrated by her attempts to fight it as it yanked at her again, stronger this time.
"Lois…" the wolf said. "Lois, you have to —"
"— wake up! Dammit, Lois — wake up! Now!"
Blearily, she looked up at the dark shadow looming over her and recoiled sharply, still half in the wolf dream, not quite awake still. Then, a familiar scent — cologne, fresh linen shirt, a distinctive collection of scents she'd know anywhere — chased the confusion from her and she recognized the shadow as her partner.
"Clark?" she said muzzily. "What — ?"
"Lois, get out of the car!"
With another jerk, he succeeded in hauling her through the open door of the car. She stumbled, catching her toes on the rim, and yelped, but to her surprise Clark ignored her small cry of pain with an uncharacteristic lack of solicitude and kept on until she was on her feet. The air hit her like a sledgehammer, its ice slipping intimate, frigid fingers beneath her jacket to caress her skin, and she shivered.
"Clark," she started, grumpy now, "what the hell do you think — ?"
His hand clenched in her shoulder and he almost pulled her from her already precarious balance as he set off at a sharp clip, dragging her in his wake. Seeming almost instantly to realize she wasn't entirely with him, he growled under his breath — reminding her suddenly and startlingly of the wolf in her dream — and darted back close to slip an arm around her waist for good measure.
The sudden bite of the air outside the car, coupled with her rising anger at this manhandling by her partner, had roused her now. But she was still confused.
"Lois…move…" he muttered, simultaneously trying to half-drag, half- propel her…into the woods.
Into the woods?
The dark, deep woods?
Into the wolf woods?
She propped to a sharp halt, bucked back hard against the hands yanking her onwards, and caught a sharp flicker of something like surprise — no, shock — in Clark's eyes as her violent jerk against his grip almost hauled him off his feet and momentarily lost him his balance before he recovered.
There was no way she was going in there, into -
He started hauling at her again, almost lifting her off her feet, and she squawked. What the hell had gotten into him?
"Clark Kent," she snarled as she tried to extricate herself, "if this is a stupid variation on 'Sorry, babe, but we've run out of gas' —"
The urgency in his voice had risen. He wasn't looking at her now, but further up along the road. Frowning, Lois twisted her head to where the greasy yellow glow of headlights showed suddenly over the dip in the road behind them.
"Lois, just move! Please! Please, dammit, will you just trust me for once and do what you're — " Clark's eyes narrowed and then sharpened over her shoulder, widening with sudden alarm. She was aware of bright light washing over her and the rumble of sound from her dream was suddenly all around her in the darkness.
"Look out! Lois!"
Clark felt sudden terror snatch at his heart as the car further up the road caught them in the wash of its lights and suddenly accelerated, leaping forward towards them with a roar like a leopard on prey. Panic bloomed like a black rose in his chest.
He darted forward, giving up on the woods, shoving Lois backwards, back towards the car, aware that his grip on her arm had become suddenly bruisingly tight as he dragged her out of the path of the speeding vehicle that ploughed towards them. A sliver of pain darted up his wounded arm, but he ignored it. He had other things to worry about right then. Like not adding another bullet hole to the collection. A spray of muddied snow drenched them as the car swept past, missing his partner by too few inches for his heart to take.
Clark didn't stop at hauling her into the car. He continued on to the other side, and emerged from the driver's door, dragging Lois with him by one arm wrapped tight around her waist, gritting his teeth hard as the motion tore further at the bloodied muscle of his biceps. He heard metal ping sharply close by — way too close — and Lois drew in a startled breath.
"Are they *shooting* at us? Are they actually shooting at *us*?" she said incredulously. "With actual *guns*?!"
"*Why* are they shooting at us? What did you do, Clark Ken -"
"Geez, you really know how to win friends and influence people, don't you? You were only gone half an hour!" The sharp whine of a too-close for his heart's comfort ricochet had her ducking her head with a squeak and she abruptly speeded up, giving up crawling in favor of scooting rapidly after him. A little thing like approaching death didn't interrupt her though, or, seemingly, deflect her attention one bit. "How can you rile so many people up in just half an hour! Well, I mean, that one's easy because you rile me up in less time than that every day of the —"
To his relief, she shut up and followed his lead in sliding out of the driver's seat and into a crouch on the other side of the car.
"Clark! Let's go!" Her hand clenched itself in his sleeve, tugging at him.
He shushed her with a quick hand. Up ahead, the car had slammed to a skidding halt, executing a reckless, sliding turn and narrowly missing the trees. Clark heard the sound of grinding gears and then it leapt forward, coming for them again. He hauled Lois to her feet, twisted her around, and gave her a hard push in the small of her back.
"Run!" he yelled. "Get into the trees!"
He turned to face the oncoming car as he heard her stumble onto the strip of undergrowth that separate road from wood and then was startled by a new jerk on his arm.
"Clark, are you crazy? Come on! We have to get out of here!"
"Lois, just go, I'll —"
"What? You'll what?" Her face was terrified as he turned in frustration to view her. "My god, Clark, let's *go*! I'm not leaving without you! Don't you even think I am!" she added sharply, apparently seeing the protest already forming on his face, even as he formed the words.
Sighing, he let her tug him into a run. A bare moment later, he realized with a cold tingle of shock just what he'd been doing — getting into Superman mode, supremely confident of facing down a car full of gun-totting killers who couldn't possibly hurt him…
Except that this time they could. This time his powers weren't there. The harsh throbbing in his arm should have reminded him of that. Realizing just how close he'd probably come to being killed back there on that darkened road he broke out in a cold sweat. And he realized something else.
Lois had just saved his life.
He had no time to linger or ponder the folly of his actions, the ludicrous, dangerous arrogance it seemed that his becoming used to the Superman persona had bred in him, the recklessness that could have killed them both.
An instant later and that knowledge counted for nothing. Numbly, he watched their attackers' car slam to a halt just yards away from them and several dark figures spill out of it to take up positions in a line facing them. His head swiveled desperately towards the wood…so close…they were so damned *close*…
…but, still, nowhere close enough.
Clark's heart tightened, drumming hard against his ribs. His mind refused to believe this was happening. It was like a scene from every gangster movie he'd ever seen. Yet something in his head knew with certain cold clarity that this was real. In another moment he and Lois would be cut down in a blizzard of bullets and it would all be over.
It took less time to evaluate their situation, less time to let the reality of their peril settle in his mind, than it did to form the obvious conclusion as to what he had to do about it.
Without another thought — because if he thought he might falter — he grabbed for Lois, wrapping his arms around her and hauling her back tight against his chest. He whirled away from the shadowed figures, praying hard. He felt his muscles bunching, tight across his shoulder- blades, his one thought now that if his powers had failed him, if he was vulnerable here, if he could be killed, that the bullets wouldn't pass through him and hit Lois too. That she might survive. Even if he didn't. That he could, at the very last and very least, give her the precious seconds she'd need to get into cover and out of immediate danger.
He heard the guns begin to blaze. Time slowed, it seemed interminable minutes as he waited…
…for the first of the bullets to strike him in the back…
…for the impact to thump heavily between his shoulderblades…
…for the pain to hit…
…time to die…
<Oh, god, Lois…>
It took him a moment to understand that the gunfire had stopped; the echoes of it still resounded in his skull. Clark prized open eyes that had been squeezed tight shut and felt the darkness close in on him momentarily as he turned dizzy with relief. The silence was broken by startled murmurs.
"What the — ?"
He didn't wait around for the shooters to recover from the shock of seeing their bullets bounce off the back of their intended victim. He had no time to stand and wonder — or to panic over what those men had seen and what they might make of it. Lois, thankfully, had been pulled so tight against his chest, her face buried in his shoulder by the hands holding her there in a death-grip, that she wouldn't have seen anything. He doubted she even knew what was going on; he suspected all of her attention was now on trying to make the trees in one piece. Right now, her blood was probably pounding too hard in her ears for anything else to penetrate, all of her instincts shrieking of survival and hearing nothing more, her usually sharp observations skills lost in the darkness and confusion.
He had to move! If Lois had been paying attention, as he fervently hoped she hadn't, then the time for dealing with the aftermath of his actions was later. If there was a later. If she survived to ask and he to…panic. The Lane and Kent luck was holding out, but it might fail at any moment — as could his powers. With a hard intake of breath, on trembling legs, he pushed Lois hard ahead of him and stumbled after her as she took the hint, needing no further encouragement to race the few extra leaps needed to burst through the thick foliage and into the trees ahead.
Clark hadn't realized he was holding his breath in tight until he released it in a relieved puff of white-clouded air as they hit the woods and pine-scented darkness closed in around them, concealing them, protecting them…
He glanced across his shoulder as he pushed his way through the branches. One of the men was leaning out of the car window as it swept past. Something whined past his ear and slapped into the trunk of the pine just ahead. He pushed through the thick, low branches and struggled as fast as he could after his partner, ensuring he was as close behind her as he could get, covering her with his own body as they ran into the dense cover. He heard her cry out and for a moment that blinded him with terror thought she'd been hit. Then he heard her cursing and realized it was only the brush getting in her way.
She struggled on through the deep snow ahead of him as he followed her. Behind him, came pursuing voices. Sharp and angry. He should be ahead of her, he thought frantically. The broken trail she was leaving in her wake made it much easier for him to move through the snow that clutched at his legs like molasses and tried to pull him down. If he was ahead, she'd be able to move faster, it would be less -
Twisting himself sharply around, dismay filled him as he saw the clear line of tumbled snow stretching behind them. The voices were closer now.
Praying harder than he ever had before to any higher power out there that might want to listen to desperate superheroes, Clark drew in a breath and blew out hard. To his instant relief, the iced breath he directed along the trail quickly laid down a fresh layer of frozen crystals to cover their tracks.
Heart hammering, he turned back to where Lois was floundering in the knee-high drifts. Behind him, voices rose as he quickly caught her up, almost falling on top of her as he wrapped a quick arm around her waist and pulled her down with him to crouch behind a thick line of scrub. Running was no good. They were leaving such visible markers those pursuing them would track them as easily as rabbits spooked out of hiding — and shoot them with as little compunction. Or run them down as he delayed them while trying to cover the ploughed snow of their wild flight.
All he could hope for was that, with clear snow between them and no obvious sign of their prey, they'd lose the trail and give up. Lois was taut beside him as they huddled beneath their sparse shelter. He gave her a quick glance, enough to see how white her face was, and then his head snapped back to the edge of the trees as sharp voices rose there.
That wait seemed interminable. But, finally, he realized that the sounds of argument were fading. His muscles loosened as he listened. He couldn't make out anything other than the mutter of annoyed talk and then the cough of a car engine…not turning over.
"They have our car," Lois muttered. And it was only then that he became aware that he hadn't been hearing anything more than she had — the sounds carried on the still air, magnified by that trick of nature that occurred when deep snow surrounded you. He strained a little, but nothing more than that reached him. His powers had cut out again. He was suddenly aware of the seeping cold and the fact that his feet and legs were uncomfortably damp. Sensation — unwelcome feeling — rushed into him like a sudden torrent from all directions, all angles and he shivered violently, feeling like a man dashed against rocks as he clung against the roaring tide engulfing him. He stifled a quick gasp; he had never realized until now just how much his powers shielded him from, all the discomfort, all the small hurts and aches — he felt as though he'd been beaten from head to foot.
"Clark, who *are* they?" Lois whispered, turning to look at him.
He shrugged, dragging his attention back from its sour fascination with his body's distress and focusing on their immediate plight. "Our story," he surmised grimly. "I guess we asked one too many indiscreet questions back in town."
"I *knew* that diner waitress had shifty eyes!" Lois exclaimed in a soft hiss and then, "I told you we shouldn't have stopped there for lunch."
Clark gaped at her. As he recalled, it had been her idea that they combine a little snooping around the town in their hunt for the smuggling gang Perry had sicced them on with refueling both themselves and the car. His indignation vanished as that last struck him. The car… Had that gang disabled it somehow? While they were distracted? Having lunch? They had parked it in plain sight of the diner, but still…they hadn't been watching it all the time.
Well, it was a moot point now. Even if they'd been able to get it going again, there was no way back to the road from here with that gang prowling around waiting for them. He tapped Lois on the arm and jerked his head behind him. "Come on, let's go. Before we freeze."
"Go? Go where?" But she followed him even as she hissed the protest.
He looked over his shoulder at her as he struck out away from the road. He had no clue what the answer to her question was. All he knew was that they were out in the open, in what was shaping up to be another blizzard coming in hard from the north. Already the first flakes of it were settling on Lois's shoulders as he watched. He lifted his head to glance up through the towering branches overhead and into a sky moonless and weighted. Not even stars showed through the thick cloud. Moisture touched his face with feathered fingers. He dropped his head and put out a hand, watched the snow sink into his skin. How could something so delicate, so fragile, so beautiful be so dangerous? Deadly?
They had to get away from the road. They had to find shelter. The storm would be on them, he judged with the wisdom of years of experience, long before they could reach town. Best not to even think about that as a plan. They'd never make it. No. Find shelter. Find safety. And fast.
He glanced over at Lois again. She was watching him with impatience but that wasn't what caused a tingle of dismay. She was also watching him as though he had the answers. Of course, he thought wryly. She was out of her element — and into his. She probably thought this country boy spent his formative years building igloos. He sighed. Then squared his shoulders. Superman or not — he could still be her hero, couldn't he? He could still save the day.
Somewhat unexpectedly cheered by that notion, with the new realization that he had experience and knowledge that could help them survive a crisis, beyond his super powers. That he was still…viable. Useful. Worth something. The knowledge was…beyond warming. With Lois looking at him like that, full of trust, full of expectant hope…more than hope, quiet belief in him, that he would come through…and to realize that it was him — Clark — not Superman who was the recipient of that dark, bewitching gaze. That was something beyond heady, beyond intoxicating. Suddenly, powerless, he felt invincible.
Course…it would help if he knew what he was doing. The grin that had unconsciously spread itself across his face faded.
"This way," he said, turning deeper into the wood. The men back there behind them would give up on the car soon enough, and then they'd start coming after them. They had to get as far from the road, deeper into the woods, as quick as they could. Behind him, as though the thought had drawn it, he heard the sudden chatter of gunfire. His heart caught, but it was indiscriminate; they were firing into the trees in all directions, obviously hoping to hit them by chance. Clark hoped the infamous Lane and Kent luck was on their side and not their pursuers. That was machine gun fire back there. H&Ks? AK-47s? P-90s? Whatever they were, they'd been the trappings of choice of serious career criminals. Far from being the petty, smalltime tobacco smugglers Perry's source had led them to believe was operating in Haven. This was bigger than they'd imagined.
Much more dangerous.
Naturally, the snowfall intensified not long after they started their trek through the silent woods. A break from fate by this point was obviously too much to expect. Fat, thick flakes settled on them, quickly becoming a white curtain that froze on lashes, obscured vision beyond a foot ahead, and had them huddling miserably into their coats. By the time they'd been trekking for an hour, the blizzard was on them with all the savagery of a hunting beast. The trees provided some small shelter, but the wind had gotten up and was vicious like a spear, dashing flurries of ice against exposed skin, finding its way beneath clothing that had long since stopped being of any use as a defense against the chilling air, and slicing them to bone.
Their exertion had kept them warm for a time; it took effort to get them through the deeply drifted snow. But that advantage had long since been lost, along with any feeling in stiffened fingers and numb toes. For a time, as he'd struggled through the thick mire of the snow, that dragged at every step and clutched like ghostly hands at his legs, muscle heat in his back and shoulders had set up a furnace that had been some small comfort. He'd even begun to believe that perhaps his powers were returning; the chill didn't seem to have the bite he'd expect it would. At first. But the sensation had faded as the night wore on and now he worried that he could no longer feel even the chill. Sensation was gone, all feeling was gone, he might as well have been a walking block of ice. It was almost a blessing, he thought morosely. At least the myriad of distracting aches were lost to that chill now, along with the painful throb in his arm and the prickling pain in his extremities.
Lois was doing no better than he was. Worryingly, somewhere along the way she'd picked up a limp. It had started a few miles back. Or, at least, that had been when he'd noticed. Just a racked muscle, she'd muttered a grumpy explanation when he'd asked; she'd briefly gotten her foot trapped in a tangle of roots hidden beneath a drift, and wrenched her ankle tugging it free.
But she wouldn't stop to let him look and showed increasing impatience and irritation when he mentioned it, until he gave up. He hoped it wasn't broken. Her face was paler than it had been and her lips were tightening with every mile. She grimaced with each step, when she didn't think he was watching. But it was the way she smoothed her expression to something bland and taut when she became aware that he was that really convinced him of how much she was hurting.
They were reaching close to the end of their endurance, the cold and the struggle through the snow-caked landscape taking their toll. Lois was still shivering violently, seemingly unable to stop the tremors passing through her and that was a good sign, but he dreaded seeing her stop, seeing the signs that hypothermia were kicking in, when the body took comfort in false warmth and lost all sense of perspective in its surroundings.
Clark stopped, wavering a little as exhaustion welled up in him momentarily. He pushed it away and blinked out into the silent, swirling veil ahead, searching for his partner as his dulled thoughts sparked memory of her again. He'd lost her. Ahead of him there was only white, thick and dancing in violent swirls on the air. Then, just as panic blossomed in his chest, he caught sight of her, a dim shadow, a brief glimpse before the curtain descended again, cutting him off and sealing him into his white walled isolation once more.
He made a move to push on, catch up to her — getting separated in this didn't bear thinking on — and then paused. He turned his head thoughtfully to the dark behind him.
Her attention, like his had been, was all on making it another few yards, taking that next step, keeping moving. She wasn't going to notice if he slipped away. Just for a moment, he assured himself hurriedly. If he could just muster enough of his powers to get above the trees, hover there for just a few moments, he'd be able to get a much better idea of the lay of the land, get some bearings, maybe see a way clear of these woods…
There was a quick tinge of fear underlying that soft hissing of his name.
"I'm here," he said hastily, churning the snow as he moved up quickly beside her, abandoning his plans. He surveyed her anxiously as he got close.
Her jacket was thick enough, but it didn't cover much of her. City girl that she was, she'd paid lip service to the fact that they were headed into colder country than Metropolis at this time of year, but the jacket, though wool, was designed more as a fashion statement than for any true warmth or practicality. At least he'd been able to persuade her to switch the sturdy pumps she'd been planning on wearing for boots, he thought. It had been a hard won victory and, though she'd compromised on that one, she'd dug in her heels mule-hard when it came to changing the wool jacket for a full-length, heavy, down coat. She was going from warm airplane straight to warm rental car, she'd told him irritably. Why would she want to sweat in a heavy coat?
Why indeed? He couldn't feel too smug about having been proved right in the end though. Neither of them could have exactly foreseen that their story would turn around and bite them on the rump and that they'd end up in the dire circumstances they were now in. Still…maybe he'd just file this one away for future reference, leverage against future arguments when she refused to be sensible against all rational advice. Though, knowing his partner, by the time he felt able to bring this up again she'd probably have an entirely different version of how things had gone in her head and refuse to believe he'd been right at all.
The thought reminded him of his feisty, energetic partner. Who wasn't anywhere close to the miserable, hollow-eyed and waxen-faced woman who currently stood staring up at him, tremors shaking her slight frame. He made a small sound of distress. How could he be standing here thinking about gaining points in the long-standing, exhilarating war with her, when she was suffering like this?
"Here…put this over…your shoulders," he said hastily, the words coming out hoarse and breathless as he began to shrug out of his coat. Like the rest of his clothing it was soaked through and much of its heat value lost. But it was probably no damper than what she was wearing, and anything that added an extra layer would help. As much as anything short of finding shelter would help, he thought dismally. He stifled a small gasp as his stiffened shoulder protested his movements, the edges of the gouge in his flesh, which had begun to coagulate, catching against the rough material of his sleeve and tugging painfully for a moment, before he got himself clear.
Lois had taken to hugging herself tightly. But she shook her head, wearily. "Clark. You…can't give me…this. You…you'll freeze," she protested, but it was a little half-hearted.
"G-got…sweater," he reassured her, holding the coat out in offering. It wasn't a particularly thick sweater, but it was capable of keeping him warm just about as well as anything else he was wearing. She didn't move to take the gift, her eyes dark and pensive on his. To his dismay there was a visible tremor in his arm as he held the coat towards her, pushing it slightly closer in gentle hint. "Please, Lois. Humor me. Just put it on. Your lips are…turning blue." His own lips twisted wryly. "And my arm…is hurting already…just holding this out. Besides…arguing hurts…"
She hesitated a moment longer, then took the coat from him. She continued to grumble for form as she draped it over her shoulders and pulled the edges tight around her.
"H-happy n-now?" she asked tartly, when she was through. It might have sounded even more snippy if it hadn't been forced out through tight lips and almost chattering teeth, Clark thought. Or if he hadn't been able to see just how grateful she already was for its added warmth. The glance she gave him was in sharp contradiction to her words and tone and he gave her a small smile.
"No," he murmured, looking out around the clearing and straightening his stance slightly from the slouch he'd slumped into. "H-happy would be…getting out of…this. Somewhere warm." He muffled a sigh. "Okay. L-let's —"
Lois's sudden sharp gasp distracted him from completing the sentence. He looked back at her, startled. "Lois?" he asked, alarm spiking through him all at once as he saw the shock in her eyes, dark and wide with a new fear.
"Oh god! Clark!"
And then she'd darted out a hand that shook, laid it on the cream sleeve of his sweater.
Oh. Of course. In the dark, their flight, his coat dark enough to conceal the blood…she hadn't seen. But now -
"You're hurt!" She'd pulled back the hand with a jerk and was staring in fascinated horror at the crimson smear coating it. "Clark…" Her voice wavered, fading into shock before recovering. But it shook as she continued. "…you…did you get…did they — ?" Her tone escalated on each word and he could see panic take hold of her all in an instant.
"It's okay," Clark stepped up next to her hastily, before it could get a firm hold on her, taking hold of her arm in a steadying grip. Her face crumbled and with a small oath he pulled her closer, arms wrapping her in an embrace against his chest. She burrowed into his shoulder and his hand spread itself against the cold dampness of her hair as he said softly against her neck, "I'm okay. It's nothing."
She shuddered against him and he understood it was only half about his arm. The wound wasn't that serious, she could see that for sure. She couldn't think he was bleeding to death on her or anything. It was that they'd come to a halt. The first time they'd stopped for breath since beginning their frantic flight, since the night had exploded into terrifying, inexplicable disaster. Until this moment, all of their energies, all of their focus, had been on surviving the next instant, the next second, getting out of this. Now that they'd paused to take stock, it was catching up on them, adrenaline that had been pulsing through their blood suddenly releasing them, leaving them bereft. He felt tears prickle at his own eyes and knew it was simple emotional release, the last few hours finally coming home to roost.
But they couldn't give in to it. Not now. They weren't…out of the woods yet.
The oh-so-true thought almost produced a bark of wild laughter and he had to fight to choke it back, recognizing instinctively that if he let it loose it would quickly become hysteria and he might never stop. That out of proportion response more than anything else, told him how close they were to losing it here. They had to get moving. Before lethargy and exhaustion — both emotional and physical — got the better of them.
He pulled back from his partner carefully, putting a light hand to one frozen cheek for a moment before easing himself clear of her with a faint smile. He patted her against one shoulder. "We…need to get going."
"Can't do much…for it…here," he told her firmly. "Like your ankle. Shelter first. It is okay. Really," he assured her. "Doesn't…hurt. Much. Besides…you can walk on that…ankle…I can walk on…this arm."
She looked at him askance for the quip, but he set out again, leaving her to follow, allowing her no chance to find another reason to linger. Besides, he hadn't been fooling about his lack of enthusiasm for arguing with her. His breath hurt in his chest and talking felt like pulling spears of ice into his throat. They couldn't go much further in this, he thought, almost frantically. They had to find somewhere. Now. Or they were going to end up having to find some shelter out in the open. An option which didn't bear thinking about.
Despite his appeals to the gods of good fortune, the starkly barren columns of the trees surrounding him didn't part, didn't open up to reveal sanctuary, granting his wish. The snow kept falling, the chilling whip of wind that had begun to pick up still found its way beneath the collar of his shirt and spread freezing fingers across his ribs. The universe still held a grudge against them.
No one was listening, it seemed.
Lois caught him up a few moments later, wading unsteadily to his side and breaking into the deepening bleakness of his thoughts. Half-moons of purple clung under her eyes, making the flesh look bruised and the lines of pain and exhaustion were etched starkly into a white face. He put out a hand and caught her under the elbow, helping her along. To his surprise she didn't shake him off or protest. They struggled on through the hip-deep snow for a few moments in silence, then she spoke, still sounding breathy as the chill and the exertion of the last few hours took its toll.
"You're seven ways…beyond being…an idiot…Clark Kent," she said, breath hitching out the words in puffs of white air. "Do…you know that?"
Blinking, taken by surprise, he looked down into the face upturned to view him. It had a scowl on it. The change from her sympathetic stance of a moment ago, her concern for him, into this leap of anger, bewildered him. <Geez, nice bedside manner, Lois,> he thought, slightly peeved at her new belligerence. <What happened to poor Clark?>
Another time, he might have amused himself with the disappointed pettiness of his reaction. But it had been too hard a night and his emotions were still too raw for commonsense. A little hurt that her concern had apparently only been temporary, and utterly confused by the annoyance he could see on her face, he couldn't work up the energy to speak. His expression must have registered the disorientation she had tossed him into though because she snorted, the sound shockingly loud in the thickened air.
"I…mean…what were you…thinking back there? Standing…right…in the middle of the road…that way? You…could have been…killed!"
Oh. That. Yeah. Right.
His mind went back to that moment in the dark, that kaleidoscope instant of fear and panic, the twister of emotion that had swept him up and into stark horror.
What *had* he been thinking? Well, he knew the answer to that. He'd been thinking that she was going to die. And that he had no way to save her. That in another moment they'd both be dead and there were too many things he regretted not saying, not doing, too much that would be left unspoken between them, that if he'd only tried harder, only spoken up louder, only made her see him, really *see* him, perhaps she might have understood, might have —
But that hadn't been all of it. Had it, he was honest enough to admit.
He'd been thinking he was still invincible. Still the hero. Still -
"…not Superman…you know!" Somewhat impressively, given her lack of breath, Lois had continued her tirade, her words meshing with his thoughts and bringing him up short. He stared back at her warily. Knowing she was right. Trying not to provoke questions from her by showing how much that truth hurt. He wasn't Superman. Not right now. Not any more.
Would he ever be again?
"Nothing. I mean…I wasn't. Thinking," he added as she glared at him.
She gave him an exasperated look, grumbling beneath her breath, and pushed clear of him to take the lead. And for once he was glad his powers weren't online. He figured maybe he was better off not knowing. What he could make out made him wince. His gaze followed her and he frowned as he noted how heavily she was limping now as she moved further across the darkened clearing, struggling through the snow piled up against the trees…
…and came to an abrupt halt. Had she finally reached the limits of her endurance? <Not now,> he thought worriedly. Not here, out in the open, in the middle of this white, unforgiving desert, with no sign of shelter in sight and no seeming end to the black columns surrounding them or a lightning of the darkness. Heavily, Clark trudged his way up beside her, his face anxious.
"Lois, you oka — ?"
"Look…" She pointed out with a finger and he followed the move automatically. For a moment he saw nothing. Then the mass of shadows ahead resolved themselves into vague shapes. They'd reached the edge of the tree line, he realized. And beyond it…was that a building?
"Come on!" Lois grabbed at his sleeve, suddenly energized. Her renewed strength seemed to seep into him with her touch and he felt his own tiredness dropping away momentarily. He knew it would return, but the small hope bubbling up in him swamped it for now. Together, they made their way, stumbling, falling, to the last of the trees, and then Clark gave a cautionary tug at her shoulder, preventing her from crossing into the open.
"Wait…" he murmured as she looked the question back at him.
He surveyed what lay ahead of them cautiously. A small clearing, a sweep of what was probably lawn under its snowy mantle and to their right what looked like a vacation cabin, its windows black eyes watching them in the night. To his left, beyond the gentle, downward slope of the yard, he saw the frozen plain of a lake.
He matched glances with Lois and wasn't really surprised to see the mirror of his unease on her face. He shrugged.
There was nothing threatening about a lakeside cabin. In fact, it was just the shelter they'd been hoping for. Yet still, he hesitated on the edge of the trees, unreasonably wary about exposing them to what scrutiny might lie behind those darkly reflective eyes. He watched a veil of cloud pass across the glass of the upper windows, tried to shake himself out of the skitters of unease crawling like ants across his spine — and failed.
Intellectually, he knew it was highly unlikely that they'd blunder into the one lakeside cabin in the county that was the hideout of the gang gunning for them. Of course, there was the tree, he reminded himself. The tree should never have been across the road. The omens weren't good. And then there was the X factor, of course. Commonly and otherwise known as keeping company with Lois Lane. That edged the boundaries of the insane and deeply unlikely possibility nicely into the red. With Lois around they'd be lucky not to find themselves knocking on the door of the county's first and only serial killer with a nice collection of axes in the cellar, who just happened to be renting out rooms to every degenerate lowlife in twelve states. One of them no doubt named Norman, with a fixation for dressing up as his mother, he thought morosely.
Okay, now he was getting ridiculous.
"This is…ridiculous," Lois hissed from beside him in echo of the thought. "What else are…we gonna do? Spend the night out…out…here and wake up as po…popsicles?"
Clark nodded agreement with the logic of this sentiment. Of course standing here in the cold when they could be warm inside was dumb. Silly and dumb.
Still, the ants didn't let up their conga up and down his backbone as he hauled in a small breath and stepped out onto the moon-tainted lawn. Nothing but silence greeted them. He hadn't realized how much he'd been expecting the still night to explode into spears of light in his eyes and angry yells — no doubt followed by machine gun fire — until he let his shoulders loosen out of their hunch. He met Lois's eyes and matched sheepish grins with her as he watched her come up out of the automatic defensive crouch she'd settled into.
"Okay…" he said softly. "Let's go meet…the neighbors."
The house as they approached it had that air of recent abandonment that probably meant no one was home. Clark just wished he didn't feel so much like Papa Bear as he made his way carefully across the lawn towards the wide porch.
Lois overtook him halfway there. "Come on, Baby Bear," she whispered, clutching at his sleeve to increase his pace a little and showing him once again just how in sync they were. Well…almost. *Baby* bear?
He managed to get in front of her before they got to the top of the wide steps and onto the porch. "Hello?" he called. He stepped up close to the door. Cupping his hands around his face, he pressed up against the glass panel in its upper half. Inside, the open-plan room was dark, pieces of furniture draped in loose covers. He sighed and backed down the stairs to stand in the clearing, tilting back his head and yelling, "Hello? Anyone — in there?", with no real hope of getting any answer.
No lights flared in the upstairs rooms; the cabin continued to brood in the heavy silence. Clark sighed and turned to Lois. "I don't think…what…are you…doing?" He frowned. She'd wandered away as he'd been investigating and was bent over next to the line of trees, brushing aside foliage and peering into the roots of the shrubs.
"Looking for …a k-key," she muttered back in a distracted tone.
Clark's eyebrows rose. "What makes you think…they'd keep a key — oh," he said as she straightened, hefting a medium-sized chunk of rock in her hands. "Uh, Lois…I don't think…that's a good…idea," he cautioned. "We can't…just —"
"Clark." She turned on him, wearily. "Look, we can e-either…stay outside…f-freeze to death or we…can shelter here. We can pay for…the window later…okay? This is an…emergency. I don't think…they'll jail…us for it."
He had to concede the wisdom of that. Anyone who lived up here in this inhospitable land, used to the treachery of the weather, would probably understand and they could easily leave enough cash to pay for one broken window, easily replaced. It wasn't as though they were going to cause any other damage inside. They weren't vandals or thieves. Just lost. And freezing.
God, he *was* freezing. It was a sensation he didn't much enjoy.
"Here. L-let me," he started, but she was already hobbling determinedly around the side of the house and long before he caught up with her he heard the sound of smashing glass. When he reached her, she was awkwardly trying to haul herself up to the small, square kitchen window. Clark shook his head and closed his hand around her upper arm, tugging her gently back and behind him.
"Wait," he insisted, ignoring her grumbled protests. He clambered up onto the windowsill, with less grace than he might have done normally. Gravity was more of a drag than he'd always imagined it could be. Literally. And the need to favor his arm made hauling himself bodily to the ledge difficult. But after a moment's teetering on the brink, he made it safely, dropped down onto the floor. From inside the kitchen, he glanced back at her through the window. "Go back around…to the front. I'll let…you in."
Lois wrapped her arms tighter around herself, teeth chattering as she shuffled uneasily in the cold of the porch. What was keeping him? She'd been out here for at least an hour…four minutes…she amended reluctantly as she checked her watch and discovered that her instinctive sense of time didn't match reality. Still. Four minutes. Where *was* he?
She darted a look around the clearing and shivered. There had been something fluttering up in that tree a moment ago and she was sure it was a darn sight bigger than any bird she'd ever seen. There was something rustling in the bushes too. She thought about how close that lake was, just beyond the screen of shrubs, and absolutely refused to even consider it was an alligator…
Discovery Channel hadn't told her how to deal with one of those. Though it had been pretty graphic on providing lots of detail about what you could expect being a victim of one.
She jumped as a click sounded behind her and whirled into a defensive crouch, hands rising sharply to fend off -
He stood in the open doorway, studying her curiously. "You okay?"
"What — k-kept you?" she complained irritably, as she pushed her way past him.
"Just checking we weren't disturbing Mamma Bear and the kids," he said and grinned at her as she scowled at him. Her leg was aching now and being in the middle of all this…nature…was making her twitchy. She wasn't in the mood for his lame attempts at humor. She wanted to sit down. Now.
Clark seemed to sense that, moving closer as she made her way into the shadows of the room, his expression turning grim.
"Here," he said, moving to slip an arm around her waist and ignoring her protests that she was not some china doll he had to mollycoddle as he eased her over to one of the sofas in the center of the room, seeming to have cat-sharp vision in the shadowed darkness of the cabin's interior. He settled her on the cushions with gentle consideration and then reached over her to switch on the floor lamp next to the sofa.
He grunted when nothing happened, not sounding surprised.
"What?" she whispered. Her voice came out sounding more weary than she expected. It was amazing just what sinking into a soft sofa did for her energy levels. Instantly, she felt the tiredness settle over her shoulders like a warm blanket and she blinked rapidly, trying to stave it off. Just a little longer. The temptation to just sink in deeper, curl up and surround herself in the soothing balm of sleep was almost irresistible. In that instant, though a moment before she'd been able to stand and walk and keep on plodding just that one more inch, that next step through sheer force of will if nothing else, now she doubted she'd be able to get up again even if the door suddenly exploded inwards and a whole horde of Ninja gunmen came bursting through. They'd just have to wait until she had a nap before killing her, she thought tiredly and a bubbling chuckle rose up in her, too weak to emerge, but sharp and frighteningly out of control in her head.
Clark was talking, she realized, focusing on him again and trying to hold on. God, her eyelids felt like they'd been fitted with weights.
"— and the electricity's probably on a generator. It'll have been turned off when the owners left. Looks like they weren't planning on visiting for a few months," he explained, nodding at the dust-covers she was listlessly sitting on. "I could get it working, but it would take a few hours to get fired up. There probably isn't much point if we'll be out of here by morning." He took a swift glance around the room. "This place seems pretty well kept up. I'd be surprised if they didn't have candles somewhere around here. Maybe a storm lamp or two. We can make do with those. I'll go hunt them down in a minute."
He glanced across his shoulder and then strode over to the windows, throwing back the wooden shutters that had held back the light from outside with a clatter. Instantly moonlight streamed in, almost as bright as daylight to Lois's suddenly blinking eyes, accustomed as she'd become to the near-absolute dark of the woods. What kind of state was it anyway that didn't come equipped with decent street lighting? she thought peevishly and not for the first time that evening. She felt a yawn coming on and ruthlessly repressed it.
After a moment, her eyes adjusted somewhat, clearing, and the light muted to its true degree. Less brilliant, it still painted the cabin's wooden floor with stripes and squares and enabled her to get a clearer picture of her surroundings. She glanced around the room, pleasantly surprised.
She'd been expecting something rustic, a boy's retreat. Old blood and skinning knives. The stale scents of sweat and manly toil. Desiccated trophies on the walls. Even worse, mold and a leaking roof. But this was no hunter's skinning lodge or ramshackle cabin, she reluctantly conceded.
The living area was simply but stylishly decorated with the emphasis on country chic. Expensive taste. Lawyer's weekend haven, she instantly decided. Accountant maybe. The type who prided themselves on being country to the core and whose sense of rustic was dictated firmly by the latest glossy issues of Country Living and Farmhouse Style. No doubt they had mints on the pillows and a den with full Surround Sound entertainment system installed and returned to their plush high-rise city offices on Monday with tales of roughing it in the back of beyond.
Clark distracted her from her assessment, making her jump in surprise as he crouched down beside her, his eyes intent. Her hands half lifted, instinctively defensive, before she let them drop again. Her instant bewilderment as to his intentions turned into a slight flush of embarrassment as he asked anxiously, "You okay?"
<Geez, Lane — what did you think he was going to do?> she asked herself with a mental rolling of eyes. She was strung out, she decided. The traumatic events of the evening had left her drained until she was spooking at shadows. And helpful, considerate partners, too. She sighed and nodded dumbly in answer, before adding tentatively, "Your arm — ?"
"In a minute." He patted his hand absently against her knee and then levered himself to his feet. "Stay here," he cautioned. He looked around the room and fixed on the staircase jutting into it some paces away. "I'll go take a look around. There must be a first aid kit somewhere around here. Probably in the upstairs bathroom. Then we can deal with your ankle, too." He shivered a little. "I'll look out some blankets, too. Until we get some heat going in here, it's not going to be much warmer than outside. Even if it seems that way."
His tone was casual, but she caught the tension around his eyes and knew he'd be looking for more than a first aid kit and blankets while he was gone. Like all the ways in and how to secure them. She nodded.
"Keep your weight off that foot," he warned with an admonishing finger. "I'll be right back."
Lois watched him go, waited until he'd rounded the top of the staircase and vanished from view onto the upper landing, and then tested the foot flat on the floor. A scythe of pain jolted up the inside of her calf and she muttered a sharp curse. Then she glanced at the front door, which Clark had closed behind him. She looked at the stairs a second time. Her eyes drifted to the door again. Then, pushing heavily against the sofa's arm, she levered herself to her feet. Well…one foot. Half hopping, half hobbling, she made her way to the door. Just as she'd suspected, it hadn't been locked.
"Farm kids…" she grumbled and hastily turned the lock over. She didn't think that alligators could navigate door handles, but she wasn't taking any chances. Feeling a little more secure, she pressed her face to the small window in the door, scanning the clearing. But there seemed to be nothing out there but trees. They were not surrounded by gun-toting lunatics. Not unless they were really well camouflaged gun-toting lunatics.
She let out a small breath, then glanced at the expanse of glass beside her, her analytical mind momentarily envisaging it shattering inwards under an explosion of gunfire, splinters flying, chopping through the air like blades. She shivered a little. You know, it was all very pretty, but maybe, once Clark found them some alternative light source, it would be a good idea to close over those shutters again, she considered uneasily. And lock them too.
She had to admit though that, for the moment, they provided a breath- taking view. She stood for a moment, favoring her swollen ankle, arms wrapped loosely around herself as she scanned the lawn outside. In the touch of soft moonlight that had finally cleared snow-laden clouds, nothing stirred, and the silvered beauty of the clearing, snowdrifts glistening in the pale light overhead, stirred something elemental, even in her.
Which only confirmed her life-long conclusion, that the only true way to appreciate nature's wonders was from inside, preferably next to a roaring fire.
She glanced over her shoulder at the black, cold and lifeless hearth next to the sofa. Okay…well, the fire was obviously next on her list.
She limped her way into the kitchen, intending to search for firewood. Candles, too, with a bit of luck. She found the latter after a fruitless search of almost all the cupboards in the small, narrow galley kitchen. Naturally, they had to be kept in the last but one she searched. Fat, white, utilitarian candles, stored neatly in a box, next to a flashlight. She gathered them up and frowned as the box of matches next to them came up feeling light. She opened it and sighed. Empty.
<Let the team down there, guys> she thought wryly.
It was the first sign she'd seen in her search that the cabin's owners didn't have a TO for Totally Organized tattooed on their foreheads. Curiously, this little slip made her feel much better. Cheered her up no end. All that dedicated, obsessive compulsive emergency readiness had been beginning to make her feel inadequate. Did she *know* where the candles were in her apartment? Actually…yes, she realized in surprised triumph. At least, she was *pretty* sure there was a stub of one in back of the kitchen drawer. The flashlight lived…er…well wherever it had been used last. Which *was* organized, she told herself firmly. And logical. So long as you could remember where you last used it you'd find it no problem at all. So, for someone like her, who had an A-grade memory, that made perfect sense.
Mind you — she pursed her lips, her sense of triumph fading — the contents of her refrigerator would probably do well in saving a family of mice for a week, if they were trapped with her in a power cut. A very small family. On a health farm diet. Certainly, emergency rations at her place rarely came packaged with the name of a gourmet delicatessen, she considered, remembering what her search of the refrigerator and cupboards had turned up.
She sighed. Then she shook the matches box again and tossed it back in the cupboard, feeling distinctly cheerful for the first time that evening as she turned away.
She sighed again at the sharply disapproving bark behind her, but made no protest this time as a muttering Clark dumped what he'd been carrying to the small table by the stairs and hurried over to usher her back to the sofa, chiding her all the way.
She wasn't about to admit that her ankle had been aching up a storm just with the small exertions of the last few minutes. Or that Clark's mollycoddling was actually…kind of comforting. Nice. Provoking a warm little glow in the center of her chest. But she couldn't help the small sigh of relief that escaped her as she was firmly pushed back on to the sofa and he raised his head to look at her in concern.
"I'm okay," she assured him.
He nodded without comment and then went back to retrieve what he'd dumped on the table. Lois blinked and then gaped as he set it down on the sofa beside her, hardly noticing as he tossed a couple of heavy chenille blankets over her shoulders. She clutched their edges around herself absently as she stared at the box lying beside her.
"What is *that?*
"First aid kit," he said, looking at her askance as though wondering why it wasn't obvious.
Lois reached out a wondering hand to touch the lid of the white box, conspicuously marked with a bright red cross. It was fully twice the size of any she'd seen before. Clark had been carrying it in both hands. A large, white, professional red cross affair — one of those buy it all, pre-packed collections containing every item of medical care that someone in some far off Health Department had considered absolutely essential to cure everything from a migraine to beri beri. The first aid kit of someone who had listened carefully to the Health Care infomercials advice and believed them when they said such a box was an absolute necessity in the modern home. Someone who had approached this Health Care matter in the same haphazard, hasty and throw it all together way that they might well have put together a bath salts collection. In short, it had city professional, weekend hunting enthusiast written all over it.
Lois's feelings of inadequacy immediately reared up again, as she envisaged the half-empty pack of band aids and two thumb tacks that currently resided in the empty shoebox at the bottom of her wardrobe and served as her own kit.
"Are you sure it's not a small ambulance?" she said and heard him chuckle as she threw back the lid and began to rummage inside it. "My god, *look* at all this…" she said, awed at the mess of bottles and potions, pads and boxes crammed into the interior. "Surgical mini-saw? Malaria pills? Who the hell owns this place? Steve Irwin or the board of Gwangasaki International? Do you know they have a garlic press and cappuccino-maker in the kitchen?!"
She half expected Clark to defend Japanese businessmen everywhere in response to that. She waited for the chiding, 'Lois, they aren't *all* obsessed with gadgets and being ultra-organized'. But there was nothing. She glanced at him and he offered her a thin, tired smile.
"I'll just be happy if there are bandages in there." His hand lifted, unconsciously, she thought, to press around his injured arm, kneading fitfully at the muscle there, and she could see the tightness at his jaw deepen.
Instantly contrite, she nodded. "Right. Bandages. Sure." She found them a moment later and he took them from her as he reached to pull her foot onto the support of his knee.
"Okay, let's see what the damage is here." He took hold of her ankle in firm hands.
She opened her mouth to suggest that his arm might be in need of more urgent attention than a twisted ankle, then closed it, knowing she'd be wasting her time, that he'd just deny he was in any real pain if she tried. Best to let him just get on with it. He wouldn't let her deal with it until he was ready in his own sweet time anyway. Men. Why couldn't they just admit when they were in trouble and accept they needed help? Would it kill them to let you know they were hurting, for pity's sake? Why did they have to stick to that macho bull?
"It doesn't hurt much," she said, hoping he didn't hear the tightness in her voice as she did. But he made no comment to that lie, barely registering he'd even heard it. In reality, she felt as though she'd plunged her foot into a lake of fire. Out in the cold, the numbing grip the snow had had on her ankle had actually been something of a blessing, dulling the pain in the end. But now, as the difference in temperature and the slight raising of heat in the air surrounding it registered with skin and nerves, it had begun to shriek steadily. She could almost swear she saw it throbbing in her partner's hands as he gingerly tugged off her boot and sock.
She watched him, face drawn, trying not to wince, as he went about his ministrations. His touch on her swollen ankle was deft and sure, careful of the pain she'd denied. His head bent to his task, a light frown of concentration puckering between his brows, he was oblivious it seemed to her watchful gaze as she studied him in the weak moonlight that penetrated the room. His hands on her skin were cool — cold — but she made no protest as he gingerly but deftly pressed questing fingers against the curves and bone of her ankle as he tested it.
Soon enough, she began to relax, feeling herself turn boneless and limp in his grasp. Despite the pain, there was something almost soothing about the way his hands played against her skin, his touch gentle, delicate, the coolness of his fingers as they sketched patterns of welcome ice against the uncomfortable, painful heat in her ankle…she closed her eyes with a soft sigh and gave herself over to the sensations, a small murmur of approval escaping her lips as she leaned back against the sofa's comforting embrace.
The fingers paused. "Hurts?"
She shook her head without opening her eyes and after a hesitation the feathered touch returned, touching delicately here, prodding softly there…caressing her skin like a…
She sat up straight with a jerk, her eyes snapping open, feeling her cheeks heat as Clark looked up on her with a start.
"What?" he said, alarmed, snatching back his hands.
"N-nothing…just…jabbed a bit there, that's all," she said, breathlessly and to her relief he seemed to accept that explanation.
"Sorry." He went back to his ministrations.
"No. No, it's okay…it's just fine…" She made herself stop, aware she was on the cusp of babbling suspiciously, and relaxed only when it seemed his attention was firmly back on her ankle.
<Like a lover's?!> she asked herself in horror. <What were you *thinking*?!> The turn of her thoughts, the realization of how her body had begun to respond to her partner's hands, to his touch, heated her cheeks up further. But it didn't mean anything, she defended herself firmly. It's just…it's been a tough night, that's all. That's *all*. She felt drained, the evening had been devoted to an emotional rollercoaster that had left her…vulnerable, she supposed. Yes, that was it. Her defenses were down, that was all. Perfectly natural. A little bit of warmth, some comfort, an ankle massage…that was all it took to destroy her guard completely. Under the circumstances, she shouldn't be so hard on herself. Who wouldn't find that…
No, no, not sensual. Definitely not sensual.
Welcome. That was it. Welcome.
She stared down at the bent head of her partner, wishing he would finish. The growing urge to start squirming under his fingers was becoming unbearable. As was the struggle not to give in to that soothing massage and just let sensation rule her.
And who knew where that would lead?
Well, she knew where that would lead. A thousand battered novels had shown her that path in all its variations. Deserted cabins? Snowy landscapes? Roaring log fires? Oh yeah, she knew where they all led if you let them.
And while she might find such hormonal lapses of good judgment all just fine and dandy to read about snuggled up under her comforter with a mug of hot chocolate of an evening…they usually didn't make for happiness in the real world. And she wasn't about to risk her friendship with her partner, nor their working success for that matter, on a one night stand prompted by the fact that she couldn't control her body. That would be…pathetic. She wasn't some animal to be ruled by her base emotions. To mistake the false intimacy of their situation for something real. Or mistake a friend for a lover. And just because she'd — they'd — come close to dying out there tonight, just because she might need a little…comfort…didn't mean she had to give in and surrender to it. Not at all.
She frowned, struck all at once by something in the pose of her partner. Something familiar. A moment later, she had it and, perhaps bolstered by the need to distance herself from those unsettling sensations and emotions and…desires…that were clamoring for attention deep within her, she let herself find more amusement in it than she might otherwise have done. Suddenly, in fact, it struck her as being too funny for words. Dimly, she was aware that the rising giggle in her throat was partly the product of her wildly fluctuating emotions, the adrenaline surge that had kept her going all night was fading now, and a tide of weary lightheadedness was left in its wake. She felt almost…intoxicated.
Which was not really much better than…aroused. Which she hadn't been. At all. Uh uh. Still, whatever it had been, whatever it was she was feeling, she suddenly discovered she didn't much care.
Nope, considering that she was, against all expectation, hope and wish, still alive, she just didn't care at all.
A small sound from above him lifted his head. He stopped the gentle prodding at her ankle with a frown. "What?" he said as he saw she was fighting back laughter.
Lois shook her head. "Nothing. I mean." She waved a hand at him and he looked down at himself and then back up quizzically. "It's just you look like.you know…like you're about to —"
Confused, Clark glanced down again and then caught her meaning. There he was on one knee before her, her foot balanced against his thigh. He looked back up on her with a small grin.
"Prince Charming? We're missing a glass slipper, I think," he said.
She nodded, giggles fading all at once. A new intentness seemed to spark into her eyes all at once. "Every woman's fantasy." Her voice had taken on a huskiness all at once and suddenly the air around them was charged with…expectation. Her color was high, no doubt due to coming into the heat from the cold outside; her cheeks pink, her eyes sparkling above them. Whatever the mundane reasons for it, she looked…enchanting.
Whoa. Down, boy. Don't go there.
Clark cleared his throat and then looked back down with an artfully casual shrug, going back to his gentle massage of her injured ankle. "The Kansas Farmboy? I don't think so, Lois."
"Hey." Her hand was soft against his shoulder and he looked up at her, startled. "Don't sell yourself short," she said.
Clark's breath caught in his throat at the look in her eyes, then she grinned, destroying what had seemed to be hidden there. "I happen to know there are a lot of girls who fall for that hick Kansas charm," she told him, brightly encouraging. "I mean, geez, half the office had the hots for you first day you started work."
"They…they did?" He shook his head, unable to stop the miserable addition: <Why didn't you?> from blossoming in his head. "Can't say I ever noticed."
Lois took back her hand with a shrug. Clark felt the loss of its warmth immediately. "Yeah, well, that's only because I warned them off…" She paused looking a little off balance for a moment, as though she hadn't meant to qualify her actions, and then went on blithely with a wave of a dismissive hand, "You know, because I figured you wouldn't want to be dealing with all that tacky office romance stuff while you were just starting out, trying to establish yourself with Perry. You don't need that kind of distraction. You need to focus."
Clark blinked. "Oh," he said. And then, tentatively, "Thanks."
Lois beamed at him. "You're welcome! Hey," she patted him on the arm, "that's what partners are for — right?"
"They are?" Clark nodded as her smile faded slightly into a look of hurt. "I mean, they are. Definitely, they are."
She nodded, seemingly pleased with his appreciation of her riding shotgun for him, as he mulled over the various convolutions and meanings that had seemed to be hidden in that conversation. It had been somewhat disturbing — on a whole lot of levels — and he found himself strangely relieved that he was able to sit back on his heels, his need to touch her done with for now. What should have been a simple examination of a twisted ankle had somehow seemed to become something charged and…dangerous. Not to mention that the pressure of her foot against his thigh had been more than a little…disconcerting. And yet, despite the relief, he found himself vaguely disappointed as he lifted his hands clear. He coughed slightly as he pronounced a slightly hoarse diagnosis.
"Don't think it's broken. Let's just get some circulation into it and then I can strap it up."
Without waiting for an answer, he began chafing the foot between his hands.
Lois bit against her lower lip until he was done. He strapped her foot with the bandage with practiced, deft hands and grinned up at her as he caught her look of surprise at his dexterity.
"Farm kid, remember? I spent a lot of my formative years taping up strains in the herd. Those cows were devils for getting their fetlocks trapped…places they shouldn't."
The implication in that was obvious. Fetlocks? Lois glanced down at her leg. Trapped in places they shouldn't? Like…snow-covered roots maybe? Her eyes narrowed, not exactly sure she quite liked being compared to Daisy and Bossy, not to mention she hadn't been anywhere *near* as reckless as a wandering cow! It hadn't been her fault she'd gotten stuck in -
Her rapidly developing outrage ground to a halt as she suddenly caught the buried twinkle in her partner's eyes and understood she was being suckered.
"Clark!" she half-wailed.
He laughed. And to her surprise, a small spreading warmth ignited in her chest. It was the best sound she'd heard for hours. It said that everything was going to be all right. That they'd come through. Survived again. They were going to be okay.
They were alive.
She grinned back at him. She knew that she was finding his teasing far more amusing than it had any right to be, but relief and the sudden easing of the anxiety and fear that had dogged her for hours now left no room for austerity in her emotions. She felt dizzy with it. Against all odds, they'd survived another Lois Lane day.
"Sports related injuries," he told her, taking pity. "You tend to get to know one end of a bandage from the other once you've played college football for a term. Well, actually, I never really played…" he paused, looking pensive for a moment, before he continued, "…but I worked with the trainer, helping out."
"Oh," she said sheepishly. "Right."
He tied off the bandage and then sat back to eye her questioningly. "Okay, how's that?"
Lois was uncertain whether she was relieved or disappointed that his hands had stopped. "Feels good," she said, putting her weight on it gingerly and then nodding approval. "Thanks." She glanced at him sternly. "Okay…now get that sweater off."
"Huh?" His startled face made her want to laugh again.
"Your arm?" she reminded, patting the sofa beside her in invitation.
"Oh! Oh, yeah."
He sat on the sofa and pulled the sweater, together with the t-shirt he'd been wearing beneath, over his head awkwardly, as one item, favoring his wounded arm and grimacing as he finally had them clear. Lois sucked in a small breath — it wasn't too often that she was given the chance to remind herself just how…well-developed Clark was — and then sucked in an even sharper one as her surreptitious appreciation of that muscled chest and six-pack stomach was distracted by her first sight of the wound in his biceps. Any salacious thoughts that had started forming in her head as she ogled her oblivious partner were swept into oblivion as she paled.
She could see that it wasn't anything serious — at least not so long as they kept infection out of it and got him to a doctor and proper attention before too long — but the gash, though shallow, was long and an angry red. And way, way too close to her partner's throat for her liking. Another couple of inches higher…
Her hands shook as she dropped her gaze and searched through the first aid box. It had stopped bleeding though and it looked clean enough. Carefully, she cleaned it out with antiseptic pads and then dressed it. Beads of sweat stood out on Clark's forehead when she was done and he looked a little green around the gills. But he hadn't made any protest, even when she'd been sure she was hurting him.
"You'll need to have it stitched up when we get out of here," she said at last, voice shaking as she watched him ease gingerly into his t- shirt and sweater again. "But those butterfly clips will hold it till then. Hey, who'd have thought we'd ever be grateful to sissy lawyers, huh?" she said more lightly, as she cleared away the debris of her amateur first aid.
"Hey…" Clark reached out, startling her as he took hold of her chin and lifted her head from where it was bent over the box. It was only as her gaze was forced onto to his that she realized there were tears prickling at the back of her eyes. "Everything's going to be fine, Lois," he said softly, as his hand shifted to lie lightly against her cheek. "We made it."
She nodded and offered him a slightly tremulous smile as she put up a brief hand to cover his. "I know. Hey, Lane and Kent, right?" she said, more firmly now as she fought for control. "Machinegun-toting smuggling lunatics don't stand a chance against us."
He smiled a little. "Right."
She nodded again and then snuffled before straightening. There was a moment's silence as he dropped his hand. Then she said, awkwardly, "Um…maybe we should get the fire going?"
"Right…yes…the fire…sure…" He frowned and then, "Oh…I found…" He jumped to his feet and crossed to the table by the stairs. "I didn't think we should…um, you should…one of us should…use the bed," he told her, sounding flustered as he picked up the heap of clothing he'd left there. "It didn't seem…right. But with the fire and the blankets we should be cozy enough down here and the sofa looks comfortable. And these were in the bedroom wardrobe." He handed her a pair of blue jeans and a checked flannel shirt. She took them from him automatically and then glanced up at him in confusion.
"You need to get out of those wet clothes," he said, sounding more embarrassed by the moment. Whether at the thought of her changing or because he'd had to mention the clich‚ she had no idea. He was right though, she realized, suddenly becoming aware of what other considerations had blanked out of her awareness till now. She was sitting in a decidedly damp patch, soaked through by their flight through the trees.
She struggled to her feet and looked up at him in surprise as he put out a hand to her shoulder, shaking his head. "No, don't try going upstairs. Stay down here. Keep off that ankle. I'll go outside, look out some firewood, while you…" He gestured vaguely and to her growing amusement she realized he was blushing.
Which she wasn't. Absolutely not.
"Okay," was all she said though as he headed for the door as though it offered him an escape from a fate worse than death. As he opened it, he paused, turning back apologetically. "Uh…I didn't include…erm…I didn't think borrowing…underwear would be —"
She nodded. "Right. I'll…cope."
He echoed her nod, his expression settling into relief, and then he was gone, drawing the door to a solid close behind him, before she could even add a soft 'be careful out there'.
Clark considered miserably that the heat radiating from his face might just be able to melt all the snow from here clear to Haven.
Could he really have gotten any more pathetic back there? Lois must think he was a prize idiot. Or be laughing herself silly. Or maybe both.
He hauled open the heavy door of the woodshed, shaking his head irritably. He wasn't an idiot. He knew very well that the softness in Lois's eyes back there had little to do with any true feelings towards him and everything to do with what they'd just gone through together. Surviving what they had, sharing the danger and coming through, bred a natural intimacy that would be easy to mistake for something deeper and more significant than was truly there.
Just for a moment though…it had been warming to let himself believe that there was something more than that in those dark eyes. Something…real.
He shook off the melancholy his thoughts were beginning to stir within him. Nothing had changed, after all. He knew what Lois felt for him — what she'd probably always feel for him. Friendship. That was all. It had been friendship when they'd set out for Haven all those hours ago and it remained friendship now. What was the sense in regretting that just because circumstances laid them open to the false comfort and bitter illusion of something more?
Besides, he had more important things to worry about right now. Like making it through the night and getting Lois safely back home. At least the immediate danger of them becoming lost in the woods or freezing to death before morning was no longer a concern. The cabin was sound and comfortable and once he got a fire going…
Wood, came the reminding thought. Yes. Wood…
He searched the dim interior of the shed and found what he was looking for almost immediately, piled in three baskets close to the door. Mentally applauding the cabin's absent owner for his organization, he pulled one of the baskets out into the snow beside him and then moved back into the shed in search of anything else that they might find useful. Two storm lanterns were added to the basket in short order, well topped up with oil. And then his eyes lit as he spied a small camping stove. Not just a welcome fire, but food too, it seemed, was on the menu now. Lois must be starving, he thought with a jolt. With the thought came the sudden realization that he was, too.
The sensation was…weird. He found his mind strangely preoccupied with images of food…steak, cooked just on the turn of rare and smothered in mushroom and onion sauce…pasta al dente, with spices and rich tomato scents…he was beginning to salivate, and that was curiously distracting. He was beginning to understand why Lois insisted on them stocking up on Chinese takeout before tackling a late night story session. Heaven knew how she managed to concentrate at all, if this was what being hungry did for your brain.
Shoving all thoughts of food determinedly to one side, he paused as a small rustle came from behind him, out in the woods. He straightened slowly, heart beginning a slow race against his ribs. Rabbit, probably, he was almost sure. And yet…
He felt suddenly exposed, standing there in the doorway with the darkness of the shed behind him and the moonlight aimed at him like a spotlight. And all at once he was tired of it, tired of feeling that way, of feeling scared and all too aware of his own mortality, his own fragility, in ways he never had to when his powers were intact. He wasn't aware that his hands had tightened into fists, that there was a pulse of anger ticking at his jaw, until he felt the sharp sting in his palms. With a start, he brought up his hand and stared at the perfect half-moons dug into his skin. The anger faded. What was the point of it anyway? Who was he angry at? That mysterious attacker who was back in Metropolis and, for now, out with his reach? The rabbit, that had so scared him? He snorted. Oh, boy, if the press could see you now, Superman, he thought, suddenly overcome with bitter amusement. Spooking at rabbits. Some superhero.
Still, the wary sense of being watched, of threatening danger was hard to dismiss. No matter how scathingly he derided himself for it. They *were* out there. Somewhere. And maybe they had shaken them off, back there in the woods. He was almost sure they had. He hoped they had. But still…
…what if they hadn't?
What if they were still out there? Searching for them. Coming closer. Almost on them…
If only his powers were intact, he thought, gazing out through the open doorway and into the darkness of the trees. He returned to his idea of earlier with the thought. A quick recon above the tree line and he'd be able to pinpoint where their pursuers were exactly. Even deal with them. Yeah, and if his powers were intact they wouldn't be here at all, would they, he thought bitterly. He'd have flown Lois safely back to her apartment long since and she and Clark would be busy writing up the story by now of how they smashed the Haven smuggling ring and put the culprits safely behind bars in the sheriff's office.
He sighed and rubbed cold-stiffened fingers across his forehead. A spike of pain drove into his temple, hot and red, and he winced. Was that a headache he was getting?
He really thought they'd lost them back there. He was almost certain of it. He'd tried listening intently at set intervals and although he hadn't been able to say for an absolute certainty that his powers were online at any point during their flight through the wood, he was sure at one point he'd heard a disgruntled voice order its companions back to the road. Something about…picking them up on the outskirts of town?
He shook his head slightly. Maybe it had been wishful thinking at that. But it made sense. Didn't it? Odds were that he and Lois would have to come out of the woods and get back on the road eventually. The only warmth and safety lay in town. He hoped. Perry had done a background check on Haven's only sheriff before giving them the assignment and there'd been nothing to suggest that he was in league with the gang. Quite the opposite, in fact. He'd had a long-running feud with the suspected ring-leader and his brother — a couple of ne'er-do-wells who lived out on the town borders and who'd both spent nights cooling their heels in the cells on petty charges of theft, car-reset, and drunken disorder. There was no love lost there, from all they knew.
And if they knew that he and Lois would have to get to town to survive the night, then what was easier for the gang than to give up a cold, tiring chase through dark woods and blizzard conditions, when they could instead wait in the warmth of their car as they blocked the only road into town and lay in wait for their victims?
He cheered himself slightly by composing a mental image of a gang of disgruntled smugglers waiting impatiently for prey that failed to arrive.
So…yes…he was almost sure they were safe until morning.
Almost didn't make him long any the less for the security of his powers, though. Or make him give up the worry gnawing at him.
None of which was getting him any closer to what he'd come looking for, he reminded himself, chiding.
He turned back from the door and set himself to the task at hand. First rule of survival. Deal with the immediate problem. The rest you leave for later.
He cast a quick glance behind him. A glance that was more wary than he wanted to admit to.
Much later — even better never — if you were lucky.
Lois paused for a moment, standing there in the cabin's shadows, the borrowed clothing clasped to her chest. Then, curious, she limped over to the picture window and peered out…and found her partner doing exactly what he said he would. No lingering, no taking the chance to check her out surreptitiously. He vanished around the cabin's corner and out of sight as she watched. She pursed her lips thoughtfully. He was a strange one.
He hadn't even used the situation to make any suggestive comments, she thought in some astonishment. She couldn't think of a single other guy she'd ever known who would have passed up that chance. Especially in the circumstances.
Lex wouldn't have.
For a moment, her brain balked at the image of Lex being in this situation at all. She simply couldn't imagine him at her side as they'd fled through the woods, couldn't imagine him clambering through the window — he'd have been solicitous and gentlemanly in helping her through so her ankle wouldn't hurt too much, she thought with a wry twist of her lips. She certainly couldn't imagine him roughing it here in an abandoned cabin or being as…well as much of a wilderness scout as Clark had been so far. Lex would have been utterly lost. As much the city greenhorn as she was. Completely at sea. Whereas Clark…had taken charge and set about putting their current small world to rights as best he could without being obnoxiously overbearing about it and — to her surprise — she didn't feel like objecting to that.
But if Lex wouldn't have won any badges for Survival in the Wilderness 101, he would have taken advantage of their situation. Thinking back to the seesaw of emotions she'd experienced earlier, when Clark had been doing nothing more than binding up her ankle, she flushed a little. No, she wasn't blind to the obvious romantic elements here. It was like the plot of every cheap dime store romance novel she'd ever read. Lex would have found the romance in it, she was sure. A cabin in the woods, trapped by blizzards, a log fire and candlelight…what red-blooded male wouldn't?
Lois didn't quite know what to make of that. In a way, it was…irritating. And somewhat insulting. Yet in another…soothing. Comfortable. Right. That was the word she was searching for. She felt more comfortable with Clark in this situation than she would have with any other man she knew. Safe. Secure.
And, of course, Lex had certain rights and privileges in the making advances department that Clark didn't. Being that Lex was her…
She paused, a small frown gathering between her brows.
She shook her head, irritated with herself now. For god's sake, she'd been…dating…the man for months now and just recently things had gotten even more intense than that and yet she'd never been able to really define him in her head. And the word boyfriend still sounded way too weird.
Well, if she didn't understand what she was to Lex and he to her, Lex certainly seemed to have it pinned down, if his recent actions where anything to go by. Lex seemed to know exactly what he expected of her, wanted of her…and he had completely blindsided her, coming at her out of the clear blue sky of what she now viewed as a ridiculous naivety and pouncing on her with that…that… She closed her eyes tight, unable even now to face it. To acknowledge the truth. How could she have missed it? There must have been signs, surely? How could she have been so blind? So stupid?
And what was she going to do about it?
That wayward thought increased the sudden unease that was inexplicably tightening in her chest.
She hated being wrong. She hated being taken by surprise. Ambushed.
She really had thought there was no dating involved. She'd *thought* she'd been enjoying some nice times and good company with a friend. Only seemed Clark had known better than she had when he gave her all those irritating rolling-eyed glances and under his breath snorts of disbelief when she'd insist he was wrong all these months.
Now that she let herself finally consider it, it seemed so obvious, but she'd been in denial almost from the start, convincing herself that they were just two friends enjoying the occasional dinner or visit to the theater. She'd deliberately avoided examining what she was doing hard enough so that she hadn't had to pin it down or define the elusive nature of their…relationship.
Of course, she'd known that Lex was attracted to her — and in truth she hadn't been immune to his considerable charm either. But she'd thought that she'd made the boundaries of their relationship clear even so. Some harmless flirting, enjoying some attentive male company…that was all.
How wrong could a girl get?
The thought that her partner had been right in all those arguments wasn't something she was keen to acknowledge, however.
So, she didn't. Instead, she scowled, pushed Lex and the unwelcome chaos he'd created in her life firmly to that corner of her mind where she stored things she didn't want to drag into the light of day, crated and padlocked and left to moldering attic darkness.
It was her mess, of her own making, she admitted grudgingly, a small spark of light shining on that locked-away corner before she snapped the lid back down on it, and something she would have to fix, deal with, on her own. And hope that her partner never found out how close he'd come to being able to tell her 'told you so'. She didn't think she could live with the embarrassment of that. Not to mention the leverage it would give him. She'd never met a man yet who could resist throwing your mistakes in your face whenever he thought it scored him points in whatever he wanted from you.
The sound of a door banging out in the night made her start and she realized that she'd been standing there for long minutes, making no move to get undressed, wasting time.
Refusing to listen to the small voice in her head that told her she was avoiding something important, pushing it back into the depths of her mind where she wouldn't have to examine it too closely any more, she hurriedly pulled off her damp clothes and pulled on the shirt and jeans that Clark had provided for her.
She was buttoning up the front of the shirt, when a soft knock sounded on the front door. <If he asks if I'm decent…> she thought, feeling a flutter of something close to hysterical laughter welling up from the pit of her stomach.
"It's okay!" she yelled, to forestall him. She didn't think she could take one more page out of 'Snowbound For Love' right now. It was all getting way too surreal to cope with.
The first thing his partner had pounced on when he returned was the box of cook's matches among his haul. Curiously, she had seemed almost disappointed that he'd found them at first, but whatever that had been about, she'd quickly rallied, patting him on the shoulder as though aware she was being ungrateful, and declaring she was definitely going to make sure she was partnered with him for the next Daily Planet Annual Family Picnic's scavenger hunt. They'd be sure to win with his skills, she confided, adding darkly, unless the team from Accounts cheated again, like they had last time.
Clark hadn't felt qualified to answer to that. He'd tried to make her rest on the sofa, off her injured ankle, but she'd insisted on lighting the candles she'd found all by herself, then the storm lamps as he caved in and handed them over. He might have the scavenging gene, she'd told him, as she'd placed them strategically around the room, but she knew best about home decorating.
Clark had given up.
He had to admit she'd done good, though. The cabin's main living space had taken on a cozy atmosphere in the steady glow of the storm lamps she'd set on the side tables and mantle and Lois's candles augmented the soft light with their flickering glow, here and there.
They'd closed over the shutters again, shutting out the cold and the snowstorm. At least, that had been the reason they told themselves. Neither of them spoke of anything else that might make them nervous of having the dark out there pressed tight against that vast expanse of glass or the itch it set between their shoulder blades. As though eyes peered in at them from the thick shadows of the wood. Overhead, the wind whipped and howled around the eaves, but it was muted, its soft roar adding to the sense of warmth and companionship, rather than destroying it.
He'd pulled the sofa closer to the fire. It was large enough to comfortably accommodate two, though it would be a tight squeeze if they slept. His palms grew damp at the thought, but being a gentleman and leaving it to Lois would be foolish. He felt that they were reasonably secure here, but if they were attacked in the night, he didn't want to be trying to find Lois first before thinking about escape. Sticking close together was prudent, in the circumstances. And besides, the added warmth wouldn't go amiss.
Especially if he couldn't get a decent fire going, he thought with a sigh. He crouched down by the pile of logs. What he really needed was something to draw it out. But what he may have been able to gather out in the woods — moss, leaves, small twigs — were frozen solid under feet of snow. It didn't help that the wood itself was slightly damp. He glanced surreptitiously over his shoulder to where Lois had at last settled on the sofa. She'd handed him one of the matches a moment earlier and given him a bright smile that said she had full confidence in him. He hadn't the heart to tell her it was useless. With just damp wood to sustain it, this fire was going to need more than just one tiny kitchen match to set it ablaze. But…he had to light this somehow. She was counting on him. Maybe he could just try…
He turned back to the fire, eased his glasses down his nose, and leaned close to the fireplace. For disappointing seconds nothing happened, and then, to his surprise and no small amount of relief, the center of the pile of firewood produced a faint tendril of smoke, which gradually grew thicker. Clark narrowed his eyes determinedly, concentrating, focusing… The middle of the pile exploded into flame with a faint pop and in under a minute the fire was already well caught and taking hold.
Clark started at the voice up against his left ear. He turned his head sharply. Lois was hanging over the arm of the sofa directly behind him and peering over his shoulder with an impressed look on her face.
"That was quick!"
"Uh…yeah…" Clark hastily pushed his glasses back into place and coughed uncomfortably. Had she seen — ?
"Amazing," Lois went on. She gave him what could only be termed a condescending pat on the shoulder. "Guess those boy scout years really paid off, huh?" She beamed at him and snuggled deeper into the sofa's curves, pulling the blankets higher around her shoulders.
Clark briefly closed his eyes and offered up a prayer to all the patron saints, gods and holy angels that protected superheroes before he rose to his feet.
"So, any room under there — ?" He gestured at the thick chenille blankets she'd swathed herself in.
"Just for a little one," Lois finished for him, her eyes alight with impish mischief in the flickering light.
He lifted a brow and saw her color deepen just a little as the nuances made clear by his amused response to what she'd just said suddenly occurred to her too. Then embarrassment seemed to fade as that mischievous sparkle grew. As she rose to the challenge he'd unwittingly and silently advanced. Clark had the impression that he was suddenly in a whole peck of trouble. He'd seen that look before. And it never bode well.
"Although…" She straightened a little. The tip of her tongue emerged to trace the line of her bottom lip as she considered him thoughtfully and intently. "…not sure you qualify on that criteria…"
And now her gaze traveled over him, almost caressing him from top to toe, before her eyes reversed their slow journey and found his face again. What was in her eyes now could only be called…sultry, he decided, and felt his own face flush with heat as he gulped around the tightening in his throat. Deep in his belly something else tightened in response to that smoky stare also. Clark resisted the urge to find something to cover himself with. He hadn't ever felt this exposed to her, even when wearing the Suit. And there had been times when that had been a close call.
He heard a throaty chuckle and realized he'd just had the tables turned on him. He didn't know whether to feel relief or…disappointment. Had she just been teasing him to score a point? Was there nothing more than that in her…inspection of him? Her sudden playfulness? Was it inspired simply by that notorious Lane need for one-upmanship and no more than that? No feeling behind it at all?
He shouldn't really care, he told himself.
But he did.
He felt the sudden need to change the subject, draw back from the abyss that somehow seemed to have just yawned open at his feet. Lois seemed to sense his discomfort, because her color heightened and she drew back, glancing behind him.
"Oh, camping stove." He sloshed the container experimentally. "There's not much fuel left in it, but there should be enough to cook us up something hot to drink. Maybe even some soup, if I can find some in the kitchen."
"That's very…resourceful," she said.
Clark looked up at her quickly. But, for once, she didn't seem to be mocking him. There was something in her face that might even be…was she…impressed? She smiled warmly at him and he found himself smiling back.
"I'll just go see what I can rustle up," he said.
In the kitchen he discovered that, bizarrely, while there was plenty of canned soup stacked in the overhead cupboards, it wasn't exactly what he'd expected to find. Soup was practically a staple of lakeside cabins, of course, of any camping trip or outdoor vacation — nutritious, cheap, the quickest way to a hot, filling meal when you desperately needed one and, canned, it would keep indefinitely. It was just that in his experience they usually came in basic flavors like tomato or chicken. He surveyed the can in his hand with something like bemusement and then shrugged. It would be hot, which was the main thing. He picked out another and then rummaged around for a pan.
Returning to the living room, he opened his mouth to ask the obvious question given the results of his search, and then paused to lean up against the doorjamb instead, his attention suddenly rapt. Lois was deep in thought and oblivious to his return, lost in the fire's dancing flames as she stared pensively into the hearth. His eyes sought out the well-remembered curves and planes of her face, painted now with the shifting shadows of light and dark in the room's lambent light. Her eyes glowed with it, miniature flames held there, heating her gaze to something approaching a glamour of passion. Her hair had dried out now, fluffed around her like a halo, drifting against her shoulders, gleaming darkly, and the plaid shirt, tucked tight into the waistband of the blue jeans and cinched with a leather belt fitted itself to her soft upper curves in ways that made desire twist in his belly.
He forced his gaze back up to her face and away from that dangerous appreciation and caught by how far away she was, somewhere far distant from him and the cabin, he found himself suddenly wanting to know what mysteries she was finding in the shifting flames, what they spoke to her of. Where they had taken her.
Perhaps he made some sound, maybe he shifted as his body tightened in response to his appreciative thoughts and that soft longing that had flared up in his heart all at once. Whatever made her aware of him, she turned her head towards him, the distance in her eyes fading as she came back from where her thoughts and the heart of the flames had taken her. She looked at him questioningly. "My stomach hopes you found something," she told him.
He grinned. "Well, after a fashion. So…" He held up the cans for her inspection. "Highland Game or Lobster Bisque?"
Lois lifted a sharp brow and then rolled her eyes. "Oh, puhlease…"
He chuckled. She'd already made him more than aware of her disdain for the 'pretty boy, neat-freak, techno-geek wannabe' owner of the cabin. "Highland Game it is then. I think that means venison," he added, scanning the label thoughtfully. "We can save the lobster for later."
He busied himself with setting up their meal, gratefully letting the task cool his thoughts. Silence settled on the room again, a friendly silence, replete with the lazy warmth engendered by their exhaustion and the aftermath of exertion, worry and concern. It was…nice, he thought, as he opened the cans of soup and poured them into the pan. Comfortable. Actually, it was *really* nice. It reminded him of a few quiet moments they'd had once before, in his apartment as they'd let Alan Morris sleep on the sofa behind them. He had made his favorite specialty tea for them both. Lois hadn't been keen, she was more a coffee person, always had been, but to his surprise the vaguely spiced, Oriental blend had gone over well with her and she'd declared that it both smelled and tasted delicious. Later, the night had been cool and quiet as they'd stood on his balcony and for some reason she had softened enough to trade childhood secrets with him. It had been both intimate and yet devoid of the tension that usually marked their relationship. And he had held it deep within him as a treasured memory ever since.
Full of the warming glow those memories provoked, he glanced over at his partner and his satisfaction died. She'd returned to her study of the fire. A small frown puckered her brow now and he thought that she looked less pensive as he'd supposed a moment earlier than she did…melancholy. Sad, he thought, surprised. She looked sad.
"Penny for them," he said after a moment's study of her and she blinked, focusing on him once more. She looked a little disconcerted and then she smiled, a sudden gleam igniting in her eyes.
"Worth diamonds at least," she told him archly.
He gave her an amused look as he pressed the stove's ignition button and then turned the resulting pop of flame down low over the pan of soup. "Taught you that at your European finishing school, did they?"
She nodded. "Oh yeah. First thing a girl learns."
He arched a brow at her. "What's the second thing?"
She grinned. "Wouldn't you like to know?"
"Sorry. Restricted to a need to know basis," she said.
He moved to settle himself on the sofa beside her, gratefully taking the share of the blankets she offered him. The chill seemed to have seeped its way down the very bones of him and he was beginning to think he'd never really feel truly warm again. He snuggled deeper into the welcome warmth with a contented sigh and Lois glanced at him with a small grin, obviously recognizing the sentiment.
"Course, if you had any diamonds on you, I might be persuaded to reveal a few…trade secrets…" she added impishly.
He made a show of checking the pockets of the jeans and shirt he'd changed into and then shook his head with a mock rueful grimace. "Nope. No diamond bracelets, no necklaces, no rings…" He shrugged.
All at once, the levity in her face died. There was a sudden frisson of tension in the air. She drew back slightly as he watched her, puzzled by the sudden switch in her attitude. "Rings…" she said, looking abruptly away from him. She became mired in a study of the pattern on the blanket, fingers tracing its shapes.
"Lois?" he said, a little worried now.
She shrugged. "I've been…wanting to talk to you about…something. Something…important." She sighed and glanced up at him. "Except I'm not sure you're the best person to ask."
He was surprised at the small piercing hurt that her reluctance to confide in him caused in his heart. "Lois…" He leaned forward, capturing her fingers in his, stilling their fitful picking at the blanket's threads. "I'm your friend. If there's something bothering you, you can talk to me. You can talk to me about anything," he assured her earnestly.
"No…no, not *bothering*…exactly… And this…" She chewed on her bottom lip, obviously undecided, then blurted, "It's about Lex." She winced, and he eased up on the grip that had become reflexively tighter, contrite. She gazed up at him with eyes that harbored unease and then said softly, "He…he asked me to marry him."
He couldn't help it. He had loosened his grip, straightened away from her, body stiffening almost before he realized he was doing it. There was a beat of blood thundering in his chest and he had to swallow hard around the sudden rock lodged in his throat before he said hoarsely, "*Did* he…" And winced inwardly at the sharp bite in that that he hadn't really intended to let loose.
Lois reached out, but he twisted away, throwing aside the blanket as he got to his feet with a convulsive movement. "Soup's burning," he said as he crouched down beside the stove, presenting his back to her. She said nothing, didn't point out the obvious lie. He stirred listlessly at the lukewarm liquid for a moment before he worked up enough courage to say quietly, "You're thinking about accepting?" The question sounded cold in his ears, frigid as the ice outside. In his heart there was a storm of that ice raging, just as fierce as the one nature was dashing against the cabin.
She didn't answer immediately and he fought back a small whisper of hope. His fingers were cramping around the stem of the spoon. He eased their tight grip and, steeling himself for what he might find in her face, looked over his shoulder at her.
But there was no pity there, no dismay. "That's what dinner was supposed to be about tonight," Lois said. "I was…going to give him an answer.
She looked miserable now and his heart ached, wanting to go take her in his arms, comfort her. Tell her it was all right. Tell her that whatever she decided was okay by him. That he'd support her, whatever she did. That was what friends were for? Right? That was what a friend would do.
Except, that he couldn't. He couldn't tell her that because it wouldn't be true. Because if she decided to marry that loathsome…monster…he would…
He would die.
Oh, perhaps not literally. Nothing so melodramatic. He wouldn't hurl himself from a cliff-top, clutching a single red rose. But something would die in him just the same. Wither like a canker inside. Life would be dark.
She couldn't marry Luthor! She couldn't! How could she even be contemplating it? Didn't she know? Couldn't she see what he was?
He couldn't let her.
He couldn't even lie to himself, tell himself that it was for her own good — although he knew that to be a truth nonetheless. His motives were nothing less than purely selfish. He understood that. But he didn't care. Couldn't allow himself to care. Dammit, she belonged with him! He'd known that from the first moment she'd come storming into Perry's office that first day, energy like a tornado crackling around her, blinding him, dazzling him…
"…but I don't know." Lois looked up at him and he became dimly aware that she'd been talking. He hadn't heard a word. "What do you think I should do?" she asked and then, before he could move to answer, before he could think of an answer to give her, she'd shaken her head and moved to her feet. He rose to his, feeling too exposed, too vulnerable, not to meet her on even ground. She wavered on her feet a little, favoring her ankle with a slight grimace, and his sudden reach to steady her was instinctive. He flinched though as it brought them in close.
"No, don't answer that." She laid a quick hand on his arm, apologetic. "I'm sorry, Clark. This isn't fair, I know that. I shouldn't be asking you this, not when you — " She sighed, taking back her hand, perhaps becoming aware of the way muscle and sinew had grown taut and tense beneath her touch. "God, this is just so…difficult."
Her gaze returned to the fire as she lost herself in it, hands moving restlessly on her arms, as though rubbing clear a sudden chill. The awkward silence stretched as they stood there, side by side, and yet further apart than he had ever known. She felt so far away from him, as though already lost forever, and he had no way he knew to draw her back.
The fire continued to fascinate them both, neither of them seemingly able to pull away from its hypnotic glow. Keeping his eyes fixed firmly on the lambent flames, he finally ventured quietly, "Will you leave the Planet?"
Trying not to acknowledge how much those words speared hurt in his chest, how hard it had been to force them out, he sensed her turn her head to view him. He tensed.
"When you…marry Luthor. Will you leave the Planet?"
He was aware of his breath stilling, his heart thudding painfully against his chest as he waited for her answer, but when it came it surprised him.
"Weren't you listening to anything I just said?" she said, with some asperity. "What makes you think I'm going to say yes?"
He turned to look at her, frowning. "Well, what woman could say no? Whole rooms full of flowers? Expensive jewelry? Flying you off to some Italian opera at a moment's notice?" <I could give you that at least> he thought wistfully. His tone had taken on an increasingly bitter note as he spoke. "What woman wouldn't appreciate all that?"
"Any woman who wasn't Anna Nicole?" Lois said tartly and as he looked surprised, "Clark, don't you think I know what life would be like with Lex as my husband? Yes, I'll admit, it's been fun…dating him. And if you *ever* bring up the word date and Lex in the same breath again, I swear I'll gut you with a blunt spoon! So I was…wrong on that. Okay? So it was dating. So what? And, yes. It was fun. He was fun. He's…smart. Witty and charming. And, yes, I can't say it isn't nice for a girl to be swept off her feet, showered with attention…and, if nothing else, Lex can be very…attentive —"
"But?" he said, intrigued now and desperate to interrupt her anyway. He didn't think he could stand her to add another word to that list of Luthor's attributes and that last one had wandered way too close to the sickening mind pictures that had kept him awake in the small hours of the morning all these months whenever she'd been keeping company with that sociopath to be easily borne.
"But it's not real," she said next, surprising him all over again. "It's a fantasy, just like Superman. It doesn't mean anything." He winced, but she failed to notice. "*I* don't mean anything to Lex. You think I don't know that his secretary ordered those bouquets? Chose that jewelry? She probably even wrote the cards that came with them. I'd be surprised if it wasn't just pre-printed and shoved under Lex's nose for a signature. And I seriously doubt he picked out the ring either. She probably fit that one in on her lunch break. Between picking up the tuna sub and dropping off her dry-cleaning."
She glanced down at where she'd been rubbing restlessly at the ring finger of her left hand as she spoke and sighed.
"Clark, do you remember the Smallville Corn Festival? That silly, stuffed bear you won for me? That stupid bear means more to me than any gift Lex gave me. Because I know it means something. My best friend gave it to me and he didn't delegate winning it to some flunkey. I'd rather have a single rose from a friend than a whole roomful of bouquets from Lex. Because I know that one rose came from the heart of a man who cares about me."
Clark stared at her, torn in two by the swirl of emotions battling tempestuously inside him. The storm was less frigid now, but no less violent. A part of him couldn't help but soften as he listened to her affirm her feelings for him, a fierce, wild elation welling up in his heart, its rough pounding testament to his joy. And yet…
And yet. There it was again. Friends. She loved him. As a good friend. No more than that. And that couldn't help but sour his pleasure to something more bitter than sweet. Pulled between the two extremes of the unwanted lover — joy and despair — he couldn't speak, couldn't move, as she continued, oblivious to the way she was tearing his heart apart.
"Lex — I'm a convenience for him. Saves him having to waste business time looking for a date," she said sadly. "Oh, I'd get the jewels, the plane rides to expensive restaurants, best seats in the house…but I'd also get nights spent eating dinner alone while my husband jets around the world signing power deals. Diamonds can be a pretty cold companion, Clark. Anyway…" she concluded softly. "I don't love Lex."
<You don't love me either.>
And that was really the crux of it, wasn't it? He was a good friend — her best friend — and she cared about him. But she didn't care enough.
And…maybe she shouldn't. What could he offer her that Luthor couldn't? Hooking her life to him came as a package deal and Superman could make the average workaholic, Type A personality look like a beach bum when it came to abandoning his personal life to do what he must. For pity's sake, most days of the week he couldn't even find time to do his laundry. How could he find the hours to devote to a wife and family? Lois would end up spending those nights alone just as often — more often — than she ever would have by accepting Luthor.
And without the compensations.
No. All he could offer was a lifetime of uneaten dinners congealing on the table, nights spent in a cold and lonely bed…
He squeezed his eyes tight shut. He couldn't do that to her. And then, what she'd said fully registered with him, cutting through his maudlin thoughts. He opened his eyes with a jolt. She didn't love Luthor. And if she didn't -
"You don't?" He paused, then said carefully, "He can give you everything you've ever wanted." A small, disbelieving voice deep in the back of his head was urgently yelling that this was no time to play devil's advocate, but he ignored it.
"No…" She shifted abruptly, turning to face him earnestly. "…no, you see that's just it. I don't think he can, Clark. Can you really see Lex letting his wife run around town investigating crime?"
"I can see him trying to stop you — and ending up in hospital in traction," said Clark, his tone testifying to the fact that this wasn't altogether an unpleasant mind picture.
A small smile was his reward. Then it became a full-fledged grin. "You see, that's what I love about you, Clark." A slim finger poked him impishly in the chest. "You know better than to get in my way."
Clark looked back at her soberly, ignoring the sharp and sudden ache in his chest that casual affection from her caused.
<That's what I love about you…>
He swallowed hard over the tightening of his throat, shoved back the deep and bitter longing for her to say those words and mean them the way he wanted her to mean them.
The way she never would.
"And Lex…gets in your way?" he said hoarsely, knowing such cravings were futile.
"He would. He'd want me to be the perfect little corporate wife. And I…don't love him enough to change. I can't become that, Clark. Hanging on his arm at charity functions, schmoozing and simpering all night just so he could disappear into some backroom and sign another deal? Just another branch of the PR dept? Spending my days at the hairdresser and having pins stuck in me by some snooty madame at some terribly in-vogue fashion house? I'm sure Lex has a list of acceptable beauty establishments to see and be seen in. Seriously," she rolled her eyes, "can you imagine?"
No. No he couldn't. His heart was beginning to stutter hard in his chest as it bound itself to a wild hope. If she didn't love him and she didn't want to marry him… "Are you saying…?"
Lois drew in a soft breath. "Tonight, at dinner, I was going to tell him no."
For one moment, as those words detonated in his head and dizzied him with their sparkle, Clark was almost sorry she hadn't made that date. The thought immediately punctured his delight. Was he really that petty? If I can't have her, you can't either?
But he knew that wasn't it. Exactly. If the right man came along, he knew he'd be happy for her. At least…he'd try to be. And if he couldn't quite bring himself to it, he'd never let her see that he was anything other than that. But that man wasn't Luthor. And he could never have supported her in any union with the billionaire criminal. He'd had to fight with every breath in him, everything he had, to stop that, because he knew, as she did not, that it would undoubtedly be a fatal error.
"But…then why did you ask me what I thought you should do?" he asked, confused now.
Her eyebrows rose in surprise. "You really *weren't* listening, were you?" She sighed and then before he could admit that actually now she mentioned it, no he hadn't been, she said, "I might not love Lex, but he's been a good friend and we've had…fun…together these past few months. And…" She bit down on her lip and shrugged helplessly. "…well you know me, Clark. I don't deal with this kind of thing real well. I just wanted…I don't want to leave it gone sour, you know? I want to let him down gently, not have him walk away hurt or mad. That's what I wanted your advice on. How to let him down gently. You know, kind of from…the male perspective…"
"Oh," he said. His tone didn't include much of sympathy for Luthor, but he wasn't going to apologize for that. Especially when his — male perspective — was already occupied with coping with his own, painful rejection. "I thought…" He swallowed hard. "I'm…glad," he said. "That you're saying no." And as she glanced at him, tried to qualify that, "I mean —"
She shook her head and reached up to lay a finger against his lips, stopping him in his tracks. "I know," she said. "I understand. Oh, Clark…" She smiled at him. "You're a good friend, you know? I know I don't deserve you, but —"
"You deserve more, Lois. You deserve better." He had moved before he thought, drawing her into his embrace, and if some of his dreams had been dashed into oblivion on the rocks of friendship this evening, he could still feel a quiet satisfaction in the fact that she came easily into his arms with casual faith and trust.
His hands tightened around the slim body held against him and he lowered his head to lay his cheek against her hair, closing his eyes as he drank in the perfume of her, that unique collection of scents that defined her, steeling himself against the moment coming when he would have to let her go.
Let her go and shut his feelings away in a darkened corner of his mind. Be her friend. Be her partner. Nothing more. The end of all his hopes and dreams.
Better the end of his than hers, he told himself.
The slight susurration of her sigh touched his throat like a caress.
"I'm sorry you had to hear all that, Clark," she murmured against his skin as he closed his eyes and gave himself over to the simple pleasure of holding her against him. And if a part of him — a small part — wanted to pretend — just for a moment, one small moment — that she was there for more than a friend's comfort, that this was the embrace of lovers, well, where was the harm in that?
"I never intended to…wanted to…drag you into this." She shook her head slightly, her hair tickled at his cheek. "I thought I'd die rather than let you know I'd been so dumb to mistake what's been happening between Lex and me all these months."
"You could never be dumb — " Clark stared an automatic protest, made slightly more absent by the fact that his mind had begun torturing him over what exactly she might mean by 'happening between Lex and me'. But she went on, ignoring his attempts to defend her.
"But I just didn't know what to do and, well — " She gave a small, self-mocking laugh. " — guess this place worked on me a little there. Candlelight and log fires. They seem to bring out the confessional in me." She shifted to poke a finger in his chest. "Which you should just forget I mentioned and don't even think about using it against me in future, Kent," she advised gruffly.
The small amusement died though and she paused, then said more quietly, "But I know how you hate talking about him." She lifted her head, pulling back slightly so that she could see his face. Her own was puzzled. "I guess…I just don't understand why you hate him so much."
"Don't you?" he whispered.
She shook her head again; but something deep within the gaze she locked with his told him differently. She knew. Perhaps she always had. The knowledge of that he found in the dark depths fixed on him, that starkly wondering gaze that drew him in and drowned him, gave him sudden courage. He reached out a trembling hand, fitting his palm to the soft curve of her cheek.
And suddenly he was lost. Lost in the feel of her in his arms, of the scents of her surrounding him, of the soft mist of her breath against his cheek. Lost in the middle of the illusion. And all at once, logic, reality, his determination to do what was best for her, no matter the yearnings of his own heart, all of it was swept away, meant nothing beneath the clamoring, siren call of desire that was flooding through him.
She was trembling beneath his touch. "Clark…" she protested, tone hushed, but whatever she'd been about to say was lost as he leaned in and captured her lips with his own.
No, this wasn't right. This wasn't…
Lois relaxed against her partner with a small sigh that melted into a moan. Oh god, this wasn't…this was…this was…oh, this really wasn't a good idea.
The lips moving against hers were insistent, demanding…
She tried to pull away — at least she thought she tried and she was sure if she had tried Clark would have let her go — but his hands were spread tight across her back, trapping her against the solid wall of his chest, imprisoning her against the length of his body and…
A sigh escaped her and from a far distance she was aware of melding herself to that tantalizing hardness, pressing herself wantonly against him, deepening the kiss. She heard him groan against her lips and a sudden, savage satisfaction soared up in her, the instinctive pleasure of a woman in the arms of her lover and fully aware of the devastating effect she was having on him. Her arms wound themselves around his neck…
They wouldn't have ended up on the sofa if it hadn't been for her stupid ankle.
As it was, her shifting posture destroyed her balance completely as the weakened foot traitorously refused to bear her weight and unexpectedly tipped her sideways. She landed hard and he on top of her, but lost now in the gathering storm, the rising heat, neither of them paused in their explorations. Dimly, Lois felt the softness of chenille against her back as she relaxed fully into the cushions, the weight of him pressing her down. She closed her eyes, head falling back to present more of her throat to him, the throat his lips were trailing soft, moist kisses across, the sensations a butterfly flutter against her skin that caused a similar, answering quiver deep in her belly…
A sharp, wavering howl rose abruptly from outside the cabin.
Lost in the intensity of the last few minutes, Lois started violently and felt Clark freeze against her.
"Holy — !" she whispered, startled. "What the *hell* was that?"
As though in answer, the sound came again — an eerie, undulating wail from out in the night — out in the yard — that prickled at the hairs on the back of her neck, a few million years of evolution sending instinctive terror through her. Her hands, which had mysteriously found their way to clutching at her partner's shoulders, spasmed, tightening against the material of his sweater.
"Wolves!" she blurted as every primal instinct buried inside her raised her hackles at the unearthly sound and the memory of her earlier terrors came back abruptly to haunt her.
There was a soft sound against the side of her neck — a curious mixture of amusement and pique — and then Clark raised his head abruptly.
"Somehow, I doubt it," he said wryly.
That humor died in him though as he caught her eyes for an instant before looking away. He cleared his throat roughly and then moved off her, somewhat gingerly she noted absently, getting to his feet and adjusting his glasses as he went.
As he moved…towards the door.
Lois bolted to her feet too and hobbled rapidly after him — well, as rapidly as she could — to clutch urgently at his arm. "What are you doing? Are you crazy? Don't go *out* there!" she hissed. "Clark…!" she protested, as he didn't stop, but waved her down.
Great. She was starring in every cheap horror flick she'd ever huddled beneath her blankets in bed to watch. Any moment now her…well, not her boyfriend, that certainly didn't match the script…her partner was going to be leapt on out of the dark by…something. Something with big teeth and lots of claws, no doubt. She was going to go down in history as the first reporter whose partner got eaten by a werewolf, she just knew it, she thought acerbically. And right after he'd kissed her too! Wasn't that always the way? People who kissed other people they shouldn't kiss in snowbound cabins for no good reason other than it 'seemed like a good idea at the time' always ended up being eaten by werewolves. Or axed to death by Jason in a ski mask, she considered. Usually around about the second reel.
Oh god…Clark had kissed her.
Worse. She'd let him!
Worse than that. She'd kissed him back!
Lois glanced behind her, her mortified gaze taking in the sofa, the rumpled blankets…and felt her face suddenly flame with heat.
The creak of the door snapped her head around and she shoved the sharp, provocative memories whirling in her head savagely aside. Her partner was heading straight into trouble and this was no time for the vapors over a…a…
She wasn't thinking about *that*. Remember? She was *thinking* about her dumb, mule-headed partner — who was, surprisingly, a rather good kisser — who knew? Not about…
Shaking her head sharply, she followed Clark, apprehensive, as he unlocked the front door and opened it just enough to push through the gap. <Focus, Lois. No! Not on that! On…whatever it is out *there*!>
She peeked around what had become a reassuringly solid shoulder as he emerged onto the porch. The night air, frigid, swirled around them and she shivered, trying to search out hidden attackers in all directions at once.
Then she saw it.
And it was hideous.
In the middle of a puddle of moon glow sat a somewhat rotund yellow Labrador. It turned its head as they came out and then, with what she could only describe as a look of relief which probably matched the one she was currently sporting, lumbered to its feet and headed for them, tail slowly waving, as Clark crouched down on the stoop, patting hands against his knees in invitation to join them. Lois surprised herself with the soft sigh that escaped her lips, only in that moment did she realize just how tense she'd been holding herself.
<Geez, get a grip, Lois,> she admonished herself. <You've been watching too much TV. Werewolves?> She snorted, allowing herself the luxury of being amused at how ridiculous a thought that was…now that it had proved unfounded.
As the dog clambered up the steps with the stiff-jointed motions of the elderly, she could see from the gray on its muzzle, too, that it wasn't a young animal. As it came close, Clark reached out and took hold of the dog's head in both hands, rubbing at the matted, sodden fur. "Hey, there old fella. You lost, too?"
The dog gazed at him with soulful eyes and then tentatively licked his hand.
"How'd he get way out here?" Lois asked, scanning the darkness.
Clark shrugged. "No idea. But I guess he's lucky he found us. He's soaked through." His hands had gravitated to rubbing just behind the old dog's ears. It closed its eyes, making a low, rough sound deep in its throat that Lois swore was crooning. She felt herself flush brighter, remembering that her own reaction to the touch of his hands on her
<his hands on her skin, roaming her body…>
had not been that dissimilar, just a few moments ago.
Oblivious to her discomfort, Clark rose to his feet. "Come on, boy." He gave her a small smile as he held open the door in an invitation the dog didn't have to be given twice. Lois followed them inside and couldn't help but chuckle as, once inside the cabin's haven, the animal moved in a straight and unwavering line for the fire. It slumped down in a heap before the flames, gave them a solemn look, and then lowered its head on its paws and slipped into a doze, blinking drowsily in what must be the welcoming heat.
"Make yourself at home, why don't you?" Lois told it. The dog gave a groan and shifted onto its side, stretching out and heaving a heavy sigh.
She exchanged a glance with Clark and he grinned. "Looks like he's got the right idea anyway," he said.
She nodded, solemn now that the crisis was resolved. Now that she could focus on what had happened back there, a moment ago. "Clark —"
"Lois, I'm sorry," he interrupted her, looking shame-faced. "I never should have —"
She held up a quick hand, stopping him. He looked as shaken as she was, she thought in relief. At least he had enough sense for that. But he was reaching out for her again, his eyes so dark and soft on her and full of miserable apology that she felt the tug towards him that started deep in her belly begin its irresistible pull…
She hauled in a shuddering breath. Folded her arms tight beneath her breasts. Tried to make her face form its most forbidding look. Armored herself tight. Closed down the shutters.
Hid herself behind high walls.
She frowned at the errant thought that tried to shatter her resolve. She wasn't hiding. She wasn't…scared. She was just…being sensible, that was all. It would be easy — so terribly, so wonderfully easy — to give in to this…attraction. And it would be the most disastrous thing she'd ever do if she did. For both of them.
Yes, that was it. She was protecting both of them.
"Look, let's just chalk it up to one more absurdity in the middle of this crazy night, okay? It never happened."
"It. Never. Happened," she said firmly. "All right?" She sighed as he stayed silent, a tense frown puckering his forehead. "Clark, I'm exhausted. You must be too. Let's just try and get some sleep, forget about it."
He hesitated another moment, then acquiesced with a shrug. It was a gesture that said more than eloquently that he was less than sure there wasn't a conversation to be had about this at some point in the future, but that for now, he was happy enough to take her lead and pretend they could just ignore it. And Lois had never loved him more than she did right then, for being willing to go along with that, just because she'd asked for it. She really was too tired to deal with this now. Not to mention her insides were a jangle of nervous fluttering and her emotions a quivering wreck. She felt on the verge of tears. Sober heart to hearts were definitely a really bad idea right now. Not when she was this vulnerable and liable to collapse in a heap of weeping on his shoulder at any moment.
"Got blankets and a pillow with your name on them right here," he said, gesturing a hand in invitation at the sofa. "You'd best hurry up and get back under before you freeze. Or before Old Yeller there decides the sofa is more comfortable than that hearth," he added wryly.
Like their new yellow friend, Lois didn't need a second invitation.
He thought about offering to go find himself another place for the night.
How could she want to be this close to him now when he had all but…molested…her just a few moments earlier? How could she trust him not to pounce on her in the night?
He slid carefully beneath their shared blankets, trying to limit contact as best he could as he moved to stretch out alongside her, even though it was impossible not to feel her settled against him. Long legs pressed up against his own…for a moment he was transfixed by the memory of those legs entangled with his own as he'd lain atop her…of the scent of that particular patch of skin in the hollow of her throat, salt and sweet…of the way her body had…he closed his eyes, feeling himself grow hot with the memory — and to his dismay it wasn't all about shame. A wash of remembered sensation flooded through him as he was assaulted by images of her there — here on this sofa — her soft curves pressed against him, the throaty sounds of pleasure that had begun to thrum against his lips as he'd tasted her skin…
His eyes flew open as he felt the sofa sag next to him, heard the springs creak, and he tensed up again as Lois shifted position. He wasn't aware that he was holding his breath until suddenly he couldn't breathe…
He exploded into a storm of choking coughs, almost doubling over as he hauled in a frantic breath.
"Clark? Clark! Are you okay?"
He tried to nod as Lois leaned in close, putting a hand to his shoulder, and finally getting himself under control gave her a thumbs up. Breathing was over-rated. Being powerless was over-rated, he thought, grumpily. He'd never had trouble holding his breath before now.
"Fine," he choked out finally. "Just…uh…blanket dust caught in my throat…"
Lois frowned at him, then shook her head. "You should see a doctor about your allergies, Clark."
He nodded. "Right. I will. First thing we get back home," he declared, perhaps a little more enthusiastically than the promise warranted. But Lois wasn't listening. She'd settled herself into a somewhat awkward position beside him. After a second or two, she shifted, maneuvering herself into another that looked only slightly less uncomfortable. He looked at her for a moment, trying to figure out what she was doing. Then realized she was trying to stretch out to prop her injured ankle on the sofa's arm while maintaining at least an inch's worth of clear space between them.
"Lois…" he started softly and then sighed. This was ridiculous. There was no way she was going to be comfy like that. The sofa was a little more generous than many of its kind, but it wasn't huge and options for two people sharing were limited. No way either of them was going to get any sleep at all unless they…got a little more intimate.
<Closer. A little closer,> he amended, uncomfortable with the I-word right then.
"Here." He reached to put an arm around her shoulders, tugging her gently back against his chest. She hesitated, stiffening against the touch for an instant. "I promise I'll be the perfect gentleman," he assured her, trying for a smile. "You know me — never make the same mistake twice."
She snorted, responding just as he'd hoped she would. "As if, Kent. If it wasn't for me looking out for your hide out there in the big city, you'd be toast by now."
She didn't comment further on his promise, but she relaxed against him without protest or wariness, despite the awkwardness between them. To his surprise — and relief — however, he felt nothing of the heat that had fired him earlier as she snuggled up under his arm, draped a loose arm across his middle, and laid her head against his chest with a small sigh. This time he offered simple comfort. As that good friend. And instinctively understanding it was offered on that basis, she accepted.
Earlier had just been…an aberration. Born out of circumstance and atmosphere. That was all. They'd almost let themselves be seduced by the night, by the candlelight and the cabin's coziness. The clich‚s of a thousand romance novels, he thought, eaten by self-contempt. He was glad Lois had had the sense to realize that, to stop it, before they had gone too far. But he wouldn't fall into the trap again. Nothing good could come of them surrendering to that. Not now that she'd made her feelings so clear.
Not now that this heart to heart had made him realize just how wrong it would be to shackle her to a future defined as Superman's wife, how restrictive that would be for her, how unfulfilling. He had been telling himself all along that Luthor wasn't right for her, all these months she'd been dating the man he'd been telling himself that she should be with him. Now he understood for the first time just how selfish that belief had been. He had no more right to clip her wings than Luthor did. It was a hard truth to accept. But he knew it for the truth now. With him she'd end up just as miserable as he believed she would have with Luthor. Just as lonely. Just as bitter. He couldn't do that to her.
For a moment, he let himself drift helplessly over the thought of how things might be different if there was no Superman. He'd been worrying himself since the assault on him over what would happen, what his life would become, if his powers never returned, if Superman had effectively vanished during that bank raid. Now, a small, selfish part of him dared to voice the dark, demeaning hope that perhaps he could be free of the superhero once and for all. And if there was no Superman…might friends become…something more? If he had more to offer her…if he had time to spare her…all the time in the world to make her all that was important to him in the world, only her and no one else. If he could only love her as he longed to, if he could only show her how much she meant to him…
He closed his eyes tight, fighting back the sting of tears. Life was never that easy. Never so simple. He knew that. He'd left such childish dreams of a perfect world and of getting all you wished for behind him long ago. And no amount of wishing on shooting stars now would change things. He couldn't give up Superman. Couldn't wish for it either. He knew that he had to think of the bigger picture, even as that distant part of him raged against the unfairness of it, despaired at the cruelty. Even if it meant…
His arm tightened around her reflexively with the thought and she shifted, murmuring under her breath, already drowsing into sleep. He forced himself to relax, lay quiet and still, letting the sensations of holding her like this soothe him into something approaching sleep. The sound of her breath, evening out now, the touch of her heart against his own, beat in his ears like a lullaby.
He opened his eyes. Looked down at the dark head tucked beneath his chin. A welling affection had his hand shifting to touch the tips of his fingers lightly to one soft cheek for a moment, before he drew it away again. He settled himself more firmly against her, seeking the solace of her warmth, taking what crumbs he could get, what little he could ask. Knowing it would never be enough, yet knowing it was all he had.
He could do that. For her, he could do anything.
Some time later, she emerged out of a doze, dimly aware of fingers stroking softly against her cheek.
She stiffened, the reflexive distaste a reaction she was too tired to analyze but which, nevertheless some small part of her filed away for later consideration.
But no. The gentle fingers that tangled themselves into her hair, brushing the strands away from her face, were somehow more tender than she could ever imagine Lex being.
Oh, he could be charming. Attentive. Even…passionate. But that wasn't really the same thing, was it?
That was partly why she had never seriously considered accepting his proposal after all.
She should have given him a straight answer there and then, on the plane. But he had come at her out of nowhere and she had been so shocked that he thought their friendship had progressed to that stage that she'd only really woken up to what he'd done when she closed her apartment door behind her, some hours later. They hadn't even kissed! Well, okay, maybe they had — a little. But it hadn't…meant…anything. Just a peck on the cheek, thanks for a lovely dinner, Lex, I had a great time…it hadn't been…an invitation to a wedding, for pity's sake.
The brief pulse of anger died. It wasn't fair to be angry at him, just because he'd interpreted things differently than she had. She knew it wasn't. But…how could he not have known how she felt?
As if sensing her growing tension the hands in her hair softened and, lulled by their light caress, she felt herself relaxing, letting the problem of Lex drift away, letting her thoughts drift with him…
<Thanks for a lovely dinner…>
Her stomach gave a little grumbling twitch, reminded that it had been a long time since it had been attended to. Hadn't there been dinner? Hadn't someone promised dinner?
There was a tantalizing scent in the air, just reaching her through the mists of sleep. Somewhat…familiar…she knew that smell…where?…where had she known that smell…?
"Venison soup…" she murmured. She'd had it before. Dinner at Lex's. The Penthouse. It had smelled just like that. Highland Game! Yes. That was it. No. That wasn't it. A small furrow puckered her brows. Hadn't been called Highland Game. Not Lex's venison soup. Had been called something…else. Something…French. Yeah, that was it. Something French. Expensive French. How could soup be that expensive, she remembered she'd thought at the time. It was soup. Not expensive. Shouldn't be expensive. How much did it cost to make soup, for heaven's sake? Put it in a pot, throw in vegetables…and…deer bits in this case…and voila. Voila. That was French too. Lex had made a point of telling her it was expensive. Right down to the dollars and cents and the cost of import taxes.
"It's okay. I switched it off. Guess you were more tired than hungry, huh?" a quiet voice answered her drowsy question. She mumbled something she thought might make up a response, although she wasn't quite sure what words she formed. The voice didn't seem to mind her incoherence. It sounded a little amused as it answered her anyway. "Go to sleep, Lois…"
Sleep. Yes. Sleep stomach. Sleep Lois. Dinner can wait. Dinner can be breakfast. Or…lunch even.
<Now I lay me down to sleep…because woods are lovely, dark and deep…>
No, wait, that wasn't right…
"Miles to go…" she mumbled, frown deepening, and felt that light touch against her hair pause.
But she was already chasing sleep down the deep and lovely…dark and deep…tunnel ahead, and it would have taken far too much energy to answer.
She awoke with a start to find the small room awash with stark winter light. Disoriented for a moment or so, it took her a time to remember the previous night's events and realize where she was.
Of greater disconcertion was the presence of a warm body pressed tight against her back. Lois pondered that for a moment, keeping her eyes closed as she decided what to do about it. Then a frown insinuated itself between her brows. Unless Clark had shrunk several inches during the night…
She sat up abruptly, eyes flying open, and muttered a disgusted, "Urgghhh," at her yellow companion. The dog blinked at her and then went back to sleep with an air that challenged her right to even suggest half the sofa wasn't his. Lois sighed. "Well…I've woken up to worse in the morning," she concluded. And then found herself wondering just what that said about her love life, if it were true.
Looking around, she was somewhat disappointed to find herself alone.
"Clark?" she called, tentatively, but there was no answer. Oh well. Wherever he was, he wouldn't have gone far, she thought, yawning sharply.
She sighed again, running a hand through her tangled hair. The action brought remembrance with it. A memory of the odd sensation just before she'd fallen asleep. A hand stroking tenderly against her cheek and someone murmuring her name…
…telling her they loved her…
<Clark?> she thought, slightly startled.
<There was someone else you were snuggled up to last night, maybe?> a slightly amused voice in her head murmured knowingly.
Lois glanced at the dog. But given the choice of who it had been, he seemed an unlikely candidate.
Lois frowned. But Clark wouldn't…
Oh sure, he'd kissed her, but what did that mean? Truly. He was obviously attracted to her at a purely physical level — and, okay, maybe she was attracted right back, she wasn't dead after all and she could appreciate a good-looking guy with the best of the girls — but what did that prove? Back when she'd been in college, at a post-victory party, she'd been pushed up against a gymnasium wall and groped by the football captain as he tried to let his tongue discover what she'd drunk that evening. She didn't recall him declaring undying love for her. For her body maybe. And even that had only lasted until she'd gotten fed up with being so clumsily manhandled — which depressingly hadn't matched in any way, shape or form the type of experiences the heroines who lived between the pages of the battered paperbacks she took to bed each night encountered from men who desired them — and kneed him somewhere designed to instantly dampen his ardor. She was pretty sure that…whatever his name had been…hadn't even recognized her as human beyond the fact that she was female-shaped.
No, kissing didn't mean anything. And most especially it didn't mean anything when it was coupled with what she and Clark had shared the previous evening. Trauma, danger, cheating death by inches, the sheer, heady adrenalin rush of a chase through the dark, snuggling in a cabin in the woods in front of a roaring log fire and lost in a haze of candlelight… Now, that *did* match those romance novels and she knew exactly how a guy could let his hormones go raging out of control in those kinds of circumstances. Clark had probably regretted giving into temptation the moment that kiss was through, she thought miserably and then blinked in surprise at the emotion as it swept over her. What was there to be miserable about just because Clark kissed her and it didn't mean anything? She should be mighty relieved it hadn't! She didn't feel anything like love for him…
…so why did she suddenly feel as though she'd missed out on something…wonderful?
The voice had been telling her it loved her. She remembered now. Clearly. She had been drifting off to sleep and the voice had said it loved her. That she was safe. That it would never let anyone harm her. It had been telling her how scared it had been, back on that road, the car, the guns, the men who had wanted to kill her. And it had become dark, that voice, dark with remembered fear and hurt and then tender with…with longing…
<Now you *are* getting carried away,> she told herself with a small shake of her head. <You were dreaming, that was all.>
Had she been?
She settled back against the sofa and then the suddenly urgent calling of a full bladder stopped her wondering on it any longer. She got up and headed for the bathroom. The dog lifted its head sleepily to watch her go and yawned cavernously, showing yellowed peg stumps of teeth, before taking advantage of her absence to claim a greater share of the abandoned blankets.
As she emerged back into the living area, it clambered stiffly to the floor and followed her as she headed for the kitchen. Somehow, she had expected some enticing smells to be wafting their way out from there, but the room was silent and cold and empty of the man she'd imagined would be waiting for her. Given the disappointed look the dog cast her, he'd been expecting the same.
The kitchen was several degrees colder than the living room, still heated a little by the banked down remains of the fire. The tiles were chilling on her bare feet and she vaguely thought about going back for her boots. But it seemed like too much effort.
Holding back a yawn, she pushed a hand through her disordered hair as she drew herself a glass of water from the tap. The coffeepot was cold. Oh yeah, no electricity, she reminded herself. If there was any coffee on the go, Clark would have heated it on the camping stove. She sighed. She hated starting a morning without coffee.
Her eye was caught by the window, with its missing lower pane. Clark had taped card over it last night to keep down the draughts, but a thin layer of ice had still formed on the surrounding panes. She reached out an absent finger and etched a line on the crystallized surface with a fingernail, then shivered and leaned over the sink to peer out into the whitened world outside. Looked like the storm had subsided, at least. The sky was a washed out blue, laced through with early morning gold.
The snow was deep though — the thought of the trek that lay ahead into town was less than appealing. Even if they were starting out from a definite track and could follow the road straight in, rather than floundering around lost in the wood. She shivered as a cool gust of air circumnavigated the card on the window and found its way beneath the flannel of her shirt.
She grimaced. And, you know, it had been kind of…pleasant spending the night here. Maybe there was something to be said for lawyers after all. So — she glanced out into the yard again — maybe they shouldn't be so hasty about leaving just yet. The sky looked clear, but if she'd learned anything on this trip it was that the weather out in the boondocks could be as unpredictable as an editor in the middle of a middle-aged crisis. They could get caught in another storm halfway to town. They might lose their way, drift off the road, end up lost…
Yes, maybe it would be more prudent to just stay right where they were. Just for a day. Or…two. Clark could fix up the generator and they had the fire and plenty of food. They would be warm and…comfortable…and certainly the company hadn't been so bad, she thought with a smile. No, it hadn't been so bad at all…
Who'd have thought her partner could be so…resourceful? The smile faded. If it hadn't been for Clark, she knew pretty well that she would be dead out there. She'd never have survived once she got into the woods. He hadn't just known what to do, he'd offered her support and kept her going when she'd wanted to just lie down in exhaustion and forget about trying any more. A slight flush stained her cheeks. Something she didn't want to think about. Lois Lane didn't curl up and die just because a little thing like snow got in her way. But the unwelcome truth was that she'd been close to joining the ranks of dumb city tourists caught out by the weather and that was intolerable.
Clark had saved her from an embarrassing obituary and that was something to be grateful for as much as her life.
But he'd saved her life long before that, hadn't he? She mused. It had been lost until now, struggling to survive had a way of knocking all kinds out of your head until later. But now she remembered. She remembered Clark taking up a stand in the middle of the road, trying to give her extra minutes to reach safety. A look of absolute determination in his eyes that had terrified her at the time. And she remembered him shielding her, putting his own body between hers and their attackers. Beyond that, she had only vague recollections — most of it of a desperate race for the trees. It was fragments, shattered images, and it wasn't important.
What was important was that Clark had put himself at risk, in danger, more than once last night to save her. She swallowed hard over the sudden tightening in her throat as she took a moment to really think about what that meant. Not just that he had been willing to make that sacrifice. For her. But that he could have been…
He could have been killed.
The thought was a hammer-blow to her heart and for the first time, she understood just how dark the world would be without Clark Kent in it.
How dark her world would be.
She shook her head, brushing aside the moisture on her cheek. <Geez, Lois. One little night in the country and you're turning into a pile of sentimental mush,> she told herself scathingly in an effort to deny the power of those thoughts. But she couldn't shake them entirely.
She could refuse to think too deeply about them though. It was perfectly natural to imagine that she'd miss her best friend, the best partner she'd ever had, if something happened to him. It wasn't exactly an earth-shattering revelation…
At the corner of her eye, she became aware of what her idling finger had etched on the iced-over pane as her thoughts had meandered. Which was. Earth-shattering as all get out. Startled, she frowned. That wasn't right.
"That's ridiculous," she noted, scowling.
It was more than ridiculous. It was just…so wrong. On too many levels. And besides she didn't…she couldn't…that was just…
<How could I have done anything else but hate him?>
The whisper welled up in her head, accompanied by a sensation of being held in a warm embrace, strong arms. Of being safe. Wanted. Cherished…
<You don't know why I hate him? How could I have done anything else but hate him, Lois? He had everything I want. He had you…>
Cabin fever. That was it. That was what it was. Cabin fever. The result of being cooped up in close proximity to a very healthy male body and…it didn't mean anything. Of course it didn't. It couldn't mean anything.
She snorted. "You've been reading too many bodice-rippers, Lane," she told herself and found herself flushing at that scathing tone. But, still, a smaller, fainter voice within her wasn't willing to let what was hovering way back in the still, small borders of her mind go. It was battering at her, trying to force its way in, even as she refused to acknowledge it. And it was growing stronger, louder, breaching walls she had built high long years past and had never wanted assailed again. It was almost loud enough that she couldn't ignore it -
It was almost a relief when she caught sight of movement through the small window. Thankfully consigning her subconscious to the depths again with the excuse of curiosity, she moved closer to the glass higher up the window and put up a hand to sweep clear the film of ice that had formed on the pane. Clark. Talking to a stocky man in the uniform of the local sheriff's department.
Hastily, she turned away and then paused. She glanced over her shoulder at the gleaming message still showing, stark and glittering as the weak morning sunlight backlit its glass canvas. Hesitantly, she put up a hand to wipe it clear and then paused.
She had no idea why she let her hand drop. Why she turned her back on it instead and walked away. Why she left it there, glowing on the window. Perhaps, later, she'd examine that inexplicable choice. But not now. She wasn't about to touch that one now. And maybe not even later, she decided firmly as she headed for her boots.
By the time she reached the front door she had put it out of her head, refusing to think on it. Over the years, she'd found this ability to be a survival tactic and it didn't fail her now, forming armor as powerful and as protective against emotional danger as it had always been against the physical.
The two men standing on the lawn glanced over at her as the screen door banged to a close behind her and something lit in Clark's eyes as he spotted her that ignited a sudden flame in her chest. Well…maybe those walls and that protection weren't as strong as she'd thought they were after all. It was a dismaying thought. And yet, curiously, also one that made that flicker of warmth spreading in her chest brighten and flare up stronger than it had been before. It seemed to settle in her heart and, strangely, it wasn't unwelcome. She found herself breathless as she came up beside him and she glanced hastily at the sheriff, trying to subdue the hammering of her heart. What the hell was that all about? Her cheeks were reddening and that was intolerable. She gave the sheriff a winsome smile and watched him blink. She cleared her throat.
"What's going on?"
"It's okay," Clark reassured her. "Couple of accountants from New York are renting the cabin on the other side of the lake. Fishing weekend. They saw the light from the fire in the windows, knew the owner wasn't up here this weekend, and called Sheriff Castellano to come take a look. They've been having some trouble with local kids breaking into these vacation cabins; using them to party in. I've explained what happened."
His eyes flashed a warning at her, that she recognized with the ease of long familiarity with her partner. He'd told the Sheriff their car had broken down and they'd gotten lost trying to find their way back into town. He hadn't told him about the gang. She gave him a slight nod in return. She hadn't expected him to. They were still reporters after all and they clung hard to their story. Clark wouldn't give it up without discussing first with her exactly what they needed the Sheriff to know — and when.
"I'd have been up here earlier, ma'am," Castellano said, somewhat apologetically. "But the weather last night…wasn't a passable road in any direction for miles around, till we got the plough out round dawn."
"We understand," Clark assured him.
"If you can give me some idea of where you ended up, I can radio the location in to Jack Lawton back in town — he runs the gas station. He'll tow your car in for you folks. You know you were lucky you broke down in a way. Luckier than some, anyways. We got men down by Harper Lake; got a car down there, nothin' but the roof showing. Looks like they went off the bridge on their way into town. That bridge is the devil's own skating rink in this kinda weather. You hadn't given up on driving for the night, mayhap you'd be down there with 'em." He shook his head, missing the tight look that passed between the two reporters at this news. "Anyways, I can give you a ride back into town and we can sort out the details. If you're ready?"
"Best idea I've heard in a while," Lois assured him fervently. "Getting out of these backwoods won't come a minute too — " She trailed into embarrassed silence as she realized that Castellano's brows had risen, that she was insulting his town. She glanced at Clark and he cleared his throat, prepared to step in and rescue her, just like always — bless him.
A thump from behind them shattered the tense moment, as all three turned in unison. From the corner of her eye, Lois saw the sheriff's hand twitch towards his side as he did and then the sudden relaxing of his posture as they watched the yellow dog pause on the steps to offer them a few sweeps of his rat-eaten tail, before he dipped his head to gingerly negotiate the porch steps.
"Hey, Cougar." The sheriff hunkered down to pet the animal as it made its arthritic way towards him. "What you doing way out here, boy?"
"You know him?"
The man glanced up at her. "Sure. Mike Tenson's old mutt. He's always been a bit of a wanderer. These days he tends to forget he ain't as young as he used to be. Can't take in the miles." He smiled as he rose to his feet again. "Mike'll be grateful to you folks for taking the old fella in last night. It was colder than a witch's…um…that is weather reports said it was gonna drop below freezing before morning. I reckon this old guy would have been in a heap of trouble if you hadn't met up with him.
"Guess you two would have been too," he added, regarding them soberly before glancing over his shoulder to the cruiser behind him and pulling a pair of sunshades out of his jacket pocket. He shoved them onto his face as he added, "Well, I'll go wait in the car while you folks get yourself together."
He moved off, whistling Cougar after him. The dog followed, tail waving a happy banner, and jumped into the back seat of the sheriff's cruiser without protest.
Clark fielded Lois's glance and nodded, giving her a sardonic pat against the shoulder. "You can take the front seat. I'll share with Cougar," he said, before he loped on off across the clearing and up the porch stairs to vanish into the cabin's interior.
"Good call," Lois muttered before following.
Inside, the lounge seemed somehow oppressive and dingy, coming in from the stark early morning light outside. Clark was in the middle of folding up the blankets they'd used. He looked up as she entered and gave her a quick smile. "Your clothes are dry. If you want to get changed, I'll go put these upstairs."
Lois nodded silently. If he sensed her sudden withdrawal, her reticence, he didn't comment on it. But as he reached the bottom of the stairs, she felt the need to say…something.
He turned back, eyes showing surprise at the sudden sharpness in that.
"I…I just wanted to say…thank you. For being here, for what you did last night…I mean…" She faltered, blushing as she remembered everything he — they — had done last night and considered how that might sound to him. "You saved my life last night, Clark. If you hadn't been there…I'd probably still be floundering around out there in the woods."
He smiled at her. "Guess Mr. Green Jeans comes in handy once in a while, huh?" he joked and then, as she felt herself color, remembering how rude she had been back then — and how unfair — and seeming to regret the embarrassment his levity had caused her, he sobered with a self-deprecating shrug. "You'd have been okay. The Great Survivor, Lois Lane? You'd have done just fine, Lois."
She bit fitfully at her lower lip. "Maybe. But…I'm glad I didn't have to find out how good I was with ice blocks." He frowned at her, confused by the reference, and she smiled back at him. "Never mind. Just…thanks, Clark."
He gave her an uncertain smile. Was he that unused to her being appreciative of him? she thought with sudden shame. "Any time, Lois." He glanced towards the door. "Uh…we shouldn't keep the sheriff waiting. I'll write out a note and leave cash for the window and get this stuff cleared up when I come back downstairs."
Her eyes followed him all the way up the stairs before she crossed the room to pick up the clothing that still retained a hint of the heat from the fire that had dried them out during the night. Her thoughts of the previous evening came back to her. How could she ever have thought that Clark might peek at her? A small smile formed with the idea. She had learned a lot about her partner during the night they had spent in this room.
She had learned a lot about herself too.
She sighed quietly and began to unhook the buttons on her shirt.
Maybe it was time to put what she'd learned to good use. Time for things to change. Maybe she didn't want to see surprise in her partner's eyes again when she thought to compliment him.
Maybe it was time to show him just what he meant to her and just how important he was.
There had been something different about her this morning. An elusive, indefinable something that he couldn't quite pin down. All he knew was that his heart had turned over in his chest as she'd navigated the porch steps and come towards him, with that soft, shy smile that he saw on her rarely and which always seemed to him like a precious gift when he did. The one he liked to tell himself she reserved solely for him.
Clark folded up the clothes and placed them on the bed. Then he moved slowly to stand in front of the window. Leaning up against the wall, he took in the view; the lake, gray-ruffled under an azure sky.
Despite what he had learned the previous night, about himself, about living in denial and facing up to unpalatable truths, about…about Lois and how she really felt about him…he felt none of the loss and thwarted longing that he had last night. He had woken with a sense almost of…peace. Acceptance. Lois was still in his life and always would be. That hadn't changed. And perhaps it would never be as he wanted it, she'd never love him the way he did her, but life rarely bestowed on you the wishes you yearned for. You took what you had and you cherished it, if you were wise, and you made yourself content with that.
She had surprised him, down there in the living room. There had been something almost heartbreakingly pure in her eyes as she'd acknowledged that she had been glad not to face that ordeal last night alone. That more thoughtful side of his partner was rarely viewed, he saw it perhaps more than most, even when she tried to hide it from him and the world. He guessed he always had. Right from the moment he'd walked into the Planet and seen her for the first time he had somehow been able to pierce through the tough reporter veneer she wrapped herself in and seen it for what it truly was. The armor a vulnerable soul plated itself with to survive the world. He hadn't need x-ray vision to find the heart that beat beneath, trapped behind those walls that pushed people away before they got too close. The real Lois Lane had been visible to him all along. Strong and loving, smart and funny…beautiful.
And if she…couldn't ever be his —
Something crunched beneath his fingers and he jerked out of his musings with a start. Glancing down, he was at first mystified to see shards of wood clutched in his fingers and scattered on the floor and then his eyes widened as he took in the windowsill, it's edge crumbled into slivers where he'd been resting his hands on it.
He stood stock still for a bewildered instant, an ecstatic instant, and then he closed his eyes and…
He punched the air with that soft whoop as he floated easily and smoothly up towards the ceiling.
They were back.
*He* was back!
Of course, his powers had been fluctuating in and out since the attack on him, a cautious part of him tried to rein him back from the overwhelming surge of relief and delight that swept over him. This proved nothing. They could wink out on him again at any moment, just like before and…
It wouldn't wash. It wasn't *like* the other times. He could sense it. He felt it. *Knew* it. He felt…right. Complete. Those other times, his powers had felt different even when they'd been online. Weaker, less potent. He'd felt like a man with flu, at half-strength. But this…now…this was…
This was him.
He laughed out loud as he spun in the air for the sheer joy of it and into the Suit.
He jerked up his head and hastily spun back into his regular clothes and set his feet firmly back on the ground. "Uh…I'll be right there!"
"I'm going to take some of this stuff out to the shed. I'll meet you down by the car, okay?"
"No — no, wait, don't do that. I can —"
The slamming of the front door had him rolling his eyes. Women! They never listened.
He chuckled and moved towards the window, twitching aside the curtain to watch her hobbling progress through the snow towards the shed, her jaw tilted stubbornly at that angle he knew so well as she gamely traversed the uneven ground.
One woman who never listened. One very special woman. His smile turned soft and indulgent as he followed her until she vanished out of his view. And discovered something rather odd. He supposed, given the somber decisions he'd come to last night, while he'd watched her sleep in his arms, that he ought to be feeling a little more maudlin right now. Hadn't he wished for his powers to vanish? Hadn't he wanted the way to be clear for him to pursue her? And hadn't he just been considering that he since he probably couldn't have that he should give up that chase and accept…defeat?
He glanced down at the shattered windowsill. It seemed his subconscious had been more truthful with itself than he had been. He raised a brow. "Clark Kent…you are that idiot she thinks you are," he told himself softly. Give her up? Give up his dreams? What had he been thinking? The windowsill was proof it hadn't been anything he really wanted to hear. Or agreed with at all! It was nothing less than self-pitying, maudlin sophistry and —
He winced. Uh oh. How was he going to explain — ? He sighed, picking up a wooden shard. Maybe Superman could fly in quickly and surreptitiously, do some quick repairs before the owner's next trip up? Or maybe not so surreptitiously, in the case of the window. The superhero probably owed this cabin and its owner a few favors, all things considered. He'd let Sheriff Castellano know that he'd be asking the superhero to help out with that — well with the kitchen window at least. No need to mention…this.
He found himself relaxing out of a tension he hadn't been aware he'd been carrying. And, yet, now that he'd become aware of it, it seemed like he'd been laboring under its weight for the longest time. Superman was a part of him. Always had been, always would be. What was he going to do? Spend the rest of his life alone? Deny that part of him that was human and longed for a life, a home, family? Shut himself away, keep himself apart, until there only was the superhero, the rescues, the crimes, the criminals, nothing else? Because he couldn't give any woman one hundred per cent of his time?
Superman didn't have the exclusive on that. He just had a little more to challenge him in organizing his time. So, okay, he couldn't give her all of his day, every day. But he could give her his heart. His soul. He could give her every moment he could spare, everything of himself he could.
He had stopped running from that bleak, lonely future a long time ago. He'd made his stand then, made his decision then. To let himself be Clark Kent first and foremost. He had stopped traveling the world, never staying longer than a few months here, a week or so there, afraid to let anyone get close in case they found him out. Yes, he had realized the folly of that, the danger of that, a long time ago and he couldn't — he wouldn't — go back to it now.
His life in Metropolis had rescued him from that. Lois had rescued him from that. And he wasn't about to give up on her. He couldn't. Might as well decide to give up breathing. Give up living.
Lois had given up Luthor because he couldn't commit to her one hundred per cent. But there *was* a difference between them — one he'd failed to consider last night.
Luthor didn't love her. He couldn't. Even Lois didn't believe he did. All Luthor wanted was the convenience of a wife as a corporate asset.
*He* loved her. He wanted her for herself. For no more reason than she made his days begin and end and being beside her for the rest of his life was all he'd ever wanted since he'd seen her in Perry's office that day. To be with her and her alone.
Luthor couldn't give her that. But he could.
And, surely, that counted for something? In among those occasional nights in a cold bed and ruined dinners, surely being loved and loving in return meant something.
How could he have considered for one moment that he had nothing to offer her? That love was nothing at all?
Superman was a huge part of his life. But he wasn't everything. And for Lois he could work to make sure that he never took over their lives.
…he could do anything.
Even not give up on her. Not give up on them — on the idea of them, of the hope of a future with her. Somehow, he'd make his dreams come true, he thought, a new resolve growing in him, sinking its roots deep into his heart. You were never too old to keep wishing on a star, after all, and if he had lost sight of that, for just a time there, he hadn't lost faith for long. Like his powers, it had returned, now, stronger than ever. He would make her see him — truly see him — if he had to spend the rest of his life showing her.
His lips twisted in something that was as much smile as grimace. If nothing else, life was about to get very interesting. The smile won out. At least…as interesting as he could make it.
Things had changed between them since they'd left Haven so many hours before. Changed in ways that had been inevitable perhaps, in ways he couldn't even begin to truly understand. But there had been that something…that mysterious something in her eyes. He couldn't pin it down, precisely, but it gave him hope, somehow. Hope for something more. His heart closed up fierce and hot around that small, weak flame of expectant faith, sealing it in tight, so he'd never forget.
And there were other things he'd never forget, too. Like how it had felt to draw her to him, to drop his lips to hers, to taste the sweetness of her mouth against his own… He knew he should regret that weak moment, and yet he couldn't in truth. It had meant too much to him. He just hoped it didn't seed any awkwardness between them once they got back home. She'd been a little pensive down there, when they'd come back in. But she certainly hadn't seemed to be harboring any anger towards him for it, he considered thoughtfully. Which was a hopeful sign. Maybe he should try talking that one out first chance he got…
Maybe that was the truest lesson of all, the lesson that gang had taught him, back there on that roadside, back there in those woods. How easy it would be to let himself say nothing at all, do nothing at all, let his feelings for her ride…and maybe never get the chance to tell her what she meant to him. He had almost lost that chance last night. It was a miracle they'd both survived for him to kiss her at all. How could he regret it, given that?
For a moment, not regretting anything at all, he lost himself in the soft wonder of that small collection of memories, feeling the warmth suffuse him as he recalled how ardently she had responded to his touch…
His eyes sought out the view again. The sun was rising higher over the lake now, sending tendrils of gold across the white expanse. A dark arrow swept lazily across the sky and then broke up into a swirl of feathers. He would almost be sorry to leave, he thought wistfully. If it hadn't been for what they'd been put through he'd almost have found the last few hours with his partner…idyllic. Under different circumstances, he might even have enjoyed every moment of it. Romantic atmosphere, candlelight and the aroma of woodsmoke. Peace, quiet, Lois all to himself. So far removed from the frantic pace of their lives back in Metropolis, time to spare, time to…love. He had kissed her. Slept with her in his arms…
It could all have been so different. He might have had cause to curse it, rail against it, despair when it turned against them, but there were times when that Lois Lane luck came through for them in a blaze of glory. Not just ensuring they escaped with their lives, with barely a scratch, but how much more badly might things have gone last night if they'd never found their way here, to a cabin that was well ordered. A night spent in a tumbledown lean-to or some skinning cabin might have seen them freezing to death in the night. They might never have been found at all, if they hadn't found shelter. Of course, lakeside cabins were common in this part of the country, but still…whichever angel had marked Lois out as their own had worked double time last night.
This place would be beautiful in summer, he found himself considering as he lost himself in the view and, a small time later, in a fantasy of coming back here with Lois, when they could laugh over their brief adventure, share cool tall drinks by the lakeside, snuggle in front of the fire as the evenings grew dark and the shadows stretched across the water…
She'd look up at him, those dark doe eyes lost in him as he pulled her close, as he caressed the soft skin of her face, as he kissed her, deep and…
She was soft and welcoming in his arms, her voice a sigh in the darkness. She was electric heat and sharp desire against his skin. She was -
— heading back to the cabin, he thought with a frown, jerked abruptly out of the fantasy as he caught the movement below him. Why was she heading back to the cabin? Why wasn't she headed to the car?
His jaw dropped. She was coming back for another load!
He started upright, fantasies and musings evaporating abruptly as the reality of life with Lois Lane intruded.
"Lois!" he bellowed the protest into the room's empty air.
He whirled around and headed for the stairs, determined to stop her before she damaged that ankle permanently.
<Business as usual,> a small voice said inside him and its tone was nothing less than pure satisfaction. <Rescuing Lois Lane.>
He grinned as he took the stairs two at a time and confronted his startled partner as she came through the door.
Behind them, the cabin began its day as it usually did, basking in the weak spring sunshine as the sun rose over the lake. The light gilded the snow piled up against its boards and on its roof and sparkled off the blank eyes of its windows as the cruiser slowly pulled out down the track and was swallowed up by the trees that guarded the cabin's seclusion.
Eventually, there would be a thaw.
But, for now at least, a delicately-etched heart glistened on an ice- coated window pane, like a promise of something wondrous and new.
Lois Lane loves Clark Kent.
It was — as they say — a beginning.
LabRat c 2004
No infringement of copyright intended. Written entirely for play not pay. ;)
*Whose woods are these, I think I know
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.*
*My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.*
*He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound's the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.*
*The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.*
— Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening
By Robert Frost
End note: As it turned out, a few of my American readers were a little confused by what was meant by that heart. It seems the XX L YY combination isn't widely known outside of the UK. ;) If you're one of the mystified and want a visual — now that you've read the entire story, you can go here (http://www.lcficmbs.com/ubb/ultimatebb.php?ubb=get_topic;f=1;t=002807) to the comments folder for the final part of this story on the Lois and Clark Fanfic mbs (http://www.lcficmbs.com/). Where my US beta, Lynn, very helpfully provided a picture of the heart and its message. :)