By CC Aiken <CCAikenfanfic@aol.com> and Erin Klingler <email@example.com>
Submitted: April 2007
Summary: Lois needs a new car! And fast. How far will she go to get one? Would she even agree to enter a kissing contest with…Clark? A multiauthored story by CC Aiken and Erin Klingler.
Fundraiser Fic, 2005
From CC: The premise is all Erin's. As is the outline and, basically, every last idea. She was just kind enough to invite me along for what was intended to be our joint 'Fluffy, Short, Easy' fic. (One out of three isn't bad, right?) So a very heartfelt Thank You to Erin Klingler—for her patience (which she needed), good humor (which she really needed), and discerning use of muscle in pushing this writer along (she probably sprained something). Dear friends are rare. And dear friends who will tolerate one's almost pathological need to inject angst and complicate an easy plot are rarer still. I consider myself very lucky!
Our combined thanks to Kathy B, our very generous, extremely helpful beta reader and voice of reason. She took us on despite a chaotic schedule. (Though she doesn't know any other kind.) And thanks to Labrat for looking the other way while we stole Barney's. The establishment is hers…can you name the fic?…but she is in no way responsible for what goes on there.
I hope you'll enjoy the read. Thank you for being here!
From Erin: No, CC, *I'm* the one who considers herself lucky. I got to write with you! :) And we had so much fun, didn't we? This joint-fic idea came to pass in a succession of events, BTW. We had so much fun (well, okay, I can't speak for CC, but *I* had fun <g>) beta reading each other's long fics (my 'Long Road Home' and her 'In a Better Place') over the course of the year that when the fundraiser proposal came up, I knew it would be SO much fun to write something *with* CC for a change. And it was!! As we started, I was amazed to see this evolve from the short, 15-or-so page waffy fic that I had initially proposed, to a bit-more-lengthy, much more in-depth, very-waffy and just-a-touch-of-angst type of story. And that all gets credited to CC. She had so many great ideas on how to flesh this thing out some more, and, as usual, I was totally impressed by her scope and talent as a writer. She's simply brilliant, as I'm sure all you fans of her writing would agree. :)
Also, the thing I probably loved the most about having her write this with me is that she added such a fun, amazing sense of humor to the story. I love her quick, witty writing! I've told her that twenty million times, and I don't think I could ever say it enough. :) She really made this story something special, and CC, don't you *dare* give me so much credit for this! If anyone enjoys this, that will be due ninety-nine percent to your wonderful, witty writing style. We weren't certain, at the beginning, how we'd mesh our styles effectively, since I tend to be the longer, wordier, paint-a-picture-with-words type of writer, and CC has that incredibly enviable, quick, witty, fly-by-the-seat-of-her-pants style that I'd trade for any day of the week! But somehow we managed, and I love the way it turned out. I hope you do, too!
And CC already thanked Kathy, but I will, too! She worried that she wasn't "earning her keep" <g> because she mostly gushed and laughed and commented, but honestly, that's what kept us moving forward with this, so Kathy…thank you!!! :)
As usual, I'm the long-winded one. :p I'll shut up now and let you read. We hope you enjoy this! And if you do, by all means, email one of us (CCAikenfanfic@aol.com or firstname.lastname@example.org) to let us know! We'd love to hear if you thought this "worked."
"What is *with* these people!" Lois yelled after she managed to slam on her brakes, barely missing the bumper of the pickup truck in front of her. With her cell phone pressed to her ear, she leaned to her left, straining to see what was causing the hold-up. A flash of orange caught her attention, and she realized a construction crew was working on the intersection up ahead.
"Oh, I can't believe this," she growled in aggravation, slumping back in her seat. A quick glance at the clock on her dashboard made her groan. She was going to be late. Really late. Leaning to her left once more, she stuck her head out the open driver's side window. "Come on, guys, let's go!" she hollered, punctuating her command by a long, hard blast of the horn.
Her partner's voice calling out to her from her cell phone drew her back to her conversation. "Yes! Yes, Clark, I'm still here. I'm just…stuck in traffic!" The words came out through gritted teeth. "Can you believe this? Some construction crew is tearing up Ninth and Anderson. *During morning rush hour*!"
"Ninth and Anderson?" Clark asked with surprise. "They weren't supposed to start that project until next week."
Lois rolled her eyes and made a noise of disgust. "Yeah, well, when was the last time the city did anything on schedule?" Just then the truck in front of her began to move, and she stomped eagerly on the accelerator.
"Lois, I'm sure they're doing the best they—"
"Nooo!" Lois yelled, ignoring Clark's attempts at diplomacy as the truck in front of her came to a stop once more and she had to stomp on her brakes to avoid rear-ending him. She looked over at the clock just in time to see it click over to 7:50.
Pounding a palm against the steering wheel, she whipped her head around to see if she could get in the next lane and take a shortcut up one of the alleys. No such luck. Traffic was packed bumper-to-bumper around her and nobody was moving.
"I can't believe this!" she exclaimed in loud indignation into the phone. "We're packed in here like sardines, and we only have ten minutes before we're supposed to meet our source. I'm never going to make it there to pick you up, Clark, and then get us over there to meet him. If we're not there at precisely 8:00, the guy's gonna leave!"
"Now, Lois, calm down," Clark soothed. "It's not like our story's riding on this guy. A little extra info would be nice, but our research is solid. Perry will be happy with the story regardless."
"I know, but what if he knows something more that we don't?" Traffic inched forward ever-so-slowly, and she began tapping out an impatient rhythm on the steering wheel with the fingers on her left hand.
Clark sighed, and Lois could almost picture him rolling his eyes, as he often did when he thought she was being obsessive. "It'll be fine, I promise," he said. There was a brief pause, and then Clark went on. "You know, I could head over there to meet the guy by myself…"
"No!" Her response was immediate and she bolted up straighter in her seat. "I want to be there to see his body language and hear his tones. Sorry to say, Clark, but you tend to give people the benefit of the doubt about their truthfulness…"
She glanced around at the unmoving vehicles in disgust, and then mentally rewound what she had just said. She squeezed her eyes closed for just a second. Which one of them was guilty of giving too much benefit of the doubt? Certainly not just Clark. She'd done her fair share of that in recent months.
Almost as if he had read her mind, his quiet answer, "I know, Lois," reached through the phone. "I understand."
She shook it off. Now was not the time. "It's just that if this guy tries to feeds us some outrageous story, I want to be the one who calls his bluff. If I could just get *out* of this *traffic*!"
As if her wish had been granted, traffic suddenly started to move. She let out a little yelp of excitement and stepped on the gas pedal. She followed closely behind the accelerating pickup ahead of her, making sure nobody in the lanes on either side of her could weave over in front of her and cut her off. Now that she was moving, she intended to stay that way.
A little more daylight opened up between her Toyota Land Cruiser and the pickup, and she pressed a little harder on the gas pedal. The intersection loomed ahead, and she could see a man wearing a hard hat motioning with his orange flag for her lane to continue on through.
"Yesss!" she exclaimed, glancing down at the clock. They were supposed to meet the source at the little cafe down the street from the Planet. If she made it to the Planet's parking garage in the next couple of minutes—which was feasible if she didn't face any further delays—she could grab Clark and make a run for it. 'Yes,' she thought, 'this could still work.'
"Clark, we're moving," she told him with delight.
Just then she caught movement out of the corner of her eye. She jerked her head back up only to see a sleek, black Porsche pull out in front of her from the stalled lane to her left, clearly trying to cut in ahead of her and beat her to the intersection.
She gasped and slammed on her brakes, but it wasn't it time. With a sickening crunch, she plowed into the front right quarter of the small sports car. Her airbag inflated just in time to cushion her upper body as it was jerked forward by the crash.
It was over in a matter of seconds, and Lois sat, stunned, as the spent airbag deflated enough for her to stare out the windshield at the crumpled car adorning her front bumper. It took several moments for her sense of awareness to settle back in, and when it did, she realized somebody was calling her name.
She shook herself out of her daze and tuned in to the voice. It was familiar, though it took her a moment to place it. Finally she realized it was Clark. Shocked, she looked down and saw she still had the small cell phone clutched in her hand. She pressed the phone to her ear with a shaking hand.
"Lois?" Clark's concerned voice came across the line. "Lois, are you there? What was that noise? What happened?"
Releasing her other hand from the steering wheel, her knuckles white, she managed to croak, "Some idiot just pulled out in front of me and I hit him."
"Are you okay?" he asked, his tone urgent.
"I—I think so." She rubbed her collarbone where she had been thrown forward against the seatbelt. She unclipped the buckle. "Clark, I've got to go deal with this. I'll talk to you later." Without waiting for a response, she clicked the phone shut and stretched to put it down on the passenger seat.
The slight movement sent a twinge through her lower back, and she massaged it lightly. Was she hurt? Should she move? Before she could decide, a young man sporting designer sunglasses and a trendy haircut appeared in her open driver's side window, his face twisted in anger.
"Lady, what do you think you're doing, plowing into me like that! Do you realize how much my Porsche is worth? I'm supposed to go up the coast this weekend, and now look!" He turned and flung his arms open wide at his mangled sports car. "You'd better have good insurance, because you're going to need it after what you've done!"
The man's tone sent a course of adrenaline rushing through Lois. Bristling, she forgot all about the pain in her lower back and collarbone and flung open her door. "After what *I* did!" She put her hands on her hips and glared at the man in front of her. "You pulled out in front of me! You idiot! What did you think *you* were doing?"
"Hey, lady, *you're* the idiot, plowing into me with that…thing." He spit out the last word and eyed her mangled Toyota Land Cruiser with disdain. "I'd accuse you of having bad brakes, but I'm sure it has more to do with operator error."
The only thing that stopped Lois from killing him at that very moment was the sound of a familiar 'whoosh.' In the next instant, a flash of red and blue appeared beside her.
"Lois? Are you okay?"
There was a time when she might have stopped to savor the look on his face. It was something she hadn't seen in a while—a mask of concern and polite attentiveness, not unlike the way Superman looked at everyone who needed him. But in the past, she had convinced herself that look had meant other things, too—that he was on her side, above all else. That she could count on him. That she was somehow…special to him.
That look, or rather, her interpretation of it, had caused her a lot of heartache. She would never be that stupid again. And though it had been a long while since they'd been face to face like this, she still wasn't ready to see him or that look. Not now. Not yet.
Thankfully, the idiot in the Porsche was there. Lois only had time to throw a grim, "I'm fine," over her shoulder before turning back to stare down the opposition. "But it's a good thing you arrived when you did because this guy was about to need saving."
The driver's eyebrows went up in indignation. "Superman, you're a witness to this woman threatening me. I'd like that to go on record, along with the fact that her reckless driving totaled my car and nearly killed me in the process. As soon as the police arrive, I want you to see that she's arrested."
"Superman does not take traffic reports, you arrogant son of a—"
Lois's words were cut off when the wail of a siren announced a police car's arrival.
She turned along with Superman and the other driver to see the police car stop in the intersection a few yards in front of them.
The driver approached the officer immediately, gesturing to Lois as he went. "She caused this whole thing! I want her ticketed so her insurance company pays for my new car." He turned back and sneered at her. "Should have stayed home today, honey. Made yourself useful in the kitchen."
Lois gasped, and her mouth fell open in shock and disbelief. No words came. Anger, hot and searing, surged through her body, and before she knew what she was doing, she lunged. If nothing else, she was going to show him which one of them should have stayed home today.
She'd barely managed to grab a handful of his Tommy Hilfiger sweater when strong arms came around her waist and pulled her back.
Superman's firm, yet gentle, voice sounded in her ear, and she darted a quick look down at the blue spandex arms holding her tightly. It was only then that she realized exactly what she was doing, and who was preventing her from doing it.
"Let go!" she protested automatically, whipping around to confront him.
Their gazes met and held. For just a moment it was as if the awkward avoidance and cool aloofness of that last few months had never happened. Superman was stopping her from retaliating, yes. But he was here with her when he didn't have to be. He was back on her side.
Maybe they hadn't burned the bridge of their friendship. Left it in ashes, along with the rest of her life. Maybe some friendships, and some things, weren't beyond repairing after all.
Unlike the Porsche and her Land Cruiser.
Superman shook his head ever so slightly, drawing her from her thoughts. "You're better than this, Lois," he told her, his voice full of conviction. "Don't do something you'll regret later."
Her tense muscles relaxed, as did his grip on her. Turning back to the driver, she said loudly enough for him to hear, "The only thing I regret is that you were here to keep me from mopping up the street with this guy."
Superman's deep chuckle rumbled somewhere near her ear. "Yeah, well. I'm sure you could have, but right now let's just deal with the formalities, okay?"
Lois looked over to see two policemen approaching, and she sighed. "I guess you're right. Let's get this over with."
With the situation defused, the two police officers took over. They shuffled Lois and the other driver away from each other and proceeded to take their statements, as well as those from nearby drivers who had witnessed the accident. After pictures were taken, one of the police officers asked for Superman's help to clear the cars out of the road. He agreed, and in a matter of minutes traffic was moving again.
As Lois stood on the sidewalk moping, she heard a commotion off to her left and turned. One of the officers was handing the Porsche driver a small clipboard of paperwork to have him sign, and, judging by the young man's beet red face and repeated insisting of "It's not my fault!" Lois assumed he was being ticketed. She smiled half-heartedly. Knowing that he would be paying for her car repairs gave her at least a little satisfaction.
When tow trucks finally arrived to tow the mangled vehicles, Lois felt her brave facade start to crumble. She watched helplessly as her SUV was winched up and secured behind the first truck.
It had been a ridiculous purchase. She'd known it at the time, but hadn't regretted it even as she had struggled to justify its expense and impracticality. Her shiny red Toyota Land Cruiser was an impulse buy. Big, bold, loud, and statement-making. All the things she used to be and wanted to be again. But now, the Land Cruiser, smashed up and being driven away, ironically matched her life.
"Perfect." She just managed to keep the tears from falling as the truck finally started down the road.
The soft voice made her jump, and she turned to see Superman approaching. The morning sun bounced off the red of his cape just as it had from her Toyota Land Cruiser minutes before.
"Oh…no." She closed her eyes and did a mental double-take. Red Land Cruiser. Red cape. She hadn't matched them, had she? They weren't really the same exact shade?
She turned once again to watch it being pulled out of sight, and to confirm what she already knew. "That's…not good."
"I was just wondering…" Superman followed her gaze in the direction the tow truck had gone. "Do you need, uh, a ride anywhere? Were you on your way to work? If you were, I'd be happy to…fly you."
She dried her eyes in quick, surreptitious movements and tried to cover her surprise. She had been grateful for his appearance today, but this…
When the situation had called for it, when they were both at a crime scene or a rescue, or if she needed a quote from him, they were fine, if not careful to steer clear of anything personal.
And flying was definitely personal.
And while she had appreciated his coming to a minor fender-bender and staying until the bitter end for her sake, she was pretty sure she didn't want to be alone with him. Most especially not alone with him *and* in his arms.
"Thanks, Superman, but I'll be fine. I was on my way to work to meet Clark. We were going to see a source." She laughed a hollow laugh. "Who I'm sure is long gone by now. Anyway, I think I'll just…walk."
A flicker of concern flashed behind Superman's eyes. "Are you sure? I know you seem fine, but these things can really rattle you. It wouldn't be an imposition."
Lois shook her head a bit more forcefully. "Really, I'm okay." She took a few steps in the right direction just to show him. "See? No problem. But…thank you."
After a long, awkward moment, Superman nodded, then lifted off into the sky, gradually disappearing into the blue.
Despite the loss of her car and the need to hike ten blocks in shoes that were more for admiring than exercising in, Lois felt a warm cocoon of relief wrap around her heart.
That hadn't been so bad.
Well, the wreck had been bad. Finding out she had bought a car to match the town superhero had been bad…
But Superman had shown up at the scene of an accident in which she hadn't been the one in dire peril and she had faced him. He had faced her. The world was still spinning on it axis.
And actually, now that she thought about it, she couldn't remember the last time she *had* been in dire peril. It was almost as if, in the wake of Lex Luthor's death, all the criminals in town were on vacation. Or they just found a depressed and morose Lois Lane not nearly enough of a challenge to bother with.
Anyway, the only person in any danger today had been the driver of the Porsche. Superman had come through, though. The driver had gotten to keep all his teeth, while she and Superman had managed a cordial exchange.
So, all in all, it could have been worse. She smiled a little and shook her head. Maybe things were moving back towards normal at last.
The further she walked, though, the more her smile faded and a frown took its place. Getting back to normal would be great. Only now she would have to get there without her car. And never mind its color—it was something she definitely needed these days.
She stopped to push the crosswalk button at the corner, eager to keep moving, to go forward. She didn't like the directions her thoughts took when she stayed in one place for too long. She was tired of reliving her decisions, tired of reflecting on what had gone wrong. Tired of thinking, period.
Perpetual motion was the only way she had survived the summer.
She stepped into the stream of pedestrians crossing the street as soon as the crosswalk signal changed.
Her interaction with Superman had held a hint of the familiar, some of the ease that used to be between them, she reminded herself as she tried to shake off the impending gloom. And her other relationships were starting to mend, as well. Maybe even her relationship with Clark.
Her thoughts jumped back to their phone conversation which had been interrupted by the crash. She'd been shouting…he'd been soothing… It had almost seemed like old times. Again, the hint of familiarity, the almost normal. Maybe she wasn't the only one eager to put the events of the spring behind them.
She clenched her jaw shut and stopped her thoughts right there, hurrying her pace. She wouldn't dwell on it.
Not the abused trust.
Not the betrayal.
The sharp sting of loss that had dulled to an almost all-encompassing depression.
The things she should have seen, but hadn't.
Again she forced her thoughts back to the present. She needed to hang on to the thread of hope she'd found this morning. She had talked to Superman. His rejection of her hadn't been foremost on her mind, the huge, unspoken elephant in the room. Not this time. And she had talked to Clark rather easily on the phone. Almost the way she used to. So, okay…
"Things are going to be fine," she muttered to herself. "You can do this."
She lifted her chin a bit and straightened as she walked. She was Lois Lane. She was tough, hard-bitten. Everyone knew that. And when Lois Lane set her mind on something, she got it.
And this time she hadn't set her mind on the impossible. She had done that once—that one night at her window with Superman—and he had certainly set her straight. No. She wasn't dreaming big, not again, not anymore. Her sights were fixed much lower, much more realistically.
All she wanted was what she'd had. The life that had been hers—the work, the friendships, her partner—before she'd thrown it all away. She just wanted everything back the way it was before.
That wasn't too much to ask for, was it?
Turning the corner, the familiar globe erected above the Daily Planet's front entrance beckoned her home. The Planet's reconstruction had finished a little over a month ago and the paper was now back in full swing. She hadn't realized just how much of a stabilizing factor the Planet was for her in her life. It wasn't until she didn't have it that she'd come to learn just how lost she was without it. Work was something she always loved. Or at least, used to immerse herself in when the rest of her life was sour. And right now, she needed to immerse herself.
Her steps picked up as she spotted Clark standing outside the doors of the Planet, his gaze searching the crowds on the sidewalk around him. As she approached, his eyes fell on her and an expression of relief washed over him.
"Lois!" When he reached her, his concern was evident. "Superman just stopped by to fill me in. Is everything okay?"
For a fleeting moment, the look in his eyes held her still, tugging hard at her memory. Again, the hint of the familiar…
"Lois?" Clark prompted.
"Huh? Oh." She made an attempt at a reassuring smile. "Yeah. I think everything is okay. Or…it will be."
And it would be. She just had to find a way to make it so.
The afternoon passed. Clark spent his writing up their story, sans their missed source, and just as Clark had said he would, Perry had thought it was fine as it was.
Lois spent hers on the phone with so many insurance agents, adjusters, and mechanics she lost count. The only thing they could all agree on was that the Land Cruiser would be in the shop for weeks, not days. Despite being the overall 'winner' in the collision, the body work required to repair it would be extensive.
She continued to insist that she had to have her Land Cruiser back sooner than their estimated timeframe, but after hours of arguing her case—interrupted by Clark's occasional visits to her desk bearing coffee and sympathetic looks—she'd gotten no further. When quitting time rolled around, she was resigned, though not to the point she wasn't considering a full-scale investigation into insurance companies and auto repair shops, and the weasels who ran them all.
"Walk you home?" Clark appeared beside her, snapping her out of the fantasy of a banner headline 'Insurance Company CEO Weeps and Confesses All'.
She looked around, realizing the bullpen was empty, but for the two of them. "You disappeared for a while this afternoon. Did Perry give us an assignment?"
He looked uncomfortable for just a minute, fiddling with his tie—weird tic of his—and not quite meeting her eyes. "He didn't. But there was some trouble with the new construction, and I went to check it out and—"
"—Superman was there and gave you the story," she finished for him. Not for the first time, or even the thousandth, she wondered how much Clark knew about her and Superman. Since he was Superman's main contact at the Planet now, he saw him more than anyone. It made sense that any conversations between them might move beyond business to something more personal. Confiding.
That Superman might tell Clark about the night she had basically offered herself to him. That Clark might tell Superman about the day in the park he had basically offered himself to her.
That no one had gotten what they wanted.
"I'm sorry," she said to Clark, having some trouble of her own meeting his eyes.
He quirked a good-natured smile. "About?"
"You did all the work today." And he had. She'd been useless.
"Special circumstances," he said. "No problem."
In better times, he would have teased her. Reminded her how lucky she was to have him as a junior partner. That the hack from Nowheresville could come in handy on occasion. But not now. Not anymore.
"So, do you want me to stick around? Walk you home?"
"No." She didn't. She wasn't any more ready to be alone with Clark than she was to be with Superman. "I'll be fine. See you in the morning."
She moved to stand, looking down at her sore feet and new shoes with some chagrin. The high-heeled shoes made perfect sense for a car owner. But for someone who'd done more than their fair share of walking that day, they left something to be desired.
She limped out to catch a cab on sore feet and tried not to think of it as a metaphor for her life.
Clark waited on the sidewalk outside the Planet, nodding hello to various co-workers as they hurried past. It was such a beautiful morning; he dared to let himself hope.
Maybe today would be better. Maybe it was the fifth day that was the charm. Maybe enough time had passed now that Lois, while perhaps not feeling completely reconciled to her current circumstances, would, nonetheless, be able to put it into perspective.
With the sun shining and the temperatures unseasonably warm, it didn't seem to be that impossible an idea.
He heard her approach long before she rounded the corner. Her usual precision march footsteps, the accelerated heart rate…
He tilted his head. Was it just a tad faster today than in days past? No. It wasn't. It couldn't be. It was a beautiful morning in Metropolis; Lois wasn't as immune to that as she liked to appear.
She wasn't as immune to anything as she liked to appear.
Clark stifled a sigh and turned to meet her. The look on her face, the thundercloud hanging over her that one didn't have to have X-Ray vision to see, told him clearly: day five was going to be a lot like days one through four.
He pasted on his warmest smile. It was worth a shot.
"You will not believe this!" she greeted him.
He smiled a bit harder. "Good morning, Lois."
"Right. Hi. I spoke to Stan the mechanic this morning—"
Which explained the thundercloud and erratic heart rhythm.
"—He said I woke him up. Can you believe that? What kind of hours do you think he keeps?"
"Daylight ones?" he ventured, hustling to stay in step with her.
"And you know what he said, when he was finally awake enough to say anything?" Lois wrenched open the doors, scowling.
"I can guess," Clark said quietly to the back of her head as she stomped through the lobby and towards the elevators. "The brakes are shot."
"He said the brakes are shot! So it's lucky for me I was in that wreck in the first place!" Lois swept past several of their colleagues, who wisely moved to make way. "Do I look like I feel lucky to you?"
He was saved from having to respond by the elevator's timely arrival.
When the doors closed behind them, though, Clark realized that, despite the long line, he and Lois were the only two who had stepped inside. Evidently no one else was feeling particularly 'lucky' today, either.
Unbidden, and most definitely unwisely, he chuckled.
Lois stopped talking at once, an accusing glare growing in her gaze. And yes, he had known it wasn't smart, but they had started the last five days in just this way—reviewing Stan the mechanic's daily assessment of Lois's Land Cruiser. The brakes had come up more than once. In fact, the words 'broken record' sprang to mind. Or Mad Dog Lane. Though in this case, one meant the same as the other.
"So…" he said. The gathering storm pushed the word out quickly. "…you still think he's running some kind of racket?"
Evidently satisfied that he understood the gravity of the situation, Lois nodded. And only then pushed the elevator button that would move them up a level.
It was symbolic, Clark thought idly. Then he frowned and tried to pin down precisely what that thought meant. Symbolic? Of what?
"You agree, then." Her tone was so even and devoid of anger now, he was tempted to look around for another speaker.
"Sorry?" he hedged, because he knew his mind had wandered. Clearly he had missed something.
"You're frowning," she said. "You only frown when you're trying to piece something together. Figure something out. The rest of the time you have that dopey, carefree, happy-with-the-world smile on your face. So, you must agree."
He sighed. "Lois, there are so many points of entry on that comment I don't even know where to begin. First, I do not have a dopey—"
"But you do think we should investigate," she interrupted.
For an instant he considered being irritated. But it was for just an instant. She was asking for his opinion. And she placed some value on it. The fact that she was asking for it rudely was actually a step forward for them.
She had been so nice to him lately. Too nice. Too careful.
When she wasn't arguing the merits of a story with him, she was quiet, restrained. Closed off. Her shows of temper since the accident, while growing old, definitely, were at least something different. Perhaps they were finally moving away from the stiff, formal place they had landed in…right after Luthor had landed face down on the sidewalk.
"You're frowning again," Lois noted, just as the elevators doors slid open and the bullpen came into view.
"Look, Lois…" He stepped out behind her, hesitating. He didn't want to take any steps backwards, if this was, indeed, progress. But he couldn't exactly sacrifice Stan the mechanic to recover his and Lois's easy friendship.
Resolved, he wrapped a gentle, careful hand around her elbow, pasted a 'dopey' smile on his face, and began steering her towards the conference room.
It felt nice. Superman had held her the day of the accident, though that had only been to keep her from gouging out the other guy's eyes. Still, he couldn't remember the last time he, Clark, had touched her.
And nicer still, she lit up immediately. Turning on a smile of her own. One which could never be categorized as 'dopey.' How long had it been since he'd seen that?
"You get the coffee," she said breathlessly. "I'll grab the donuts. We'll nail Stan to the wall in time for the late edition!"
He grabbed her other arm now, to stop her from practically running away. "Wait, wait, wait…no. I was just going to say…"
She fixed him with a stare that fairly vibrated with impatience, but she stopped wiggling. "I was just going to say—" he continued, releasing her and running a nervous hand through his hair. "—that I think Stan might be right about your brakes, Lois. I know you'd only had the car a few months before the accident, but you did buy it used and you did…drive it pretty hard."
He watched as the excited energy drained from her, his heart sinking along with it. She had two speeds lately. She was either full-tilt angry or she was…nothing. Barely there. As much as he'd come to dread her morning rants this week—her single-minded obsession with getting her car back—he liked her better that way. And he knew why it was so important. The SUV was much more than just a means of transport for her.
He knew all about her late night drives this past summer. Her sleepless nights. The miles she had traveled under the cover of darkness with no apparent destination; just a need to keep going.
He knew because Superman had been doing the same. In the wake of the Lane-Luthor wedding debacle, Superman's evening patrols had stretched late into the night, eventually extending until sunrise. For much of that time, he had followed Lois. Keeping an eye on her, staying out of sight, knowing exactly what was driving her.
And wishing with all his heart he knew how to be the one to help her stop. To make it ok for her to be still. But if he couldn't find those answers for himself, he didn't know how he could do that for her.
"How—what—what do you mean I've driven it hard?" she asked tightly.
"I've been your passenger. Don't forget." He tried for a lighter note. "I think I've shaved a decade off my life. Not to mention the threat to pedestrians."
"Pedestrians walk at their own risk," she retorted, though there was no heat behind it. "You really don't think Stan is running some sort of scam? Deceiving customers who have no choice but to fix their already wrecked cars if they ever want to drive them again?"
"I don't," he said simply, anticipating the return of her anger. Her outrage.
It didn't come. And he was almost sorry.
Instead, Lois drew in a long, slow breath and fixed her eyes over his shoulder. Maybe he was imagining the glint of moisture in them, but something in his chest tightened. After the wedding, after Luthor's fall, after those first few minutes when he'd held her in her wedding dress, she'd never shown him her grief.
Superman had seen signs of it at the accident site. Her sorrow as she watched the SUV hauled away, but he, Clark, had not been privy to that. She didn't let him.
Lois blinked, and whatever emotion had been threatening was nowhere in evidence. Her dark stare held his steadily. "I need that car, Clark. I just…need it. I don't know if I can wait for the repairs, the insurance…all of it."
"I know." He moved his hands slowly, carefully, to take hers, squeezing her cold fingers between his own. "We'll think of something."
After a long minute, she nodded and blew out a short breath. "Ok."
He didn't even try to hide his surprise. "Ok?"
"You need it in writing?" she grumbled.
And while he thought that wasn't such a bad idea, he simply grinned at her. "Maybe Stan will be so grateful for the reprieve, he'll work a little faster."
She removed her hands from his, but she laughed and had the grace to look slightly embarrassed. "Glaciers melt faster than Stan works," she said, but the scowl she had in place was merely for show. He knew that, and he felt his heart grow lighter. "If I have to stop harassing him, maybe I'll just move on to Porsche-guy. Doesn't seem fair to let him off so easy."
"Oh, Lois," he groaned, falling into step with her, following her back to her desk.
They were met on the way by Jimmy. Clark didn't want to say his young friend bounded over. That was how Lois would describe it, and that would sound too unfair and far too puppy-like. However, there was a very definite sort of spring in the cub reporter's step.
"Hey guys, did you see this?" Jimmy waved the morning paper so close Clark had to step back. Lois was already swatting at it.
"Watch it," she warned.
"My first byline," Jimmy said, undeterred. "Page three. Go ahead."
Since he knew Lois wouldn't, Clark took the paper and obediently flipped it open. "Page three, huh? Impressive."
Jimmy's grin split ear to ear. "Thanks. Did you notice the headline?"
"'Kiss Off Kicks Off This Saturday,'" Clark read aloud.
"A bit heavy on the alliteration, don't you think?" Lois injected, settling into her chair. "And what the heck is a Kiss Off?"
"Oh, it's great. In fact, Lois, I thought you might be interested. It's a contest. You pick someone to be your partner and—"
She was back on her feet immediately. "You tell them to kiss off? Seriously? That's a contest? As in, who can tell someone off the best?"
"No, no, not *that* kind of kiss off," Jimmy hastened to explain. He shot Clark a look of appeal, but Clark just shrugged.
'On your own,' Clark mouthed, reading through the article quickly.
"I could pick my mother," Lois said thoughtfully, pacing in circles around them now. "Or Lucy. Wait. No. Linda!"
"Linda?" he and Jimmy asked as one.
"Or…ohhhhh. Perfect. The jerk with the Porsche!" she crowed as she gave Clark a solid, albeit friendly, thump on the back. "He owes me, and I bet if I tricked him, he would show up and I could—"
He was almost enjoying this as much as Jimmy, but he knew if he let her go on much longer, she'd kill him for it. He put out his hand and touched her lightly on the shoulder, stopping her in her tracks. "Trust me, Lois. I don't think you'd want any of those people as your partner on this."
"It is a great prize, though," Jimmy offered.
"Lois, it's a—"
"What's the prize?" She grabbed the paper from Clark's hands, searching for the article.
"Any vehicle of your choice from Dealin' Dan's car lot. They're the sponsors."
Her jaw dropped open in disbelief. "This is perfect! Made for me! I need a car, and I have any number of people I'd like to tell to kiss off…and I'd win. I *know* I would win!"
"Uh, Lois," Clark tried once more. "There's just one thing wrong with that."
"Wrong nothing," Jimmy laughed. "You heard her, CK. It's perfect!"
He shot a warning glare in Jimmy's direction, but Lois intercepted it just as she snapped her head out of the folds of the paper. She had a look of horror on her face. "What kind of sick sideshow are these people promoting?"
"It's a kissing contest. I'd hardly call that sick," Jimmy said. "Certainly not any sicker than a contest for yelling at someone, right, CK?"
Clark made a noncommittal noise. It seemed safest.
"See, you pick a partner and kiss them. It's an endurance contest. Whoever kisses the longest wins the car of their choice," Jimmy explained.
"Oh." Lois collapsed back into her chair.
"Free wheels." Jimmy moved to stand across from her, leaning against her desk. "Lots of fun. What do you say?"
"Who…on earth…would I pick to kiss?" She looked away from Jimmy and directly at Clark. And then straight through him.
For some reason, the blank stare, the question…just did him in. Was the answer to that really that hard? Was it that impossible to imagine?
It was. Clark knew it was. She had made that clear. And she had never altered her position or pulled back from the truth of it. She didn't love him. Had never loved him. Certainly didn't consider him a possibility in any way…or at least she didn't when he wasn't wearing the cape, the boots, the spandex…
He turned abruptly, moving back towards his desk. She and Jimmy could talk it out. He didn't want to hear any more. He wasn't interested. He just wanted their friendship and working partnership back in a good place. That was it. Anything else was…off limits. He knew that. He had learned that the hard way. He wasn't dumb enough to need re-teaching so soon.
"It's kind of funny, isn't it?" he was dimly aware of Jimmy saying. "When you thought it was about yelling at people, any number of potential partners came to mind. But when it comes to kissing…?"
Clark didn't turn around; he recognized the quality of silence that had met that comment.
"Hey!" Jimmy said defensively. "I said it was just *kind* of funny."
The world was a small place. Her world, anyway. Lately it consisted only of herself, anyone within shouting distance of her desk, her sources, Stan the mechanic…
She stopped on that thought for a second and tried to imagine Stan without the greasy coveralls and the irritating non-progress reports on her car. If she kissed him for hours, would he be willing to hurry up the repairs? Though if he would just do that, she wouldn't need to kiss him. If he would just fix her Land Cruiser, she wouldn't need the new car, at all.
"What kind of car are we talking about?" she asked Jimmy, who was inexplicably still there, having moved to perch on the corner of her desk. 'Must be a slow news day, because Perry would never let Jimmy get away with so obviously doing nothing,' she thought.
"Any kind you want," Jimmy enthused. "That's part of what's so great. They'll have a wide variety; you choose your favorite."
The world was a small place, but not so small there wouldn't be loads of people in the competition. Though none of them could be as desperate for a car as she was, could they? And sheer desperation had to count for something.
She went back to her roll call of potentials, ruling out Stan because, well, she hated his guts. That still left her with plenty of possibilities. There was Jimmy, who was smirking at her but would probably insist they kiss for the latest two-seater sports car, or worse, for a Harley.
She squinted and tried that one on. Lois Lane, Fool No More, riding her motorcycle through the streets of Metropolis…
It had a certain ring to it.
Until it rained. Or snowed. Or she got bugs in her teeth.
Besides…kissing Jimmy? Really? Jimmy? She studied his big, cheerful smile through her lashes. How long could she look at that without just wanting to…rip it off his face?
She grimaced. It was possible that Lucy was right about her. She might have some anger issues left unresolved. But who could blame her? And more pressing still…who could she stand to let kiss her? Whose lips could she put up with for what would clearly be hours and hours if they intended to win, which she very much intended to do.
Her gaze went of its own volition across the aisle, across the other desks. Like a stone skipping on water, it went right over Ralph without pausing. As if. Right past Eduardo, happily married…and heavily mustached, besides. Lois rubbed her upper lip. That would irritate after a while, definitely.
Eventually her gaze reached its destination. Not *her* destination, because her gaze's chosen target was not under consideration. No way, no how, no matter what. No.
"No," she reiterated under her breath, just to keep things straight. "I can't."
"No?" repeated Jimmy incredulously. "Come on. Think, Lois! There has to be someone!"
And there was. Or at least her eyes told her so. But she knew better, so she squeezed them closed and ordered them to behave.
It was a small world and her choices were limited, yes, but she would pick Stan and his coveralls before she picked…him.
'Pick me. Pick me. Pick me.'
Clark projected the thought towards her desk, willing it to land squarely in its center, wave a flag, blow a whistle, dance a quick two-step. Anything to get her attention.
For her part, Lois, who he'd always found especially resistant to mental suggestions, was still making skeptical noises. "I don't think so, Jimmy. And anyway, kissing for a car sounds kind of—"
"Free after taxes?" supplied Jimmy. "Incredible?" he guessed again. "Like my wildest dream come true?"
Clark shook his head and hoped it was only his imagination; that Jimmy wasn't actually puckering-up and looking at Lois…the way Clark tried not looked at Lois.
He ducked his head and went back to pounding out nonsense on his keyboard. He was letting them talk it out, he reminded himself. He wasn't about to stand there and set himself up for more rejection. However, the words 'Pick me. Pick me. Pick me' seemed to have inserted themselves into his article.
Maybe if he just emailed them to Lois? Maybe then? Might be subtle enough for her…
He shot another fast glance out of the corner of his eye. He wasn't really staring. He was merely a guy writing an article, who, incidentally, wanted nothing more than a return to friendship. He was just in time to see Lois sigh heavily and take out her rolodex. He barely suppressed a groan.
'Not the rolodex! Not the rolodex!' his thoughts shouted in her direction. 'Me! Pick me!'
"This is complicated," Lois was telling Jimmy. "Tricky. It couldn't be just anyone. It would have to be someone with a lot of—"
"Sex appeal?" Jimmy, definitely interested, definitely moving himself closer to her from where he sat on the corner of her desk. Her desk! Right in Clark's old spot.
Sure, he hadn't used it for a while, but…it was his spot.
He considered a short puff of superbreath; just blowing Jimmy to the floor…across the room…out the door. Maybe no one would notice? It was only Jimmy after all…
He squelched the urge and went back to pounding. The words 'Die Jimmy Die' seemed a bit extreme. Especially since Jimmy was his friend. A good friend. And Superman would never do anyone violence. It was anathema to everything he was. Still…
Clark hit delete and exhaled shakily. He couldn't do this anymore. Not for another day. Not for another hour. Not for however long it would take Lois to work through her rolodex and find someone she could boss around; someone who, in return, would get the chance to…
He stood up. He had made such a mess of things with her…made so many mistakes he couldn't possibly count them. But he wasn't past learning from them. And if he had learned anything in the last year, it was that sitting and wishing would get him nowhere. In fact, it would net him pure misery.
In three strides he reached her desk just as Lois began lecturing, "Not sex appeal, you idiot. Stamina! And he would have to understand this would just be business—"
"*I* understand," Clark said quickly before he could lose his nerve—or before he could let common sense catch up to him. The time for sitting and waiting was over. "Pick me, Lois."
She would kiss anyone else. Anyone. Jimmy and his grin that ate Metropolis. Stan and his non-car repairing cussedness. Ralph and his obvious unfitness to be a member of the human race…or…ok. Not Ralph. Under no circumstances. But anyone else—almost everyone else—would be better than Clark. He was her partner. Her friend. And the one she had wronged.
The two of them could hardly hold an unselfconscious conversation, so how were they supposed to kiss for hours? Although, kissing pretty much ruled out talking, didn't it? So maybe…
"No." She said it to herself as much as to Clark. Because something inside her, something in collusion with her gaze, which had picked him first and foremost, was leaning towards 'Yes.' Leaning hard towards 'yes.' In fact, wanting very badly to just say, 'Yes.'
"No," she said again, louder, more firmly, just so all members of her psyche could get on board. "It's a stupid idea." She swept the article into the waste basket. "I'll just find another way. Wait for the insurance to pay out. Let Stan fix the damned brakes…"
"Oh. Well…ok, then." Clark turned to leave, and she could have sworn she could read the dejection in his shoulders. For an instant, just a blink, something in his posture, something in those shoulders, slammed into her with overwhelming, disheartening familiarity. Whatever it was, it was another dismissal at her hands. Something she was all together too good at.
"Wait!" She leapt to her feet, grabbing for his arm and halting his retreat. "I didn't mean picking you was stupid, Clark. Just…the whole idea. Kissing for a car."
"But this would solve your problem, wouldn't it?" Jimmy piped up, and only then did Lois remember he was sitting right there between them and she was practically standing on him. "Besides guys, I saw the article first. It was my idea, so I should be the one to help Lois win the car… Whoa." Jimmy came to his feet in a swift, abrupt motion, as if he were a puppet and someone had jerked his strings.
Lois raised a puzzled eyebrow in her partner's direction. Odd, how he appeared to be holding Jimmy by the collar. Clark was smiling, though, albeit through gritted teeth.
She watched as he gave Jimmy a clap on the back, which sent the cub reporter staggering on his way.
"I think Lois and I can take it from here, Jim," Clark said. "Thanks a lot for your help."
Jimmy let the momentum of Clark's send-off take him to the door of the Chief's office. He knocked once, and the blinds that had been parted enough for Perry to observe the goings-on fell back into place immediately.
Perry pulled the door open and gestured him inside. "Well?"
Jimmy collapsed onto the sofa. "Mission accomplished."
Perry smiled. "Good job, son."
Jimmy shook his head ruefully. "Just tell me this, Chief. How did you know?" He caught the twinkle in his boss's eye as Perry rounded his desk and took his chair.
"How did I know what, Jimmy?"
"You know what," Jimmy laughed. "You told me all I had to do was show Lois and Clark the article, then flirt with Lois and—"
Perry cleared his throat loudly. "You think I became the editor of a great metropolitan newspaper just because I know how to—"
"—Yodel. Right. But how did you know? CK practically threw me off the desk."
Perry chuckled and lowered his voice. "Sitting on the desk was a nice touch."
Jimmy grinned. "I was improvising. Why are we whispering?"
Perry straightened and picked up a stack of papers, shuffling them blindly. "Ah…no reason. Anyway, those two have needed a push for a while now. We've forced their hand. You think Kent is going to sit back and let some other guy take his place again?"
"Knowing CK?" Jimmy took his cue and stood to leave. "He might have."
Perry stabbed his finger in the air. "Exactly. He needed to find that out as much as Lois did—if he's finished being a bystander and ready to get in the game."
Jimmy rubbed his sore neck where he could still feel the imprint of Clark's fingers. "I'd say his bystander days are over." And he half-suspected he would have the bruises to prove it.
"Then our work here is done," said Perry with rich satisfaction. "Now we just sit back and let nature take its course."
When they weren't working together, Clark spent the rest of the week trying to stay out of Lois's sight, anticipating and dreading her inevitable change of mind. So much about Lois had been unpredictable lately. But that she would chicken out of the contest and try to call it off was no mystery. However, if he was never around, she couldn't actually do that.
In fact, he would swear he had seen the words "Forget it, Clark" starting to form on her lips more than once. And each time, he had ducked out of their range. Tugged at his tie, smiled sheepishly and shrugged, and taken off at a jog.
She was used to that, enough not to question it. Who'd have thought it would come in so handy now?
Clark wasn't letting her back out. No way. He couldn't shake the feeling this was a much-needed chance; be it a second chance or a last chance, he wasn't sure. But the Kiss Off was an opportunity he couldn't let slip by. He had let so many opportunities slip by and he could barely stomach the regrets.
Whatever else was going on in Lois's mind, one thing had changed. Without the SUV, she seemed to be staying in one place. His initial fears—that she would take to wandering the dark streets of Metropolis, heedless of the dangers—had proven unfounded. For the most part, when he made the loop past her apartment on evening patrols, she appeared to be reading. Sleeping. Taking it easy. So he did too. For the first time in many weeks, when Superman wasn't needed, Clark was resting.
As he should have been on this night. But with the Kiss Off now less than twelve hours away, he was the one who couldn't sit still.
"I'm over-thinking it," he muttered to himself as he hovered over the quiet, darkened city, half-way wishing for a harmless fire, a sinking—though unoccupied—ship in the harbor. Just something to do. "It's one pair of lips touching another pair. No thinking required."
The lights of her apartment were off. She was there and still. All was well.
He would just go home and get some sleep so he'd be ready and rested.
He meant that. And yet he found himself hurtling towards Smallville rather than his own bed. Dessert time at the farmhouse would be long finished, but if he was lucky, maybe his dad wouldn't have eaten it all.
"For heaven's sake, it's just kissing!" Lois punched her pillow and tried once again to find a comfortable position. "You've certainly done that before."
She had. First kiss. Date kiss. Make-up kiss. Make-out kiss. Break-up kiss. She'd had all the usual kinds, some better than others, but such was the way of the world. The kissing, itself, was not the problem. Kissing was in the same category as learning how to ride a bicycle; it was a skill one didn't forget.
Easy. But for one thing. The thing that had made her turn Clark down the first minute he had volunteered. The thing that made her want to call him right now and cancel, despite how much she wanted a car.
If learning how to ride a bike was an unforgettable exercise, so was kissing Clark.
Lois moaned and buried her face in the covers. Those past kisses hadn't included a Kissing Your Partner as a Ruse and Secretly Loving it Kiss, but those kisses were on the list, too.
Top of the list, if she was being honest. Right next to the Drunk on Pheromones, Not Really Himself Kiss from…
Anyway…all the other kisses in her life's history of kisses may as well have never happened. Starting with sweet, shy Tommy Kirk in his braces, and ending with the last man she had kissed. The man whose name she didn't even let herself think any more.
"This is a mistake, a mistake, a mistake," Lois whimpered.
She knew a thing or two about mistakes, didn't she? She couldn't seem to make anything but mistakes, couldn't seem to set a foot right. Being so wrong in her judgment of…the man whose name she was not thinking…had taken her confidence away. So completely away, he might as well have taken it over the side of the building with him when he threw himself to his death. He probably had, for all she knew. It would be just like him.
She tossed the covers off and threw on a sweat shirt and leggings. She would go for a drive, fight the claustrophobia that seemed to press on her late at night when she was alone in her small apartment. She'd take a different route tonight. Maybe try the northwest part of town that she had traveled the least…
She had one shoe tied before she remembered that the keys clutched in her fist were absolutely useless. That Stan the mechanic was holding her means of escape hostage.
"Damn." Expelling a frustrated sigh, she kicked the one shoe as far as she could, letting it hit the wall with a resounding thunk, and flopped back onto the bed. For the millionth time, she wished she could call Clark—not to back out of the contest, but just to hear his voice, maybe even vent her problems.
But this time he was part of the problem. Him. Superman. The man whose name she wouldn't think. And what she had done to all of them.
Resigned, she shucked off the sweatshirt and picked up the battered copy of 'War and Peace' from her bedside table. It was penance. She would bore herself to sleep, or quite possibly to death, whichever came first. But she wouldn't call Clark and whine about her life, or force him to try to make her feel better. She wouldn't. Instead, she would just see him at the contest.
"It's not like I thought it would be," Clark said around a mouthful of pie his mom had been forward thinking enough to hide from his dad. "I thought things between us would be back to normal by now. I thought if I just took back what I said to her that day in the park—"
"What *did* you say?" Martha scooted her chair closer. She had been nearly asleep when the familiar 'whoosh' signaling her son's arrival had lifted the covers and blown her book from her nightstand. He hadn't been exactly graceful in his entrance, which meant he was distracted. Tense. Unhappy.
Martha held in a sigh, just as she'd done every time he'd visited this summer. But at least the pie seemed to be working and loosening him up. It was no kryptonite, but it came as close to rendering her invulnerable son vulnerable as anything else. At least it seemed to be rendering him talkative. Which was really what she was after.
He was eyeing her somewhat suspiciously now, so she put on her best loving-mom smile and patted his hand. "If you don't feel like telling me, dear…"
He sighed and tipped his chair back on two legs in precisely the way she'd been telling him not to for nearly twenty years. She let it go this time. He was ready to spill. "I said a lot of things," he said to the ceiling. "And so did Superman."
"Oh, Clark." She tried to take the censor out of those words, but really, sometimes she just wanted to shake him.
"I said I loved her. Then I said I didn't." Absently, he pushed his fork through the crumbs on his plate, and Martha grimaced at the scratches he was putting into Jonathan's mother's china.
Then again, she had never particularly cared for Jonathan's mother…
"Oh, honey," she said, because she had to say something, and she really didn't know where to start. "That's…not great."
He laughed a humorless chuckle. "That about sums it up. It's not great. It's bad, Mom. I don't know how it got so bad."
"Maybe it's time to just clear the air," she said briskly. "Whatever it is that you've been trying, it's not working, right? So you need a new strategy. And it might go from bad to worse, but maybe it has to before it gets better."
"Maybe it's time you told her." The gruff, sleepy voice of her husband startled both of them.
"Sorry I woke you, Dad," said Clark.
"You didn't," Jonathan said. "I smelled pie." He helped himself to a generous serving, the only kind he knew, and settled down at the table.
"You think I should tell her? Really? You're the last person I ever expected to say that," Clark said. "What's changed?"
"What's changed is that you're not happy," Jonathan said, pausing long enough to hold his son's gaze. "You love her. You want her in your life. Maybe it's time to go for broke."
"But I did that. I told her that I loved her. And she…she wanted…" His voice trailed away and he let the front legs of his chair hit the floor loudly as he moved to his feet.
"She wanted Superman," said Martha wearily. "Who, by the way, is you, dear. I know because I do your tailoring."
"Right," Clark said, staring out the kitchen window at nothing. "I know, Mom."
"You do, but you don't," she answered, maybe a bit heatedly, since Jonathan's hand moved over hers and gave it a cautioning squeeze. She exhaled, inhaled, put her mom-smile back on. "I don't think it has to be so complicated."
"I know," Clark said again, and this time when he turned around to face them, she saw something different about him. Something less defeated. Something even…hopeful. "I've got a plan. Something much simpler."
She sat bolt-upright. "Do tell."
He smiled. A small smile, but a real one, one that reached his eyes. "I'm going to kiss her."
"Kiss her?" Martha said, bewildered.
"Kiss her?" Jonathan echoed, nearly choking on his pie to do so.
"Kiss her," Clark returned firmly, the small smile growing. "For hours and hours. For as long as it takes."
"Now *that's* a strategy," she laughed.
"Crazy enough to work," Jonathan agreed.
"Where *is* he?" Lois voiced silently. She glanced down at her watch for what felt like the hundredth time since she'd arrived that morning at the showroom where the Kiss Off was being held.
It was eight fifty-five. The contest started at nine. Where was he?
Fresh doubts started weighing down upon her. Maybe he wasn't coming. Maybe he'd decided the whole thing was too crazy to take part in. Maybe he had more sense than she did.
She let a long, fretful sigh slip out as she dropped her arm to her side and once more searched the gathered crowd with anxious eyes. As she did, she tried to ignore the fluttering in her stomach.
Clark being late—and giving some insane excuse upon his arrival—wasn't unheard of, but today… Did it have to be today? He knew how important this thing was to her. She needed a car. Not that simply being here would get her that car…
Looking around at the crowded showroom, she estimated there to be at least a hundred contestants milling about, all waiting eagerly for the contest to begin.
She frowned. Apparently, she wasn't alone in her need for a car. Her gaze shifted to the six brand new, beautiful, gleaming vehicles parked in a large circle in the middle of the showroom, the overhead lights dancing along their flawless paint. Her eye went to one in particular. The silver Jeep Grand Cherokee.
She'd seen it the minute she'd walked in and knew it was the one for her. A slow, determined smile slid across her face as her gaze caressed its sleek, strong lines. Silver. There wasn't any silver on Superman anywhere.
She gave the other cars another perfunctory glance. Of course she realized there were other choices—the grey four-door sedan. The cute, two-door sports car. Even the family-sized mini-van had better gas mileage, though Lois cringed at the very thought of ever being behind the wheel of one of those.
No. There was no question in her mind. It was the Jeep Grand Cherokee or nothing. And Lois Lane never settled for 'nothing.'
Just then she heard her name being called by a familiar voice, and she turned. When she saw Clark hurrying toward her through the crowd, she felt her whole body sigh with relief. He was here. He'd made it.
She felt a smile move across her lips on its own volition, and she moved toward him. Then she stopped.
What was he wearing? Lois glanced down at her own jeans and long-sleeved T-shirt, then looked back up at Clark's work suit, white shirt, and customary wild tie. He looked like he had come straight from the Planet. What kind of kissing contest attire was this? Didn't he realize they were going to be sitting on a car for hours on end? Why hadn't he thought to dress for the long day ahead?
Clark smiled brightly at Lois and closed the distance between them. As he drew nearer, though, his smile slipped a bit at her obvious scrutiny.
"What?" he asked, glancing down at himself self-consciously, wondering what telling residue he might have missed before he'd hurried in.
She moved closer to hiss in his ear. "Clark, this is an endurance contest! And why on earth are you dressed like you just came from work? It's Saturday!"
"I know," Clark hedged. "I had to catch up on a couple of things at the Planet before heading here. And then I was delayed because there was this pile-up on the Interstate…" And clearing that pile-up had been more sticky and involved than he'd thought it would be.
Seeing the tense expression on her face, Clark realized her worry wasn't as much over his wardrobe as it was his late arrival. As if he would miss this. He couldn't help but smile. There was no kryptonite, no villain, and no kryptonite-touting villain that could have kept him away.
But Lois wouldn't know that. Or that he had definitely regretted the impulse to help with the interstate pile-up as the time had ticked away this morning.
"Don't worry, Lois. We're going to do fine," he sought to reassure her, hoping to put her at ease. To put them both at ease. He loosened the knot of his tie and unbuttoned the top button of his shirt. "How about this?"
She let out a long breath and visibly relaxed a little, looking him up and down slowly. "Better. But that still doesn't look comfortable. You see that guy?" She jerked her thumb toward a man dressed in oversized sweat pants and a rumpled T-shirt. "He has the right idea."
Clark raised his eyebrows. Yeah, the guy with the "right idea" was certainly making a fashion statement. A 'just fell out of bed after sleeping in this for three days' sort of statement.
"Okay," he said, seeing what he was up against. He took off his jacket and rolled up his sleeves, careful that the blue spandex ones went first. "How about now?"
Lois sighed. "I guess it's the best we can do. No time to send you home to change."
"It'll be okay. I promise." He caught her eye, projecting a confidence he was far from feeling. There was no clothing choice that was going to make this more comfortable for either of them. He knew that. Still, no matter how awkward, no matter how anything, win or lose, he wouldn't be anywhere else. Or, heaven forbid, have Lois here with anyone else.
"CK, you made it." Jimmy suddenly appeared beside them, a big grin on his face and a camera hanging around his neck.
Clark looked at him in confusion. "Jimmy, what are you doing here?"
"Since I wrote the initial article about the Kiss Off, Perry wanted me to come and take some pictures…you know, gather a little intel—er, information," Jimmy corrected himself, a look of apprehension momentarily crossing his face. "Yeah. Information. For a follow up story, I mean." He shifted his feet uncomfortably, then took a step back and gestured at the gathered crowd. "I'll…uh…talk to you guys later. I'm going to go take some pictures." And with that, he was gone.
Lois frowned. "What was that all about? Did he seem nervous to you?"
"Now that you mention it, he did. I wonder why?" Clark said.
Lois shook her head and muttered under her breath, "As if this isn't going to be awkward enough, I have Jimmy hovering around taking pictures of the whole thing…"
Clark pretended not to hear, but he couldn't help it. And he couldn't help wondering if she was having second thoughts. She wasn't, was she?
Clearing his throat and hoping for the best, he turned his attention back to the matter at hand. "So tell me. What have I missed, besides the dressing-for-comfort part?"
"The rules," she said, perking back up and causing him to breathe a sigh of relief. "But I can catch you up when we get started. Right now we pick a car. If we outlast the other couples, it's ours."
"See one you like?" He surveyed the parking lot for the first time.
"That one." Lois pointed towards a Jeep Grand Cherokee, not quite as big as her previous SUV, but close.
He winced. "I don't know, Lois. How would you fit that thing into the parking deck?"
"The same way I fit the Land Cruiser." She rolled her eyes.
"Ah." As he recalled that was done with a good deal of swearing and side-swiping. "What about…that one?" He pointed to the basic grey sedan.
Maybe it wasn't the nicest of the lot, but he was pretty sure it didn't deserve the snort and scoff of derision it evoked from her.
"It makes sense," he argued. "It's practical. Reliable."
"Boring," she added firmly. And he should have stopped there.
"Just because it's reliable doesn't mean it's boring. Sure, it isn't…flashy or…rich enough to own an airplane, but you can count on it. It will always be there for you."
He watched as her amused scowl was slowly replaced with a confused frown. For his part, he was still reviewing the choice of words that had fallen from his mouth. Whatever had possessed him…?
"Did you just say that car isn't rich enough to own an airplane?" Lois had her hands on her hips, her head tilted. She certainly wasn't studying the selection of vehicles any more.
"Uh." He shook his head. "What I meant was…it's a far more…economical choice. You do know our natural resources are limited, right? No sense draining them." It was lame and he knew it. He braced himself for whatever might come next.
"Interesting," she said. And nothing more. He really wished she would say something else. Anything else. Even more snorting and scoffing—just not the long, studious silence which told him very clearly she was reading him. Measuring his remark. And what she was coming up with was…probably exactly right.
He opened his mouth to try to explain, though he had no idea what feasible explanation there could be, but she got there first.
"You're just sad there aren't any tractors to choose from, Farmboy."
It took him a beat, then another one, but then he groaned and played along, gladly. She was giving his comments a pass, giving him an easy out. No explanation demanded. Thank goodness. "Hey, tractors cover a lot of ground, you know."
She grabbed his arm and pulled him towards her impractical car choice. He made a show of dragging his feet, of coming along reluctantly, but inside his spirits lifted. She was touching him voluntarily. And she'd called him Farmboy. He honestly couldn't remember the last time he'd heard that.
Suddenly he was very glad they were in this ridiculous circumstance together. He was going to win her an enormous, gas-guzzling car if it was the last thing he did.
Clutching Clark's arm tightly, Lois hurried over to the Grand Cherokee, a look of determination fixed onto her face. She paused when they reached it, and she briefly eyed the other competitors who were already seated on various parts of the car. Spotting a small, open space on the front bumper, she changed directions and headed for it, dragging Clark with her.
When she reached her destination, she stopped, her eyes widening. The one couple sitting nearest to them look fairly normal. Nondescript. The other couple did…not.
The girl, who appeared to be in her late teens, was dressed all in black, and a series of piercings adorned the entire curve of both ears and both nostrils. Her extensive jewelry choices didn't end there, though, Lois noticed. She had large, gaudy rings on each of her fingers, and several chunky bracelets on each of her wrists. The jet-black hair fastened up in a sloppy, makeshift clump and dark lipstick and dramatic eye makeup reminded Lois more of Halloween than every-day wear.
But she wasn't the only one who looked…different. The spiked-brown-haired guy she was with—obviously a boyfriend, judging by the way they were draped all over each other—looked no less strange. He clearly adored the "grunge" look—his ripped, faded red-white-and-orange plaid, button-up shirt hung open over an equally as ripped and grungy white T-shirt, and his jeans, smudged and dirt-streaked, had large holes over each knee and shredded hems. A quick glance told her he had several piercings, as well.
'Interesting competition,' Lois thought. She eyed the small space next to them. And the even smaller space on the other side of them at the end of the bumper.
Clark had picked up on her deliberations because he leaned into her side and whispered, "Lois, you can't be serious. Even if you convinced them to scoot down a little, there's no way we'd both fit there. There are already four people on the bumper."
She hesitated. Maybe Clark was right. They would be sitting in one spot for a long time. Maybe squishing between four people on a small, hard, metal bumper wasn't such a good idea. But the back bumper was already full, too. What was she supposed to do, though? *This* was the car she wanted. Where were they supposed to sit?
Just then Clark nudged her, and she turned to see where he was gesturing. One of the couples at the next car over had taken a thin, promotional blanket from a table in the center of the circled cars, and was settling it onto on of the car's hoods for them to sit on.
Lois glanced at the open expanse of her Cherokee's hood and knew it was the perfect solution. Dropping Clark's arm, she hurried over for one of the few remaining blankets and returned to him a moment later.
Eyeing Pierced Couple with ill-disguised impatience, she asked, "Can you guys at least scoot over so we can get up past you?"
The girl rolled her eyes and the guy grunted, which Lois could only assume meant yes, as they slid over enough so that Clark could spread the small blanket on the hood. Then he held out his hand to Lois. Smiling at the chivalrous gesture, she put her hand into his and allowed him to steady her as she stepped up onto the bumper and then sat down on the hood, her legs dangling over the grill. He climbed up next to her a moment later and smiled.
She felt a strange, quivery sensation in her stomach as Clark's thigh brushed up against hers. Yes, she was nervous. She knew that. She had been trying and failing to pretend otherwise all week. But this butterfly-in-the-stomach sensation wasn't the same as what had become the usual I'm-going-to-kiss-my-partner-for-hours one. In fact, these came disconcertingly close to her former Superman-is-so-dreamy butterflies. Butterflies she'd like to pluck the wings right off of, come to think of it.
'Stop it, Lane,' she told herself fiercely, deliberately keeping her leg alongside his and maintaining contact because there was no reason in the world not to. This was Clark. Good Ol' Clark. Friend-to-All Clark…
Her stomach roiled and pitched, apparently tardy getting the message that the body pressing next to hers was just Friend-to-All Clark. So Lois did what she did best. She went to work, turning to survey the competition. The better to know them, the better to beat them. From their higher vantage point atop the Cherokee's hood, she was able to get a good look at who they were up against.
"There are a lot of people here," Clark said quietly in an attempt to keep their conversation at least semi-private. "Have your eye on anyone in particular? Who's the team to beat?"
Lois frowned and shook her head. "Can't say for sure," she answered, glancing at the people around them. "I've been trying to decide if anyone looks as desperate as I am."
She glanced over at Clark and was a little surprised to see the look of sympathy, entirely incongruent to the circumstances, in his eyes.
The moment passed, and Clark's expression returned to a more neutral one. "So," he said, shifting his weight to get more comfortable. "Fill me in on these rules that I missed."
Lois flicked her hair over her shoulder and leaned back on her elbows on the hood. "It's pretty simple, really," she explained. "When the competition starts, everybody starts kissing. We get a five-minute break at the top of every hour, a half-hour lunch break at noon, and a half-hour dinner break at seven."
Before she could say more, the squeal of a microphone sounded in the room, drawing everybody's attention. Lois and Clark both turned to the center of the circle where a stocky, middle-aged man with thinning brown hair stepped up onto a low, wooden box and tapped a finger on the microphone.
"Can everybody hear me?" he spoke, his gravelly voice giving the evidence of a life-time of smoking. When everybody nodded or called out a 'yes,' he smiled and brushed an invisible wrinkle off the front of his dark grey suit.
Lois leaned closer to Clark and murmured, "That's Dan—Dealin' Dan's owner—and the contest director. He's a piece of work. He actually flirted with me when I showed up at the sign-up table alone. Asked if I 'needed a partner.'" She made a scoffing noise and rolled her eyes. "Yeah, like *that's* appealing. Stan the mechanic is a more attractive choice."
Clark grinned and looked back with her at the man as he started to speak. "I want to welcome you all out here today. We'll begin this thing in just a minute, but I'd first like to thank our sponsors…"
Lois tuned him out as she glanced around the room, sizing up her competitors one last time.
She was surprised by the number of people willing to spend a long, hard day trying to win something with no guarantees. Clearly everyone liked winning. And everyone was in the market for a little luck.
Lois straightened and lifted her chin in determination. It didn't matter how many of them there were. She was past due for her luck to change. Today would be the perfect day for it. She tuned back in to Dealin' Dan as he went over the rules once more.
Finally, he finished reading from his list of notes and grinned at the couples all looking up at him expectantly. "So, are you guys ready for this?"
"Yeah!" came the excited cry from the crowd.
"Then let's get this thing started!" he yelled, and his echoing words were soon swallowed up by the roar of the people in the room. When the din had died down a bit, he spoke again into the microphone. "Let's do this at a countdown of ten. You ready? Ten! Nine…"
The larger portion of the gathered crowd counted along with him, their enthusiasm contagious. Lois looked over at Clark and giggled, feeling suddenly giddy. Her voice joined the others for a couple of counts, but her smile quickly faded when she caught the small smile of nervous anticipation on Clark's face, and the strange look of longing…
All at once, she was transported to a time months ago when she'd seen that same longing. A time when…
She swallowed past the lump in her throat when the day at the park so many months ago came rushing to the forefront of her mind, barraging her with memories. Larger than life, she could see that look he'd had as he'd professed his love for her.
The very same look he had right now.
She drew in her breath sharply. No. It was well established that she didn't read men well. She thought she'd had an unspoken understanding with Superman, based almost solely on what she'd wanted to see in his eyes. And she'd assumed that…the man whose name she no longer let herself think…had had a look of steadiness, assuredness about him. That was so far off the mark it was laughable.
Clark was merely nervous like she was. She needed to stop revisiting the day in the park and remember the other day. The day Mr. Stern had arrived with the Daily Planet globe, announcing his plans to rebuild. Clark had admitted he'd only said he'd loved her to keep her from… He'd said that he hadn't really meant it.
Feeling hot and cold at the same time, Lois saw the situation for what it was. It was awkward, pure and simple. They had both known it would be, hadn't they? And that, and only that, was reflecting back to her in Clark's gaze.
She shook herself free of her thoughts—for all of a second as the final countdown loomed large and daunting.
"Maybe we should have some rules of our own," she blurted.
"Such as?" he murmured, looking at her quizzically.
"You know, that this is just business. An arrangement. We're here for the car and that's it."
"You said that all in one breath," he commented.
"And I know all that, Lois, okay?"
Lois nodded. Her heart jumped as their shoulders touched, and she attempted to force its furious thudding to slow.
Their faces moved closer.
Rubbing her damp hands along her jean-clad thighs, Lois made herself look upward—into Clark's intense gaze. A mixture of emotions flickered through those warm, brown eyes splattered with a hint of hazel.
She could do this. She'd get through it somehow.
"One!" A chorus of air horns and wild cheers from the surrounding spectators filled the air.
Lois shut her mind to everything else and leaned into him.
The shouted 'One' reverberated in Clark's head even after its echo died away in the showroom. The quiet that followed was somewhat disconcerting after the ruckus that had preceded it. It was broken only by the sounds of giggles and lips clasping and unclasping, and muted cheers from the sidelines.
He kept his mind on those things, tuned into those sounds and the still resonating 'One,' in an effort to drown-out the hammering of Lois's heart. Its rapid-fire staccato was unnerving, to say the least. And illuminating, to say more.
She was so nervous. Almost painfully so. Not just about winning the car. Though she was a fierce competitor, so that had to factor in somewhere. But her pounding heart, and the parade of emotions that had moved over her face once they'd settled onto the car's hood, told him more than months of stilted conversations had combined.
She was not unaffected by him. She was not indifferent. Far from it.
He frowned. Now he just needed to know if that was good…or really, really bad.
"All couples now kissing!" bellowed their friend with the microphone. "First break in one hour. The judge is circling."
"Clark?" Lois's whisper was nearly inaudible, and the breath of it stole over his upper lip and onto his cheek.
"Yeah?" He tried to focus on her, but she was so close he could only see a sweep of hair, an eyebrow, and one dark, unreadable eye.
"The kissing," she said.
"Yeah?" he said again, looking into that one brown eye as if they talked from this proximity every day.
"We are…not." As he watched, the brow drew down a fraction. A dangerous fraction. He didn't need to see the full picture to know that. Her pupil was enlarging, too. And it had already been fairly wide to start with—a tell on her nerves.
"You've changed your mind?" he breathed back on her, moving his hands from the hood of the car onto her shoulders, not really to hold her there, just…well…maybe to hold her there. If she was leaving, giving up, or…running, most likely, he wanted to be clear who was abandoning the game and why, otherwise he'd never live it down.
"No." This was a hiss, and it tickled. He didn't dare smile. "We aren't…you haven't…you're still…hovering."
He removed his hands from her shoulders in a blur, feeling blindly for the hood on either side. Dear God, he was hovering?! In a room full of witnesses? With Dealin' Dan right there to announce the play by play?
'Ladies and gentleman, please direction your attention to the silver Jeep Grand Cherokee where Superman is kissing Lois Lane…''
His hands touched metal just as they should, and his own heart rate, now hammering to rival Lois's, dipped in relief. He closed his eyes. Drew in a deep, steadying breath.
"Kiss me," Lois demanded in a low, dark voice. "Kiss me now. They're coming to check."
Her eye was fixed over his shoulder and he could clearly hear footsteps headed their way.
Clark got it. Hovering. He was hovering. Nose to nose, eye to eye, scowling brow to puzzled brow. No light between them. But still… Lois was right. His lips were a hair's breath off hers. Not enough to look obvious, but certainly enough to feel obvious.
And what with it being a kissing contest in which actual kissing was required, that was a bit of an oversight. So, granted, Lois wasn't the only nervous one here. She had some company in that.
"Say it again," he said now, trying to draw that one eye back to his.
The footsteps drew nearer as did the contest judge's murmured, "Yes. Good. Fine. Keep at it" litany as he passed other couples, other vehicles.
She shifted her gaze, meeting his. "Have you changed your mind?" She brought her arms up around his neck and wiggled in closer. "You can just tell me." She tilted her head and he saw a glimpse of the other eye, a nose. And her worry.
"No." He moved his own arms around her waist, trying to make room for her, make her more comfortable against him. "Just…" He swallowed his pride, swallowed his nerves. "…we're good now? On the rules?" He didn't really know why he was hesitating or what he was after that she hadn't already given. He just wanted to know she was with him here. With him. And no one else. "Say it again, Lois."
Her gaze softened. The lips that were barely on his trembled, enough that he felt it, enough that he pulled her in another fraction.
"Kiss me." It was a whisper. A demand. A question. And an answer. All of it. And everything. Everything he had needed for a very long time.
With the judge's footsteps right there, Clark closed the distance between them—so small and so vast—and kissed her. Fully. He closed his eyes and moved his hands into her hair, feeling the warm silk of it slip through his palms. The warm softness of her lips against his. He breathed her in. Her scent. Her taste. Her absolute rightness. That hadn't changed. So many things between them had. But not this, never this…
He felt an unexpected surge of joy, of relief. They fit. After all that happened, they still fit.
The showroom, the other couples, the competition, the chatter of on-lookers…it faded in slow dissolve. Lois's heart beat in rhythm with his. He kept his ears on that, on their mingled sound, in unison for once. Their mingled touch, so easy and natural and…overdue. Long, long overdue.
Everything else, the past and the present, fell away. A heavy weight, gone.
"Might want to pace yourself, buddy." The sharp, sardonic voice of the judge spoke directly in his ear. Clark jolted, surprised to be caught off-guard. "It's a long contest. Though with a partner like that, I can see how you'd have trouble holding back." Wheezing laughter trailed away as the speaker moved on.
The damage was done, though. In his arms, Lois had gone tense, stiff. Her hands, which had been fisted in his hair, returned to his shoulders, barely skimming him now.
She was back. Back on the hood of the car. Back in the showroom. Back and fully aware of what she was doing—what they were doing.
His heart sank and he worked to suppress a groan. He had had her. Maybe for just a minute—a long, blissful one—but he'd had her. Right there with him. In perfect accord.
And if he knew Lois, getting her back to that place was going to be…tricky.
The top of the hour finally arrived. Lois was tempted to label it the longest hour ever, but that wasn't really fair. Or true. She'd had longer ones. The ill-fated march down the aisle, which her mother had later assured her had been more like three minutes, had certainly felt like an hour. More so.
When the bell sounded, Lois pushed back on Clark's arms, which dropped from her immediately. She turned without looking and scrambled off the hood to a chorus of indignant, 'Hey, watch it!'
"Lois." Clark had somehow beaten her to the ground and was trying to help her down—or protect the couples she was stepping on. Knowing him, it was probably both.
She ignored his outstretched hand, but did manage to look him straight in the eye. "Restroom," she said.
And she turned and bolted. It was not a run, she assured herself. She was just stretching her legs in a brisk, no-nonsense walk…as if unleashed hounds were chasing her.
She didn't look back because she knew he would be watching. Studying her retreat. Trying to gauge what it meant. She was so sick of being looked at that way. And besides, it meant nothing.
"It means nothing," she muttered aloud. "Just that I have to pee." She rounded the corner to the ladies' room and risked a glance over her shoulder. Yep. There he was. But instead of wearing a look of worry and mild bemusement—kind of his permanent face, now that she thought of it—he was smiling faintly. He raised his arm and pointed towards the snack table provided by the dealership. She nodded. He would pick something for her. She just hoped it was full of chocolate.
And possibly strychnine. That might be good.
She went straight to the taps of the nearest sink and ran the water on cold, splashing her face and the back of her neck. She stared at the water swirling down the drain and tried to stay blank. To not think. To not touch her fingers to her completely-kissed lips and remember how it had felt when Clark had…
She straightened so quickly she banged her head on the metal shelf over the basin. "Ouch!" And then because that exclamation had felt good, "Damn!"
"You ok, honey?" One half of a kissing couple she and Clark had noted earlier came out of the stall behind her. She and her partner were stationed on the grey sedan. The sedate, practical car that Clark had wanted her to choose.
The one that didn't own an airplane.
Lois nodded, biting her lower lip. She pulled some paper towels from the dispenser and scrubbed her face dry. She was definitely not freaking out and crying in the ladies' room just one hour into the Kiss Off. That was so not was she was doing.
"Boyfriend making you crazy?" This from the pregnant woman who was camped on the mini-van. She was one sink over and had made it into the restroom even faster than Lois had. "I am never going to make it. I told Nick. I said, 'You try it with an eight pound weight dancing on your bladder.' But, nooooo. Nick said we'd be fine. If I get varicose veins from this, I'll kill him. I'll drive right over him with that mini-van."
"Well, my boyfriend is making *me* crazy," volunteered Pierced Girl from the Grand Cherokee as she strolled in. She took a moment to glare at Lois before turning towards the mirror and taking out her make-up case. "Nice dismount, lady. You mowed down the whole row of us."
"What'd he do?" the sedan woman asked Pierced Girl, watching with interest as she began applying more of…whatever made her look the way she currently did.
"Brick had garlic rolls with dinner last night. At least a dozen! I'm going to need oxygen before this is over."
"Brick?" asked the mini-van mom. "That's his name?"
Pierced Girl shrugged. "It's Larry. But he likes Brick. He says it's more him."
"As in 'dumb as,'" Lois murmured in a low voice.
"What was your boyfriend's sin?" The sedan lady moved beside her. "You looked so upset when you came in here."
"Oh, well. He, uh…" Lois hedged, wondering how the truth would sound. 'He's far too good at this.' She shook her head. "He's not my boyfriend." There. That was true and safe. And said just as the other contestants joined the wait.
"He's not?" asked Pierced Girl, pausing in her attempt to ring her eyes with enough black to obscure her vision.
"He's not?" echoed one of the women in line. It was the tall blonde vying for the Mazda Miata, the two-seater convertible—though Lois didn't see how she was going to fold herself into it. There was a definite gleam of interest in her eyes. "You're with the guy on the Cherokee, right? He's single?"
More than a few heads turned her way, and Lois surrendered her place next to the sink with alacrity. Suddenly, facing Clark after…after… Anyway, facing him didn't seem that daunting just now.
"Two minutes," came the announcement from the microphone.
"Better hurry!" Lois gestured towards the exit, cutting her way through the crowd. "Good luck everyone," she offered heartily, making her escape.
Clark was waiting a polite distance away. He smiled at her approach, holding up a bottle of water and a wrapped item. "It's a granola bar." He made it sound like an apology. "I should have thought to bring you some chocolate. This has chocolate chips, but—"
"It's ok. Thanks." She took it from him, breaking off half and practically inhaling it. She'd been too uptight for breakfast this morning. "This will be fine."
They stood near the parked cars and Lois chewed, concentrating on that and not the horrible, weird silence between them. Or the fact that she had just told a room full of women Clark was single…
She placed her hand in the crook of his arm just…because.
Lois glanced around the room as she ate, and she spotted Jimmy along the far wall, talking and laughing with a pretty red-headed girl about his age. Lois hadn't seen her on one of the cars, so she assumed she was simply a friend of a contestant.
She breathed a sigh of relief. Knowing that Jimmy's attention was, at least for now, elsewhere, made her feel better. The last thing she needed was a couple dozen pictures taken of them to remind her of the awkwardness she was feeling.
She turned away in time to see the pregnant lady waddle by on her way to the mini-van. Lois watched her slow gait carefully. There was no way she and her partner would last. That would be one easy couple down…
The tall woman trailed past them headed back to the Mazda Miata. She flipped her cover-girl hair over her shoulder and shot Clark a look straight from the Cat Grant school of subtlety.
Lois checked. He'd missed it entirely.
She tried not to view the woman as a threat…to anything. She and her partner, who was even taller than she was—clearly a professional basketball player or a circus freak—couldn't possibly cling to the tiny bumper of that toy car comfortably for much longer.
Again the woman looked over, and again Clark failed to notice. If Cat were here, she'd have no trouble being noticed. And she would be the one to beat. She'd probably drive away with every last car, a panting and incoherent male behind every wheel. A testosterone-fueled parade…
The grey sedan lady waved to Lois as she returned to her partner, her simple gold wedding band glinting under the lights as she did so. Lois felt a sharp, strong flash of…
Not envy, not really. She certainly wasn't the marrying kind. She had proved that as loudly and publicly as possible. But the sedan lady did seem happy. At ease.
That was what she envied. How nice it would be to be so relaxed. Comfortable. To know what…and maybe who…you wanted in life. To be happy with the grey, practical sedan.
Lois choked on the thought. Or on the granola. Probably that latter; it was pretty dry going down.
"Are you ok?" Clark offered the bottled water and a few gentle thumps on the back.
She nodded in between coughing fits, eyes tearing.
Dear God, what if she had picked wrong? What if she didn't really want the flashy, muscle-bound Grand Cherokee? What if she wanted the reliable sedan?
And now she was committed, no chance to change her mind.
She furrowed her brow and tried to remember the rules. No switching. That had definitely been in there somewhere. She couldn't switch even if she wanted to.
'Too late. Too late…'
She cleared her throat roughly, pulling herself back together. She was psyching herself out. She was here to win the Cherokee. That was it. And nothing else, nothing deeper, was going on.
"You still want to go through with this?" Clark was standing directly across from her, working to draw her attention. He held up his watch. "Almost time. Are you ready for round two?"
He was waiting for her answer, taking his cue from her. That was his way. That was what Clark did. He always wanted her to define things, to draw the lines.
She paused in her chewing, momentarily surprised by how true that was.
That was exactly what he did. What he always did. Why was that? Why did he always let her lead? Why didn't he ever just…?
She finally swallowed the lump of granola and rocked back on her heels. Scratch that. She knew why. She knew exactly why. Once he had done just that. Once he had walked across all the lines she had drawn in the sand. And she had fed him his heart. Just as Superman had done to her.
Without thinking, she threw her arms around him and squeezed him fiercely. It was quick; the warning bell sounded and she stepped away. "Round two," she said, pulling him back towards the Cherokee.
"Round two," he echoed, though he looked and sounded completely mystified. "If you say so, Lois."
"I do," she said as they reached the bumper, and once more he helped her into place, moving her over their decidedly less friendly competition. "But you get a say in the matter, too, Clark. Don't forget that."
She waited until he worked his way up beside her, until he had leaned down and apologized for their painful, hasty exit before, which had really been all hers, but he was claiming fault.
When the whistle blew, she was the one who kissed him.
He didn't get it. He just…didn't get it.
Lois leaned in closer, putting just the slightest more of her weight on him. He took it gladly, tasted the chocolate on her lips, and went back to contemplating his not getting it-ness.
Tense and unhappy when he'd arrived. Easily explained because he was late and she was rightly worried.
Nervous and skittish when the Kiss Off started. Again, easily explained because as much as she wanted this to be a business deal, and as much as he had assured her it was that and no more; that wasn't true. And she would know that, really. In some corner of her mind, she would have to. Too much history, too much water under the bridge for both of them for it to otherwise.
Which explained her fleeing the scene after round one. Trampling innocents in her attempt to get away.
That he got. Completely.
Clark shifted, moving back just a little and wrapping an arm around Lois's waist to give her more support. She seemed good with that. She relaxed still further, and the contrast between their first kissing session and this one was so remarkable, he went back to trying to figure it out.
The granola bar. That's where things had turned. She had been eating, scoping out the competition. He had been standing, scoping out her. And then she had been in his arms. Changed.
The bell had sounded and they'd come back to the Cherokee and she'd lunged.
Maybe it hadn't been a lunge, he corrected himself. It wasn't as if she'd pounced on him, although he wouldn't have complained. But it was definitely a…strong lean. And when their lips had met, he'd watched in wonder as the one eye he could see had drifted closed. And she had settled in, searching for, and finding, a comfortable position.
As much as he desperately wanted to, he just…didn't get it.
On the tail end of that thought, in fact—so close to it he would have sworn she'd read his mind and he had therefore jinxed them—Lois went rigid. Her fingernails curved into his shoulders and bit into his skin.
He opened his eyes and found himself staring into her wide one. "Mmpht!" she said, and while he didn't get that either, he did get the look of glee.
"Mmmn?" he said back, careful to obey the rules and keep both lips touching hers at all times.
"Mmpht mn-mph myu!" she answered emphatically, pointing over his shoulder.
He gave up on getting the actual interpretation and instead swung around, taking her with him across his lap, to see what was happening,
The mini-van had one less couple on it. The pregnant woman was quitting, her chagrined husband following her from the showroom. 'Ankles the size of balloons,' Clark heard her saying. And he felt a rush of pity for her. And even more so for her spouse, who was certainly going to hear about it. 'I told you so, Nick…'
"That's one couple down, folks," sang-out Dealin' Dan.
Lois flashed him a satisfied smile, which he felt more than saw.
"Mmnew they'd be first," she murmured, allowing enough space while still technically kissing him to make herself understood. A cool trick.
"Mph…mmmnot…not hard to guess," he teased when he got the hang of it, enjoying her laughter, so close he could taste it.
She scowled, again with the one brow and the squinted eye, and he laughed back, careful not to let their lips separate. A cool and very, very fun trick.
He still didn't get it, but he found himself less concerned by the minute. The hour passed, and only then did she climb from his lap.
At the second break, Lois was a bit reluctant to pull away and head for the restroom. The only problem was, this time she really needed to. The bottle of water hastily chugged before was making itself known.
"Want something else to eat?" Clark asked as he vaulted effortlessly off the hood. "I think they brought in muffins during the hour."
He had been aware enough to notice that? For her part she had been pretty oblivious to all else…although… She rubbed at the twinge in her lower back, a nagging reminder of the car accident. She hadn't felt uncomfortable in Clark's lap, only now.
"Lois?" Clark was looking at her closely. "Are you hurting?"
"No." She shook her head. "My back is a little stiff. And a muffin sounds good. I just need to…" She pointed towards the ladies' room where the line was already out the door. She groaned. "How many stalls do the men have in theirs?"
Clark laughed. "I haven't been to check."
"Let me know when you do," she said darkly. "And it had better not be more than three or there's going to be trouble."
"Perhaps an investigation into sexual discrimination and plumbing?" His face was a study in innocence.
"Oh." She narrowed her eyes. "I get it now, Kent. You're a man, so you're in on it."
"Trust me. You don't want to know how deep this goes, Lane," he said in a hushed tone.
She turned sharply and stomped away, enjoying the sound of his soft chuckle as she did. She couldn't hide the wide smile that was growing on her own face.
This was working. It really was. She and Clark were doing this and things were going better than she could have dreamed.
She took her place in line and shot him a quick grin. Just in time to see the Miata floozy headed straight for him.
Clark walked over to the refreshment table, careful to keep his feet on the ground.
This was working. It really was. Lois was loosening up. Had even bantered with him on more than one occasion. It was something he had really missed. More than anything, it gave him hope for the future.
As the warm feeling grew in his heart, he repressed the urge to throw back his head and laugh for the pure joy of it. All this time, all the worry, the sleepless nights spent trying to figure things out, the careful, polite strain between them… And all they'd really needed to do was just grab each other and—
"—pick a muffin?"
"What?" Clark started, and turned to find himself cocooned in a cloud of floral perfume. He stifled a cough. "I'm sorry? I didn't catch that."
"I said, 'Did you pick a muffin?'" The perfumed woman pointed to the tray behind him. "You looked like you were having trouble deciding."
"Oh." He hoped the heat on his face wasn't as apparent as it felt. "I…no. I haven't picked yet."
"Elaine Harris," she said, offering him a well-manicured hand. "And you are…?"
"Clark Kent," he answered easily, shaking her hand. "It's nice to meet you. You're over on the Mazda Miata, right?"
"You noticed me," she said with a flirty smile. "How nice."
"Well…" He stopped before he admitted that it was actually her partner he'd noticed. The former center forward for the Met Net, darned good in his day. "It's a nice little car," he said instead.
"I noticed you, too," Elaine said, pulling a slip of paper from her purse. "And since the woman you're with said you're not her boyfriend, I thought…"
Clark took an involuntary step back as she brushed against his chest, tucking the paper into his shirt pocket. He felt a moment's relief it had just been the shirt pocket, because the way she was looking at him…
"My phone number. My partner is just a friend, too. So when this over, I thought maybe you and I could—"
"Think again." Lois's hard, cold voice answered for him.
"I was just picking a muffin," Clark said hurriedly. Stupidly, too. He knew that. "I mean, uh, Lois, this is Elaine. She's trying to win the—"
"I know what she's trying to win. And she's not going to." Lois moved between them, her chin up and shoulders back.
He slipped his arms around her waist, trying to make it seem like a friendly, nonchalant gesture, but he was a little worried for Elaine and her manicure.
Elaine, however, didn't have any more sense than the Porsche driver had. "You said you two weren't an item. What's the big deal?"
Clark tightened his grip a notch. Still friendly, nothing more than a casual hug…
"Just because I said he wasn't my boyfriend doesn't mean he's included in the refreshments. He isn't."
"You might want to see someone about that possessive streak," Elaine answered, strolling away. 'Call me,' she mouthed at him, making no attempt to hide it from Lois.
"Don't do anything you'll regret," Clark whispered as he felt every muscle in Lois's body go tense. "She's baiting you. She was just flirting, Lois. No big deal."
She turned in his arms, her eyes hot, searching his. When her hands came up to his chest and delved into his pocket, he didn't move. She raised a silent eyebrow as she unfolded the paper and read the digits.
"I didn't ask for that."
She blinked. Took a deep breath and released it. "I know. I know that. And really, even if you had, it's…none of my business."
He dropped his hands from her sides, aware that, just like that, the wall had risen again between them. He was not her business and not her boyfriend. Those were the things she had said all along. She had said them again today, and still she could kiss him like he was both.
He ran a hand through his hair, rumpling it, deciding. They could certainly kiss, they'd established that. But they couldn't stay forever connected at the lips. Sooner or later they were going to have to face reality.
The warning bell rang. Five short minutes and everything felt so different now. Lois grabbed a muffin and offered him one. He put it back, no intention of eating. "Why were you jealous?" he asked, timing it so she had just taken a large bite.
Her eyes bulged and she chewed frantically. He pressed his advantage. "Am I wrong? You were a little…territorial."
She grimaced, a blush stealing over her cheeks.
"I didn't approach her, you know." He held her captive in his gaze, not looking away. Not letting her, either.
She nodded vigorously.
"And I don't want this." He crumpled the paper in his fist, shooting it into the waste basket. "I'm here with you, Lois, whatever that means. And maybe we're going to have to decide, because I don't consider myself available. Not while you and I are together."
She swallowed. "Oh, Clark, I—"
The final horn sounded, breaking the spell. He grabbed her hand and they sprinted for the Cherokee. With only a few seconds to spare, he lifted her onto the hood and followed, not even pausing to sit down before he brought his lips to hers again.
Clark hadn't been wrong. She *had* been territorial. Unthinking, unwisely, she had charged over and placed herself between that woman and Clark, as if her partner was the gazelle and Elaine, the lion.
Clark's eye came open and regarded her. She shut hers quickly, too embarrassed to be caught looking.
His hands, which had been resting on her back, moved slowly, lightly rubbing up and down. Comforting, rather than romantic.
She was surprised at the unexpected rush of tears.
'Why were you jealous?' he'd asked. Why, indeed? Why be jealous when another woman had the good sense to show some interest in the world's kindest, most considerate man? The one she, Lois, didn't feel "that way" about? Why on earth would she be jealous?
She brought her arms up, winding them around his neck, holding on. Just in case Elaine was thinking of forsaking the Mazda Miata and her skyscraper of a partner and coming over and sweeping Clark off the Cherokee's hood…and into her blond, gorgeous clutches.
Clark's hands left her back and moved to cup her face, his thumbs wiping at the moisture accumulating in the corners of her eyes.
"You okay?" he murmured against her lips.
She looked at him then. And she let herself see him. See everything she had been afraid to see. Everything she had never allowed herself to see…for so many reasons. He was here with her, unavailable to anyone else. He'd told her so. And once more he had put himself on the line for her. The very least she could do was…open her eyes. And stop lying. To herself. To him. To the entire world.
"I picked wrong," she said slowly, carefully, not letting their mouths separate, but trying to speak clearly. "I want the grey sedan."
His lips grew still and his hands froze in their ministrations. "Huh?" Then he moaned, letting out a rush of air. "For crying out loud, Loisss!"
He'd said it with enough volume that the judge started towards them. She pressed herself more firmly against Clark, watching his approach in her peripheral vision.
Clark kissed her in a convincing show of renewed energy, but his one eye was glaring at her.
When the judge had cleared them, moving away with a warning to be careful, Clark spoke once more, the words rumbling up from deep within his chest. "Isn't there a rule against switching?"
She nodded slightly, eyes dancing. "We're going to have to break it."
"That's lunch!" announced the dealer. "Great show, folks. You have a half hour."
Clark heard Lois's stifled groan as she straightened. She was moving gingerly, despite the fact that getting down was easier—now that the bumper was absent a person.
The other couple, the non-pierced one, had been eliminated when it had become apparent the male half of the team was sleeping. Evidently that was against the rules, and his loud snores had given them away. His exasperated wife hadn't bothered to wake him. Instead, she had abandoned him there, head propped up against the hood ornament.
Bleary-eyed and confused, he woke as Lois slid past him. "Is it over? Where's Selma?"
"Probably home by now," answered Pierced Girl, who Clark knew as Stacey, since he'd actually asked her. "And I hope for her sake you're more exciting when the two of you are alone. Otherwise, I predict a really unsatisfying future for poor Selma…"
Clark took Lois by the elbow and moved her away from their less-than-happy group. "How's your back?"
"Stiff after being still for so long," she admitted, grimacing. She did a few stretches, putting her hands on her hips and turning slowly side to side, taking in the room as she did so. She brightened. "There are definitely fewer of us here."
"It wasn't just Selma who walked out," Clark agreed, smiling widely. "Another mini-van couple gave up. He said he was missing the game, and this was pointless anyway, and why on earth did she even think they needed a mini-van when he had no intention of marrying her? I think they broke up mid-kiss."
Her mouth dropped open. "Which couple? When was this? How did I miss it!"
"You didn't hear them," he said, more to himself than to her. And of course she hadn't. Stupid, Kent. "I…they…were practically arguing from the very beginning, so…"
"You certainly seem to stay aware of things," Lois said. And he eyed her carefully, to see if it was an accusation, or…if she thought he was Superman or something. But she continued to look at their competition. At everyone but him. "You aren't exactly lost in the moment, are you? I guess this is fairly dull for you. I mean, the scenery never changes." She laughed weakly.
"No, Lois." Now she was looking. And while the silence between them wasn't exactly comfortable, it felt different. Potent. Full of possibility, for disaster or for wonder or, knowing them, for both. "Believe me, this could never be dull. Not with you."
There. He'd said that much. And he was better at quiet than she was, so if he didn't rush it, maybe he'd get something back. A clue.
"Oh," she said.
He nodded encouragingly.
He raised his eyebrows and smiled invitingly.
"I'm glad," she finished, but only after she had clearly filtered through her inner thesaurus of things it was safe for her to be in light of his remark.
"And?" he prompted. He didn't want to bring up Elaine and the muffins, Lois's obvious jealousy, or her mysterious tears afterwards. But he really, really wanted her to do it.
"Annnnd," she responded, "I have to hit the ladies' room."
He barely stopped himself from saying, 'Again?'
She looked chagrined. "I never actually got in there last time."
Well, if it was avoidance, at least it came with a good reason. "I remember. The line was long."
"Um…right. That's why. The line was just…too long."
"So…" He took a few steps back and pointed towards the tables being set up in the middle of the room. "Lunch is being catered by Barney's Fish and Squish Emporium. Should I get us a couple of plates and find us a seat?"
"Great. Perfect." She was already half-turned, headed towards the restroom.
"And then we have to talk, Lois." He raised his voice, drawing her back. "This thing that you're planning—it's never going to work."
Lois turned and paled. He saw her open her mouth to respond, but before she could, a flash went off near them, causing them both to jump. Clark looked over to see Jimmy standing nearby, grinning at them as he lowered his camera from his face.
"Jimmy!" Lois growled, putting her hands on her hips and glaring at him.
This hadn't been the first time Jimmy had taken a picture of them, Clark knew. He'd been doing it all morning—snapping pictures of them kissing on the Cherokee…of Lois and Clark talking during breaks… He'd always been there, lurking, waiting for the perfect, humiliating shot.
Lois's voice drew his attention back to her in time to see her taking a threatening step toward Jimmy. "I swear to you," she hissed, "if you take one more picture, I'm going to break your camera."
Jimmy let the strapped camera fall against his chest and he raised his hands in surrender. "Just recording every piece of the event," he said, still smiling. But he seemed to sense Lois was reaching her boiling point, and he had the good sense to back up and disappear into the crowd.
Lois shook her head and frowned, then turned back to Clark, her gaze anxious. "So, back to what you were saying… How can you know for sure it won't work? We haven't even started. Just because I've been a little slow to realize, and I'm not exactly ready to talk about it, that doesn't mean I'm not ready to try—"
He moved towards her. "Fine. Then tell me how we're supposed to pull this off. How do we switch cars at this point? Just climb on the hood of the sedan and pray no one notices?"
"Yes 'that.' What 'that' were you talking about?"
"I got our 'thats' mixed up." She smiled at him. A smile he couldn't make heads or tails of. Again, he would wait her out. Wait for her to say more. He was better at quiet. Almost everyone was better at it than Lois Lane.
"I'm assuming you have a plan?" he blurted when she said no more.
"You know something, Clark? I really don't. I have no plan." She threw her hands up in surrender. "Planning has never been my strong suit, so I'm just…going to wing it."
"Wing it?" he echoed faintly. "Oh, Lois. Is this hair-brained scheme going to involve costumes? Aliases? Or fake accents? Just tell me now, so I can get the bail money together."
She clapped him on the shoulder and sent him off towards the buffet. "Can you do a fake accent? Maybe you could practice it while you wait."
He rolled his eyes, and despite himself he grinned. "Tell me, really. What's our plan?"
"I told you. There is no plan."
He knew he looked skeptical, but she deserved it. He may have been born in Kansas, yes…or, no, not really. Still, the point was, he wasn't born yesterday.
She shrugged. "Ok, I do have a plan."
"Ah," he said with deep satisfaction. "Spill it, Lane."
She leaned towards him, looking as if she was on the verge of imparting great wisdom. "From now on…you and I are just going to see what happens."
He straightened. "Wait. See what—what? How does that change anything?"
"It changes pretty much everything," he heard her mutter as she strolled away. It would have been inaudible to anyone else. But he wasn't anyone else, and she wasn't inaudible to him. He heard her clear as day.
Not that it made a bit of difference, since he had no idea what it meant.
Clark had set them up at a small folding table in the far corner. A plate for her and one for him, two bottles of water, some cutlery and napkins, and from somewhere, a cream soda.
Lois halted so fast her sneakers squeaked on the linoleum tiles.
…it looked rather like…a date.
Clark completed the impression by standing up as she approached, one hand pulling her chair out. One of those Clark-things he did, but that he never really knew he did.
Could a flashy, shiny Jeep Grand Cherokee do that?
She halted again. And this time he did one of the other Clark-things he did without realizing. He looked at her warily, befuddled confusion on his really…kind of…nice-looking features.
"Oh, geez," she breathed to herself. "Oh…geez."
She squeezed her eyes closed and opened them again. The impression remained. It was still just Clark, yes. Still just lunch. A shared meal between them—and they'd had at least a thousand by now.
But not like this one.
Not when she was finally aware. Or awake…or ready. She wasn't sure which of those it was. Her short time spent in the ladies' room had been so full of chatter she hadn't had a spare second to decide that, or how or what she was going to do about it once she had.
She just knew that her excitement on discovering that Elaine and her gigantic partner had called it quits and gone home just minutes before had been mixed with a large dose of relief. Elaine was gone. And she hadn't gotten what she'd wanted.
Sedan Lady had informed Lois, to the contrary, that she had. Elaine's partner, tired and cramping, had offered to just buy her the car as long as she let them leave. General consensus among all present in the restroom was that that had been Elaine's intent all along.
Lois could almost admire her for stacking the deck in her favor that way…
"It's calamari and I happen to know you love it," Clark said now, waving a hand in front of her face, proving he was more than just a mirage. "Do I want to know what you're thinking?"
"I don't know," she told him honestly. She didn't. She had no idea.
He nodded as if that made sense. "Want to sit?" He was still standing, still holding the back of her chair.
She covered the space between them and took her seat, waiting until he was seated across from her.
"We've got twenty minutes left," he said to her. "That feels like a luxury, doesn't it? And you don't have to worry about Jimmy snapping more candids during lunch. He came by to introduce me to Melissa—"
"Melissa?" Lois asked.
Clark nodded. "She's the red-head he's been hanging around with today. Apparently, her family owns that new Italian restaurant in town, and she's taking him there for lunch. Oh, and on a more contest related note—you'll like this. Elaine and the Met Net guy are in the lobby right now and he's writing a check for—"
Lois couldn't take the small talk any more. She just couldn't. "I'm not stupid, right?" she interrupted, getting right to the point. And she was aware that it had been a blurt, but she *had* said that she was going to wing it.
Clark paused, fork poised in midair. "Of course you're not stupid."
"There is evidence to the contrary," she argued, and she didn't know why she felt the need to argue it, just…she was winging it, remember? She took a deep breath and said the name she hadn't spoken since the day he died. The name that had grown so large between the two of them, even more so in death. "Lex Luthor…"
Clark put his fork down and said nothing.
Which was the exact right thing to do, and another one of those Clark-things she was realizing more and more she had such a fondness, or, kind of, love for. Also, she was really warming up to this winging-it thing, so it was good he didn't slow her down.
"Lex Luthor came with all the bells and whistles and bucket leather seats." She shook her head ruefully. "It wasn't the luxury that appealed. I know that's hard to believe…"
"I believe you," Clark said quietly.
"Thank you." She looked up at him and lost some of her nerve. She started pushing her strangely colored calamari around the plate. "It was the idea that he was so assured. Certain. Larger than life. And since my life felt…wind-swept and out of control, I sort of latched onto that. To him. Stupidly."
"Lois, he fooled a lot of people—"
"No." She cut him off. In previous months, he had tried to offer the very same speech numerous times over. Each time she'd deflected it. Didn't let him finish. It was no excuse. And it wasn't even true. There had been an entire list of people—well known and well loved by her—who hadn't been fooled. Clark was at the very top.
"The analogy breaks down a little here…" She cleared her throat, then had to do so again as Clark pried the fork from her grip and replaced it with his hand in hers.
"Go on," he said.
Winging it. She was winging it. So she said it. "Superman. Superman was…the top of the line. No way could you possibly afford it but wouldn't it be amazing…the ride of a lifetime." She flushed hotly. "I told you the analogy is weak, but…"
"But I get the idea," Clark said.
"Ok." With her free hand, she retrieved her fork and went back to mangling her lunch. "That's…good."
Clark spoke slowly, measuring his words. "Before, back there on the hood, you said that you'd…picked wrong."
She nodded, very grateful that he had gotten it. "Yes."
"You said you wanted…the grey sedan."
Her heart in her throat, she made herself look up from her plate. No sense in winging it half-heartedly, not if she was going to hesitate on the follow through. She couldn't have controlled the shakiness in her voice. And she didn't try. "Yes. I do."
He liberated the fork from her other hand and entwined their fingers together, both hands clasping tightly over Barney's Fish and Squish Emporium's Friday Special. "Let's drop the car analogy, because I don't want to misunderstand."
"You need to hear it straight," she said for him. "Because I turned you down so completely that day. And…I picked wrong, Clark."
"The grey sedan," she spelled it out for him, understanding why she needed to.
"And you want to…"
"Switch." She blew out her breath and sat back in her seat. There. She'd done it.
She picked up her fork and eyed her watch. "Better eat. I killed a lot of time with that strangled car-metaphor thing. Just be glad I didn't try it with chocolate. I almost did. 'Unseen, yummy goodness on the inside, but you don't know until you bite it.' Wait. Strike that. That sounds… You know when you get a big sampler box—Lucy sends me one every Christmas—there's no way to know what's what? And some chocolates are just dreamier than you could have imagined, but others have that weird mint-y gelatin stuff inside…which…is insane. And should be illegal. Because who in their right mind…"
"…would ever say, 'hey, yeah, that's how I like mine the best.' That's nearly as bad as adding raisins to chocolate, which…well, I've told you my feelings on that…"
"And…oh god, I hear myself Clark. I do. I hear me. I just can't…I can't…"
He slid out of his seat and moved her plate away; she had hacked her calamari into fish bait for minnows. Slipping one hand along the nape of her neck, he pressed his lips to hers. Hard. Completely. Being certain, she knew, that she didn't have the space to mumble.
She did, though. But only for a second as she murmured, "Thank you." And his lips softened, kissing her more gently.
"That's time, folks. Back to your cars. And I see we have a couple who couldn't wait!'
The booming announcement didn't even embarrass her. And better still, Clark didn't even seem to notice it. She had to gesture towards the grinning couples pointing their way.
He finally pulled back and grinned at her, resting his forehead on hers. "We've got the hang of that, don't we?"
"It's all the practice we've had," she whispered back.
"Let's go win this thing." He drew her to her feet and, hand in hand, they walked back to the Cherokee, surprised to find that only Pierced Girl, Stacey, and her Pierced boyfriend, Brick, remained on the SUV.
"Where is everyone else?" she asked. There had been two couples on the back bumper. Lois hadn't seen them in a while, but she had heard them and knew they were there when they'd stopped for lunch.
Pierced Girl gave her usual, eloquent shrug before filling them in. "Said they weren't feeling well."
And just in case they didn't get it, Brick clarified, "Puking their guts out."
"Too bad," Lois muttered as Clark lifted her onto the hood. The warning bell rang.
"So…" She glanced at him, taking a moment to puzzle over what appeared to be dramatically dwindling numbers around the showroom, before remembering what she'd been going to say. "You never said how you felt about…switching. If that's a yes or…"
The horn sounded. Clark swept her into his lap, pulling her close. "Put me down for a very definite yes."
It was the last thing he said for a long, pleasurable while.
She had given him everything. Unexpectedly and all at once, it had just dropped into his lap. Clark tightened his hold on the warm, responsive woman in his arms—quite literally.
He could hardly wrap his mind around it. Around…them. And they were a 'them' now. A definite them. Lane and Kent. Friends again. And so much more.
He chuckled, unable to hold it in, and felt her reflexive smile. He'd be doing a few thousand barrel rolls over the city tonight. Shouting in the artic, only this time not in pain…
Pain. All pain. The losing-Lois-to-Luthor pain. The bars-of-the-kryptonite-cage pain. The pain of the rejection in the park and the open invitation to Superman immediately following. Gone. Vanished.
Yes, he decided. That too.
'Without so much as a word about it?'
Clark shifted a bit uneasily, concentrating on Lois's hands stroking his hair. Her slow, steady, contented heart beat…
'Without telling her?'
He sighed. There it was. And he knew better than to think it was just going to go away. That he and Lois would win the car and drive off into the sunset…where he might mention all the sunsets he'd seen the world over.
And she might say, "Oh, really? In your travels?"
And then he'd say, "As a matter of fact, yes. Also I'm Superman, so that makes traveling much easier."
And her eyes would grow wide and she'd say, "Well, how about that? Isn't that great for me? Teamed up with Superman, all those sunsets in my future…"
He groaned. Lois groaned too. Not because she was reading his thoughts and critiquing their very high, Kansas-Farmboy cheese factor, but because she was hurting. Her hands had left his hair and were reaching for her back, rubbing and kneading.
"Cramp," she gasped against his lips. He could feel the muscles in spasm, and knew by her uneven breathing how bad it was.
He started to pull away, but she hooked one arm around his neck, scowling fiercely. "No. No way. No stopping."
"Then let me, ok?"
He started to guide her into a laying position across his lap, but she stiffened…and then gasped as the resistance caused the pain in her lower back to intensify. "Clark, what are you doing?" she rasped against his lips.
"Just trust me," he murmured, then felt her relax slightly.
With gentle hands, he eased her onto her back as flat as possible across his lap, and leaned over her, careful to keep their lips touching. Ignoring the catcalls and cheers of encouragement, he traced her spine to her lower back, finding the inflamed muscles by feel. He wished he could risk a dart of heat vision, but clearly they had an avid audience.
"I love these two!" crowed Dealin' Dan into the microphone. "Still going strong!"
"I'll kill him." Lois was beyond furious, but when Clark's fingers found the right spot and went to work, massaging firmly, she melted. It took all of two seconds before she uncoiled, a deep, heavy sigh of satisfaction transferring from her mouth to his.
He grinned. She did too.
Maybe this could be a bargaining chip? 'Lois, I'll rub your back every day and twice on Sunday if you'll just hear me out about the sunset and Superman thing…'
For a guy who'd just had everything he ever wanted dumped into his lap, it didn't seem that impossible a dream.
It was a really fast hour. The easiest by far. This feeling between them, completely natural and unforced, was unlike anything she'd known before. Better and more wonderful than she could have imagined. And she had imagined. Not something she'd admit out loud, but her Ivory Tower video collection and secret stash of romance novels…things Lucy was in charge of burning and shredding should anything ever happen to her in the line of duty…those were the secret hopes of her heart. The ones she had thought forever dead…after Lex, after Superman, after…all of it.
Lois felt the renewed quiver of those butterflies from the initial countdown as Clark's hands continued to move across her back, his fingers never growing tired. In a blissful, pain-free induced fog, she lifted her hands to his chest and let them splay across the muscles she could feel beneath his shirt.
An image from over a year ago flashed into her mind—an image of Clark answering his motel room door in nothing but a towel. He had looked nothing less than spectacular. The sight of those flawless pecs and abs had left her more than a little breathless.
Subconsciously, her fingers started to roam across his chest. Beneath his shirt she could feel the same muscles she remembered seeing, and they felt as defined as before. She brought her hands together slowly…and felt something strange.
What on earth was Clark wearing under his shirt? Her brow furrowed as her fingers began to trace the outline of whatever it was. It seemed to be sort of triangular in shape, and appeared to be centered only over his chest area.
What kind of undershirt was this? All the undershirts she'd ever seen were plain, with nothing sewn on them. After all, that was the point…not having anything next to your skin to rub against you under your clothes. But upon further consideration, she realized that whatever he was wearing under his shirt was thicker than any regular undershirt. In fact, it even made a kind of friction noise as the fabric of his white work shirt rubbed over it. That indicated something slick beneath.
A slick undershirt? With something sewn onto the chest? Was Clark crazy? Who would elect to wear something tight and slick under your clothes with a triangular emblem stitched over…the…
Lois's hands stilled, and it took her a moment to realize that they had done so because Clark's hands had left her lower back and were now holding hers, stopping them from moving any further.
Clark's breathing seemed to have quickened, as she could feel his breath on her lips. She opened her eyes and saw…something…lurking in his eyes. His brown and very familiar eyes. At this proximity, it was as if the lenses he wore weren't even there.
Her heart started to race. Her mind to whirl and tilt. She tried desperately to collect her thoughts and piece them together. It took her an extra moment to realize the loud buzzing she heard was the end-of-the-hour timer, and not the work of frantic brain cells…
Clark was the one who moved away. He sat up quickly, the widening space bringing his glasses back into focus. Behind them, his gaze was searching hers—seeking, delving…
For what? It was another question to add to the untidy pile accumulating in her mind.
Just then the sound of shouting from nearby pulled her attention away. She turned to see that Pierced Couple had also pulled apart at the sound of the break and had now turned on each other.
"Garlic breath?" Brick was yelling. "This coming from the girl who tastes like she swallowed a mint factory? I have enough Wintogreen flavoring in me to last the rest of my life!"
Stacey gave him a rough shove off the bumper and scrambled to her feet. "Yeah, well, I had to do something to kill the taste of garlic! You'd think you were trying to ward off a vampire or something!"
"Maybe I am!" he returned, stepping defiantly closer. "You're certainly dressed like one! I swear, do you ever wear *anything* that isn't black? Makeup…clothes…shoes… I don't think I can stand it any more!"
Their fighting had drawn everyone's attention, but the couple didn't seem to notice. Their words continued to grow more heated.
"Well, *I* can't stand *you* either!" Stacey shouted back. "As if I'd take fashion advice from you! At least I have enough sense not to walk around wearing dirty laundry!"
"You call what you're wearing 'fashion sense'?"
Stacey had clearly had enough because she swung at her boyfriend, slapping him soundly across the cheek. A gasp went up from the onlookers, and Brick looked momentarily stunned. But then he recovered and took a threatening step toward her.
Several startled cries sounded, and Lois and Clark quickly jumped down from the hood of the Cherokee to intervene.
"Hey, guys!" Lois called out, stepping forward and blocking Brick's path. She put her arms out, preventing the two of them from getting any closer to each other. "Come on, you two! Just calm down."
"Yeah, Staaacey," Brick drawled, his voice sarcastic. "Why don't you just calm down?"
Stacey had clearly had it, though, and she ignored Lois and lunged, swinging at Brick with Lois in her line of fire.
Clark quickly stepped-in, putting himself in the middle. When Stacey tried to move around him, he caught her easily, encircling her waist and lowering his voice. "Stacey, stop."
It was his tone of voice. Or maybe his posture. His easy command. All of it, really.
Unmistakable, unquestionable…completely unbelievable.
"Everyone is watching," Clark continued. "You don't want to do something—"
"—you'll regret later," Lois finished for him. His head snapped up, his eyes once more searching hers, just as they had when her hands had been all over his chest.
Only now she knew precisely what he was searching for.
A new speechwriter, no doubt. Clark always did have a tendency towards repetition in his articles. Something she had teased him about. The one thing she got to edit in his work. Usually the only one, whereas her rough drafts were ripe for the red pen…
He had said those same words to her earlier in the day. Elaine and the muffin incident. And Superman had said them to her the morning of her car accident as she had lunged for that arrogant man in the Porsche.
Just thinking the name Superman caused a sudden chill. Goosebumps rose on her arms, and a strange, queasy feeling tightened her stomach.
She could feel herself back at the accident scene—the strong arms that had wrapped around her waist…the firm yet gentle voice which had sounded in her ear… All of it brought this strange sense of…familiarity.
Those arms had held her for hours today.
Lois stepped back, her knees shaking. She put her hand out, searching for something to lean on or support herself with as she tried to regain her equilibrium. Her hand met with hard metal, and she lowered herself carefully onto the Cherokee's front bumper.
The triangular shape under Clark's shirt… The tight, slick fabric… The exact phrasing…
She forced herself to take a deep breath and come up with something different. Something completely different that made perfect sense. She knew Clark better than anybody. Or…she thought she did. Especially after today. After everything.
A hand on her shoulder startled Lois out of her thoughts. She jerked her head up and found herself staring into…Superman's concerned gaze. Hidden under the glasses, obscured by the loud tie, disguised by the casually tossed hair. But it was there for anyone to see. Anyone who bothered to look.
"Stacey and Brick are calling it a day."
She nodded numbly as she glanced around him and saw that the contest officials had come over and were ushering their still-bickering competition through the showroom toward the doors.
Clark followed her gaze and a slight smile touched his lips. "I guess that means there's one less couple to beat." But as he turned back to her, his eyes lit on hers once more and the smile faded. "Uh, Lois…back there, just then…"
If he hadn't said anything about it, maybe she wouldn't have moved. Maybe she would have taken a moment to think it through. Probably not. But as it was, his stammering gave her the jumpstart she needed. The numb, cobwebby feeling in her mind suddenly cleared, and the hot, burning sensation of oncoming anger quickly replaced it.
She jumped up from her seat on the bumper, startling Clark, and grabbed him by the arm. In short, anger-fueled strides, she stormed across the showroom floor with him in tow, heading for the narrow corridor near the back leading to the deserted sales offices.
"Where are we going?" he demanded, his voice low and confused as he followed.
Or maybe he wasn't really confused. Perhaps he was hoping to cover. Hoping some lame, ridiculous excuse would make any suspicions, any questions go away. It had certainly worked for him time and again.
When they finally entered the narrow hall, she glanced around to make sure nobody was watching. When she was sure nobody was, she shoved him back against the wall and reached for the buttons on the front of his shirt.
Clark gasped and reached for her hands. But he didn't stop her. One part of her mind registered that, even as she pushed his hands roughly aside and fought to unbutton a couple of buttons. When four were undone, she spread his shirt wide.
And there it was. The famous red and yellow "S." She still remembered the very first instant she'd seen it onboard the colonist shuttle. Her life had changed that day. Just far differently that she'd imagined up until now.
Clark looked down at the S with her, his body slumped.
With a long, shuddering sigh, she buttoned his shirt back up. She had to try more than once to get her next words out. "For future reference, if a girl's running her hands over your chest, you might want to stop her. It sort of gives the game away."
He straightened his tie in silence, having the nerve to look up and meet her stare straight on. "This isn't a game. It never was." He had the nerve to use Superman's voice right in front of her—right now, when she had him dead to rights.
"It isn't a game?" she shot back in an angry whisper, and why she was whispering she didn't know. What was stopping her from just screaming it to the heavens and letting anyone and everyone hear?
Something. But it most definitely was not compassion. "Not a game," she repeated. "Are you sure about that? What else do you call the time you've spent lying to me? Toying with my emotions? Treating me as some kind of plaything?" She laughed a loud, humorless laugh. "It was definitely a game. You just knew the rules and I didn't."
He opened his mouth and she waited to hear what he was going to say. What he could say to make this okay. Because she knew, with heart-lurching certainty, that she had once again picked wrong.
"Hey, it's the Lovey-Dovey couple." The familiar—though somehow less enthusiastic voice—of Dealin' Dan cut off Clark's first attempt at speech. "You two needed some privacy, huh?" He gave their close stance and Clark's rumpled attire a pointed glance and a crude thumbs-up. "Not that I have any objection, but could you park this love train elsewhere? You're blocking my door."
Silently they moved apart—away from door, from each other, out of the narrow hallway and back into the bright, noisy showroom.
The two minute warning sounded.
"Are we done?" Clark asked Lois.
"Done before we ever got started," she confirmed.
"I was talking about the contest. Are we…dropping out?"
"You honestly think I can go back over there and do what we've been doing all day? Now?"
"How about in one minute?" He tried for the weak joke. "Maybe by then you'll have worked through it?"
She wished she was the one with the heat vision. She would have burned him to a cinder. Instead she had to settle for staring at him so hard he flinched.
Without another word she turned and walked away, straight through the lobby and out the main doors.
"Watch the time!" someone called in warning as the door was swinging shut behind her. She didn't stop, didn't slow her pace. She just tried to remember how to breathe.
The first sob came quickly. The second came so hard on top of the first it gave her hiccups. Which just made her angrier.
"Honey, are you quitting?" the grey sedan lady—darn it, she'd never gotten her name—spoke up as Lois walked past her and her partner, who appeared to be retching rather miserably into the bushes. "What happened? I had my money on the two of you."
"I n-n-needed that car," Lois hiccupped. "Even more than I t-t-thought I did."
Because there would definitely be no flights via Superman ever again. But also no shared cabs with Clark. No chummy walks home after work.
And no more sleep in the foreseeable future…
"So why are you out here?" her friend asked.
The question slowed her steps. Why, indeed? Why was she running away from him? Why should she? She wasn't the liar here.
The liar had promised to help her win the car. The liar had told her from the beginning that he understood this was just business. An arrangement. Nothing personal. Selfless Superhero that he was, he'd volunteered himself.
The liar owed her.
Lois turned on her heel and bolted for the doors. "Thanks," she called over shoulder.
She found him by the registration table explaining their forfeit. Failure, frustration, regret…she wouldn't begin to guess at his expression. She didn't know him at all. She marched over and seized him by the forearm at the last possible second.
"Not dropping out, then?" asked the worker behind the table.
"Nobody's getting off that easy," Lois answered between clenched teeth. And this time *she* pushed *him* up onto the hood.
"Ladies and Gentleman, before we begin…" Dealin' Dan sounded much less like his usual exuberant self, even less so than when Lois and Clark had left him in the hall two minutes before. "…I've been informed there may have been a slight problem with today's catered lunch from our loyal friends and sponsors, Barney's Fish and Squish Emporium."
A collective moan went up from the crowd. Or what was left of it, anyway. Dealin' Dan held the microphone a little tighter and swayed precariously, looking a little green. Which, Clark remembered, was about the color the calamari had been.
"Did you eat any?" he asked Lois quickly.
"No," she hissed, crossing her arms over her chest. "As a matter of fact, I was too busy professing my love for practical grey sedans. For sustenance over style. Renouncing my inclination towards all things luxurious, flashy, and muscle-y. Too busy crying to the pot about the kettle to actually eat, so…"
A flurry of footsteps mercifully drowned out the rest of her words as, one by one, and then ten by tens, the remaining contestants dashed towards the restrooms. It was a contest of an entirely different kind now—a race to see who could get there first.
"We could take a longer break, maybe?" Dan proposed. "Need a few more minutes, gang?"
This time the groans were heavily mixed with curse words and invectives against his mother.
"You ate it," Lois said to Clark accusingly, pulling her gaze away from what had turned into a horror scene. "I saw you. You ate your entire plateful."
"I ate a whole plateful before you came and sat down too," he said. And then he waited for it. Knowing it was coming and that it was going to be bad. Back in Smallville, his mom had surmised it might have to get worse before it got better, and they were headed in that direction faster than a speeding…you know.
Understanding dawned, firing in her hot, dark eyes. He didn't catch all of her response. It was distorted by her grinding her teeth into powder, but he did hear the word 'kryptonite' and he didn't hold it against her. He did, however, take full advantage of it.
"Compliments of Luthor, I spent the night before your wedding in a kryptonite cage. A wedding I was going to stop, by the way, either in a suit and tie—" He tugged at the tie around his neck, showing it to her. "—or in a suit and cape."
It worked. He had her. He had her so completely he was nearly paralyzed under the heat of her acute focus. Where to even start?
"We'll take five minutes more." The announcement came over the PA system as a mere whimper from Dan. "And I'm making my personal washroom available, so let's leave Mother out of this, please."
"Five minutes, Lois." Clark turned to face her fully, intent on seizing the moment. "Give me five uninterrupted minutes. Please?"
"Fine." The anger was gone from her eyes now and replaced by…something even harder to look at. "Did Lex really…? Were you really…? How did…?"
"Uninterrupted," he told her, but gently this time. He had dropped a bomb and he knew it.
Lois swallowed hard and nodded her consent. He closed his hand over hers, holding her there, guaranteeing to himself, at least, that she would stay.
He looked down at their entwined fingers. "I've gotten so used to touching you. I'd hate to think that this—" He put a hand to his chest, indicating the S beneath his shirt. "—has set us so far back that I can't."
She opened her mouth and, with great, visible effort, closed it again. "But I know it has, Lois. I get that. Here's something else I get that you need to know. I get why you need this car. I get why you would be willing to come here with me in the first place, why you're still here even now—when you'd rather be digging for more kryptonite in Shuster's field."
She arched a questioning brow. "Later," he promised. "All of it. Everything I can think of and things I haven't, but I know you will. I'm yours. Interview me."
She managed to make her nod look fierce this time.
"The car," he continued. "You need it when the walls are closing in on you. When you have to keep moving, get someplace that you're not. So you drive for miles and miles night after night. You did all summer. You'd be doing it still if not for the wreck…I wasn't spying on you!" He held up his hand, trying to ward off the accusing daggers in her glare. "I was just…right there with you. In that same place. All the mistakes. The ways we hurt each other. The ways we…failed each other. Lois, you were my best friend and I couldn't bring myself to knock on your door and say, 'How's it going? Can I come in? Want to talk?' I couldn't. I didn't know how. Or if I really wanted to. Or…I knew I wanted to, but I was trying to get over that…"
"I'm not the only one who babbles," she muttered.
He made a show of looking at his watch. "Are my five minutes up all ready?"
"Fine. Go ahead."
"You drove and I…flew." He leaned in and lowered his voice for that last, although they were the only ones left in the entire room. "I flew evening patrols. Midnight patrols. Dawn patrols. I saved cats in trees and fallen birds out of nests. I scolded litterbugs and painted over graffiti. And I saw you out there doing the same thing…not the cats and graffiti parts. So I stayed with you. Watching out for you. Lois, at night, we were together. Even if you didn't know it."
She swallowed hard. "And then in the mornings we'd sit at our desks and…"
"Yeah," he said, not pointing out she had interrupted his uninterruptable five minutes, simply grateful she was hearing him out. "We'd get our coffee and try to talk about whatever the story was. And you wouldn't look me in the eyes and I wouldn't look at you."
Lois closed her eyes now. "You're right. That's exactly what we did."
"I whined so much to my mother she can hardly stand me," he confessed. "But I didn't know what to do. Didn't know how to approach the wall between us. And I know my part in putting it there."
"You weren't alone. I laid the entire foundation."
"I made it longer and taller than it ever had to be."
"Please." She laughed softly, wiping at the tears she was trying hard not to let fall. "Let's just quit this one while we're ahead. We've done the practical-versus-fancy car analogy to death. Even touched on the chocolate one. Let's not add another to our list of ways of talking about…what's so hard to talk about."
He felt his heart swell. She had always been braver than he was. Always the more super of the two of them. "Then here it is. I love you and I always have. That one thing has always been true. Despite how I've acted, the things I've said, haven't said. Done…haven't done. The list goes on…"
She spoke slowly, thoughtfully. "I used to think that Superman had a way of looking at me—a look that was for me and me only, even in a crowd. And that it was telling me that he wanted me to be…his."
"I tried not to," he sighed. "I always tried. I didn't want to give anything away to anyone. Didn't want attention drawn on you. Didn't want your attention on me. Or I did. I did from the first minute. Just…during the work day, you know? At the Planet. Not while I was in that…other suit."
"Is that all it is, then? Just a costume change?"
"It has taken me a long time to realize, but…I think…yes. It's a change of clothes. The one I take to work, just like my senior partner advised me. Underneath whatever suit I'm wearing at the time…" He held her hand to his chest. "…is one man. One heart."
"One lunkhead," she said. And he was light-headed with relief. She was picking on him, deservedly. But somewhere in the last five minutes she had moved closer…and stayed.
"Truer words have never been spoken, Lois."
Lois felt her entire body sigh with relief. It was okay. They were okay. Everything was going to be okay.
She smiled and lifted her other hand to Clark's chest, letting him wrap both his hands around hers. "We really did a number on each other," she said, her tone more solemn.
"We really did." Clark tightened his hands around hers and lifted them to press a gentle kiss against her knuckles.
"The calamari really did a number on every one else, didn't it?" Lois giggled and looked around at the empty showroom.
Clark chuckled. "Apparently so."
Lois slipped her hands out of Clark's and leaned back on the hood on her palms, feeling the cool metal of the Jeep Grand Cherokee beneath her fingertips. "Do you think anyone will remember we're here?"
"If there's anyone still on their feet."
She glanced once more around the showroom, looking for any signs of movement. Finally she threw back her head and bellowed, "Helllllo? Is this contest on or what?"
From around the corner staggered their good friend, Dealin' Dan, every ounce of his cocky smarminess absent. He looked peaked and very surprised to see them. It only lasted a moment. "Ah, the Lovey-Doveys. Too wrapped up in each other to eat lunch, I assume?"
"Something like that," Lois said dryly. "How much longer until the contest continues?"
Clark winced and leaned in to her side. "Be glad you can't hear the sounds coming from the parking lot, inside the bathrooms, and the neighboring shops half a block away," he muttered.
Lois bit back a snicker at the subtle mention of his superpowers.
"There is no more contest," Dan said, pressing a fisted tissue to his mouth. "Can't you see? Everyone's out."
"Not everyone," Lois said, opening her arms in a showy display of their readiness to continue. "What do we look like?"
"The last survivors of Armageddon?" Clark guessed.
Dan shook his head, but then stopped quickly when the movement made him turn even greener. "Not enough people left in the contest," he sputtered as he pressed the tissue more firmly to his lips.
"The rules state—" Lois said, rising to her feet and balancing on the narrow bumper, her hands on her hips, "—that the last couple to remain kissing wins. We're Lois Lane and Clark Kent…"
"…the last couple," Clark chimed in, grinning broadly and moving to stand beside her on the bumper, his arm slipping around her waist.
"Yeah, well…you're not kissing," he pointed out, scowling. "For once."
Lois sidled closer to Clark and turned toward him as smoothly as she could without falling off the narrow bumper. Then she put her hand on his chest and smiled up at him as she tipped her face up to his invitingly. "We're just waiting for the bell."
"Oh, brother." Dan rolled his eyes. Then, "One kiss seals the deal?" When they nodded, he started to look a little less miserable. "Bell rings, you two kiss, win, and go home? And this godforsaken day will be over…" He muttered the last to himself but Clark translated it for Lois. "Okay. Let me go see what I can do. Harve was in charge of all the bells and whistles, but maybe I can figure out the equipment…"
With more muttering that Clark didn't bother to interpret, Dan shuffled across the showroom to the equipment tables, leaving them alone.
Clark turned back to Lois and slid both arms around her waist as she balanced on their precarious perch. "One kiss seals the deal?" he repeated. "*Our* deal? You sure, Lois?"
She opened her mouth to answer—and was cut off when the bell pealed impossibly loud in the deserted arena. She giggled and decided to answer him another way. She smiled softly at him as she stretched up on her tiptoes and slid her arms around his neck. Then she pulled his face down to hers and kissed him…slowly, deliberately, and fully. As if it was the first time. Because it was. In all the ways that it mattered, it was.
Dealin' Dan's reappearance was signaled by a puny smattering of confetti that landed on Clark's shoulders and in her hair. "Whee-whoo," the dealership owner said flatly. "True love conquerors all."
He tossed the keys at them. Clark caught them one-handed; Lois didn't even see him look. He brought both arms back around her waist and lifted her up, kissing her back hungrily.
"I'm nauseated enough at is it," Dan grumbled. "Take it outside, kids. Drive off into the sunset together, will you?"
Clark chuckled against her lips as he set her feet back down on the bumper. Lois drew back to look up into Clark's handsome face, and she noticed he looked more happy and boyish than she'd seen him look in a long time.
She lifted a hand to trace a fingertip along his strong, firm jaw line, marveling at what she had standing right before her. She had it all—all the bells and whistles of the luxury model. It had just taken her a long time to realize what she had right in front of her before it was too late.
Her heart swelling with emotion, she smiled up at Clark and stretched up on her toes once more to indulge herself in one last, luxurious kiss. Quickly, their kiss went from teasingly light to heart-stoppingly passionate—when a sudden flash of light startled them and caused her to jump apart. Lois nearly fell off the narrow bumper at the movement. Only Clark's strong, sure arms kept her from doing so.
With her heart hammering, she whipped her head around to spot the source of the light. When she did, she groaned. Jimmy. He was wearing a face-splitting grin and holding his camera near his face, watching them with a mixture of glee and confusion.
"Oh, you've got to be kidding," Lois mumbled, dropping her forehead against Clark's chest.
"What's this?" Jimmy asked as his grin—if possible—broadened even further. "Obviously I missed something huge." He surveyed the deserted room and his brow furrowed. "There's nobody even around," he pointed out, then turned back to them, "and you're still kissing. Voluntarily. Perry's gonna love this…"
Lois dropped an arm from Clark's back and turned slightly to face Jimmy. "What about Perry?"
Jimmy's smile slipped a bit and he shook his head quickly. "Never mind. So, where is everybody? And what did I miss? I was only at lunch with Melissa for an hour and a half, but I get back here and everybody's gone, and you two are making out like a couple of teenagers on the bumper of a Jeep Grand Cherokee."
Clark threw back his head and laughed, a laugh of pure joy. "We won. Let's just leave it at that. We can fill you in on all the gory—and believe me when I say gory—details later."
"Well, then, alright!" Jimmy cried out, his enthusiasm echoing off the walls. "Congrats on the new car, Lois! And on…something else, it looks like." His eyes danced as he nodded at their willing embrace. He took a step back and lifted the camera to his face once more. "How about one for the record books? This is something Per…er, somebody, will have to see to believe."
Clark's eyes were alight with laughter as he turned back to Lois. "What do you say? Shall we?"
"Absolutely," Lois agreed with an eager smile. She slipped both arms back around his neck and moved closer. "This is one time I won't mind Jimmy's candids."
When their kiss ended and Jimmy hurried away, saying something about meeting back up with Melissa, Clark lifted a hand to Lois's face and cupped her cheek in his palm. His thumb traced the smooth skin.
"So, what do you think?" he asked. "Will we?"
A look of confusion passed over her features. "Will we what?"
"Drive off into the sunset."
Ah. Dealin' Dan's orders. "Only if I'm driving," she said, giggling and whipping the keys out of his hand. "After all, it's my car." She pirouetted around on the bumper and leapt down.
"Careful," he admonished, jumping down to land beside her. But she was off in a flash, scrambling into the Cherokee and adjusting her seat and mirrors.
Clark opened the passenger-side door and climbed inside. "Hey, I did help you win this car, you know. So, technically, half of this baby is mine."
"That's some technicality, Kent," she bantered—and the smile on his face showed that he was loving every minute of it. "I think you're dreaming, or maybe even delirious from fish-poisoning." She buckled up and inserted the key.
"But what if I have a hot date and need some wheels?" he asked, straight-faced. "In fact, it's probably not too late for me to go get a certain phone number out of the trash."
"Don't you even think about it." She glowered at him out of the corner of her eye. "This may 'technically' be *our* car, but the only hot date you're going to take anywhere in this car is me."
Clark's low rumble of laughter warmed her heart. "I wouldn't have it any other way."
He leaned over the seat to kiss her deeply, his hand slipping beneath her hair at the nape of her neck. When they pulled apart, Lois felt breathless and heady. Even after a whole day of kissing Clark, she still couldn't get enough. And what she loved even more was the fact that he clearly felt the same way.
With a giggle and a smile, Lois turned back to the task at hand and started the engine. "And just so you know," she taunted, adjusting her rear-view mirror and slipping the car into gear, "you should be counting your lucky stars I'm even letting you ride off into the sunset with me."
"I am," he said seriously, his fingers lingering in her hair. "I do."
"Love conquerors all," Lois murmured, repeating Dealin' Dan's words. Then she blushed. "I mean…I guess it's kind of corny, but, you know, it does."
"It does." He ran a hand along her cheek and tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. "Love conquerors all." His smile deepened. "And wins a really cool car."
Lois grinned. "That's the way all love stories should end, don't you think?" Lois stomped down on the gas pedal and pealed out of the showroom through the open doors, heedless of the obstacles in their path. "With a really cool car."
(And So It Does.)