By Jessi Mounts <email@example.com>
Submitted August 2001
Summary: When Lois and Clark go undercover as newlyweds to catch a serial killer, they find themselves wondering how much of the game is real.
When I started this story, my goal was to have it finished before the summer ended. Well, I succeeded. Unfortunately, it's the wrong summer. <g>
And I'm sure I'd still be working away if it hadn't been for the encouragement, editing skills, and nagging (Excuse me, Carol, *cheerleading*. <g>) of my wonderful beta- readers, Ann and Carol. Thanks so much, you two. Thanks also to the members of Zoom's message boards, who let me know, as always, when I was getting carried away with my story and forgetting annoying little details like logic. And, finally, thanks to my brother, my resident Tae Kwon Do expert. (See, I thanked you, Dylan. Happy now? <g>)
Feedback is, of course, more than welcome in any form you care to give it.
The lone announcement erupted into a cheer as Lois Lane and Clark Kent stepped into the frenzied newsroom. A makeshift banner, proclaiming "Congratulations Lois and Clark!" was flung haphazardly across the back wall, food cluttered every free space, and someone had decided it was all right to pull out a bottle of champagne at nine in the morning. But Lois and Clark only caught a glimpse of this before the riot closed in, smothering them with their congratulations.
The arm Lois felt Clark wrap lightly around her to keep her from being smashed by the crowd all together was greeted by delighted whistles.
"Way to go, CK!" a voice called out.
"Think you kept us in the dark long enough?"
"Ha! I knew what was going on all the time. I just can't believe they took so long to admit to it."
"Oh, you did not! You were still planning to seduce him last week."
"You've got great taste, Lois. I'll give you that."
"Why," Lois murmured in Clark's direction, "am I getting the distinct impression I'm not going to like whatever we did?"
As if in answer, a guy from accounting plunked a party hat on Lois's head and asked, "Mind if I kiss the-"
"Lois! Clark! Here. Now."
Followed by comments about increasing paper circulation, the two gratefully escaped to Perry's office.
Lois didn't waste any time once she was inside. Since Clark obviously wasn't responsible for the riot out there, she knew perfectly well who was. Plopping herself into the nearest chair, she asked, "Okay, Perry, what's going on?"
Ignoring her demand, Perry slapped a picture of a young brunette woman on his desk and launched into an explanation of his own. "Recognize her?"
"Sure," Clark offered from behind Lois's chair. "Kimberly Bowman. Oscar winning actress, married about a week ago."
"Found dead last night in Hobbs Bay," Perry stated bluntly.
"Raped and murdered?" Lois asked quietly.
At Perry's grim nod, Clark whistled softly. "That's the third newlywed actress found dead there this month."
"And the fourteenth death," Lois added, "when you include the other celebrities murdered there. All females, all newlyweds."
"Right," Perry agreed. "Way too many deaths and one terrific story for whoever cracks this."
Lois watched Perry suspiciously, but he gave no sign of where he was going with this. He wouldn't have called her and Clark into his office if this was all he had to say. They could have easily found all this themselves, just as they already had with the other thirteen. So he called them in here because…? Eventually, her curiosity got the best of her. "Perry, you know I've got no argument with you there, but what's all that have do with the mob out there?
"I've decided to help you along on the story."
Paying no attention to Lois's dry, "So I see," he slapped something else down on the desk, this time a section of the paper. Lois immediately recognized the publicity shot of her and Clark, taken at a time when the "hottest team in town" angle was being heavily pushed. But the "Kent/Lane" rather than "Lane and Kent" below the picture looked a little odd, and surrounded by shots of other couples she didn't recognize, she could have sworn she was looking at…he wouldn't.
Her eyes drifted to the page's header, innocently titled…no. He would not do that. No way.
Apparently having decided they'd had enough time to soak in what they were seeing, Perry cleared his throat. "Congratulations, kids. You've eloped."
"No, Perry. This isn't gonna work. Lois and I can't pretend to be married."
Lois twisted around to stare at Clark in surprise. That was supposed to be her line!
Perry, on the other hand, didn't sound at all startled by Clark's reaction. Chuckling gently, he said, "I seem to remember you being just fine with it when it involved staying in the Lexor's honeymoon suite."
"That has nothing to do with it. This is completely different and you know it."
Lois continued to stare at her partner in dumbfounded silence. She'd seen him take a defiant tone like this only a few times before, and she'd thought it was cute at the time. Then she'd realized it always meant he'd be turning into a lunkhead soon after. A well-meaning lunkhead, sure, but one who seemed convinced that she'd have no objections to going along with his lunkheadedness.
Oblivious to any stares, Clark went on. "This isn't just about protecting our cover. Perry, some of these women had elaborate bodyguard systems, and they were still attacked. They were brutally raped and murdered. You can't let Lois throw herself into that kind of danger!"
Perry completely undermined Clark's impassioned speech with another chuckle. "Son, unless you two've had a real wedding I don't know about, I don't think you've got a whole lot of say in the matter. And I doubt you'd have a lot of say even then."
Dropping any teasing tone, he focused his attention on Lois. "Honey, this was your idea. You still wanna go through with it?"
"I said I wanted you to pair me off with an *imaginary* guy!" she exploded. She waved an exasperated arm in the direction of her partner. "Clark's not imaginary! He seems pretty real to me."
"That's right. And if there's any chance a killer's gonna be after you, you need someone around who's a little more substantial than an imaginary guy."
His expression softened as he took a familiar paternal tone.
"We're gonna ask Superman to keep an eye out for you, but you know he can't be everywhere at once. I'm not gonna try to lie to you, honey. This story sure won't be a picnic, and you'll be the one putting yourself on the line. The announcement hasn't hit the press yet. Say the word, and I'll have it out of there faster than you can say 'Blue Suede Shoes'. Your decision. You wanna take the risk?"
Forget the risk! The visions of Kerths that normally danced before her eyes at the start of a big story competed with the less pleasant vision of her coworkers outside, who seemed thoroughly convinced she and Clark had just publicly revealed their passionate love affair. And of the irate phone call she'd be getting from her mother about 5.2 seconds after this hit the press. And of her and Clark pretending to be madly in love with each other every single day until a psycho decided to go after her with a knife. And…and…and of the really, really great story this was going to make when it was all over with! Oh, what the heck.
Tossing her head defiantly, she asked, "Where are the rings, Chief?"
"Ha! That's my girl!" Sending a sympathetic glance in Clark's direction, he said, "Sorry, son. You know you two would've found a way to get yourselves just about killed over this one way or another."
Clark gave a resigned grin. "I know it. Had to try, at least."
Perry nodded and refocused his attention on Lois. As his grin turned gradually from sympathetic to devilish, Lois found herself shifting uncomfortably in her seat. She didn't find her position any more pleasant as Perry rummaged through his desk, only to pull out two deceivingly harmless looking black boxes.
"It's just so happens, Lois," he said, snapping open one of the two cases, "I've got those rings ready and waiting."
She took one look at the symbol of everything she wasn't going to like about this story, twinkling innocently from Perry's desk, and suppressed a scream at the universe in general. She hadn't *meant* it about the rings. It was a figure of speech!
Gleefully ignoring Lois's dismay, Perry borrowed her left hand and slipped the ring on her in mock reverence. "By the power vested in me by the Daily Planet," he said, "I now pronounce you man and wife. Wanna kiss the bride, Clark?"
Lois leaped to her feet before Clark had a chance to formulate any sort of reply. "Don't even think about it," she warned.
As she turned to leave with the prudently silent Clark, Perry cleared his throat for the inevitable parting shot. "You know, kids, if you want to make this official, I'm qualified to do it."
Lois turned back around to stare at her editor incredulously. "Church of Blue Suede Deliverance," the man said helpfully.
The explanation didn't make Lois's expression any less incredulous. He was kidding, wasn't he?
About a dozen pairs of Elvis eyes around his office gazed back at her in stern reply. No, actually, he probably wasn't.
"That's okay, Perry," she finally said. "We'll stick with the rings."
"I didn't say that," Clark spoke up.
"We'll stick with the rings," Lois repeated emphatically, making her way toward the door again. Clark stopped her in mid-stride, gently taking her hand into his.
At the choke of laughter from behind, Lois shot Perry the most poisonous glance she dared to give her boss. The rest of that questioning glare landed, full force and undiluted, on the kidnapper of her hand.
Clark only shrugged, unfazed. "We're newlyweds. It's expected."
Lois groaned at his irritatingly perfect logic. "You are really going to enjoy doing this to me, aren't you?"
He gave her one of those charming grins. Lois had yet to decide if he had any idea how irresistible those things were. "You bet I am," he said.
She threw up both hands in frustration, dragging Clark's hand up with her. "Fine. Let's go face the masses."
They had barely made it through the door when the crowd descended again, demanding speeches and displays of affection. The shamelessly unprofessional group won out, and the crowd's chatter turned to unsynchronized chants of "Kiss her!"
Clark watched Lois tentatively, obviously not willing to do this without her permission. Lois wasn't sure if she was ready to give it.
What was wrong with her? She'd never had any problem with doing whatever it took to protect her cover before. But then, her cover had never involved kissing her partner in front of just about all her colleagues.
Oh, well. It had to happen sometime. Might as well get it over with. Smiling encouragingly at Clark, she said, "All right, Mr. Kent. Let's show them how a kiss is meant to be done."
At the undisguised look of delight that crossed his face, Lois wondered for a second if maybe he was going to enjoy this even more than he let on. Then the delight changed to something more mischievous than romantic and she heard him say, "Mrs. Kent, I'd love to."
Mrs. Kent? *Mrs. Kent!?* She wasn't Mrs. anybody. Her name was Lois *Lane* and would be even if she married Mr. Right, who was not, she wanted to inform Clark, going to him!
But Clark effectively silenced any of those protests with a very convincing kiss. And as the kiss deepened into something that felt more sincere than a charade, she began to wonder if she was going to enjoy this more than she'd let on too.
The day, Clark reflected as he watched Lois maneuver her way through traffic, had been…interesting. To put it mildly.
Breathtaking, tormenting, magnificent, and frustrating to put it accurately.
At one point Lois had abducted him from a mundane conversation with Ralph and kissed him. She'd taken him his by his shirt lapels, pinned him against the nearest desk, and kissed him. For that instant, Clark had gladly let all rational thoughts of the story or of anything at all other than Lois escape him, and he'd been sure that about six different fantasies had all collided at once in his arms.
And then, of course, reality had come crashing back, when the sweet nothings she leaned over to whisper had turned out to be, "Mention this again and you're dead," but the cold splash of reality was more than worth it for the sake of that one perfect instant.
So he'd probably taken the love-sick groom thing a bit too far, but he had every intention of taking it exactly that far tomorrow.
Finally, *finally*, he didn't have to jerk his gaze away when Lois's eyes met his. After all, who could blame him if couldn't help spending half his time simply watching his beautiful, wonderful wife? And if he gave her only a blissful grin when he met her eyes, that was to be expected, wasn't it? He doubted anyone would blame them if they wanted to vanish to the nearest supply closet for a while.
Nope. No way. If he actually had the audacity to spirit her off to anywhere, invulnerability wouldn't do him a bit of good.
Which hadn't stopped him from committing plenty of other suicidal acts.
She'd been having an animated conversation with Jimmy, gesturing frantically, the glints of light reflected by the ring bouncing in a thousand different directions. Of course, the ring meant nothing. It was just an expensive rock. If anything, after the conversation in the office, it was a reminder to both of them that this certainly *wasn't* real.
But only too eager to act in his role of adoring husband, he'd surprised her by capturing the hand adorned by that ring, and softly kissed her near the base of her finger, as if that ring really was the symbol of everything beautiful it implied. He'd moved the loving kiss near her ear, only to murmur the incongruous statement, "Donut, my love?"
Her eyes had widened for only in an instant in shock before they'd brightened into a smile. Turning to face him head on, she'd laughed. "My love?"
She'd smiled again, and it was so easy to forget this only a game, a play put on for Jimmy's sake.
Refusing to let any real longing show, he'd grinned amiably back and said, "What? Don't like it?"
"Oh, it's very nice. It's just that great lovers don't usually come bearing-" Her eyes traveled in he direction of the sprinkled donut in his hand, "-stale donuts."
At that point, the laughter Jimmy had dutifully been trying to hold back escaped and he threw up his hands in retreat. "You guys have fun working this out. I'm outta here."
"Believe me, we will," Clark had said, kissing Lois again until Jimmy disappeared, and then the game, and the kiss, was over.
A game. That's all. A dangerous, possibly deadly game, that Clark would put an end to in a heartbeat if he could.
Lois, of course, had assured him nothing could possibly go wrong. They had this all under control, and besides, Superman had agreed keep an eye out for her. He'd never let anything happen to her.
Superman can't be everywhere at once, he'd countered. He'd thought, Superman's been at your side, protecting you more carefully than he has any other human being on the planet, and look where that's got you. Shot at, nearly drowned, tossed off buildings, strapped to bombs, stuffed in barrels, and strangled.
No, Superman could never be everywhere at once. And I'm *never* there when you need me, Lois.
He sighed, and Lois echoed with an equally dismal sigh. "Hey, it's not the end of the world, you know. If my stuff cluttering up your place bothers you that much, I can always stay at a hotel somewhere."
At the thought of her alone right now, Clark found himself abruptly pulled out of his sulking. "No way. You're not getting out of my sight. And I love having you around, Lois. Anytime. You know that, right?"
What he now realized had only been a mock-hurt look to begin with softened into a smile. "Well, thank you, Officer Kent," she said gently. "And I know, Clark. And I love that. Thank you."
By this time, Lois had pulled her Jeep up next to her apartment but didn't seem to be aware of it until she pulled her gaze away from Clark's with a start. "Oh. Well. Speaking of my stuff, um, we're here. And I need to get it. My stuff, I mean. And, uh, you can come in if you want, but my packing won't be exactly thrilling."
Her tone said she didn't want an audience, and the sound of a routine call for help, maybe the last one he'd let himself answer for the next few days, finished the decision for him. "Oh, no, that's okay, Lois," he said, for once managing to keep his excuse in a neutral voice. "It's nice out. I'll take a walk. Meet you back here in about an hour?"
She nodded, already letting herself out of the Jeep. "Hour's good."
He started to turn his back on her and walk away, but the sound of her voice stopped him at the last second. "Clark?"
He turned back to see her standing in front of her apartment, smiling almost shyly.
"It'll be okay, Clark. You'll see. Superman's watching out for us, and, Clark, you're watching. We'll be okay."
If Lois had been standing any closer, he knew in that second he would have clearly betrayed how much her statement terrified him. What had he ever done to deserve her trust like that? But he quickly covered with a care- free smile he certainly didn't feel. "Of course we'll be okay. We're Lane and Kent, remember? We're indestructible."
With that confident promise, he spun around and headed merrily off, the only way he could think of to keep himself from blurting out the truth. The two men she counted on to protect her were in reality only one who'd been lying to her all along. One man who didn't have nearly as much trust in his ability to keep her safe as she did.
A frazzled Lois Lane burst through her apartment door, carefully holding the day's paper at arm's length, as if any closer and she'd be contaminated by a poison the paper radiated.
Perry had been true to his word, all right. The announcement of her and Clark's "marriage" hadn't hit the presses until Lois had given her consent. In fact, he'd waited a whole fifteen seconds before sending it off. Then it had been very prominently displayed in the afternoon edition's marriage section.
A marriage section her mother hadn't seen yet, if the lack of messages on her machine were any indication. Or else her mother was actually being sensible about this kind of thing for once and waiting until she knew Lois would be home from work. If that were the case, she could be expecting a phone call right about…
The phone jangled insistently, right on schedule.
Bracing herself for the barrage of complaints she was going to receive, Lois reluctantly picked up the receiver to hear, "Lois Lane, how could you!?"
Pleasantly surprised, Lois smiled into the phone. "Hi, Luce. Thought you'd be Mom."
"You'd better be glad I'm not Mom. She's going to be furious with you!"
"And you're not?"
"Well, of course I am! Lois Lane, how could you!?"
"How could I what?"
"Oh, don't you play dumb with me. Like half of Metropolis doesn't know by now. You ran off and married Clark Kent!"
"Lois Lane, how could you!?"
"I think you said that already."
"Well, I mean, of course I'm thrilled that you're married to Clark. He's perfect for you. But you didn't call me! You didn't tell me! Lois, I wanted to be there!"
"Lucy, I didn't-"
"Oh, well, at least you're finally with Clark. I can't believe how long it took you to see how wonderful you'd be together. And the guy's been hopelessly in love with you from the beginning."
"Oh, remember the time you dragged Clark to that dinner with Daddy and me? He spent half the time staring adoringly at you and the other half leaping to your defense anytime anyone tried to say anything remotely negative about you. It was so cute! So, were you two together then?"
"We're not even-"
"Oh, you weren't, were you? Wow, that wasn't that long ago. What did he do, sweep you off your feet overnight? Now that would be romantic. And I could just see Clark getting desperate enough to try it, since you wouldn't even give him a second glance. You know, I'm almost-"
"Clark Kent is not in love with me!"
For the first time, silence prevailed at the other end of the line. Finally, her sister's voice came back, sounding a bit shaken. "Okay, Lois, look, I know you have a tendency to be a bit insecure about men, but this is just silly. If you don't think Clark's in love with you, even if it is ridiculously obvious, you shouldn't be marrying the guy. It's just-"
"Lucy!" Lois exploded, thoroughly exasperated. "I'm not, he's not, and we're not!"
Taking a deep breath, Lois attempted a rational explanation. "It's a story. There's a murderer targeting celebrity newlyweds, and the only celebrities I had on hand were me and Clark, so…"
"Oh, you didn't."
"Lois Lane, how could you!?"
"Like I was trying to tell you, it was very simple. I said 'Perry, I want to fake my marriage," and he said 'Lois, here's your rings; you're married to Clark; good luck."
"I can't believe you. So how's Clark taking it?"
Lois groaned. "When he's not acting the most over-zealous adoring groom I've seen in my life, he's protecting my every move, like the murderer's going to swoop in and carry me off in the middle of the Daily Planet."
"Oh, you are blind, aren't you?"
"Are you even listening to yourself? The man is so obviously crazy about you."
"Oh, no, he's not."
"Oh, yes, he is."
"He's not. He told me he's not."
"Oh, really? When?"
"A couple days after he said he was in love with me."
"A couple days after he said he was in love with me."
"Look, it was in the middle of the Luthor fiasco; life was hectic. I didn't even think to tell you."
"I don't care about you telling me! He said he was in love with you!"
"But he took it back."
"But he said he was in love with you!"
"It was a last-ditch attempt to stop me from marrying Luthor."
"Lois, I don't think Clark's the kind of guy to take a thing like that lightly. What exactly did he say?"
"That's not any of your business. And he's not in love, Luce. He said he's not."
"Oh, fine. He's not in love with you. The man just happens to jump at any chance he can get to spend time with you, is fantastic at "pretending" to be in love with you, and probably wouldn't hesitate to die for you!"
Lois couldn't think of anything to say to that, so she kept her mouth shut.
"What? Not gonna deny that?"
Since, as a matter of fact, she didn't have a single legitimate denial to any of it, she said the only other thing that came to mind. "Look, Luce, I've gotta go. I'm supposed to be packing, and Clark's-"
"You're moving in with him? Oh, this is just too good."
"And Clark," she went on, ignoring Lucy's comment, "is going to be back in less than an hour. So I need to go."
"Okay. But Lois?"
"Be careful. I wasn't joking when I said Clark would die for you. I think he would. He'd die before he let anything happen to you."
"Yeah," Lois said softly. "I know."
"So be careful, okay? I don't want anything happening to you, and I know you don't want anything happening to Clark, so be careful. And try not to hurt Clark."
"No, I'm serious. You'd be surprised how obvious it is what you mean to him. Try not to hurt him."
"Don't just say 'I will." I mean it. Don't hurt him."
"I won't, Lucy. I won't."
"Fine," Lucy said, obviously not satisfied. "I'll call you later. You be careful."
"I will. Bye Luce."
Lois gently set the receiver down and reached to unplug the phone. She didn't have any desire, or for that matter, any time for another conversation like that.
She wished it was so easy to unplug her memories of the conversation.
It would be one thing if the whole conversation had been horribly unpleasant. She could deal with that. She knew how to deal with that.
But that wasn't it all. When Lucy had first begun babbling about how obviously Clark was in love her, she hadn't denied it. Hadn't wanted to deny it. Much to her dismay, she actually *liked* the thought that she might be more than a friend to Clark Kent. And even now, she realized she could think of many more horrible things than the idea of a relationship with Clark. Many, many more horrible things.
And how on earth was she supposed to deal with that?
"We need a story," Lois announced, plopping herself on to Clark's mattress.
The bed, after much deliberation, would be hers for the rest of the assignment. Or at least until she could trick Clark into changing his mind.
She'd spent the last fifteen minutes unloading her belongings and having a conversation eerily similar to one they'd had the other time they'd been "married." And somehow, she'd ended up on Clark's fair-minded side of the discussion.
It was quite one thing, she'd told him, for her to demand the bed at the honeymoon suite, when she'd discovered the story in the first place. Quite another when she was a guest at his house. If he wasn't going to keep the bed, they should at least alternate nights.
Clark, on the other hand, had spent the last fifteen minutes stealing her best lines from the Lexor Hotel and looking away gentlemanly anytime anything even remotely feminine emerged from her bag. He really was adorable sometimes. But that wasn't the point.
The point was that she'd resolved to be the model house guest, and he was refusing to let her be one!
Well, she'd get him in that bed somehow.
Whoa, that didn't come out right.
Blinking back to reality, she found Clark staring at her blankly. "A story?"
"Yes, Clark. A story."
"A story of…?"
"Of us, Clark."
"Yes!" Okay, so he wasn't all that adorable.
The blank look hadn't left his face. "What in the world are you talking about, Lois?"
Lois sighed. She was getting really tired of having to explain herself from the beginning today. "Okay, while I was packing, Lucy called, wanting to know all the juicy details of our relationship."
"You could have told her the truth, Lois."
"And I did. But it got me thinking. The people at the Planet haven't gotten around to asking us that stuff yet, but they will. Our stories need to match. We've got to know our history. Proposal, marriage, the works."
He looked at her thoughtfully for a second, and then plunked himself at her side. "Okay, fair enough. Where do we start?"
"Well, the beginning, I guess. How long have we been together?"
"Long-standing relationship," Clark said without hesitation.
Lois gave him a suspicious sideways glare. He sounded just a bit too pleased at that prospect. "No way. We'd actually have to make up juicy details or endure other people making them up for us. Spontaneous fling."
Clark looked at her just as skeptically. "We're married, Lois."
She shrugged. "Spontaneous marriage fling."
"Fine," he agreed, still not sounding completely fine with it. "Proposal?"
She'd already prepared this answer. "I said, 'Hey, let's get married,' you said, 'Okay,' and we ran off to city hall."
"Nuh-uh. I want to propose."
She turned to face him head-on in surprise. "Clark Kent!" She hadn't expected that kind of macho behavior from him.
He only looked at her a little sheepishly. "Well, I do."
She considered that for a moment and decided to relent. "Okay, you said, 'Hey, let's get married,' I said, 'Okay,' and we ran off to city hall."
He stubbornly shook his head. "Nope. I've finally found the woman I want to spend the rest of my life with-"
At her shocked stare, the corners of his mouth quirked into a crooked smile and he added, "-you know, in our scenario- and I want to propose to her properly."
Sighing a little shakily, Lois folded her arms across her chest. "Okay. Fine. Good. What are you going to say?"
All conviction left his face and a squeak sounded in the form of, "Now?"
"No, Clark, next week. Yes, now."
Tentatively, he slid off the bed, and suddenly Lois found her partner kneeling at her feet, looking deep into her eyes, and saying-
"Oh, wait, the ring."
Her hand was captured and the ring unceremoniously removed from her finger.
"You know," Lois commented mildly, "you don't really need a ring at the proposal, anyway. Kind of an old-fashioned concept. Like a bribe or something."
But Clark had already moved on to search the room for something else. His hands finally darted to what was apparently the only suitable object in arm's reach, a shoe box. Lois watched in fascination as he slipped the ring into the box, the ring absurdly tiny by comparison.
She decided not to make any cracks about that and instead smiled tolerantly. "Done now?"
"Okay, let's hear it. Proposal time."
Clark took a careful breath and licked his lips. "Okay. Proposal. Oh, wait, gotta take your hand first."
"You're stalling, Clark," she warned complacently.
"Nope," he insisted. "This has to be set up perfectly,"
She groaned. "Set it up any more and you'd have to call in a band."
"Well, Mary did it in It's a Wonderful Life."
"She was showing off their new house, not proposing; and they were singing, it wasn't a band. Your proposal, Clark."
"Right. Okay. Here goes."
Any hint of teasing abruptly left his eyes, and Lois felt her breath catching at his expression. And then his words began, and she stopped breathing all together.
"Lois," he said, his voice sound soft and husky and all- together not like that of her teasing best friend. "I have fallen in love with you. I can't tell you how deeply I've fallen in love with you. If you ever left my life, I'd be lost. So, Lois, there's only one thing I know to do. Lois Lane," and the shoe box flew open, revealing the ring glistening from a corner, "will you marry me?"
Lois simply gazed at him, stunned. The only response running through head for this hopeful-looking man was fall to the floor with him, wrap her arms around him, and shout, "Yes!" But then cold reality came crashing back, and she was reminded that the hopeful-looking man was *Clark*, her partner, her best friend, and not, not, *not* ever her fianc‚.
She leaped to her feet and began to shoot off words aimlessly, in hopes that something, *anything*, else to talk about would come to mind. "You know, this is really getting us nowhere at all. We're wasting time. Forget the marriage stuff. We need a — a — an angle! That's it. An angle."
"We've been focusing on the 'who'. We need to know why. Why's this guy doing this?"
"Why is he…why is he…"
She trailed off, Clark's patient calling finally breaking through her panic.
He smiled and gently pulled her back to sit, never letting his eyes leave hers.
"I proposed," he explained simply. "Your turn. What's your answer?"
Her breath failed her for the second time and she was forced to shift her eyes away and silently begin chanting, "Not real, it's not real."
"Well?" she heard him say.
Not real, not real, not real. "This is silly, Clark," she protested weakly. "We already know my answer."
"I want to hear it," he persisted.
Still chanting steadily away, she forced herself to look back at him. One look into those eyes and she heard herself saying softly, "Yes, Clark. Yes, I will marry you."
Much to her bewilderment, the words had barely escaped her lips when she found herself lifted off the bed and spun in a full circle by her grinning partner.
"Clark," she gasped, for some reason not all that mad, just confused.
"You're over-acting the part. Put me down."
Her feet hit the floor with a thud.
"Well, you proposed," she said, trying to pull on a tone at somewhat approaching business-like. "You happy?"
"Good. Now do we run off to city hall? And, no, Clark, we are not going down there to act out the ceremony."
He only nodded again, all words apparently deserting him after that weird exchange.
They stood there in silence until Clark finally suggested, "How about I go fix dinner?"
"That'd be a good idea."
"It's spaghetti," he warned over his shoulder as he headed into the kitchen. "Think you can handle getting the water started for me?"
In response, she launched their makeshift wedding ring container at him and watched in satisfaction as the shoe box bonked him on the head, his infallible reflexes failing him for once. Feeling vindicated, she started off to follow him, hoping he didn't actually expect her to know how much to salt the water too.
The next day at the Planet, Lois silently studied Clark across the aisle. He was staring at his computer screen, brow furrowed, looking as if he'd just been dashed by ice water of couple of times. Come to think of it, he'd had that same expression for the last couple of minutes.
Feeling a little concerned, she crossed the aisle and rested her chin on his shoulder. She'd been in a position like this with him many times before, but now that everything they did at work had an implied intimacy to it, something about this seemed a little…pleasant?
Shaking off that strange thought, she turned her attention back to Clark. "So serious," she murmured in his ear.
At the sound of her voice, Clark just about jumped out of his seat.
Okay, now she really was worried. Clark never reacted to her like that.
"Clark, what's wrong?" she demanded, real concern creeping into her voice.
He turned to stare into her eyes. "Lois," he blurted out, "we have to stop this story."
"I mean it. That man, he's just a…a…a monster, Lois! We can't- I won't- I just can't believe we missed this! You can't-"
"Clark," she interrupted, "slow down. You're not making any sense."
Taking a steadying breath, he began again at slower pace. "Lois, Jimmy's managed to get a hold of a police report for me. This guy, the mass murderer, has been bugging the homes of his victims. Video cameras in their rooms." His voice dropped to a hushed murmur. "He's been watching them before he attacks them, Lois."
Lois felt herself shiver and involuntary pull closer to Clark. For just a wild split second, she was tempted to gladly agree and give up on just this one. She wouldn't, of course. She absolutely would not. But just the horrible thought of this man watching her every move…watching her…
She jumped as another thought occurred to her. Clapping Clark on the shoulder, she pulled herself to a full stand and forced on a cheery tone. "Uh, Clark, talk to me in the conference room?"
She started off without watching to see if he was following. The sound of his chair hurriedly scraping against the floor told her he was already on his way.
She'd only been in the room a couple seconds when Clark shut the door behind them and said quietly, "We have to drop this story, Lois."
Well. That hadn't been how she'd been planning on starting the conversation, but she'd guessed it was coming. She folded her arms and gave Clark a look that should have told anyone with half a grain of sense that the discussion was already over. "We're not," she insisted.
Clark mirrored her stance and turned the look up a notch. "We are. We have to. The story, any story, just isn't worth this. It's an invasion of your privacy, Lois. I just…I won't let you do this. I won't."
He wouldn't *let* her? Her mood, which had been simply resting on stubborn, shifted abruptly to irate. "I am doing this story, Clark Kent," she growled. "Just how do you intend to stop me?"
"I'll drop out," he warned, his own voice tingeing on something much more fierce than she was used to. "I'll go to Perry right now, tell him it's off. You can't do this one by yourself."
"Oh?" she hissed. "Watch me."
For an endless moment, neither of them budged. She, Lois Lane, had made up her mind, and no one, including Clark Kent, especially Clark Kent, was going to change her mind. But as the moment dragged on, it began to look as if Clark had come to the opposite conclusion. He wasn't going to be budging either.
In the end, though, it was Clark who slumped into the chair beside him. He buried his face in his hands, then raked that hand through his hair before looking at her again. "Lois, please," he whispered. "Don't do this. Please."
The raw vulnerability in his eyes and his voice deflated her anger, and she sank into a chair beside him. "I have to, Clark," she said softly. "This isn't just about the story. Do you see that? These murders, we could stop them. I want to try.
Clark sighed heavily and ran his hand through his hair again. "There's gotta be another way."
She gazed absently across the room as she answered him. "There probably is," she sighed, "but I don't know what. And we could have this all over within a week. That's it. No more murders. Besides," she added, giving Clark a sly grin, "it really would be a great story."
Clark gave a short laugh and tipped back in his chair. "You are amazing, Lois, you know that?" he asked in the direction of the ceiling. "So. Definitely not giving up on this one?"
"I never give up on anything, Clark Kent," she promptly shot back.
"No, you never do," he agreed, smiling now in spite of himself. Well." He laughed, and Lois caught a resigned note to it. "Here we go again. Will you marry me, Lois?"
A wave of relief swept over her, but she flashed him a smug grin, as if she'd known all along this could be the only outcome. "Gladly," she said, and leaped up to begin pacing. "So. How many cameras?"
"Just one," Clark responded, not missing a beat.
"One. Well, that's not so bad. Oh. Wait." The reason she'd brought Clark in there in the first place came rushing back to her, and she froze in mid-pace. "That is bad. Clark, we were pretty obviously not married yesterday. We've already given ourselves away."
Clark barely had a chance to look alarmed before firmly shaking his head and saying, "No, we haven't. I would have noti-" His jaws suddenly snapped shut, and when he began speaking again, Lois got the distinct and very odd impression he was making it up as he went along. "I…I ran into Superman on my walk and asked him to scan my apartment for anything unusual. He wouldn't have missed a camera."
She glared at him skeptically as she took this in. Clark would never lie to her, of course. This even made sense. Both he and Superman shared the annoying tendency to be over-protective. She wouldn't have been surprised, in fact, if Superman had been waiting for an opportunity to come swooping in and plan body-guard duty with Clark. But still…
She shook off the odd and all too familiar feeling that Clark was hiding something from her and decided to run with his information. "Okay. So no cameras last night. You don't think he saw Superman hanging around and decided we were too much of a risk, do you?"
"No," Clark said immediately. "The wedding announcement was in the afternoon edition. That probably didn't leave the murderer enough time to find out where we were staying and bug the place before we showed up there. And that's assuming he even read the paper."
Lois nodded in agreement and resumed pacing. "Okay. But he'll eventually find out one or way or another and we'll just have to deal with the camera. Clark," she added as an afterthought, "do you know where he puts the thing?"
"The bedroom," he said, and grinned wryly. "Well, Lois, you win. I'll take the bed now. There's no way you're sleeping in there."
She started to return his smile at that irony when a thought struck her. "Clark!" she gasped.
"This won't work! We can't…we can't…" She trailed off, not really sure of how she wanted to put this.
"Can't what?" Lois watched, then, as his expression changed from puzzlement, to dawning comprehension, to something that looked an awful lot like bashfulness. "Oh."
"Yeah, oh. This is a problem."
Clark nodded bleakly but offered no immediate solutions, so she started on speculation of her own. "Well, we could, I don't know, knock out the camera every day, but that would get a little obvious, wouldn't it? So I guess we could…" She stopped speaking, realizing she had no earthly idea of what else they could do. Looking to Clark for help, she recognized an expression that said he had an idea, one he was reluctant to share. "You've got something, don't you?" she demanded. "Okay, spill it. Can't be any worse than what we got now."
"Well," he began, turning an interesting shade of red and suddenly seeming to find the floor the main point of interest, "you know, we are newlyweds, and we've, uh, probably had a wild couple of nights, so if I schedule a pretty conspicuous doctor's appointment due to, uh, strain…" He trailed off, finally finding the whole subject far too embarrassing to elaborate.
Lois only stared speechlessly at him for a few seconds before gasping, "Clark!"
His gaze raced to the floor again. "Yeah, I know," he mumbled. "Bad idea."
"Oh, no. No, it's not," she said, starting to recover the remnants of her voice . "It's a good idea. Really good. It's just…just…" She gazed thoughtfully at the man who'd just offered to expose himself to public speculation that would have to be humiliating and ended up saying softly, "You're really sweet; you know that, Clark?"
He turned only a deeper shade of red at that, and stammered something that mostly resulted in, "Oh."
"You realize," she asked carefully, "this is almost definitely going to get around the newsroom, and you'll probably never hear the end of it?"
"But you think it'll it work?" he countered, as if that question was answer enough.
She smiled slightly. "Yeah. I'll just make a habit of changing in the bathroom, and we'll, well, act like tortured newlyweds. Clark, this is going to be-"
They both fell silent and motionless as a third and fourth person burst into the room. The intruders started to hastily make their exit until they apparently noticed who they were intruding on.
"Oh, Lois! Clark!" chirped Audra Robinson, half of the Daily Planet's only real newlywed couple. "Just the people we wanted to see. Kenneth and I are going out to try that new Thai restaurant tonight. Wanna come?"
Lois opened her mouth to give them a polite but very emphatic no, when she heard Clark say, "Sure, Audra. We'd love to."
Audra's already wide smile widened larger than Lois would have thought humanly possible. "Great!" she said. "Meet you there at eight, then?" And without waiting to see if eight was indeed all right, she and Kenneth hurried away.
"Clark," Lois growled the second the door had shut, "what in the world are you thinking? A radish has more brains than the two of them."
"That's absolutely not true," he countered lightly, "and I'm thinking all of the murderer's victims have been taken in public, never from their homes. I want to get this over with as fast as possible. And this *is* over if he tries to put surveillance on the rest of the house. Okay?"
Lois grudgingly admitted that he was right on both counts. If spending the evening with two of her less than favorite people meant a chance at wrapping the story up quickly, she'd just have to prepare herself for a loooong night.
Lois cringed as laughter suspiciously similar to a hyena's ravaged her ears for the umpteenth time that evening. Audra did not, as it turned out, have the IQ of the average vegetable. She hid it well, but it was actually considerably above that. Lois wasn't sure yet if the same could be said for Kenneth. If he was harboring any intelligent thoughts, he chose to keep those and all others to himself. Maybe he'd just given up speaking months ago, she reflected idly, and let his wife do all the talking. She certainly said more than enough for both of them.
Lois suddenly realized that at this particular moment, Audra seemed to have said something to her and was waiting for a response. Hoping she hadn't somehow given away her less than complimentary thoughts, she threw a "Help!" look at Clark. He caught it easily and covered for her.
"Oh, I don't know, Audra. I don't think it's *always* been obvious Lois and I were meant for each other."
"Oh, sure it has," Audra said. "You think the whole newsroom hasn't noticed those secret looks? Yes, *those* secret looks. Like the one just now."
Oblivious to, or, more likely, deciding to ignore their discomfort at her perceptiveness, she pressed on. "You don't act like that unless you're just meant to be together. So," she said, leaning in for the kill, the most succulent piece of gossip, "when did you two finally give up and admit that you're crazy about each other?"
Lois opened her mouth to give the prepared story, only to hear the sound of Clark's sheepish laughter and his voice saying, "Well, that would be about a half a minute after I met her."
Audra sighed romantically, Kenneth looked entirely uninterested, and Lois had to force a smile through a stifled gasp. Clark somehow managed to miss all of this, though, as he gazed off into a memory only he could see. "Of course, she made it very clear I was completely in over my head, but by that time it was too late. I was lost. I can't imagine anything worse than losing her."
Audra sighed again at Clark's soft declaration and reached to squeeze her husband's hand. "Well, Lois," she said cheerfully. "Your turn."
Three pairs of eyes turned expectantly toward Lois, but she was already well past the point of acknowledging them. Clumsily scraping her chair back, she choked out, "I'm going to the ladies' room. Be right back."
She ended up blindly making her way not to the restroom, but out to the cool night air. Leaning into the rough brick, she closed her eyes and tried desperately to make some sense of the situation.
The wasn't right. It was too real. Much too real.
Clark was supposed to trivialize their relationship. He wasn't supposed to look like just a smile from her made him the happiest guy in the world, he was not supposed to give every indication that he cherished her, and he was not supposed to make declarations of undying love!
And she wasn't supposed to find herself wishing it were real.
When had it happened? If it was so painfully obvious to everyone that she and Clark were in love, why was she the last one to know?
Clark had always been ridiculously over-protective. In the beginning, she'd chalked it up to a "me man, you woman" attitude, but she hadn't taken long to realize he was sincerely terrified at the thought of her being hurt.
He'd always been thoughtful towards her, but she'd chalked that up to his farmboy upbringing along with being just, well, Clark. Sometimes she didn't think he was capable of being anything but nice. So, yes, he somehow picked up on almost every detail that was important to her, and he went off on those adorable crusades to fix anything that even vaguely bothered her, and he managed to make her feel like she was the most important person in his life. But that was just Clark being Clark. Wasn't it?
And just what in the world was she going to do if she was wrong? What if he had fallen for her? Had she fallen for him?
Determined to stay at least partly rational about all this, she began to tick off the evidence.
Was she attracted to him? Well, yeah, but she'd given up trying to deny that, to herself, anyway, a long time ago. Did she like being with him? Of course. He was her best friend. Silly question. Would she be devastated if he were gone? Oh, yes. More than she could say, yes. Would she trust him with her life? Of course, but, she realized, that wasn't the question that mattered. Did she trust him, period? If she let herself fall in love with him, did she trust him not to hurt her?
She had no idea, and that scared her. She was afraid that, entirely without her head's consent, she'd already fallen in love with Clark. He could already hurt her more than she could recover from. It was too late.
Closing her eyes against a breath of wind, she laughed ruefully. She'd read one too many romance novels. Clark was a nice guy. It didn't mean she had his eternal devotion, and it didn't mean she wanted it.
Probably, she amended. Maybe.
Well, anyway, Audra Robinson, bubbly woman extraordinaire, was still in there waiting to hear her declaration of love, and she really didn't feel like blurting something like she'd fallen in love with Clark before she'd even realized he was a friend.
She could, she supposed, feign an illness, but she really hated admitting to weakness, even a fictional one.
Suddenly, she had a solution that would more than satisfy even the gossip-hungry Audra. She turned crisply to walk back inside, slowing her pace near their seat. They'd been chatting while she was gone, but as Audra caught a glimpse of Lois, she didn't seem too reluctant to cut herself off in mid-sentence and watch Lois expectantly. Well, Lois would show her.
As Clark stood up to let Lois into the booth, Lois all but fell into his arms. Her startled partner's shock was deepened as she treated him to her most enthusiastic kiss of the day and murmured, "Take me away, Clark."
The sudden height of their companion's eyebrow was only surpassed by Clark's.
His eyebrows then quirked into a question and she nodded very slightly. Attempting to summon up their fabled meant- for-each-other ability, she gave him a look that said, "Yes, Clark. I'm bored, and I'm tired, and I want to go home, so just play along, okay?"
He managed to get some of that, anyway, and gamely began his part. Barely suppressing a grin, he asked quietly for Audra and Kenneth's benefit, "You're ready to leave then?"
She nodded more visibly this time and softly kissed him again. Hopefully, their companions would think Lois and Clark didn't realize they were speaking just a little too loudly while planning their very newlywed-like escape. They'd never suspect ulterior motives.
Clark turned to Audra and Kenneth now and said mournfully, "Lois isn't feeling too well, so I guess we're going to have to call it a night."
"Oh, that's too bad," Audra crooned, showing only the slightest signs of glee. "Well, I hope you feel better, Lois."
"Thanks," she said. "Bye, Audra." She turned to Kenneth and dazzled him with a grin that she was well aware could be completely devastating. "Bye, Kenneth."
Taken aback, Kenneth mumbled, "Uh, bye."
Ha! He did speak!
Thoroughly satisfied with herself, she leaned into Clark's shoulder and let herself be gently led out of the restaurant. Who cared if she'd fallen in love? Who cared if this was safe or smart? All of it felt very, very right.
Clark flicked off the game he hadn't been paying the slightest bit of attention to as he heard the sound of a faucet shutting off followed by the unmistakable creak of his bathroom door. His hearing, which he'd been carefully focusing on anything but the woman in the next room, kicked in then, and he heard her bare feet padding across the floor, the soft rustle of sheets, and soon after the whisper of the pages of a book.
Well, that was it then. Lois Lane, the unsuspecting love of his life, was waiting for him in his bed. He supposed he should have been scared out of his wits at this point. He had every reason to be. How was he going to hide from Lois that he'd constantly dreamed of exactly this, that he'd give anything to make it real? He wasn't sure if it was possible to hide that.
But at this particular moment, he was having a hard time remembering just why he wanted to hide it. Lois was, at that very minute, waiting for him to gather her up in his arms. What reason could he possibly have for trying to hide how much he wanted that every night of their lives?
With these confident thoughts, he moved to his bedroom's doorframe and just about turned to retreat out the nearest window. The only thing that kept him there was that his feet suddenly seemed firmly cemented to the floor.
The reasons that had been escaping him before flooded back in a torrent. Lois was his partner, his *partner*, not his wife, wouldn't ever be his wife if he pushed her, and…and…and, oh, she was beautiful.
If Lois had looked up at that moment, it would have been more than obvious exactly how deeply he'd fallen for her. But Clark quickly recovered something approaching his composure and by the time Lois glanced up from her book, she was too late to catch any of it. She never knew how much the sight of her had affected him. She only saw her partner leaning against the doorframe, looking hesitant and startled and generally how she'd expect Clark to look when being confronted by the sight of her in his bed. She was a little afraid her expression was starting to mirror his. She didn't know what she'd been expecting him be wearing, but boxers and nothing but boxers certainly hadn't been it. She allowed herself one good — very, fantastically, wonderfully good — long look before looking hastily away and tugging at the nightgown that suddenly seemed to cover her quite a bit less adequately. Flashing him a confident grin she didn't quite feel, she teased, "It's okay, Clark. I'm not going to bite."
"You're sure you're okay with this then?" he asked earnestly, completely ignoring her attempt at lightheartedness.
Smiling softly, she said, "Yes, Clark. I'm fine."
"Because if you're not, we can always-"
"Clark," she interrupted gently, "I'm fine. Really. This certainly isn't the ideal situation, but…" She blushed in contemplation of what she'd been about to say, but heard herself saying it anyway. "I wouldn't trust anybody more with it."
At that, Clark's face brightened an expression so similar to the ones he'd been giving her in public all day, she wondered if he was somehow sure that angle was being watched. But the next words out of him mouth were only, "Thank you, Lois," and then he fell back to grinning at her as if, well, as if she were his whole world.
Right. Sure. Definitely time to lay off the romance novels. Stuffing her current book under the bed, she pointed out to the grinning fool across the room, "You can't just stand there all night, you know."
His smile slowly resumed something more solemn as he stammered, "I know. And I'm, uh, going to, um, kiss you when I get over there, okay?"
"Oh, that's romantic, Casanova," she said helpfully. "Yeah, I figured that was the general idea."
"Okay," he said softly. "Then I'll just — okay. Yeah. Okay."
His careful determination to get that jumble out was matched only by his deliberate walk to the side of the bed. He stopped there, and slid into the covers beside her, his eyes never leaving her face. Then he was motionless and only watched her intently, waiting for some sign of permission.
Smiling gently, Lois reached to turn off the bedside lamp, and then found him in the dark and pulled him toward her.
The kiss was not a passionate one. It was nothing like the showy teases of the last few days. But it was long and sweet, and when it ended, Lois had no doubt that something of it had been very real. And, if only for that moment, she didn't regret it at all.
As she laid her head on Clark's chest, she could feel the brush of his lips on her hair and the soft stroke of his fingers. An entirely unprofessional grin crept blissfully across her face and she suddenly blurted, "Well, I'll say this much for us. We've definitely got the kissing thing down."
The mood collapsed into a torrent of chuckles, and Lois went on. "That's it. Forget reporting. From now on, we kiss for a living."
"And just what job is going to let us do that?" Clark asked in mock-seriousness.
"Oh, I don't know. Acting. Kissing booth. We'll figure out something. We'll be millionaires. I'm turning in my resignation first thing tomorrow."
"Guess all my late nights behind the Dairy Freeze will pay off," Clark laughed.
Lois propped herself up on one elbow to stare at him blankly, until the long-forgotten conversation dawned on her. "I can't believe I said that to you!" she groaned, burying her face beside him. "Imagine you luring innocent girls into your pick-up."
"Well, sure," Clark agreed innocently. "You know me. Had every girl in Smallville back there, of course."
Lois responded by giving him a bop with her pillow and an indignant, "Clark!"
"Lois!" he echoed back, whacking her with his own pillow and then pulling her in for a quick kiss, presumably for the benefit of any audience.
Lois pushed him playfully away and then regarded him thoughtfully. "Really, Clark, I'm curious. Dozens of girls in Smallville, all of them ready to fall into your arms-"
"Oh, I wouldn't be too sure about that," Clark interrupted. "Have you *seen* those glasses I wore in high school?"
"At least a dozen, anyway," she amended. "Were any of them frequent visitors to the Dairy Freeze lot with you?"
"No," he admitted readily. "I had a couple of girlfriends, of course, but none even remotely serious. And I'll have you know," he added mischievously, "the place to be would have to been at the top of Smallville's one and only hill, not behind the Dairy Freeze."
"I'll remember that next time I'm leaving a square dance with a hot date," she assured him. "So did you ever find her? The right girl, I mean?"
He was silent for a long moment, and Lois rested her head back on his shoulder, thinking there would be no answer to her question. But finally she heard him say quietly, "Yeah. Yeah, I found her."
After another long pause, he murmured, "Good night, Lois," and she felt the faintest shadow of a kiss against her hair.
"Good night, Clark," she whispered back.
"You about ready to go?"
The man pounding away at his keyboard offered her only a very eloquent, "Mmm," before turning his full attention back to his work.
And she was supposed to be the gung-ho one. Right.
"I could just go ahead and go on home," she tried again. "Maybe start dinner."
"Uh huh," he commented absently.
Lois smiled faintly at that lack of reaction. Eleven days had passed since she and Clark had "married" and every one of those days, he'd insisted that he show her how to cook something. And for eleven days, she'd flatly refused. She'd do her fair of any piece of housework he could dream up, but she would not, under any circumstances, *ever*, cook. Not unless he wanted her to set fire to his kitchen.
At that point, he'd always assure her no such thing was going to happen, but he'd let the matter drop until the next evening. Then the whole debate would invariably repeat itself with a vengeance.
And all he had to say on the matter was "uh huh"? Uh huh.
"Or maybe," she suggested, switching to a tone of all schoolgirl innocence, "I'll get a ride home with Superman. Step out that window over there, fall into his waiting arms…mmm, that could be nice."
"Mmm-hmm," Clark agreed.
Oh, yeah. He was definitely long lost to the world.
"Or maybe I'll just run across the street for those cookies you like so much. That's right," she smugly told the man who was so obviously paying her absolutely no attention. "I'm being nice to you even if you are ignoring me. Wow, this domestic stuff is strange, huh? Who knows? Marry me off for a whole month and maybe I'll learn to make the cookies. No, probably not. Well, anyway," she finished, capturing one of Clark's hands and giving it a quick squeeze, "I'll be back in a couple minutes."
Clark finally looked up, drawn out of his work either by her touch or by the fact that one hand wasn't reaching the keyboard any longer. He gave Lois a blank look that rivaled his earlier grunts in its eloquence and threw in a "Huh?" for good measure.
Finally bursting into giggles, she helpfully explained, "Cookies, Clark," and turned to walk happily off to the elevator.
She *was* happy. There just wasn't any other word for it. She was completely, unreasonably happy. For once in her life, she didn't care that the next day's front page would probably not be carrying her byline. Oh, she'd make up for it with flying colors a few days from now; she was sure of that. But if someone else had to claim the honor in the meantime, that was perfectly fine by her.
She didn't even care that their "marriage" seemed to be getting them nowhere. After a few days of waiting for something to happen, Perry had put them both back on regular assignments, working together, and in the case of this particular evening, separately. Of course, Clark had flat-out refused to take any assignment that involved either of them, particularly Lois, investigating alone. Lois grinned at the memory of that rare show of forcefulness on Clark's part. Though she'd acted the part of the independent, I-can-take-care-of-myself '90s woman, she had to admit she was secretly very amused and just a little touched by his concern.
The elevator dinged and she stepped on, not caring in the least that a whole pack of people stepped on with her, forcing them all to do a pretty good impression of sardines. In fact, she flashed a friendly grin at the woman to her right and was rewarded with one of those knowing, patronizing little smiles she'd been subjected to for days now. She knew perfectly well what the knowing looks resulted from, and even if she hadn't been able to figure it out on her own, people weren't being particularly subtle in their gossip. Lois Lane, so the talk went, had gotten mellow. Since she and Clark eloped, she was a changed woman. Love, it seemed, had the power to transform even Lois Lane into a civil human being, with an amazed, incredulous emphasis on that "even Lois Lane" part.
She'd thought about going there and giving one group of busybodies a taste of exactly how "mellow" she was feeling, but had decided to let it pass. Who knew? Maybe they were right. She, Lois Lane, had finally, finally fallen in love.
Or not. No. Uh uh. Definitely not right. Nope.
Well, she thought with a sigh, that killed off her good mood pretty effectively.
It was just so frustrating! Other people, she reminded herself pointedly, always seemed to have their emotions proceed in a organized, linear sort of fashion. *Why* didn't it work that way for her? Eleven days of living with the man, and she was still no more sure of what she felt about him than she'd been the day she'd moved in with him. If anything, she was just making herself more and more dizzy with the circles her heart insisted on running.
She was totally, hopelessly, completely in love with him, and falling deeper every minute. Except when she wasn't. And then she knew, *knew*, beyond all doubt that she would never be able to risk losing the most wonderful person to enter her life over a silly little crush. Except for those times when she was just as certain she was going to go nuts if she never got to find out if there could be more than a silly little crush.
But then, she admitted, she was going to go nuts anyway if this kept up much longer, so she might as well go happy. Declare before Clark and the world that none of it was, or ever really had been, an act, and they would live, finally, happily ever after. The elevator doors slid open, and the throng made their way off, but for a long moment, Lois remained still, staring into nothingness and contemplating her fairy tale scenario.
It would, she knew, never be reality. Couldn't be, because no matter how much she'd love a life with Clark, the thought of a life without him terrified her so much more. Fairy tales don't happen in the real world. If she asked him to stay, till death do them part, his answer could very well be not only "no" but "not ever" and "goodbye."
Sighing heavily, she stepped off the deserted elevator, through the lobby, and into the street. She was over- dramatizing this; she knew that. He wouldn't do that to her. He cared about her, and nothing, not even an awkward confession of her love, would change that. He wouldn't try to hurt her. No, he'd turn her down politely, excruciatingly, horribly politely, and from then on they'd both be walking on eggshells. Clark would still be there, but what they managed to hold on to of their friendship would be a mockery, and everything wonderful about it would be gone, all because of her game that there might be something more.
Besides, what they had now couldn't be described as bad anyway. An unbidden grin crept across her face as she was hit by another wave of that unreasonable cheerfulness. Oh, no, definitely not-
Suddenly, she felt a rough pair of arms grab her from the side and pull her into an alley. She let out a scream before a hand clamped over her mouth and an object was jammed against her back.
A gun! He had a gun. No. No! She wasn't ready! It wasn't supposed to be like this! She wasn't supposed to be alone. Where was Clark? She was going to die. Oh god, she was going to be raped and she would die. Where was-
"Your purse, lady," the man demanded.
Her purse? Why did he want her purse? There'd never been any record of-
"Gimme your purse!" he insisted. "Give it to me, lady, and you live." The man's voice raised a pitch with the last syllable, and he made another frantic jab with what Lois recognized now as an attempt to fake a weapon.
It wasn't him. She barely stopped her knees from collapsing beneath her as the realization hit her. It wasn't him. Mechanically, she bit down on the man's hand, shoved her elbow into his ribs, and finally sent him over her head and onto the asphalt. It was a sequence she'd practiced a hundred times before, and she knew now she should run, call the police, *something*, but her limbs refused to move. She stood frozen as the teenaged kid gaped up at her before scrambling to his feet and darting off. Her knees finally gave out then, and she collapsed, shaking, to the ground.
In moments, she felt another pair of arms wrap tightly around her and she knew, without question, that she was safe. Clark. She clung to him for long minutes until her teeth stopped chattering and the trembling stopped. Only then did she hear Clark's terrified stream of words and realize that the man holding her was shaking too.
"-so, so sorry, Lois. You were gone, and then you screamed, and I thought- Lois, I thought I'd lost you. I thought I was too late. "I'm so-"
"Shh," she murmured softly, pulling herself more tightly to him. "Shh. It's okay. I'm right here. I'm okay." She fell silent and this time held onto him until finally he pulled away and regarded her intently.
"You're sure you're okay?" he questioned.
She nodded. "Very sure."
"He didn't hurt you?"
"It was just a kid," she assured him. "I'm fine."
"You sure?" he pressed. "Because maybe we should take you to-"
"Clark," she interrupted, smiling now in spite of herself. "I'm all right." She rose to her feet and gave him a quick spin to prove her point. "See? Just fine."
After a long pause, he finally agreed, "Okay," and stood up with her.
She reached for his hand, not sure whether she was trying to comfort him or herself. "Take me home now?" she asked.
"You're kidding. You're letting me drive your Jeep?"
"Well, walk me to my car, anyway," she amended.
They left the alleyway and made their way through the street in comfortable silence until Clark came abruptly to a stop. Taking both her hands into his, he asked again, "Are you *sure* you're okay? Look, I know I'm being ridiculous, and I know I'm driving you nuts, but I need to be sure. Lois, I thought I'd lost you. Are you okay?"
Was she okay? At that moment, the rest of the world faded into the background, and she couldn't think of any place better than the middle of the crowded street, feeling this man's hands around hers. "Yes, Clark," she whispered, sliding her fingers to interlace with his, "I am very okay."
It was, Clark decided, with an ever-broadening smile, impossible to be much more content than this. He'd come to this conclusion already several times in the evening, but this time he was sure he'd found the limit. Life just did not get more wonderful.
Drifting from the kitchen amid the sound of clattering dishes and running water, was Lois's singing. She'd probably be mortified if she knew he was listening, but he was well past the point of resisting. She'd first caught his attention when she began at a low whisper, and ever since then he'd been hopelessly captivated. Sitting in the dim light of the living room, he'd listened as she'd alternated between all-out singing and an impassioned hum, depending, apparently, on which words she happened to remember.
He'd thought there was absolutely nothing that could make the evening more perfect, but a couple of minutes into the private concert, he'd discovered he was wrong. It was a discovery he seemed to be making a lot lately.
He laid back on the couch, settling in for Lois's performance, and managed to hit a hard object on the way down. He reached beneath him to remove the lump and came up with a high-heeled shoe. How had Lois's shoe ended up on the couch? And, more importantly, why was grinning like an idiot over footwear? She'd been living with him for over a week now. He really should have stopped getting so much delight out of mundane details. He was probably literally crazy for her, he realized, in every sense of the phrase.
And was that really such a bad thing, he countered himself. So he liked being married, even if it was only an illusion. He actually liked dodging the mysterious cosmetics that were scattered around his bathroom. He like arguing with her over who got stuck with which chores, who had control over the TV, and just when she was going to let him drive. And, more than anything, he liked those moments when the world wound down, and they could sit and talk about nothing at all. Sure the marriage was fun, and the physical and, unfortunately, artificial romance that went along with it was fantastic, but it was those moments that he lived for. It was during those quiet conversations filled with small talk and gentle teasing that he knew he was letting himself fall too deeply, that he'd miss her too much when this was over, but he never bothered trying to distance himself. Even if he thought he could, and he knew he couldn't, he didn't want to. He would enjoy every moment of this now, and wait until she was gone to figure out how on earth he was supposed to go back to life without her.
When she was gone. Now there was a phrase he didn't really want to think about. Because no matter how many ways he tried to kid himself, he knew he wasn't fooling anyone. This had to end. Soon. The terror earlier in the day had only forced him to face that fact. He'd been well aware of it for days before. He could list dozens of reasons why, but it all boiled down to just one. He was going to lose her. Sooner or later, he would try to be in one place too many at once, and while trying to be Superman, he would lose the only person who gave him the strength to do it.
So far, he'd managed to keep up his Superman duties without raising anything but mild suspicions. He'd patrolled while Lois slept early in the mornings, his morning walks, as he'd told her, and had slipped out whenever else he could be absolutely sure of her safety. These trips had all been uneventful, and they weren't what was tearing him apart. It was the catastrophes that couldn't wait, the urgent calls for help, that were torturing him.
He'd created Superman so he wouldn't have to watch people die, knowing his selfish fear of publicity might as well have killed them. Now, suddenly, he was more helpless than he'd ever been. Yes, he could easily make a quick change to Superman, but at what cost? Save a dozen people from certain death, and let the woman who meant everything to him die?
Usually, he went anyway, making careless mistakes in his hurry to get back to Lois. Sometimes, he didn't go, and that was so much worse. In his desperation to block out the cries for help, he tended to block out everything else along with them. That was why he wasn't there for Lois today when she needed him and why, sooner or later, he'd be there too late to help her at all.
He was going to lose her.
The sound of a draining sink began in the kitchen, and he heard Lois call out, "You know, Clark, you are a lucky man."
He sat up, momentarily startled out of his reverie. "Why?" he asked suspiciously.
"You have seen me do housework, and you're alive to tell the tale."
He relaxed again and laughed. "I think I've seen you do housework before."
"Well, yeah," she admitted, "but never for anyone but myself. Domestic bliss is not my thing."
"Hey, I offered to do those dishes," he pointed out, moving to defend himself face to face in the kitchen. "And, Lois, trust me. When I find bliss with the right woman, it won't have a thing to do with dishes."
"You say that now," she shot back, "but wait till you're both stuck in routine and sick of each other and the only…" She trailed off at the sound of the kitchen door swinging open. She turned to face him but found no one. "Clark? Where'd you-"
Her words changed to a delighted screech as Clark crept from behind and lifted her into the air. "I would never get tired of her," he assured her over her giggles.
"Cute, Clark," she laughed, thwacking him will the wet dishtowel, the only weapon she had on hand. "Point taken. You can put me down."
"Nope," he insisted. "I believe you had some complaints about routine."
"And you seem to be dressed for bed, and I haven't carried you there once; so that, dear, is where we're going."
With that announcement, he headed off, relishing the feel of the laughing woman in his arms. He'd carried her before, of course, as Superman, but it was never like this. It was never so easy to believe that it might really be him that she was laughing for. It was ever so easy to remember why he'd fallen in love with her, why he was so desperately afraid of losing her…
His hearing chose that moment to kick in and pick up on his neighbor's TV. Over the sounds of roaring water, he heard a reporter say, "…and the waters continue to rise as the most devastating flood in years drowns the Midwest…"
No. Not this time. Not now. He couldn't leave her now.
Lois somehow sensed his distraction and stopped laughing long enough to ask, "Something wrong, Clark?"
Pulling out the brightest tone he possessed, he answered, "Nope, not at all. Why?"
She didn't buy it. Scrambling out of his arms, she planted herself in his path and looked up at him. "There is something, isn't there? Clark, what is it?"
"Oh, it's not that important," he insisted, painstakingly looking anywhere but at her. "We can talk about it later."
For a long time, she didn't respond; and when she did, her silent answer, the touch of her hand on his cheek, forced him to meet her eyes.
"Can we talk about it now?" she asked softly.
He tried to focus on her face, but instead heard the reporter saying, "…forced to flee their homes and cars are being swept away as…" He paced away from her and answered with forced cheerfulness, "It's really nothing. I'm just worried that this whole undercover thing is getting us nowhere."
She was silent for another beat before demanding, "That's it?" not quite succeeding at covering her incredulity. "You know as well as I do, Clark, these things take time."
"That's my point!" he exploded. He whipped around to face her and repeated more softly. "That's my point. We're going to run out of time, Lois."
She shook her head in confusion. "What are you talking about? That doesn't make any sense."
"Well, for one thing," he point out, "our 'tortured newlywed' excuse is ridiculous. It's flimsy, and it can only last so long."
"Oh, that," she said, waving her hand dismissively. "We can come up with something else."
"No!" he insisted. "No, we can't. Today proved that we can't. You're going to get hurt, Lois. I agreed to risk it before, but this has gone on too long. We have to stop!"
"That's not your decision to make," she said, her tone warning him to back down.
"It is my decision!" he retorted. "I'm in this too. It's just as much my decision as it is yours."
"No, it's not," she shouted. "You decide it's time to drop *my* story and don't bother to consult me? I don't care if you think you're protecting me; you don't have that right, Clark."
"…death toll is still low," the reporter pressed relentlessly on, "but is expect to rise as the night…"
"Well, did you ever think," he shot back in frustration, "that I might have a life outside of your story?"
"So that's it," she said bitterly. "You're tired of dealing with me. Why didn't you just come right out and say it?"
"That's not why I meant, Lois, and you know it."
"Do I?" she spat. "Seemed pretty clear to me."
"…Superman," the reporter said, "if you can hear this, we need your help."
Clark rubbed his hands across his face and groaned. "This is impossible."
Lois crossed her arms tightly and refused to respond, instead giving an icy glare to a point across the room.
"Oh, the silent treatment," he said sarcastically. "Very mature, Lois."
Nothing in her stony-faced expression changed, and he sighed. "Fine. Just stand there all night then. I'm going to bed."
He waited for a moment, half expecting her to yell, say goodnight, something, but she never budged. Without a word, he turned and made his way into his room and into bed.
Long after his neighbor had switched off the television, he lay awake in the dark, trying to forget the reporter's plea, and long after that, waiting for the sound of Lois at the door. She never came. Finally, he fell asleep, alone.
Clark slipped groggily out of sleep the next morning still depressed with the world in general. The red glare of his clock assured him it was almost 5:30, well past the time he should have left to help with the flood clean-up, but he wasn't feeling all that motivated to face the day. It was dark, it was cold, and Lois wasn't speaking to him. Life was depressing. It was Clark Kent's day off from the Daily Planet, and the world wasn't going to fall apart at the seams if Superman took the morning off too. He was beginning to doze off again when the mattress shifted beneath him. He rolled onto his other side, and a few moments later, his brain sleepily put together what his senses had been telling him. Slowly, his eyes flickered open to see what he already could feel.
Lois was beside him.
A sudden wave of happiness washed over him, and he reached out to brush a strand of dark hair from her face. What, he wondered, was he ever going to do without her? Just a few hours before, she'd been furious with him, and yet here she was, making an unspoken offer of peace.
Reluctantly, but now for an entirely different reason, he realized he needed to get up. He allowed himself just one last lazy moment of watching her before pushing the covers off and leaning over to brush her cheek with his lips. She stirred at the touch, and her eyes briefly fluttered open and then closed. "You leaving, Clark?" she murmured.
"Yeah," he said softly. "I'll be back soon." He paused before hesitantly adding. "Are you still mad?"
"No." She smiled sleepily and opened her eyes again. "Yes. But we can talk about it later." She reached to find his hand in the dark and squeezed it. "Be careful, okay?"
She meant during his supposed walk, Clark knew, but it was still nice that she cared. Squeezing her hand back, he said, "I will," and finally rolled out of bed. He went to the living room and spun into the suit before soaring out the nearest window. Back at his apartment, he could already hear the sounds of Lois falling back into sleep.
A few hours later, the sun had risen, and Clark was standing at his front door. The routine clean-up job had left his morning relatively uneventful so far, but he had a feeling his conversation with Lois was going to change that. He'd learned long ago that when Lois said she was mad, it didn't matter how sweetly she said it. Uneventful would not be the word for the conversation to follow.
Bracing himself for any variety of greetings, he twisted his keys in the lock. From somewhere inside, he heard a muffled growl of exasperation, and suddenly the door jerked open. Lois stuck only her head out the narrow opening before dazzling him with her brightest smile and chirping, "Hi!"
"Hi," he said tentatively. This was not one of the greetings he'd prepared himself for.
"Did you have a nice walk?" she asked.
"Good. You can't come in yet," she informed him cheerfully.
"Okay," he said hesitantly.
Finally seeming to take pity on him in his bewilderment, she flashed another smile and said, "I'll let you in soon, Clark. I promise. Just go to wherever it is you go to for another hour, okay?"
"What are you-" he began.
She quickly reached out a hand and placed it on his lips. "No questions," she said. "Just give me a half hour, and I'll let you in."
"Okay," he agreed uncertainly. He resisted the urge to take a quick super-powered peek behind the door and instead warned, "You just better not be booby trapping my apartment in there."
"Go, Clark," she laughed.
"Because if you are," he went on, "you get to explain it to my landlord."
"Goodbye, Clark," she replied in a sing-song.
"I'm pretty sure I'd lose my deposit for that."
Still smiling, she pulled her head back inside and shut the door, leaving Clark alone on the steps, wondering what this strange, new brand of anger was. He stood there contemplating this mystery long enough to hear the sounds of a suspicious clatter and groan that was distinctly Lois's. He sent one last dazed stare in the direction of the cacophony before shaking his head and walking off
The promised half hour later, Clark was standing back at the door. If the lack of shouts and sounds of destruction were any indication, Lois had finally accomplished whatever it was she'd been trying to do; but he didn't feel quite brave enough to barge in. Instead, he knocked and waited.
Three knocks later, he was still waiting. His apprehension over entering was very steadily being replaced by a panicky desire to get in. He could suddenly picture all sorts of terrifying scenarios of what could have happened in half an hour. Frantically, he shook the door handle and felt the whole thing break off into his hand.
He stepped back, regarding the broken handle sheepishly. He'd probably gotten a bit carried away. Lois was fine. Had to be fine. She was just carrying out whatever step was next in this weird scheme of hers. She'd be there in a second if he asked her to.
Feeling reassured by that thought, he called out, "Lois? Lois, are you in there? I really need you to let me in. I — I kind of broke the door.
No answer came, and the panic returned. All reasonable thought flying out the window, he broke the lock by force and flung the door open.
The apartment showed no signs of a struggle. No sign of Lois either, but it certainly didn't look liked she'd left involuntarily. In fact, he now noticed, the only change in the place at all was…
No. She hadn't.
A quick walk into the other room proved that yes, in fact, she had.
The kitchen table was covered with an old red-and-white- checked tablecloth that Lois had dug up from who knows where. At the center sat two long red candles and a vase filled with a hodgepodge of artificial flowers from around the house. But all of this was easily overshadowed by what sat at either end of the table.
Ten o'clock in the morning and the woman had made spaghetti.
Lois had made food. If that wasn't the end all and be all of peace offerings, he didn't know what was.
He noticed now on the counter a tray blackened of objects that might have been rolls at one point and beside the tray a note in Lois's familiar handwriting. Picking it up, he read,
Believe it or not, I've actually learned something from watching you cook all this time. Unfortunately, you never made breadsticks. I'm cheating and buying the ready- made stuff. Back soon, I promise.
P.S. *Now* we can talk about why I'm mad.
Completely dumfounded, he sunk into the nearest chair to wait. What on earth did this mean? Lois had cooked. For him. She was mad at him, and she'd cooked.
His brain refused to take on any other tasks as it tried to mesh these two conflicting facts, so it was a few moments before he picked up on a fact more amazing than any of it.
Love. She'd signed her note "love."
No. No, that didn't mean anything. It was just a way to sign a note. It didn't mean that she — no.
And yet she'd *never* signed a not like that before.
No. It meant nothing. She was probably in a hurry at the time. Probably blinded by smoke billowing all over the place. Probably she didn't have any idea of how she'd signed it. Probably.
And anyway, he wouldn't let himself think that she — no, he would not think that. Because when his hopeful delusions were shattered, and they always, always were, he didn't think he could stand it yet again. He knew Lois never meant to hurt him, that it was the last thing she wanted to do, but she was very good at it.
So the spaghetti was just spaghetti, the note was just a note, and when Lois came back, she would just be Lois.
Sighing, he glanced at the clock and felt his stomach tighten. It was 10:10. Where was she?
He took a deep breath and forced himself to calm down. Breaking things wasn't going to help much this time.
Okay. She would probably go to the store right down the street. So if she'd left a couple minutes before he'd gotten there, and if she'd decided for some reason to walk, she wouldn't be back yet. That made sense, he concluded dubiously.
That was also, he decided, way too many "ifs." In a second, he was out the door and halfway down the street.
Earlier in the morning, Lois had rushed out that same door, pursued by a trail of smoke. She should have known. She'd been right all along. She really couldn't cook without setting fire to the kitchen. Okay, so most of the room was still more or less intact. The flames had very obligingly contained themselves to the inside of the oven. But she was pretty sure dousing the whole thing with a bucket of water had not been the best thing for Clark's stove. And she knew it hadn't been the best thing for those pitiful lumps that once upon a time had been her attempt at breadsticks.
Her brilliant plan was not going all that well.
She'd had plenty of time in the night before to devise one. Long after Clark had stormed off to bed, she'd stayed curled up on the couch. She had every right to sit there and fume. Clark had obviously decided he was through with this story, and he was only now bothering to tell her. She wanted desperately to be mad at him.
She did not want to be fighting off tears.
Clark didn't want her there. He'd made that fact very clear. He claimed it was only for her safety, and maybe it really was, but, oh, it didn't feel that way. She'd fallen in love with him, and now he was all but showing her the door.
She shivered and moved to stand in the darkened bedroom. Her gaze landed on the man sleeping there, and tears she'd been holding back escaped. How could she have let this happen? When had this man become so necessary in her life?
It had been all too easy in the last few days to pretend that nothing ever had to change. He loved her, so the game went, and she loved him, and she had had no reason to risk everything by admitting the truth. Clark didn't need to know that it had stopped being a game for her a long time ago.
And now he was telling her he was through. If she didn't want to play the impossible part of a friend and nothing more, she'd have to tell him now.
She never made a conscience decision, but her feet carried her to the bed, and she slipped under the covers, her head resting on his chest. As she lay there, feeling the gentle rise and fall of his breath, she knew. There was no way things could ever go back to how they were. She loved Clark and wanted him in her life, not just as a friend but as *everything*. Even if she was afraid he didn't feel the same way, even if he was terrified that he'd leave her all together, she needed to let him know.
Which was why she was standing in a deceptively tiny grocery store on her day off, contemplating the mysteries of ready-made breadsticks. Honestly, how many kinds of breadsticks could one store possibly need?
A tiny elderly woman came up beside her and asked, "May I help you with something, dear?"
Lois laughed. "Not unless you happen to know what kind of breadsticks Clark Kent buys."
"Oh, Clark?" the woman said. "He probably makes his own. Are you a friend of his?"
Lois gave her a broad grin and twisted the wedding ring around her finger oh-so-casually. "You could say that," she said innocently.
"The woman reached impulsively to see the ring and stammered, "Do you mean to say that — did you two-"
Lois's smile only widened and she nodded.
"Oh," the woman said sternly, "I'm going to have to have a talk with that boy."
"What?" Lois exclaimed in surprise. "On, no, please don't be — I mean-"
The woman laughed and patted Lois's hand. "Don't worry, dear," she said gently. "I'm thrilled for both of you. I've just been teasing Clark about find a wife for a long time. He's finally done it, and he didn't say a thing. Well," she added slyly, "I suppose you two have had plenty of *other* things to do, hmm?"
Before Lois could sputter out a reply, the woman changed gears. "Breadsticks, right? Well, if I know Clark, it does really matter what you picks, because he'll wolf down whatever you cook."
"You haven't seen what I cook," Lois commented wryly.
"Ah." She nodded. "Right." She reached for one of the many brightly labeled packages. "Try these then. You'd have to be pretty creative to go wrong with it. My husband can make them, and that's saying quite a lot."
So Lois paid for the breadsticks and walked out of the store, wondering if the woman realize exactly how "creative" she could get in the kitchen. She never even noticed the huge, windowless van in the parking lot or the footsteps sounding behind her. She never realized she wasn't alone until a pair of arms grabbed her from behind. She had time only to scream, "Cla-" before a hand smothered her mouth, and she was tossed roughly into the back of the van.
Oh, no, this morning was definitely not going according to plan.
Seconds after Clark had rushed out of his apartment, he was standing at the same small store that Lois had visited. Forcing a cheery smile, he walked inside.
The woman behind the counter recognized him immediately. "Clark! I haven't seen you for a while. What can I get for you?"
"Nothing today, Mrs. Wang," he replied. "I'm just looking for someone. Have you seen a pretty brunette, about 5'6"?"
"Pretty brunette, huh?" she asked slyly. "I hope you mean your wife."
He gave her a genuine grin this time. "Yeah, my wife."
"Why didn't you tell me you go married? I would have brought you something. Plenty of nice food here."
"Well, it only happened a couple of weeks ago," he said, feeling a little guilty about cutting her off. "So you've seen her?"
"Yes. Cute girl. She was in here about thirty minutes ago. Said something about — Clark? Clark!"
Clark hardly heard the last part of her sentence as he rushed out the door and down the street.
Thirty minutes was too long! Something had happened to her. He'd let himself be distracted again, and this time he was too late. He hadn't been there for her.
Barely checking to see if anyone was watching and not even bothering with the suit, he launched himself into the air.
The van careened around another corner, and Lois was slammed against a wall. She was beginning to suspect that her kidnapper posed the greatest threat not with his knife but with his driving. She was getting desperate enough to try to escape even while the vehicle was moving, but she couldn't see any way to pull it off. The doors in the back of the van were securely locked, and a screen separated her from the front. Even if she could get through, she'd be no match for a man with a knife. There was no way out. There might never be a way out.
She fought off the urge to panic and forced herself to focus. She was Lois Lane. She *would* get out of this alive, and she'd get a great story while she was at it.
The man was rattling on incessantly, just as he had been from the time he'd taken her. Lois made herself listen to him now and heard him say, "He wasn't right for you, my sweet. He didn't know how to appreciate you. But *I* understand you. *I* will make you forget that excuse of a husband."
"You could never do that," Lois told him.
He whipped around to face her, and the van veered into the other lane. Lois heard a horn blast and the screeching of brakes before he turned back around. "He is nothing!" the man snarled. "Nothing! Only I am worthy of you!"
Lois nodded meekly and decided it might be a good idea just to stay quiet and let him talk.
He continued to rant about his obvious superiority to "him" until he reached a broken-down warehouse at Hobbs Bay. He slammed on the brakes and then came around to open the back of the van. Throwing his free arm around her waist and placing the hand holding the knife at her neck, he murmured, "Come with me, my sweet."
He led her into the warehouse and down a set of stairs, all the while telling her of his devotion. Finally he stopped in the basement and said, his voice weirdly soft, "Welcome home. I know it isn't much, but-"
Lois squeezed her eyes shut and began the last escape method she'd ever wanted to use. Forcing affection into her voice, she cooed, "Oh, it's just perfect."
A low, sinister chuckle came from behind her. "I'm glad you like it," the man said. "I think we'll enjoy ourselves here."
"Oh, I think we will," she assured him. Raising her hand to brush the fingers holding the knife, she added, "In fact, we won't be needing this. It will just, ah…" She lowered her voice to a husky whisper in an attempt to mask her fear "…be our way, don't you think?"
The murdered turned her roughly around and forced her to meet his eyes. "I think," he said quietly, "it could be very…" He lowered the knife and used it to cut the button off her jeans. "…useful."
She shuddered and reached to caress his cheek. If she could find the right spot on his temple to hit, she could have him out cold, leaving her plenty of time to get away. If she couldn't…
She shuddered again as cold, clammy fingers undid the zipper on her jeans.
Please, Clark, she begged silently, please find me.
Below Clark lay a city that was suddenly much too crowded, much, much too vast. How, he wondered frantically, could he ever find Lois in that?
He would find her, he told himself, because he had to. He *had* to. There was no other option. Life without Lois wasn't an option, and so he'd find her.
More by instinct than by any rational thought, he swooped down and began to scan the city. With each second he didn't find her, fear clutched his chest tighter, and his searching became more and more frantic. By the time he made it to Hobbs Bay, he was almost in a blind panic, and he nearly missed a dilapidated warehouse, jammed between two larger buildings. It was only be some miracle that his eyes landed on the small figure huddled in a corner of the basement.
Lois. She was hurt.
He had time to think about only that before he crashed straight through the ceiling and to the floor.
He stopped dead once he hit the ground. Lois was shooting to her feet, and it was suddenly dawning on him what he'd just done. She wasn't in any imminent danger after all. She didn't look all that helpless either. She was standing frozen in the corner, staring at him as if he'd just betrayed everything she'd trusted. He felt the blood drain from his face as he realized that's exactly what he'd done.
"Clark!" she screeched.
"Lois, I can explain-" he began, not really all that aware of what he was saying.
"You can — you can explain? You just waltz in from the *ceiling*, and you can *explain*?"
"It's not like it looks," he said lamely. He knew he should be concentrating on making this right. Lois knew the truth about him now, and he should be doing everything possible to fix it. But after two years of dreading this moment, he was only crazy with worry about the moment right before. Had that man done anything to her?
"Oh, it's not how it looks, is it?" she went on. "Well, I hope not. Because it sure looks like my best friend has never done anything but lie to me. I trusted you, Clark. I trusted you. So this really better not be how it looks."
She fell silent then, daring him to give the explanation that never came. Instead, Clark murmured urgently, "Did he hurt you, Lois?"
She titled her head impatiently. "Who?"
A slow, relieved smile spread across his face in spite of himself. "He didn't, did he?"
"What are you grinning…Oh." She nodded to another corner of the room, where a man laid sprawled on his back, apparently unconscious. "No. He didn't. Turns out I'm perfectly capable of taking care of myself without you. Either of you," she added acidly.
"No, Clark," she whispered. "No. Don't start. I don't want to hear it."
He watched helplessly as she turned and walked away. Something told him that he had to stop her. That if she walked out the door right now, nothing would ever be the same. But the words caught in his throat and refused to come until she reached for the door. "Lois, wait!" he shouted.
Her hand froze in mid-air, but she didn't turn.
"Please. Listen to me," he said, his voice shaking. "Don't leave like this."
Slowly, she turned to face him, and it took everything he had not to forget everything and rush to her side then and there. He'd made her cry. Sometime as she was facing away, tears had started to fall, and now, much to his horror, she was crying.
"Clark," she whispered, "please don't ask me to do this now. I can't." She swiped a hand across her face in a vain attempt to hide the tears. Clark wasn't sure if she could see the tears threatening to form in his own eyes. It wasn't supposed to be like this. It was finally over, she was finally safe, and Clark had hurt her. How could he have hurt her?
"Look," she said, her voice wavering, "I know you had all sorts of reasons for doing what you did, and I know I should let you explain, but Clark, you lied to me. I trusted you with- with everything, and you lied to me. How am I ever supposed to forgive that?" Without waiting for an answer, she turned back to the door. "Deal with the bad guy," she said. "You're good at that."
She walked out, and the door clicked shut behind her. For the first time in two weeks, she wasn't coming back, and he was completely alone. His eyes fell on the unconscious man in the corner, and he laughed bitterly. Lane and Kent save the day again. It may have destroyed their friendship, but, hey, it made a great story. Their Kerths were in the bag.
The rueful laughter ended in a sad sigh. He was being ridiculous and he knew it. He and Lois had done a good thing. They'd saved the lives of who knew how many women. All he had to do now was make a quick change to Superman and bring the man in. That was all. So why was he still standing alone in the dark.
Half-heartedly, he spun into the suit and scooped up the criminal. It couldn't matter that it felt wrong to finish this without Lois. It couldn't matter that, after all this time, it felt wrong to do anything at all without her. Metropolis needed Superman, even if the person Superman needed had just walked out the door.
"You shouldn't be sulking," Clark berated himself softly. "You have no right to sulk." After several hours and an afternoon of playing the noble hero, Clark was starting to come to that conclusion. *He* was the one who had lied. *He* was the one who had hurt her. He had absolutely no right to sit around proclaiming woe-is-me. And yet here he was, alone in his kitchen, gazing forlornly at the melted candles and cold spaghetti. Why, oh why hadn't he thought up a less jarring rescue plan than literally falling through the roof?
He had to fix this somehow. He would not let their friendship die because they were both too upset to talk to each other. He'd go to her house and talk, listen, beg forgiveness on one knee if he had to. Whatever she needed, he'd do. Somehow he'd make it right.
Suddenly feeling very sure of himself, he stood up and walked toward the door. He could do this. It would be okay. All he had to do was-
His confidence suddenly deserted him as he opened the door. Lois was standing on the other side.
They both stood in awkward silence until she finally murmured, "Hi."
"My apartment seemed kind of quiet so I thought I'd come by and…but I can see you're going somewhere so I can just-"
"No!" he said quickly. "No, I was- I was coming to see you, actually. Please, come in."
He motioned her inside, feeling a little silly at the formality. This was Lois! He'd done her laundry, for goodness sake.
Lois walked inside without really acknowledging either him or the gesture and sat down on the couch. She pulled her legs up to rest her chin on her knees and for a long time didn't speak. Even when she finally did, it was gazing at some far distant point, never Clark. "So," she said dully. "You're Superman."
Clark gave a resigned sigh and sank into the chair beside her. "Yes. I am."
"Makes perfect sense when you think about it," she said, still very clearly not speaking for his benefit. "Disguise yourself as an ordinary man, and no one will ever suspect. Partner with an investigative reporter, she'll never catch on. Never notice that her best friend just happens to look remarkably like Superman and just happens to duck out right before the big rescues. Explains why the police never came when you went off to call. So," she abruptly turned to face him. "Who am I talking to now?"
Clark blinked, thoroughly taken aback. "Well to- to me," he stammered.
She favored him with the faintest ghost of a smile. "Thanks, I think I'd figured that much out already. But, Clark, who's 'me'?" Who are you? Has Clark or Superman been the act all this time?"
"Both," he said quietly. "Neither. Lois, I don't know anymore." He sighed again and rubbed his eyes in a futile attempt to clear his head. "I'd like to tell you that it was Superman. I'd like to say that if I had my way, there'd be only Clark Kent, but that's not really true. I'd go crazy if I couldn't be Superman. But, Lois, please believe that with you I was never an act. Never. I lied about Superman, yes, and I'm sorry, but the rest was always real."
"You're sorry?" she retorted. "That's it? Not even going to bother with an explanation. Just you're sorry?"
Clark quickly glanced away, refusing to let her see that response had hurt. He'd just poured his heart out to her, and she'd only bothered to hear two words. How was he ever going to do this? "I can explain," he said softly. "I can explain as long as you need."
He was surprised to feel her hand out to touch his. "No," she said, "let me try. I've been trying to figure it out all day. I think by this point I could probably explain it to you."
He said nothing, and so she launched into her explanation. "Okay. You couldn't tell me when we'd first met, obviously. What were you going to say? 'Hi! I'm from outer space. I can fry things with my eyes. Wanna work together?' Definitely not happening. I understand. And later…" She took a shaky breath. "And later it would have been even worse. I was throwing myself at Superman, practically walking all over Clark Kent. Why would you want to tell me anything at all? And I suppose you always had some idea of keeping the secret for my own protection, which makes absolutely no sense at all, Clark Kent, but I'm sure you thought it was very reasonable. How am I doing so far?"
He smiled sadly. "You've got it, more or less."
"Well, this is the part where you'll have to start explaining to me, because I don't understand anymore. Why couldn't you have told me by now? You know I care about you. Not for the blue tights or the flying, but for *you*, Clark. I don't know if you noticed, but I dropped the lovesick groupie act a long time ago. And you were probably putting me in more danger these last few weeks by not telling me. Not to mention that you neglected, oh, the whole world in the process. So why didn't you just tell me?"
"Because I was afraid," he admitted softly.
"That you'd do exactly what you did. That you'd be mad, leave, and never have anything to do with me again."
"And yet here I am," she reminded him.
"And yet here you are," he repeated with a faint smile. After a long pause, he added, "Why are you here?"
She sighed and got to her feet. "Got me. Old habit, I guess." She walked to the window and gazed out at nothing. "You know," she said quietly, "you never answered my other question."
"What's that?" he asked.
"How can I trust you now? How am I supposed to trust you?"
"I already told you why," he said.
"No, you didn't." She turned suddenly to face him. "You didn't tell me anything, Clark. You told me to believe it wasn't all an act because you say it wasn't all an act. Coming from a man who lied to me on a regular basis, that's not really all that convincing."
"Well, what else am I supposed to say?" he demanded, finally raising his voice in frustration. "Yes, I lied to you, and I'm sorry, and if I could go back somehow and do it differently, I would. But, Lois, I can't. So what else can I do to get you to trust me?"
"I don't know," she said.
"Is this it then? We're just going to be stuck running in circles every time we try to talk to each other?" He felt a pang of horror as another thought occurred to him. "Is this only because I lied to you?"
"I don't know, Clark!"
"I can't change who I am, Lois. I'm from another planet. I can fly. I can- Lois, are you afraid or- or, I don't know, repulsed by me because I'm Superman?"
"Of course not!" she exclaimed. "That's ridiculous. This has nothing to do with Superman."
"Then what?" he demanded. "That doesn't make any sense. If it's not about Superman, then why are you so upset? Why, Lois?"
"Because I love you!" she cried. Closing her eyes, she repeated in a whisper, "Because I love you, Clark. I love you. I always have. I always will. I love you." She turned back to the window, but not before Clark caught the glisten of a tear escaping her eye. "So now you know," she said. "I trusted you, you lied to me, and I still love you anyway. So now you can go like all the rest."
Clark wasn't exactly sure how it happened, but sometime after her speech, he finally managed to comprehend what she'd said to him, and somehow he ended up with Lois in his arms. His mouth found hers and somehow, without a conscious thought, he was showering her with kisses that were finally, finally not lies. "Go?" He managed to say. "Why would I-" He kissed her just one last time to prove that it was real. "Why would I go?"
"Well, I thought-" she stammered. "I just assumed you didn't- I was afraid you wouldn't be in love with me."
"Not in love with you?" he said in amazement. He kissed her again, now mostly because the first ones had been so intoxicating, he couldn't figure out how to stop. "Lois, I've never *not* been in love with you."
She regarded him solemnly for a moment before asking, "So all of this marriage act was always…"
"Real," he finished softly. "It was never an act for me. Never a game. Nothing has ever been more real."
For a long time, she didn't answer. She only continued to watch him silently as if she were searching for something. Apparently she found it, because her face lit up in a wide smile and this time, she was the one kissing him. There was, Clark quickly discovered, something much better than him kissing her.
"That was it," she said as she pulled away.
"I asked you how I could trust you now. That was it. That was the answer I needed."
"Well, you did say we had the kissing thing down," he teased.
She laughed, and Clark wondered how he'd ever managed to hide how much he loved that sound. "Yes, that's it exactly," she agreed cheerfully. "I trust you entirely for your kissing prowess." Her laughter died down and ended in a sigh. "Clark, when I, um, discovered," she grinned slightly at the understatement, "that you'd lied to me about Superman, I realized how badly you could hurt me, and I panicked. I loved you. I love you. I just needed to know that you weren't going to hurt me again. That's all."
Clark wrapped his arms around her and buried his face in her hair. "I'm so sorry, Lois," he murmured. "The last thing I ever wanted to do was hurt you."
She raised her eyes to his and smiled gently. "I know."
Again, he found it completely impossible to resist a kiss, and this time her lips met him halfway. For a long time, he was lost to everything but the dizzying knowledge that the woman he loved was just as in love with him. Finally, he ended the kiss and asked hesitantly, "Are you still mad?"
She laughed. She tipped her head back, melted into his arms, and laughed. "Well, of course I'm still mad," she said, her eyes assuring him she was anything but. "Just who did you think you were talking to? Now shut up and kiss me."
The mischievous glint in Lois's eyes was echoed in Clark's. "Gladly, Mrs. Kent," he said, and quickly smothered the beginnings of a protest with a kiss. Soon afterward, she couldn't remember why she'd been protesting at all.
Perry White looked up just in time to see his two star reporters slip into the newsroom. It had become a very familiar sight over the last couple of weeks. Clark's hand would inevitably come to rest gently on Lois's back, and they'd make their way to their desks, exchanging a dozen affectionate glances on the way. If they weren't genuinely in love, then they were darn good actors.
This morning was no different. Clark's hand fell protectively on Lois and she only beamed back at him. Neither gave the slightest sign that anything should have changed. Yet Perry, like the rest of Metropolis, had seen the article printed in this morning's paper, and unlike the rest of Metropolis, he knew its implications. Lois Lane and Clark Kent were no longer "married." So why the heck were they still acting the part?
He got up to walk to his office door, and call out, "Lois, Clark, can I see you two for a second?"
He watched as they walked toward him. He could see now that Lois's cheeriness didn't seem to have a whole lot to do with any story, and Clark's smile was aimed at Lois and Lois alone. But they didn't appear to be aware of any of this as they sat down in front of him.
"Well, first of all," Perry began, "great job, kids. When I heard what you two sent to the night editor, well-" He chuckled. "You did a great job." He expression softened and he asked, "Are you okay, Lois?"
She smiled. "I'm fine, Perry."
He nodded briefly and cleared his throat. "Good. Well, I'm proud of you, honey." He noisily cleared his throat again and leaped to his feet. "Well, anyway, second thing…" He suddenly got his first unobstructed look at them since they'd entered, and his voice faltered. Lois and Clark's hands were loosely intertwined, as if it were the most natural thing in the world to them. Great shades of Elvis, what had they done?
"Uh, second thing," he tried again. "It's about time we got you kids unmarried. I thought you'd want to do the honors, Lois." He noted with amusement the identical flicker of horror that crossed their faces, and he added, "Unless you'd rather, ah, keep things like they are?"
Lois managed to recover admirably and give him a look that suggested he'd lost all hold on reality. "And just why would we want to do that?" she demanded. "It's about time people knew the truth. Come on, Clark, I'm getting this over with right now."
With that, she marched back out of the office, all but dragging the bewildered man behind her. When she reached the dead center, she halted and thrust her fingers into her mouth. The entire newsroom skidded to a stop at the sound of her piercing whistle and her equally piercing "Attention, everyone!" When she was satisfied that she did indeed have their attention, she smiled sweetly and said, "Thank you. Now. I'm sure you've all heard the story of what happened two weeks ago. Clark proposed to me, I was thrilled, and we were married in city hall." She ignored scattered bursts of applause and pressed on. "I have to tell you now that this story isn't exactly accurate. You see, the truth is…" She almost seemed to choke on the words and trailed off for a moment.
"The truth is," she repeated quietly, her voice quavering, "I *wasn't* thrilled because…" She closed her eyes, drew a long, slow breath, and suddenly dropped to one knee. "…because, Clark, I wanted to propose to you."
"Clark Kent," she said solemnly, "I have fallen so much in love with you. I can't imagine what my world would be like without you in it. I want — I need to spend the rest of my life with you. So, Clark, will you marry me?"
The silence that followed was deafening. Clark only watched Lois questioningly, looking half afraid of what answer he'd find. With all eyes on him, no one but Perry saw Lois's lips quirk into a smile and her head nod ever so slightly. It was the only encouragement Clark needed.
In a second, he had her lifted entirely off the ground and into his arms, and was kissing her as if the rest the world didn't exist. It didn't really matter cheers of the crowd smothered his reply. His answer was very clear.
Perry sat in his office watching Lois and Clark long after the rest of the newsroom had gone back to business as usual. To them, it was just another romantic moment from the already very romantic newlyweds. To him, it was one of the most incredible things he'd seen. Reaching into a desk drawer, he pulled out a receipt dated almost two weeks before. Yes, he'd suspected he'd had very good reason to be sure those rings were the permanent property of Lois Lane and Clark Kent.
He watched as they murmured to each other, punctuating the conversation with yet more brief kisses. He was really going to have to get on to them about that, he thought idly, and knew even as he thought it that he'd never have the heart.
He watched until they apparently came to an agreement and turned to walk purposefully toward him. They headed straight into his office, shut the door, and closed the blinds. Finally, they exchanged one last meaningful look, something, Perry guessed, along the lines of, "I'm not gonna ask him; you ask him!" before Lois said, "Uh, Perry?"
"Yes, Lois?" he asked suspiciously.
"Did you, um, really *mean* that thing about the Church of Blue Suede Deliverance?"