By ML Thompson <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Submitted: July 2001
Summary: This story is set in an alternate universe — one which we have not visited previously. And although many things are bound to be very different, one or two things will always be a matter of destiny.
This is an alternate universe — one which we have not visited previously. If you notice some changes in our heroes (and you will), please bear with me. Everything will reveal itself in good time. I made one little (almost insignificant) change and suddenly I had this domino effect taking place. You'll understand once you've read the story.
My thanks to Gerry Anklewicz and Carol Malo for all their help with this story. Their hard work made this story much better. I would also like to thank everyone who responded to my request for information about mustard gas on Zoomway's message boards and by e-mail. Additional information about mustard gas was found in various internet sites, most of which I can no longer find. My thanks to Julie Gibson for editing this story for the archives.
No copyright infringement is intended. I recognize that the characters are not mine. I am just borrowing them for a little fun and not for any profit.
Jessica stopped on the corner across from the Daily Planet and looked up at the large globe that marked its entrance. A small smile crept onto the corners of her lips as she recalled a much younger version of herself standing on this same corner dreaming of the day when she too would be part of this team of heroes — combating evil with the power of the written word.
After so many years, she could hardly believe it might actually happen. Perry White had called her, inviting her to come for an interview. She knew it was dangerous returning to Metropolis, even after all this time. Still… How could she possibly turn down the chance to work at the Daily Planet?
Of course, given the risk, she would have to continue living under her assumed name — Jessica Miller. And she would have to be careful not to run into her family. She snorted. Family. That was an overstatement. She missed Lucy. As for the rest of her family… the less contact the better. After all, her mother had never been able to accept her and if it hadn't been for her father… Jessica sighed.
She watched for a moment as people filed in through the front entrance to the Planet. Most of them had that resigned look that announced to the world that another work day had begun. Considering where these people worked, Jessica could hardly believe they could be so blase. She couldn't imagine being blase working for the greatest newspaper in the world. There were other papers that were just about as good as the Daily Planet, but none quite measured up in Jessica's mind with this one. This one stood for integrity in journalistic reporting. It was a voice for the people. Oh, heck, when you thought about it the Daily Planet stood for nothing less than truth, justice and the American way. To Jessica's way of thinking, you couldn't top that.
Now, if everything went as planned, she'd actually be working here. It was almost too good to let herself believe. She took a deep breath, steadied her trembling nerves, and walked across the street.
The majority of the morning crowd had already arrived so there weren't many people in the lobby when Jessica finally entered. She stopped just inside, looking around. There was a confectionary, but Jessica was too nervous to even indulge herself in a Double Fudge Crunch Bar — her favorite. On the other hand, a quick look at the candy displayed informed her that if she did get a job here, she would have ready access to her favorite addiction.
She walked past the confectionary to the elevators. There were two men already waiting there. She fell into place beside them. Since the up button was already illuminated, Jessica raised her eyes to watch the numbers — anxious to get to her destination.
"So what did she say?" asked the one man, obviously speaking to the other.
"What do you think she said?" the man responded. "That she was waiting for Clark Kent to ask her out."
The first man snorted. "If I hear that man's name one more time… Don't they know he's only after one thing? That man goes through more women… I remember one time when a woman slapped him across the face in front of the entire newsroom."
"What did he do?"
"I think he said something like, 'Don't make such a big deal out of it,' before walking away."
The second man shook his head. "You know I heard that a few weeks ago, he actually had three women in one night. Two together and then one later on."
"So why do they put up with it?"
The second man shook his head and then gave a slight laugh. "And how do we get some?"
"No kidding," snorted the first man. "You know, I've got to admit that no matter how miserable Clark Kent has made our lives, I can't say I know of one man who wouldn't trade places with him in a heartbeat."
"Ain't that the truth," said the second man.
Jessica impatiently tapped her foot on the floor. How long could it possibly take an elevator to get here?
Jessica let out a breath and quickly stepped into the elevator. The men stepped in beside her and the doors slid closed. Jessica pressed the appropriate button and then watched as one of the men absentmindedly pressed the same button. She focused her eyes on the numbers as the elevator began to ascend. It wasn't long before the elevator doors opened and she disembarked.
"Hey, Clark," she heard a young man yell across the newsroom. After having heard about this Clark Kent from her elevator companions, she wanted to get a look at this man who was apparently irresistible to women.
She noticed a man in glasses turn and respond. She took a long look at him. Okay, so he was certainly good looking enough. And, of course, anyone who read the Daily Planet knew that Clark Kent was the best reporter at the paper. Still, he was certainly not irresistible — at least not to her. And given what she'd learned today, she intended to give Clark Kent a wide berth.
Jessica knocked softly on the door marked 'Perry White, Editor- in-Chief.'
"Come in," growled a man's voice.
Jessica cautiously opened the door and looked inside. "I'm Jessica Miller," she informed the man behind the desk when he looked up. "I'm here for an interview."
He stared at her blankly for a moment before it suddenly seemed to sink in what she was saying. "Right, right," he said, rising from behind his desk. He offered her his hand which she immediately took. "I'm Perry White," he said before releasing her hand and fumbling on his desk for a moment. "I have your resume right here," he continued, pulling out a few sheets of paper. "So you'd like to work for the Daily Planet, would you?"
"Yes, sir," Jessica replied.
Perry smiled. They all started out the same. At first it was 'sir' and 'Mr. White' and then soon they were calling him 'Perry' or even 'Chief'. He reminded himself that he had to inspire more fear in the newsroom. "Have a seat," he said, gesturing to a chair in front of his desk and going over to close the door to his office.
"Now," said Perry as he settled back into his chair, "I wanted you to come here for two reasons. First, that was a pretty impressive piece of work you did exposing government corruption in Borneo. You were working for the Borneo Gazette at the time, weren't you?"
"Yes, Mr. White. I still am working there in fact."
"Do you mind telling me how you got that information?"
Jessica shifted uncomfortably in her chair. It took her a moment to meet his eyes. "Actually, sir, I do," she finally said.
The edges of Perry's mouth went down as he studied her eyes. He'd been an old newspaper hound for a long time. And her eyes told him there was no point in pushing. She wasn't going to tell him anything about how she broke that story — a story which had been picked up by every large news organization in the world. Still…
Jessica held her breath. There was no way she could tell him how she got the story. It would raise too many unwanted questions. Still… Had she just ended any possibility of working for the Daily Planet? She kept her eyes firmly on his, hoping that was not the case.
"Look, Mr. White," Jessica continued when he didn't respond, "you know as well as I do that there are always some things about a story that aren't meant for public consumption. I'm sorry, but…"
"Are you saying I'm the public?" Perry growled.
"Of course not," gasped Jessica. This really wasn't going well. "I just meant…"
Suddenly, Perry's face broke into a smile. He'd tortured her long enough. She obviously wasn't about to give him that information. "Way to go, Ms. Miller," he said. "Never tell them how you broke a story. It gives them an advantage."
Jessica looked confused for a moment. "So does this mean you might still be interested in giving me a job?" she asked.
Perry chuckled. "More than ever. However…" His smile faded and he directed his attention to the resume she'd sent him. "…I do have some concerns. I notice here that you've been working for the Borneo Gazette for about a year. Is that correct?"
"But other than that, you have no training in the newspaper business. You also have a lot of gaps in your resume. I assume that means the Borneo Gazette is your only journalism experience. Is journalism something you're really interested in or is it just a job to you?"
Jessica pulled in a deep breath. How could she convince Perry White that journalism was something she was really interested in or that she'd always dreamed of working for the Daily Planet without telling him everything that had happened to her?
Perry saw her hesitate. The expected response, whether it was true or not, was for her to immediately jump in and tell him that although she was relatively new to journalism, she had finally found her calling. He was fascinated by her hesitancy.
Jessica raised her eyes slowly from where they were focused on the desk in front of her and met Perry White's eyes. When she finally spoke, her words were calculated.
"Mr. White, sometimes life doesn't go exactly the way we want it to. There is no reason that I can think of that you should believe this, given my resume, but being a reporter for the Daily Planet has been a dream of mine all my life."
Perry studied her eyes. In spite of the improbability of what she was saying, he found himself believing her. There was a hidden sadness in her eyes when she talked about life not going the way she wanted it to and the flicker of an old dream, almost abandoned, when she spoke of being a reporter for the Daily Planet. In that instant, his decision was made. He rose from his chair and offered her his hand.
"Jessica Miller," he said, "welcome to the Daily Planet."
She gasped and rose, taking his hand in hers as she stammered, "You mean I've got the job."
"You've got the job. When can you start?"
"As soon as you want me."
"What about Friday? Or do you need more time than that to give notice to the Borneo Gazette and get settled here in Metropolis?"
Jessica's face broke into a huge smile that instantly melted his heart.
"Friday would be great, Mr. White. I took my holidays before coming here, so that should take care of notice."
"Perry," said Perry. "Please, call me Perry." Now why had he done that? After all, wasn't he trying to get people to fear him more? "Everyone else does," he conceded.
Clark stood with the other reporters just outside the roped off area as they all stared at the open doors to Lex Labs. Given the brightness of the day and the darkness of the interior of the building, the doors looked like the entrance to an ancient tomb. And today they might as well have been. Some sort of chemical accident at Lex Labs had apparently injured — no one knew how badly — a number of people.
Clark's eyes focused on the entrance as something came into view. He let out a breath when he realized what it was. It was a body, being brought out in a body bag by some men or women dressed fully in protective gear. He heard the cries of some of the women nearby when they too realized what they were seeing. Why did things like this have to happen?
He watched as the first body bag was followed by several more, each loaded into an ambulance. Clark found something odd about this picture and studied the ambulances carefully for a moment. Suddenly it hit him. The ambulances were from Lex Corp Ambulance Services. He hadn't known Lex Luthor had an ambulance service. He wasn't sure why that surprised him. After all, Luthor had his finger in a lot of pies in Metropolis these days.
Clark noticed one of those who'd brought the bodies out wander away from the rest of the emergency team.
The person — who turned out to be a man — removed his protective head gear, revealing to Clark his ashen face. The man ran a hand through his sweat drenched hair as he made his way over to a nearby hose. After taking a moment to steady himself, he turned on the hose and let it run over his head.
Clark made his way over to the man. None of his colleagues seemed to have noticed — their attention being focused on the bodies still being brought out.
"Pretty rough?" Clark half asked, half said.
"You have no idea," the man responded, taking a quick glance at Clark.
"How many are dead?" Clark asked.
"I'm not sure. All I know is that there were a number of bodies in that room. I don't think anyone who was in there at the time survived."
"Any idea what happened?" Clark asked.
The man looked over at Clark, for the first time taking a good look at the man questioning him. He noticed the suit Clark was wearing and the notebook in his hands.
"You're a reporter, aren't you?" the man said, his tone going from friendly to suspicious.
"Yes," Clark confirmed. "I'm Clark Kent. I'm a reporter for the Daily Planet."
"I'm not talking to a reporter," the man said, grabbing his things.
"Listen," said Clark quickly, "if you don't want to go on the record, I promise to keep your name out of it. I just want to find out what happened so that, hopefully, nothing like this will happen again. The company is saying that one of the employees was conducting some sort of unauthorized chemical experiment that went bad. I just want to know if that's true."
The man looked around quickly. Then he shrugged. "I really don't know what happened. I assume that the information you were given is correct."
"Then would you be willing to at least tell me what it was like in there?"
The man grabbed a towel and ran it through his hair while he thought about the request. He slowly made his way over to a nearby bench. Clark followed.
"Well, it would probably do me good to talk about it," the man finally said.
Clark smiled. "What's your name?" he asked.
"Frank MacKenzie," the man answered before giving Clark the details of what he'd seen and done. The bodies were apparently covered with what appeared to be burns. They were bleeding from their eyes and mouths. No one had been allowed into the room without protective gear. Mackenzie had no idea what chemical had caused such devastation. All he did know was that he had to get out of there quickly. He felt bad about leaving the job of taking the bodies out to others, but he knew he was in no shape to help in his current condition. He'd never before seen anything so horrifying. Clark wrote furiously, knowing instantly that he had a great story — even if it was an insider's devastating view into a terrible chemical accident.
As they finished talking, Clark observed a middle-aged man with a receding hairline being taken out by the police in handcuffs. Clark made his way over to Inspector Henderson.
"Who is that, Inspector?" asked Clark, gesturing to the man in handcuffs.
"His name's Stanley Gables. He's being charged with negligent homicide in the deaths of twelve people."
"Twelve," gasped Clark.
Henderson nodded. "Apparently he was conducting a series of unauthorized experiments. Something went wrong and twelve people are now dead."
"What was the experiment?"
"Does it matter?" Henderson responded, before walking away.
"You wanted to see me, Chief?" Clark asked at the door to Perry's office the first thing Friday morning.
"Yes, son," said Perry. "We have a new reporter starting here today. She doesn't have a lot of experience, but I've got a feeling she's got good instincts. I want you to take her under your wing, so to speak."
"Sure, Perry," Clark responded. "Does that mean you don't want me to follow up on the accident at Lex Labs?"
"Take her with you," Perry replied. "She might as well jump in with both feet. That was a great story, by the way. Almost had me crying. What's next on that?"
"Well, there's supposed to be an announcement sometime today about the cause of the accident. All we have so far is what the company is saying."
"Do they give anything to back up their story?"
Clark shook his head. "I guess we'll know more when the report is provided by…" He was interrupted by someone else entering the room. He turned to face the intruder. All ability to form a coherent thought suddenly vanished when Clark found himself staring into a pair of the deepest brown eyes he'd ever seen.
"Jessica," said Perry, apparently oblivious of the effect this young woman's presence was having on his star reporter. "This is Clark Kent. I'm going to be partnering you up with him. At least for the time being. Clark, this is Jessica Miller. She's the one who broke open that Borneo corruption story."
Perry might have been unaware of the effect Jessica was having on Clark, but Jessica was not. In spite of her belief that she was looking at the Daily Planet's playboy, her heart still skipped a beat at the look of wonder in his eyes. She quickly looked down. She suddenly understood where his success with women came from. After all, she wasn't the least bit interested in a relationship with anyone.
When Jessica broke eye contact, Clark finally realized he was staring. He cleared his throat, trying to focus on what Perry had just said. "Jessica Miller… Borneo corruption story… Right!" he finally exclaimed. "That was some impressive work, Ms. Miller. Mind telling me how you managed to break that story?"
Jessica took a brief glance at Perry. He had an amused look on his face.
"Someone told me that a reporter should never give away her secrets," she responded.
"Okay, kids. Clark here is looking into the cause of the chemical tragedy at Lex Labs," Perry said.
"I read Mr. Kent's story about that this morning," Jessica replied.
"Then I'll let him fill you in on the details," Perry continued. "Now git. Bring me an award-winning story."
Lex Luthor was opening the ornate box on the corner of his desk when the door to his office opened. He looked up to see Mrs. Cox appear in the doorway.
"Sandra Wojick is here," she informed Luthor. "You asked to be notified as soon as she arrived."
"Yes, Mrs. Cox. Send her in," Luthor responded, removing a cigar from the box in front of him. He had just chomped down on the end of it when a woman entered the room. The formality of her suit was undermined somewhat by the shortness of her skirt. Not that Lex Luthor minded the view. He ran his eyes slowly up her legs before looking at her face.
He smiled at her, gesturing her to a chair before taking a seat on the corner of his desk. He lit his cigar before speaking.
"Do you know why you're here?" asked Luthor, removing the cigar from his mouth.
"I assume if you want to hire a public relations advisor, it has something to do with revising your image."
"Very good, my dear," said Luthor. "Yes. During the past year, I've managed to become one of the most powerful men in Metropolis. Now I want people to see me as its greatest benefactor as well. I've been told that you can make that happen."
"I can," said Sandra.
Luthor regarded her critically. "Of course, I never simply accept what others tell me."
Sandra smiled. "I would have expected nothing less from such a successful businessman."
"So who else's image have you remade?"
"I was the one hired by the royal family when the marriage of Charles and Di fell apart. They hired me to make her seem like a ditzy blond. Then after her death, I was hired by her estate. I'm the one who turned her from a ditzy blond into a saint."
Luthor smiled. He was indeed impressed. "So, what do you think you can do for me?"
"There are two aspects to dealing with your image. There are the positive aspects and the negative aspects. What I mean by that is that there is positive press coverage and negative press coverage. In order to create an image for you, we need to deal with both aspects. However, before you commit to this, you need to be aware that to do this right will cost you a great deal of money."
"Good things cost money."
Sandra smiled. "Now, if you're willing to spend money — and by that I mean making a number of large charitable donations — I can use that to get you positive press coverage."
"Also, we need to deal with negative press coverage. On that front, I can spin most stories. Of course, the best thing is not to expose yourself to possible negative press coverage in the first place."
"What sort of negative coverage are you talking about? I've made a habit of avoiding all press coverage."
"Well, a good example would be the story in the Daily Planet about the accident at Lex Labs. The article written by Clark Kent focused on the people who died. Now, I know that the accident wasn't your fault, but…"
"So what do I do about that type of story?"
"I will find a way to put a positive spin on that story. Maybe by having Lex Labs do something for the families of those killed. Of course, the best thing would be if you can find a way to control the stories that make it into the Daily Planet in the first place. After all, the world follows their lead on stories about Metropolis. If you control them, you control the world. I'll get to work right away on positive image reformation and will see what I can do to put a better spin on the accident at Lex Labs."
Lex smiled. This woman obviously thought much the same way he did. She didn't care what he did, just that the negative stories either not get out or have the right spin put on them.
Clark was having serious problems concentrating. Well, at least he was having problems concentrating on his job — especially while driving his jeep to the press conference with Jessica Miller sitting beside him. She wasn't wearing perfume, but it felt as if the smell of her mixed with her shampoo… or was it soap? …was filling his nostrils — making him slightly drunk. He shook his head. Nothing like this had ever happened to him before. Not even the one time he'd thought he was in love.
"Wasn't that where we were supposed to turn?" asked Jessica.
"Umm… Oh right. I guess. Well…" Clark pulled the jeep into a parking lot. He was silent as he got the car turned around and back onto the road. He could hardly believe what a fool he was making of himself. 'Think of something to say,' he told himself firmly. 'She's going to think you're a complete fool. Come on, boy. Pull yourself together. It's not exactly as if you haven't been attracted to a woman before. Surely you can think of something intelligent to say.'
"So, where are you from, Jessica?" Clark asked. He relaxed. That sounded intelligent enough.
"Look out!" Jessica exclaimed as a car almost slammed into the side of Clark's jeep.
Clark spun the wheel and got out of the way at the last possible moment. The rest of the trip was made in silence.
When they arrived at their destination, they got out of the jeep and made their way to the press conference. Most of the press were already there. They listened in silence as the spokesman for the Metropolis Police Department read his prepared statement, confirming the company's previous claim. The tragedy had been caused by one Stanley Gables — conducting an unauthorized experiment. He was now in custody and awaiting trial. Jessica and Clark both made notes and asked questions of clarification.
They returned to the jeep afterwards, still not having spoken to each other directly. Clark was feeling so incredibly sheepish. He had never before made a fool of himself in front of a woman. But there was no other way to describe what had happened on the way there. He pulled out his keys and was just about to open the driver's door when a hand stopped him, prying the keys from him.
"I think I should drive," said Jessica. "I don't know how you've managed to live as long as you have with your driving abilities." She pushed past him and climbed into the driver's seat.
Clark watched her in stunned silence for a moment. Suddenly, he broke out laughing.
"What?" asked Jessica.
"I'm sorry. I just… You're right. I guess I have been acting a little out of it today. I've just been a little distracted."
Jessica regarded him for a moment before nodding. When Clark had climbed into the passenger's seat, she spoke.
"So what's got you so distracted?" Jessica asked in an effort to make casual conversation, while putting on the blinker, checking over her shoulder and pulling the jeep into the traffic.
"Your shampoo," Clark muttered under his breath.
"Excuse me?" Jessica asked, realizing she wasn't supposed to have heard Clark's comment.
"Nothing," said Clark immediately. "I just didn't get a lot of sleep last night."
Jessica nodded. "So what do we do now?" she asked.
"With the story," Jessica clarified.
"Oh. Well, I think we go back to the Planet and type it up."
"So you believe what they said at the press conference?"
"I think so. I was there just after the accident took place. That was the company's claim at the time. I also talked to one of the emergency workers. He didn't seem to see anything that would contradict the company's claim. And I saw them take the man responsible into custody."
Jessica nodded. There didn't seem to be anything more to this story. It was a little disappointing, but then not every story could be an award winner.
Clark glanced at Jessica as she was shown around the newsroom. What was it about that woman that had the effect of making him behave as if he were a teenager experiencing his first crush? He had to admit she was beautiful, but he'd known lots of beautiful women in his life. His inability to control his feelings when this woman was nearby scared him. They'd managed to get the story written up, but he was grateful when Susan came by to take Jessica on a tour of the newsroom.
"So do you have a date for Lex Luthor's ball?" asked Jimmy, interrupting Clark's thoughts. Then, before Clark had a chance to respond, Jimmy continued. "What am I saying? You're Clark Kent. Ladies' man extraordinare," Jimmy concluded in obvious awe.
"Give it a rest, Jimmy," Clark responded, a definite note of resignation in his voice.
"Olsen!" yelled Perry.
"Gotta go," said Jimmy making his way to the chief's office, still puzzling over Clark's reaction.
Clark watched Jimmy go, wondering why he seemed unable to shake his reputation. As he usually did, after a moment wondering about it, he turned his attention to another issue. Jimmy was right about one thing. He needed a date for tonight. His eyes drifted across the newsroom floor until they found Jessica.
No. He would find a date for tonight — anyone was better than Jessica. He didn't need the complication of being rattled tonight. Not if he was planning to use the occasion to get the first one-on-one Lex Luthor interview.
His address book was full of women who would love to go to Lex Luthor's ball. He pulled out the book from his desk drawer and opened it randomly. 'Arlene Smith.' He smiled. She was always a good time. He picked up the phone before he once again caught sight of Jessica. He set the phone back down and watched Jessica for a moment.
No! He opened the book again, glancing at it. 'Vicky Nicol.' Yeah. She'd be perfect. He quickly picked up the phone and dialed the number — hanging it up again before it was answered.
He never made the decision to do so, but before he could stop himself he was on his feet and on his way to Jessica's desk — as if drawn there by some unseen force.
"Jessica," Clark said as he arrived by the side of her desk.
Jessica looked up. She'd been going by the name Jessica Miller for the past couple of years so she had no problems responding to it.
Clark's heart began pounding hard. He could hardly believe how nervous he was. It wasn't as if asking a woman out was a new experience for him. He swallowed hard before speaking.
"Lex Luthor's ball is tonight and I was wondering if you might like to accompany me," he said. He was unable to meet her eyes as he spoke, and to his horror, his voice trembled slightly on the last words. Still, it was out now. There was nothing to do but wait for her reply.
Jessica studied Clark for a moment. For a playboy, he sure lacked the smooth delivery she'd have expected. But then his behavior in the jeep earlier had surprised her. Still…
"Like a date?" she asked.
Clark finally met her eyes. "Well, yeah," he responded.
"I don't think so," Jessica responded immediately. Jessica had no intention of going out with Clark. The last thing she intended was to become Clark Kent's latest target. And if anyone could turn him down, she could. He'd obviously counted on those looks of his all his life. Well, that wasn't about to work with her.
Clark stood there for a long moment, looking at Jessica in disbelief.
"What? No one ever turn you down before?" asked Jessica, a sparkle of amusement dancing in her eyes.
"Of course I've been turned…" Clark paused. "Well… actually, I think this is the first time that I've been turned down," said Clark, trying to think of an occasion that would prove him wrong.
"Well, think of it as a learning experience then," said Jessica, rising from her chair and heading for the coat rack.
Clark followed. "Look," said Clark as he watched Jessica pull on her coat, "why don't we just think of it as a work assignment?" When Jessica just raised her eyebrows, he continued, "No one had even heard of Lex Luthor until about a year ago. He showed up in Metropolis and purchased Star Labs — immediately renaming it Lex Labs. Since then he's been taking over business after business. Then, about six months ago, there was a horrible series of fires on the south side — all of them still unsolved. Luthor purchased the land at fire sale prices. He cleared it and built Lex Towers, the highest building in Metropolis, in record time — as well as using the rest of the land for a number of other building projects."
Clark now had Jessica's full attention.
"Still," continued Clark, "no one knows where he came from or where he got his money — and he's ignored all my requests for a personal interview. It's almost as if he's the invisible man.
"Then, a few weeks ago, all of Metropolis' leading citizens were invited to a ball at Lex Towers — to be hosted by the phantom businessman himself. I guess you could call this his coming out party. The Daily Planet got a few of these invitations. Perry gave me two. He hopes I can use the occasion to convince Luthor to agree to an interview."
Jessica narrowed her eyes. His story about Lex Luthor had certainly sparked her interest, but was this just a ploy to get her out on a date? "You don't need me to help you do that," she said.
"Actually, I do. If I show up to this shindig alone, it will look suspicious," he said in his most innocent voice. "I'm hoping for a chance to get some information from Luthor before he realizes who I am. Having a woman with me will make me seem less like a reporter and more like one of the guests."
Jessica actually chuckled. "So, I'd be what? Camouflage?"
Clark gave her his most charming smile before saying, "Precisely." He did, however, briefly wonder if a woman with Jessica's looks could ever properly be considered camouflage.
Jessica shook her head slightly. "Sorry, Clark. I don't have anything to wear. Even if I had time to find something before tonight, I don't have any money to…"
"No problem," said Clark, taking her elbow and directing her back to his desk. He picked up the phone and placed a quick call before saying, "You're all set. Just go down to La Elle's. They're expecting you. I'll pick you up at eight." With those final words, he quickly left her to head out of the newsroom — afraid that if he didn't leave now, she'd find another reason not to go.
Jessica watched in stunned silence as he departed. Had she really accepted a date with Clark Kent? No. It was just a work assignment. Still, in spite of his behavior earlier today, he was good at getting what he wanted. Okay, so they'd go to the ball and she'd do what she could to help him get the interview. But if he expected anything more… Well, he wouldn't be the first man who'd had to limp away at the end of a date with her.
As the elevator doors closed, taking him out of the newsroom, Clark watched Lois. He wasn't quite sure why he had just done that. He didn't date in the office anymore! He just didn't! And he certainly never pressured a reluctant woman into going out with him. He pushed the thought aside. This was a work assignment — nothing more.
It wasn't until the doors closed that Clark realized he didn't have Jessica's address. He shook his head in frustration. Well, he couldn't go back in there. So once he got home, he'd give Perry a call. Perry would give it to him.
"You sent for me, sir," asked a man with an English accent.
"Yes, Nigel," responded Luthor. "I need you to get me a list of all Daily Planet reporters who have done damage to my reputation or the reputation of Lex Corp over the past year."
"I've been thinking about how to control the Daily Planet's press coverage."
"Why not just find a way to control Perry White? After all, he could see that no unflattering stories make it into the paper."
"Because from my research, Perry White has proven himself incorruptible. A number of people have tried it over the years. All of whom are now behind bars. He is both unbribable and unthreatenable."
"Then why not just have him replaced?"
"I thought of that. But if Perry White is killed, it will attract too much attention. And from what I hear, being editor of the Daily Planet is what he lives for. So there's no way to convince him to take a different job. Apparently he even turned down a promotion that would take him out of the newsroom. And he has no family. His wife died years ago, leaving him without children. No. The way to control Perry White is to control the information he's given. In order to do that, I need to control the reporters under him."
"Do you just want their names?"
"Of course not, Nigel. I want everything you can find out about them — including their weaknesses. Of course, I'm sure you know who the primary problem is."
"Clark Kent, sir?"
"I'll get right on it," Nigel promised.
Jessica looked at herself in the little mirror in the bathroom and sighed. It would be very helpful to have a full length mirror at the moment.
As Clark had suggested, she'd gone to La Elle's after work. The owner, Mrs. Lang, had been more than helpful. She had actually, as a favor to Clark, loaned Jessica an evening gown for tonight — as well as appropriate shoes, a purse and a wrap. Mrs. Lang said something about Clark and her daughter dating at one point. Jessica found it remarkable that the mother of a former girlfriend of Clark's would be inclined to help a woman who was preparing for a date with him. It must have been the most amenable breakup in the history of interpersonal relationships.
Jessica had found the most magnificent dress. She could hardly believe how much she was looking forward to tonight. It had been a long time since she had last been to an affair like this one… Actually, she didn't think she'd ever been to an affair like this one. Of course, it was only business. But did that really mean she couldn't have a little fun too?
She spun in front of the mirror and for a moment imagined what it would be like to be on the dance floor in Clark's arms — actually, in any man's arms. It would be nice. She smiled slightly. She was glad Clark had talked her into this. Maybe for one evening she would try to forget so that she could enjoy herself. Surely even the fates wouldn't deny her one evening of pleasure.
Of course, she would have to be careful not to send Clark the wrong message. On the other hand, he was used to being the heartbreaker. Maybe it was time that someone gave him a taste of his own medicine — and she was just the girl to do it. She let herself relax. Tonight she was going to have a good time. Let Clark think whatever he wanted. She would make it clear when he dropped her off afterwards that she was not interested in anything more.
Hearing a knock, Jessica smiled, grabbed her wrap and headed for the door.
"Do you have it?" Luthor asked.
"Yes, sir. There are only three reporters who have done any serious damage to Lex Corp's reputation over the past year. Eduardo Romero, Ralph Cooke and, of course, Clark Kent."
"Do you have files on them?"
"They are still in the process of being prepared. I'll also try to get you some information about a new reporter who was just hired. Her name is…" Nigel fumbled with a file for a moment before saying, "Jessica Miller."
"Isn't that the reporter who got that story about corruption in Borneo?"
"I believe so, sir."
Luthor nodded. "Okay, get me what you can on her too."
"Very good, sir."
"Now, Nigel, we better get ready for the ball. Wouldn't want to keep Metropolis' finest waiting too long."
Clark felt as if he were the luckiest man in the world when he entered the grand ball room with Jessica Miller on his arm. He knew that she was less than enthused about coming to Luthor's ball with him, but on the drive here, they'd actually had a pleasant conversation. It was not about anything important, but he was glad he was no longer quite as tongue-tied as he had been earlier in the day. Not that there hadn't been moments. When she'd opened that door, giving him his first glimpse of her in that evening gown, he'd felt his heart momentarily come to a complete stop.
He still couldn't figure out why he'd so desperately wanted to come here with her. It was baffling. It was also terrifying. The last thing he needed was to get his heart broken, and for a reason he couldn't quite explain, Clark suspected that the woman with him now had the power to cause him real pain. He'd gone through that pain once before — it had been devastating. How could he risk it again? Still, ever since she'd slipped her arm through his, he'd been unable to keep the grin off his face.
Jessica was actually surprised by how comfortable she had been in the jeep on the drive here. She might know Clark was a playboy. Still, she couldn't help but appreciate his sharp mind and quick sense of humor — not to mention that killer body. She was thoroughly enjoying herself by the time they arrived at the ball. She'd automatically slipped her arm through Clark's as they'd ascended the stairs into the building and couldn't help but be flattered by the goofy grin that he'd been wearing ever since.
As they entered the ballroom, a photographer stepped forward and took their picture. Jessica cringed slightly. She really didn't like to be photographed. She'd have to see what she could do to confiscate that picture. After all, if it ended up in the wrong hands, it could cause her some serious problems.
"Lois," Jessica heard a man call. She quickly looked for the source and then let out a sigh of relief when she realized that the man was addressing someone else. She redirected her attention to Clark who was leading them over to the coat check.
"Would you like to dance?" Clark asked when they'd dispensed with their coats. What was he doing? This was just a fake date. They were just here to get the interview with Lex Luthor. He had to keep his mind on the goal. She wasn't interested in him. That was fairly obvious. And until he was in control of these unusual feelings, he really shouldn't complicate things by dancing with her!
"Shouldn't we be trying to talk to Mr. Luthor?" she asked.
"I don't think he's here yet," said Clark, looking around. He ignored that part of his mind that realized she'd just given him a way out. "From what I've heard, he likes to make an entrance."
Jessica bit her lower lip. "Okay, then," she said after a moment — after all she had been looking forward to doing some dancing tonight.
Clark smiled and offered her his hand. When she slipped her hand in his, she was startled by the unexpected spark of electricity that seemed to accompany the touch of skin to skin. She quickly looked down, but then followed as he led the way to the dance floor.
Clark's hand lightly touched her side and then slowly slipped around her waist as her hand moved up his arm to settle on his shoulder. Their free hands found each other and suddenly they were dancing. The music was slow and they moved in time to its gentle lead.
For Clark, the entire world seemed to disappear when this woman crept into his arms. She seemed to fit against him in a way he was at a loss to describe. He was completely helpless to prevent the rush of emotions that immediately overwhelmed him. His head dropped slightly against the side of her head in order to feel her hair brush the side of his face. He fought back a groan. God, he loved the way she smelled. His arm, of its own will, pulled her slightly closer.
Jessica unexpectedly found herself getting caught up in the moment. It had been so long since she'd felt like a woman. The way Clark's arm wrapped around her was almost enough to make her forget everything and just lose herself in his embrace — almost, but not quite. She could never let herself completely forget.
Suddenly, the music stopped. Jessica was out of Clark's arms almost instantly. She refused to make eye contact, afraid that if she did, he'd understand exactly how much she'd felt when they'd been dancing. There was a moment of awkward silence.
"So, is Mr. Luthor here yet?" Jessica asked.
"Umm…" Clark began looking around. He'd almost forgotten why they were here. "There he is," he said after a moment.
Jessica turned around to see an attractive man in a very expensive looking tuxedo standing at the top of the staircase which led into the ballroom. He was looking out over the crowd. A man at his elbow leaned over and whispered something to him. He nodded and began making his way down the staircase, greeting people as he went. Jessica watched in fascination. Although she didn't hear what he was saying, she could tell that he was saying it brilliantly. The familiarity with which he shook people's hands, the way he looked at them as if each was the most important person in the room, saying the most brilliant thing, was remarkable. Clark was right. This guy was smooth. He was so smooth that he had to be hiding something. She'd bet on it. There was definitely a story here.
"Come on," she said to Clark, heading in the direction of Lex Luthor.
Clark was surprised by her sudden departure. It took him a moment before he followed. She was at the bottom of the stairs before he could catch up.
Luthor spotted Clark Kent as he approached the bottom of the staircase. He also noticed the beautiful young woman at his side. His eyes slowly crept over her body as he approached. When he arrived where they were standing, his eyes immediately found Clark's.
"Mr. Kent from the Daily Planet, I believe," said Luthor.
"Yes, Mr. Luthor," replied Clark. "I'm surprised you know who I am. I don't believe we've met before."
"I asked," Luthor replied. "Considering the number of phone messages you've left for me over the past few months, I almost feel as if we already know each other. I'm glad you could join us this evening. I hope you're enjoying the party."
"Actually, Mr. Luthor, I came here tonight to make my appeal for an interview in person." Clark had hoped to speak to Luthor in cognito before letting Luthor know who he was. However, now that his cover was blown, Clark figured the best approach was the direct one. Therefore, he'd made his appeal for an interview. "I'm hoping you might be willing to give the press some information about your background."
Luthor regarded Clark for a moment before replying, "I'm sorry, Mr. Kent. I really don't think I have time in the immediate future."
"But surely you could fit in a half hour," responded Jessica.
"And you are?" asked Luthor, turning his attention to the young woman.
"I'm sorry," said Clark. "This is Jessica Miller. She's our newest reporter." Clark then cringed as Luthor picked up Jessica's hand and raised it to his lips. What made it worse was that Jessica didn't seem to mind the attention.
"You're a reporter for the Daily Planet?" Luthor asked, even though the question was redundant since Clark had already said she was.
"I just started there today," said Jessica, giving Luthor her warmest smile. "So couldn't you find a way to spare us a few minutes for an interview?"
Luthor paused. "Well, I'll tell you what, Ms. Miller. I'm not sure I have time for an interview, but I never like to disappoint a beautiful woman. Why don't I call you and we'll see what we can work out?"
Jessica's smile widened. "I'll look forward to it."
"Good," said Luthor. "Now, since this is supposed to be a party, I suggest we leave business talk for another time. Would you care to dance?"
"I'd love to," said Jessica, noticing, in her peripheral vision, Clark's expression darken as Luthor led her out to the dance floor.
Clark found a place by the wall and leaned back against it. Shoving his hands deep in the pockets, he watched as Jessica danced with Luthor. He really didn't like this. It was obvious to him that Luthor's intention was not to give them an interview; it was to make a play for Jessica. He wasn't jealous. He wasn't! He had heard about Luthor's reputation with women and just couldn't stand the idea of Luthor making Jessica another one of his trophies. And by the look on her face as they talked and danced, Jessica was definitely interested. She was his partner. He just didn't want his partner compromised.
Clark ignored the little voice in the back of his mind that reminded him of his reputation. After all, more than anyone, he ought to know that rumors could be very misleading. Still, in Luthor's case, he believed the rumors. The irony would have been almost funny if it wasn't so painful watching Jessica dance with Luthor.
"Hey, stranger," came a woman's voice, interrupting Clark's depressing thoughts.
Clark turned to the woman addressing him and a smile lit up his face at the sight of Lana Lang. He and Lana had dated when he was in high school and then for about a year after that. She'd been heartbroken when he'd ended the relationship. However, in the years that followed, she'd come to accept it. They had even restored their friendship, for which Clark was grateful.
"Hi, Lana. I didn't know you'd be here tonight," Clark responded. "So," he continued, looking around, "where's that boyfriend of yours? Just come to rub it in?"
Lana laughed. "Well, I couldn't sit around waiting for you forever. Steve's not here tonight. He's off to somewhere or other. You know how it is."
"Yeah, I know. So how are things going between you two?"
"Great. We've started talking about getting married."
"Congratulations," said Clark.
"Hey, it's not for sure yet. But what about you? When I came over, you were looking a little like you'd just lost your best friend."
Clark's eyes involuntarily drifted back to the woman in Luthor's arms.
"Who is she?" asked Lana, following Clark's gaze.
"Who?" asked Clark.
Lana laughed. "Okay, none of my business," she conceded. "Does she know what she's in for? After all, you should come with a warning label."
Clark looked over at Lana and smiled. Unlike Jimmy's comments earlier, he knew Lana was just teasing. After all, they'd been friends since high school. As a result, she more or less knew what was real and what was nothing more than idle gossip. "And what would it say?" Clark asked.
Lana thought about that for a moment. "Warning: Do not operate machinery without large quantities of alcohol at home."
Clark crinkled his eyebrows. "Why large quantities of alcohol?"
"So that a girl has something to dull the pain when you break her heart. Maybe I should warn her."
"No need," said Clark.
The tone of his voice caused Lana to raise her eyebrows.
"She's made it quite clear that she's not interested," Clark pouted.
This time, Lana really laughed. "Turnabout's fair play," she responded. At Clark's look, she continued, "Look, let's dance. Maybe it will give her something to think about."
Clark smiled and reached out to take Lana's hand.
Jessica had been keeping an eye on Clark as she danced with Luthor. It wasn't hard seeing just how much her dancing with Luthor upset him. It was as if a dark cloud hovered over the area Clark was occupying. However, this time when she looked over, she couldn't see him. Where could he have gone? It was then that a movement in the corner of her eye caught her attention and she pulled in a sharp breath when she noticed Clark with another woman in his arms. So much for that. She should have known that Clark Kent didn't really have serious feelings for her. He was a playboy. She was a potential conquest. That was all.
Jessica had never intended to get involved with Clark so it surprised her just how much she didn't like the idea of him dancing with another woman. She pushed the thought out of her mind and turned her attention back to the man she was dancing with. At least it was looking more and more as if she was going to be granted an interview. If it wasn't for that possibility, she would never have agreed to dance with this man. Evil seemed to ooze out of his every pore.
The jeep pulled to a stop in front of Jessica's apartment building and Jessica quickly opened the door. Clark reached over and put a hand on her arm. When Jessica looked at him, he spoke.
"Watch out for Luthor," he said intensely, keeping his eyes firmly on hers. "He has quite a reputation with women."
'You're one to talk,' was the retort that immediately sprang to Jessica's mind, but she didn't say it. After all, she agreed with Clark that Lex Luthor was a dangerous man. "I will," she replied. "And thanks for tonight. I had a good time."
"I'd like to walk you to your apartment. I mean this isn't the safest neighborhood," said Clark.
"That's really not necessary," objected Jessica.
"But it would be my pleasure," Clark said with a smile that sent an unexpected, and quite unwelcome, flutter through Jessica's stomach. Without waiting for an answer, Clark opened his door and got out of the jeep.
Jessica continued to sit in the jeep — lost in thought. This was where he would come up to her apartment. He would ask to come in for a drink, making it sound innocent enough. The problem, in Jessica's mind, was that she was really starting to enjoy Clark's company. And if she truly believed that he just wanted to come in for a drink, she'd like to get know him better. But she knew this man's reputation. He wouldn't merely be coming in for a drink. And she couldn't allow anything to happen between them.
"Coming?" asked Clark, offering her his hand.
She looked at his hand for a moment before ignoring it to get out of the jeep on her own. She closed the door and, without looking at Clark, headed into her apartment building. When she arrived at her door, she fished in her purse, locating her keys. She opened the door to her apartment before turning to Clark — preparing to turn him down.
"I had a really nice time tonight," Clark said, before she could say anything. "Thank you for coming with me."
He hesitated, wanting to kiss her goodnight, but entirely unsure that such a move would be appreciated. He glanced at her lips before deciding against it.
"I'd really like to do it again sometime, Jessica," Clark finally said instead.
"I don't think that's a good idea, Clark," said Jessica, not meeting his eyes.
Clark had expected her to say that. But knowing that they were coming didn't make the words any more pleasant. "Goodnight, Jessica," he said softly.
"Goodnight," replied Jessica, still avoiding eye contact.
Clark stood there for a moment more before nodding, turning and making his way to the stairs.
Jessica stood in the doorway of her apartment and watched him go. It surprised her how disappointed she was by his departure. When he was finally out of sight, she rolled her eyes. "What do you think you're doing?" she asked herself in disbelief before walking into her apartment and slamming the door shut behind her.
"What is it, Nigel?" asked Luthor.
"I've got the information you requested," Nigel said, handing Luthor some files. Luthor laid the files on his desk before opening the first one.
"Eduardo Romero," he said. He reviewed the file quickly. "It appears that he has family. Two little girls." He thought about that. "Get pictures of the two girls. Perhaps outside their school. I'm sure when Mr. Romero realizes just how easily we can get to his family, he'll cooperate."
"Of course, sir."
Luthor picked up the second file. "Ralph Cooke." After reviewing this file he spoke again. "It seems Mr. Cooke has quite a gambling problem. I'm sure you know how to use that to our advantage."
The third file had the name of Clark Kent marked on it. "So, what did you find out about our good friend, Mr. Kent?" he asked as he opened it. He studied it for a moment. "Doesn't smoke. Seldom drinks. Doesn't gamble. Lives within his means. Uhhhh… Likes the ladies, does he?"
"Well then, maybe we can get a woman in place to keep an eye on Mr. Kent's activities. Or at least one who can distract him if he gets close to uncovering any of our operations." Luthor laid down the file and looked at Nigel. "What about Ms. Miller? What did you find on her?"
"Not much," said Nigel. When Luthor looked disappointed, Nigel continued. "It seems that Jessica Miller was a reporter for the Borneo Gazette. Before that, she didn't exist."
"I managed to obtain her date of birth from a copy of the resume she sent to the Daily Planet. There was a Jessica Miller, born in Philadelphia, on the date she gave. That Jessica Miller also has a death certificate issued for her six months later."
"So she's hiding something," said Luthor, with a grin at Nigel. "Well, let's find out exactly what that is. But be careful. We don't want to alert her or anyone else to what we've found until we're able to decide how best to use it."
"Very good, sir."
Jessica was at the Daily Planet first thing Saturday morning. As a senior journalist, Clark had most weekends off. As his partner, Jessica was granted the same privileges. However, since she had just started yesterday, she wanted a chance to familiarize herself with Daily Planet resources. So she had come in to explore the Daily Planet archives and computer banks.
It was mid-afternoon when she was told she had a phone call.
"Jessica Miller," Jessica said, picking up the phone.
"Ms. Miller, Lex Luthor here," said the voice on the other end of the line.
"Mr. Luthor," said Jessica. "I didn't expect to hear from you so soon."
"Well, I've been thinking about your request for an interview. What do you say we get together tonight and discuss it further?"
"Mr. Kent isn't in today," Jessica said, not particularly liking what he was suggesting. After all, he wasn't saying he would give them an interview, just that they would discuss it further.
"I don't think we need to involve Mr. Kent at this point. After all, he's a busy man. Why don't we see what we can work out? Then, if we come to an acceptable arrangement, we'll involve him."
Jessica seriously doubted Lex Luthor had any intention for this to be anything more than a date. Still, if there was a chance…
"What time do you want me there?" Jessica asked.
"I'll send a car by your apartment at seven o'clock. Oh, and I hope you don't mind, but I usually eat supper around that time. I'd be honored if you'd join me."
"Hey, C.K.," said Jimmy when he noticed Clark enter the newsroom. "I thought you were off today."
"I am, Jimmy. I just couldn't seem to think of anything to do, so I decided to come in here to see if there was anything going on." He had actually come here in an effort to quit obsessing about Jessica. He looked around the nearly empty newsroom. "I guess there's not much happening here either."
Jimmy looked around the newsroom with him. "Nah. We got the paper to bed a few minutes ago. Most people have already left for the night. Hey, do you want to go get a drink or something?"
Clark nodded. Spending the evening with Jimmy would definitely help him keep his mind off how badly things were going with Jessica.
"By the way, you know that new reporter? Jessica. I think that's her name," said Jimmy.
"What about her?"
"Well, she's really dedicated. I understand she had today off," he said, grabbing his jacket.
"She was here today?" asked Clark, suddenly very interested.
"Yeah. Well, until she got a call from Lex Luthor."
"What did she do then?" Clark insisted.
Jimmy regarded Clark curiously. "She left. She said something about having supper with him. Boy, talk about a fast mover. She's only been working here for a day and already she has a date with… Hey, what about going to get a drink?" Jimmy asked when Clark spun around and headed out of the newsroom.
"Next time, Jimmy," Clark called over his shoulder.
Clark looked at his watch again. It was almost midnight. He'd been driving around, trying to avoid going over to Jessica's.
The problem was that Clark couldn't quite figure out his motives. He believed that Luthor was a dangerous man and Clark spent most of his time telling himself that he was just concerned about her partner's safety. After all, safety was one of the reasons a person had a partner. And, to be honest, part of him was angry. Lex Luthor was his story. Was she trying to steal it?
He had almost managed to convince himself that he was just upset because she was trying to steal his story when he realized that his reasoning had a fatal flaw — that the belief that she was trying to steal his story made him feel better. He growled in frustration. He was obsessing because he was worried that she had feelings for Luthor.
Well, he wasn't going to stalk her! If she wasn't interested in him, that was her loss. Still, a few minutes later, he found himself driving down her street. He quickly pulled off to the side when he noticed a long black limo sitting in front of her apartment building. He turned off the lights and scrunched down further into his seat. The lights on the limo were still on as it idled there.
"Please, please, please, please," Clark muttered as he waited to find out if Jessica would emerge from the car. He seemed to resume breathing when she did, followed by a tightening in his chest when Luthor also emerged. He sat silently watching as Jessica waited for Luthor to make his way around the car to escort her into her apartment building. He felt almost ill when Luthor placed his hand on the small of Jessica's back. He was bothered even more by Jessica's apparent lack of displeasure at this gesture.
When they disappeared into the building, Clark knew he should go. She had obviously made it home all right. He could talk to her about trying to steal his story on Monday. He should go home — yet he continued sitting in front of her apartment building. He just had to know. Would she let Luthor come into her apartment? Would he spend the night? He really should go home. This was wrong. He was dangerously close to becoming a stalker.
He let out a breath when Luthor exited her apartment building alone. He watched cautiously as Luthor's car pulled back onto the street and drove past him. Clark closed his eyes in relief.
Bang, bang, bang.
Clark jumped at the sound of someone banging on the driver's side window of his jeep. Looking to see who was there, he cringed. He lowered the window — not making eye contact with the person standing there.
"Get out here, Kent!" said Jessica's irritated voice.
Clark raised the window and, opening the door, stepped out of the vehicle. Since he was preparing himself for a confrontation, he was surprised when Jessica began walking away. He stood by the side of his jeep, watching her walk across the street. When she arrived on the other side, she looked back.
"Are you coming?" she asked.
"Yeah," stuttered Clark, quickly locking the door and following her.
When he reached her, she spoke again. "I figure there's about to be some yelling. I don't particularly want the whole neighborhood overhearing. I just moved here." With those words, Jessica spun away from Clark, stomping into her building.
Clark swallowed hard before following. She was obviously not pleased to find him sitting outside her apartment building. But then how would he feel to return from one of his dates to find another woman checking up on him?
But that wasn't what this was, Clark assured himself again. She had no right trying to hone in on his story — even if they were partners. Besides, Luthor could be dangerous. As mad as she was, she couldn't be as angry as he.
Jessica's hands were trembling as she inserted the key in her door to unlock it. She knew she had a hair trigger temper. She'd worked for years to get control of it. But seeing Clark sitting across from her apartment when she'd emerged from Lex's limo had pushed all her buttons. It took her a moment to finally get the door open. She walked in, flicking on the light switch as she went. Clark followed.
When they were both safely ensconced inside, Jessica spun around. "What the hell do you think you're doing sitting outside my apartment building in the middle of the night? What? I turn you down, so you figure you have the right to stalk me?" Even as she said it, she knew the words weren't fair. She'd seen him drive up just before she got out. Still, it was easier lashing out at him than it was to admit what really had her angry.
"Stalk you?" exclaimed Clark — ignoring the nagging little voice in the back of his mind that had categorized his behavior in just that fashion only minutes before. "Jimmy told me that you were meeting with Luthor tonight. You had no right meeting with him. Luthor's my story! That's why I'm here."
"You think I'm trying to steal your story?" Jessica asked in disbelief. "I thought we were partners." She calmed herself before continuing. "Look, Lex called and said that he wanted to discuss giving us…" She emphasized the last word. "…the interview. What did you want me to do? Tell him that I couldn't discuss it with him because my partner might be offended. Isn't the point here to get the story for the Daily Planet?"
Clark was silent for a moment as what she said began to sink in. "I jumped to the wrong conclusion, didn't I?" he said after a moment. "God, what is it about you that makes me act like such a fool?" asked Clark in disbelief.
Jessica looked at him for a moment before bursting out laughing.
"Great," said Clark, throwing up his hands. "I act like an idiot and she finds it amusing."
"I'm sorry," said Jessica, trying to get her laughter under control.
"At least tell me that Luthor agreed to an interview," Clark continued.
She snorted. "No. He was more interested in a date than an interview."
Clark smiled. The tone of her last comment laid to rest a number of his fears. "Well now that we've established what an idiot I am, maybe I should say goodnight." He turned towards the door.
Jessica followed him. When he opened the door, she spoke. "Clark, I really am looking forward to being your partner at the Planet. I know you're one of the best. I think I could learn a lot from you. Please believe me. I wasn't trying to steal the Luthor story."
"Jessica, I overreacted. It was stupid. I guess… I think Luthor's dangerous. I just don't want you getting in over your head." When she looked as if she was about to respond, he raised a hand. "What do you say we just forget about it?"
Jessica smiled. "Deal," she responded.
"Friends?" he asked, offering her his hand.
"I think I'd like that," she responded after a moment of contemplation.
Lex Luthor handed the plastic bag containing a dirty wine glass to Nigel.
"Her fingerprints are on this," he assured Nigel. "Find out who she is and what she's running from."
"Very good, sir," Nigel responded, taking the bag. "How did your dinner go?"
"Not very well, Nigel. She isn't as easily seduced as most women. That's why we need to find out everything we can about her. In the mean time, how are you doing with finding a woman who can keep an eye on Kent?"
"I've found a number who are interested. One of them should catch his interest. After all, they are all intelligent and beautiful — the type Mr. Kent seems to like."
"Good, Nigel. Get one of them in place quickly. I want someone keeping us informed of Kent's movements. At least that way we can defuse any bombs he might find before he has a chance to detonate them."
Clark drove back to his place on automatic pilot — his mind being occupied with what had happened tonight. Jessica wasn't interested in Lex Luthor. That was the good news. The bad news was that she didn't seem interested in him either. But there was something about the way she wasn't interested that confused him.
Clark felt at a complete loss about how to handle the situation. He hadn't allowed himself to get emotionally attached to a woman in years. And the last time he had, it had been devastating. So how was it that, in just two days, he'd managed to lose control of his feelings so completely? It was utterly baffling. And, if he were honest with himself, absolutely terrifying.
There was only one possible explanation for it. She was his basherteh. He hadn't been sure she even existed until now, but it was the only explanation Clark could come up with for how easily she was able to break through all his barriers. Although he'd believed, when he was younger, that someday he'd meet his basherteh, the years had made him much more cynical. Yet here she was — in the flesh.
But if that was true, if she was his basherteh, why did she seem so oblivious to the connection between them? But what else could it be? The way the swirl of her hair captivated him; the way looking into her eyes could make his heart skip a beat; the way her smell intoxicated him, all of it told him that she was his basherteh.
So what was he to do now? If he asked her out again, he was sure she'd only turned him down again. So where did that leave him?
Still, he couldn't walk away. Everything about her spoke to him. Every movement, every look, touched him.
A car horn sounding behind him alerted Clark to the fact that he was sitting at a green light. He took his foot off the brake and placed it on the gas.
So why didn't she feel the same way? Maybe if he could figure that out he'd… Suddenly, his breath caught in his throat. Maybe she'd heard about his reputation with women. What was he thinking? Of course she'd heard about his reputation with women. It was one of the most constant staples of office gossip, after all. No wonder she didn't want to get involved with him — if she were at all interested in him in the first place, that is. And what could he say? Denying the rumors that weren't true would only confirm, by implication, the ones that were.
He growled in frustration. So what should he do now? There was really only one option. She just wanted to be friends. Then that's what he would do — for now anyways. Maybe if they became friends he'd find a way to get her to see past his reputation.
Jessica walked into her room and changed for bed. This place had been a disaster zone only days before. But as a result, she'd gotten it for a reasonable price — with the understanding that she could fix it up. She was pleased with the result.
Once ready for bed, she crawled in between the fresh sheets and stuffed her pillow under her head. 'Go to sleep,' she told herself firmly. She closed her eyes and began concentrating on counting backwards from a hundred.
One hundred. Ninety-nine. Ninety-eight. Ninety-seven. Ninety- five. Ninety…
When she'd spotted Clark drive up in his jeep as she'd been preparing to get out of the limo, she'd felt her heart skip a beat. Her anger at him had more to do with anger at herself for being glad to see him. And how could she possibly be glad to see the Daily Planet's resident womanizer?
She had to admit that he was kind of cute. She smiled. That goofy expression on his face when she'd slipped her arm through his at Lex's ball was priceless. She even liked the hang-dog look on his face when he'd watched her dance with Lex. She shook her head firmly. She wasn't doing this. She wasn't going to think about Clark Kent.
Where was she now? Right. Ninety-two. Ninety-one. Ninety. Eighty-seven. Eighty- three.
She probably shouldn't have let him believe that they could be friends. After all, could a man like him really just be friends with a woman? Then she thought back to the woman Clark had danced with at Lex's ball. After dancing with Lex, she'd asked Clark — casually, of course — who the woman was. He'd immediately insisted on introducing them. She was amazed, and even a little jealous, when she realized what good friends the two of them were. And, after so many years alone, she really could use a friend. What was she doing? She wasn't thinking about Clark!
A small smile crept on to her lips when she remembered what it felt like to dance with Clark. She'd felt so much like a woman. He smelt so much like a man. No! She wouldn't do this. She rolled over onto her other side. She really wished this bed wasn't so lumpy. That was the only reason she was having problems sleeping. Besides, he wasn't really that cute. She'd prove it.
She turned on a lamp, crawled out of bed and rifled through her underwear drawer until she found what she was looking for. She pulled out the picture taken of her and Clark at the ball. She had confiscated it from the photographer when Clark had left her to take a trip to the washroom. She looked at the picture and sighed. So much for that. He was even cuter than she remembered. And that goofy grin was more endearing than ever. She lay back in bed and ran her finger lightly over Clark's image. If only…
But that was impossible. It couldn't be. And if she didn't find a way to get control over her emotions, she was seriously going to hurt both of them. She couldn't send him mixed signals. It really wouldn't be fair. She knew that. She closed her eyes. A tear escaped from the corner of one eye and ran down her cheek. She reached up and frantically brushed it away.
She briefly considered his reputation. He was a playboy. If he didn't get what he wanted from her, he'd just go on to his next victim, wouldn't he? Still, she didn't want him to get the wrong — or was it the right? — message. They had to work together and she really could use a friend.
The following weeks passed quickly. Jessica and Clark had been assigned a number of different stories and were beginning to develop a working relationship. Her instincts and his logic complemented each other nicely. Perry had commented a few times that they had the potential to be the best news team since Woodward and Bernstein. Jessica had basked in glory at the comparison. Perry even liked the work they produced together so much that he'd teamed them up on a quasi- permanent basis.
Luthor had been given the keys to the city of Metropolis after a very generous contribution by Lex Corp to Metropolis General Hospital for the construction of a children's wing. Jessica and Clark covered that story, but couldn't find anything in it to criticize Luthor for. That contribution was followed by others. And although Jessica and Clark were both suspicious of his motives, the majority of the city was coming to love their new benefactor. Luthor had asked Jessica out on a couple of occasions since then, but, much to Clark's obvious satisfaction, she'd turned him down each time.
Unlike her relationship with Luthor, Jessica's relationship with Clark grew. They had eaten supper together on many occasions — just as friends. He had even cooked for her at his place once. Of course, after that, she'd taken over any cooking that needed to be done. Jessica was convinced Clark could find a way to burn water. He hadn't objected. Since Clark had all the appropriate cooking utensils and Jessica had all the skill, they would often end up back at his place after work. Jessica was responsible for cooking and he was on clean up detail. After supper, they'd often settle on the couch to watch a video or just talk.
It amazed Jessica that they always seemed to be able to find things to talk about. Sometimes, of course, when they were in the middle of a story, the evening would be spent discussing work. Other times, however, they would talk about politics or movies or music. On one occasion they'd actually spent the whole evening discussing Hallowe'en candy. Clark had been adamant that the best Hallowe'en candy was chips. She had objected that chocolate bars were better. He'd rolled his eyes — commenting that he should have known better than to expect rational arguments from a chocoholic. They had spent the whole evening debating the issue — often laughing so hard that tears would roll down their cheeks at the insanity of their arguments.
Clark had taken to calling her Jess. She had never before let anyone shorten her name — not that he'd asked, of course. But then, she'd never really been close enough to anyone before for them to feel comfortable doing it. She had to admit that she liked the familiarity of the shortened name.
Still, Clark hadn't as much as suggested pursuing anything more than a friendship. On those few occasions when Jessica was feeling particularly insecure, she'd wondered if that meant he was no longer attracted to her. But then she'd see that look in his eyes and her fears — or was that the right word? — would be put to rest.
Sometimes, Jessica would catch herself noticing the cut of his pants or the way his shirt stretched across his muscular chest. Her reaction was instinctive. Of course, when she'd realize where her thoughts were taking her, she'd immediately push them away. Her self-control, however, didn't help her when she was asleep. Her dreams of Clark were getting to be a regular occurrence. Sometimes, after such a dream, she'd find herself trying not to wake up.
Jessica noticed that Clark hadn't dated since they'd become partners. Considering the number of women who seemed to be constantly throwing themselves at him, Jessica found his lack of interest astonishing — and, in the privacy of her own thoughts, flattering.
Not that anything could ever come of it, of course — given her particular situation. And that did occasionally cause her to worry about what would happen when he finally came to understand that they would never be together, but most of the time she still found it slightly amusing. The lady killer seemed to have been tamed by the one woman he could never have.
Besides, there was nothing she could say to convince him that they would never be more than friends — not without telling him everything. And that was the one thing she could never do. How would he react if he knew the truth? Would he still want to be her friend? She couldn't bear to lose both her partner and the only real friend she'd had in more than ten years.
Jessica doodled absently on a pad of paper as the reporters gathered around the conference room table. Assignments were handed out and discussed. She found she listened better when she had something to occupy her hands.
"…Also," said Perry, "there's a new art exhibit opening at the Metropolis Museum this evening. Michael Daniels called in sick this morning, so we need someone to cover that."
"Who's Michael Daniels?" Jessica whispered to Jimmy who was seated beside her.
"He's the Planet's art critic," Jimmy responded.
Jessica returned to her doodling. There was a moment of silence when Perry must have looked at Clark because he responded.
"No," objected Clark.
"You know more about art than…"
"Don't do this to me, Perry," Clark pleaded.
Jessica looked up in shock. She had never heard Clark object to an assignment. Granted, covering an exhibit at the museum might not be the most challenging assignment, but…
"Sorry, son, but I'm going to have to insist on this one," Perry said. "Now, Eduardo…"
Jessica tuned Perry out and watched Clark. He was obviously distressed. For some reason, Perry seemed to know he would be. What was it about this assignment he found so distasteful?
The meeting broke up shortly afterwards. Clark didn't even notice her as he walked out of the conference room. That wasn't usual. He always seemed to notice her. She watched as he made his way back to his desk. Given the nature of the assignment, it really was a one person story. And although they were normally partners, they would handle smaller stories by themselves. But this time was different. The exhibit opening was happening this evening — after normal working hours. There was only one way for her to get to the bottom of this. She walked over to Clark's desk.
"Clark?" Jessica said.
"Huhh? Oh, sorry. What is it, Jess?" Clark responded.
"Relax, Clark," Jessica said, taking a seat on the corner of his desk.
Clark pulled in a sharp breath at the sight of what that action did to shorten her already short skirt. Jessica smiled. Whatever else was bothering Clark, it was good to know that he wasn't so far gone that he didn't notice her legs.
"I was just wondering if you'd like some company this evening when you go to cover the exhibit opening."
"No," Clark replied immediately. The one thing he didn't want was to have Jessica there. It would be bad enough, he was sure, going alone. The last thing he needed was to have to worry about Jessica too.
Jessica narrowed her eyes. She spent a moment studying the way he wasn't looking at her. His refusal told her she was right — there was more to this than just a trip to the museum. After all, he never objected to spending time with her. It made her more determined than ever to go.
"You know I could always just show up. It is open to the public, after all," Jessica informed him.
Clark looked up in response to her comment. There was obvious shock in his eyes. Almost immediately, he looked away. Then she watched his shoulders slump slightly. Finally, he shrugged. "Suit yourself," he said.
"Well, if I'm going to suit myself, I'm going with you."
"Fine," Clark said. His voice sounded resigned. Still, it was acceptance. He might not be happy about it, but going with him was still better than going on her own.
Jessica was just finishing up her story for the day — nothing important, but something that had to be covered — when Perry walked up to her desk. "Could I speak to you for a moment?" he asked.
Jessica looked at him curiously. He was her boss. He could just demand to speak to her. The phrasing of the question told her that this was important. She got up from her desk and followed him into his office. He closed the door before speaking.
"I understand you are going with Clark to the opening of the exhibit tonight," he said.
"Yes," Jessica responded cautiously.
"Good," said Perry. "I didn't like assigning him that story, but I really had no choice. Clark's the only reporter other than Michael who has any real knowledge about art. He took a minor in Art History while getting his journalism degree."
"What's this all about, Perry?" Jessica asked.
Perry studied her before shaking his head. "It's Clark's place to tell you. I can't. Just make sure he's okay."
"I'll do my best, but it would be helpful to know…"
Perry shook his head again. "Just keep an eye on him."
Jessica noticed Clark wipe his hands against his pants as they stepped through the doors of the museum. He'd been getting progressively more nervous the closer they got to their destination. They asked for directions to the new exhibit and were gestured in the appropriate direction.
"Do you want to tell me what's going on?" asked Jessica as they approached the room.
"What do you mean?" Clark responded.
"Clark, I know…"
"Here we are," Clark interrupted, placing a hand on the small of Jessica's back as he directed her into the room.
She sighed. Okay, so he wasn't going to tell her. Hopefully the answer would reveal itself soon enough.
"Clark," said a man's voice.
Jessica and Clark turned to see an older, distinguished looking gentleman with a full head of white hair approaching. The man wore an expensive suit and a relaxed smile.
"George," said Clark, offering the man his hand. "It's good to see you."
"I sort of suspected we wouldn't see you around these parts again. I'm glad I was wrong. So, who's this?" the man asked, turning his attention to Jessica.
"This is Jessica Miller," Clark said. "And this is George McDonald. He's the museum's curator."
Jessica took the man's hand in greeting, wondering why everyone except her seemed to know what was going on.
"Nice to meet you, Ms. Miller. Please," he gestured to the exhibit. "Take a look around. Andre Pasco is one of Metropolis' newest artists. But I think he's going to be one of the greatest we've ever produced."
Jessica and Clark followed George over to a painting that wasn't much more than a complicated swirl of colors and textures.
"As you can see, he's got a unique outlook on the world."
"Is he here tonight?" asked Clark.
The curator shook his head. "It's strange, but he adamantly refused to be here for the exhibit opening."
"There's a lot of pain in these pictures," Jessica commented distractedly. "I don't know why, but it's almost as if the artist is predicting the end of the world or something."
George raised his eyebrows. "Very good, Ms. Miller. Yes, the artist has captured some sort of future pain. It's hard to describe. As you said, it's as if he's seen the end of the world and has captured the emotions on canvas. Until about a year ago his paintings were amateurish. Then he seemed to find this unusual pain. Since then he's become one of the most sought after young artists Metropolis has."
"Anything happen to him about a year ago?" asked Clark.
"Not that I know of," George responded.
"Clark," a woman's voice suddenly purred behind them.
Jessica turned to see a woman in her mid-thirties approaching. Although Jessica couldn't say quite why, since her clothing was certainly appropriate to the occasion, but she gave off the air of… hooker was the word that came to mind. The sexual air around her as she came closer was impossible not to notice. George immediately excused himself to make his way over to some other guests.
Jessica felt Clark tense as the woman approached and knew instantly that whoever this woman was, she was the reason Clark had not wanted to come here tonight.
"Hi, Cat," said Clark. There was a definite note of anxiety in his voice.
"And you are?" Cat asked, no longer purring as she turned to face Jessica.
"Jessica Miller," Jessica responded, beginning to put some of the pieces together. There was obviously some history between Clark and this woman — history Clark wasn't very happy to relive.
The woman didn't even listen to Jessica's reply. She stepped up to Clark, reaching out to place her hands on his chest. He immediately took a step back. She seemed slightly shocked by his rejection, but recovered quickly.
"We need to talk," said Cat. "I'm sure your girlfriend won't mind."
"Actually, I do," said Jessica, choosing to ignore the woman's assumption about her relationship with Clark, but once again the woman wasn't listening. Instead, she grabbed Clark's arm and proceeded to pull him away.
Clark didn't know what to do. He glanced helplessly at Jessica. He knew the instant he heard Cat's voice that she was going to insist on speaking to him. And if they had to do this again, he didn't want to do it in front of Jessica. He really didn't want Jessica to know what a fool he'd made of himself. Still…
"It's okay, Clark," said Jessica.
Clark gave a slight nod, before following Cat to a more secluded section of the room. Jessica turned to look at the pictures, but it wasn't long before curiosity got the best of her. She focused on hearing the conversation taking place between the woman and Clark.
"…mean that," said Cat's voice seductively. "We were perfect for each other."
"Perfect?" Clark gasped in disbelief. "If we were so perfect, why was it that I had to come home to find you in bed with another man?"
Jessica tensed. She really had no right to be listening to this. Yet she couldn't stop. It was like watching a car wreck. There was a kind of fascinated horror that kept Jessica transfixed. Clark had obviously been involved with this woman. It even seemed as if they had lived together for a time. Jessica felt an unfamiliar stirring in the pit in her stomach. There was something about the idea of this woman, a woman who had obviously not appreciated what she had in Clark, in the type of relationship with him that Jessica could only have in her dreams, that sickened Jessica. But she wasn't jealous. She wasn't! She snorted. Okay, so maybe she was jealous.
"Are you never going to let me forget that?" Cat responded. "I make one little mistake and…"
"From what I've heard, he wasn't the first and I seriously doubt he would have been the last," Clark responded.
"That doesn't change how I felt… still feel about you," Cat purred, her hands coming up to run down his chest. Clark stopped her exploration, holding her hands away from his body.
"Maybe not," Clark conceded. "But I can't live like that, Cat. I never could. Besides, we were young. We were never right for each other. Living together was a mistake."
"How can you say that?" Cat demanded. Then her voice went back to seductive. "Don't you remember what it was like between us? God, Clark, you can't have forgotten how we couldn't keep our hands off each other. Don't you remember the time we were at the symphony and we…"
"Let it go, Cat," Clark interrupted, his voice resigned.
"It's because of her, isn't it?" Cat responded, gesturing towards where Jessica was standing. Jessica concentrated on the painting in front of her.
"Cat," Clark warned.
"God, Clark. I thought you had better taste than that."
Clark's temper snapped. "Jessica has more class in her little finger than…" His voice trailed off. He really didn't want Cat to know how he felt about Jessica. "Besides, we're just partners," he concluded weakly.
"Yeah, right," snorted Cat. "But, after what we had…"
"We didn't have anything, Cat. And I really don't want to take this little trip down memory lane with you."
"Then why did you come here tonight?" demanded Cat. "The last time we spoke you said you'd never be back. Yet here you are. It's not as if you didn't know I'd be here this evening. You must have come here for something. Was it just to rub her in my face?"
"Michael's sick. Perry told me to cover the exhibit opening. Now if you'll excuse me, I've got to get back to work," Clark concluded, turning and walking away.
"Are you okay?" asked Jessica softly when Clark arrived back.
"Let's get out of here," Clark responded briskly. Then, without waiting for a reply, he headed for the door.
Jessica looked at the fuming Cat before turning and following Clark who was walking out of the museum without his coat. By the time Jessica had collected their coats and walked out of the museum, he had disappeared. She stopped outside and looked around. She spotted him sitting on a park bench near the fountain that graced the front of the Metropolis Museum. She approached quietly, taking a seat beside him and handing him his jacket.
"Thanks," he said softly, continuing to stare at the cascading water while his hands played nervously with his jacket.
Jessica shifted slightly so that her arm was resting on the back of the bench, before slowly running her fingers through his hair. Part of her wondered about the wisdom of this, but a larger part desperately needed to find some way to ease his pain.
"I suppose you want to know what that was all about," he said after a long moment.
"Only if you want to tell me," she responded. She figured she already knew most of it, but she still hoped he'd tell her. She knew he needed to talk about it. However, pressuring him to do so before he was ready would probably be counter- productive. Besides, there was a part of her that really didn't want to know.
He let out a shaky breath, not saying anything for a time. When he finally did speak, his voice was soft.
"Her name's Catherine Grant. She's a designer with the museum. We met just after I moved to Metropolis. I was young and a little naive. She was exciting. I'd never known anyone like her." His voice trailed off for a moment. "Well, one thing led to another and after dating for less than a month, we moved in together." He gave a humorless laugh. "Everyone except me seemed to know I was in over my head. Even Perry knew I was heading for disaster. He took me aside and gave me some inane speech about Elvis and the wrong woman. I really don't remember it. My parents met her once, and they were less than thrilled about our relationship. But I was so convinced that everyone was wrong about her. I even had a huge fight with my parents over the issue."
They sat in silence for a long time before Clark could bring himself to continue, but her hand gently making its way through his hair had a calming effect. He closed his eyes and drew strength from her pacifying touch before continuing. "I thought I was in love. I was even enough of a fool to think she loved me. Then one day I came home from work and…" He swallowed hard, fighting against the pain that even now accompanied a retelling of the story.
"It's okay, Clark," came Jessica's tender voice as she leaned over and touched her forehead to the side of his face.
"She was with another man," Clark finally said. "She told me not to make such a big deal out of it. She claimed it had never happened before and…" He snorted. "I almost believed her. I wanted so much for it to be true. I moved out briefly, but couldn't seem to stay away. Well, one day Perry and I were at Casey's. After a few drinks, I broke down and told him the whole story and that I was thinking of moving back in with her on a full time basis. That's when he pulled out all the stops. He conducted his own little investigation.
"I was furious. He practically had to tie me down to get me to listen to what he'd found. Fortunately, he finally forced me to listen — under the threat of firing me. It seems Cat was… indiscrete more than once. In fact, he had evidence that she'd been with several men during the few months we had been living together."
He paused for a moment. He'd come this far. He might as well finish. "She was the first woman I'd ever… been intimate with. I guess…" He snorted. "Maybe I was in love. Maybe I just confused love with lust. I really don't know anymore." He shook his head. "I went a little crazy after that." He glanced over at her, but looked away again before continuing. "There were a lot of women, Jess. A lot," he said with obvious shame in his voice. He was silent for a long moment. "I remember the day I suddenly realized what I was doing. I had gone out a few times with a reporter from the Star. Her name was Linda King. Well, we finally spent the night together. In the morning, I told her that I'd call her. Of course, I never did. About a week later, she showed up at the Planet."
"Oh, oh," said Ralph. "Trouble at five o'clock."
Clark glanced up to see Linda King heading at full steam across the newsroom — bearing straight for him. She was obviously steamed. He sucked in a breath. He really hated this type of confrontation. She'd slept with him of her own free will. If she chose to interpret it as a life commitment, that was her problem, not his.
"Linda," he said. "What brings you here?" he asked, hoping he was wrong about her reason for being here.
"You know exactly why I'm here," she spat.
"Tell me something, Clark. We went out several times before you broke up with me. Why is it that you waited until after we'd spent the night together before dumping me?" When Clark didn't respond, she continued. "I heard about your reputation, but I chose not to believe it. But they were right about you, weren't they? You were just using me, weren't you?"
Clark heard Ralph snort.
"Look, Linda," responded Clark. "I enjoyed the time we spent together. I thought you did too. But we were never meant to be long term. I thought you understood that. You've got to learn not to make such a big deal out of things."
Linda's hand landed hard across Clark's cheek before she turned and stormed out of the newsroom. Clark raised a hand to his cheek as he watched her go. He glanced around the newsroom and realized that their argument had been the focus of attention.
"What's everyone looking at?" he demanded. When everyone returned to what he or she had been doing before, Clark made his way back to his desk and sank down into his chair. It wasn't until that moment that it finally sunk in what he'd said just before she slapped him.
"You used the same words to her that Cat had used to you?" Jessica asked.
"Don't make such a big deal out of things. Yeah, I did," Clark responded. "That's when it hit me. I had become exactly what I had hated about Cat." He pulled off his glasses to rub the bridge of his nose before returning his glasses and continuing. "Those women… I used them, Jess. Just like Cat had used me."
His words were spoken with such remorse that Jessica felt a tear trickle slowly down her cheek.
"Anyway, I tried calling Linda back to apologize, but she refused to take my calls. After that… Well, I haven't… umm…"
"Made love?" Jessica asked.
Clark snorted. "I don't think you could call what I was doing making love. But, yeah… or no." Clark looked slightly confused, wondering if the answer was yes or no. "Well, I haven't been with a woman. I mean, I've dated. But only casually. I haven't let myself…" his voice trailed off.
"Afterwards, I ended up with something of a reputation. Once you have a reputation, it's a little hard to get anyone to see you as anything other than…"
"A lady killer?" Jessica asked, when he didn't continue.
"I guess that's as good a term as any. Actually, it's probably more charitable than I deserve. I have no idea why that reputation keeps following me around. Maybe no one wants to admit that she is the one woman who wasn't able to get me into bed or… Maybe it's because I don't give the Planet gossips enough that's real so they have to invent things. I just don't know. I mean, it's been years since…" He snorted. "I really have no right to complain. After what I did to those women, it's not as if I don't deserve it."
"So I'm guessing your reputation is not something you're too proud off," Jessica said, having some problems believing that any man wouldn't want to be known as a 'lady killer'.
"Proud?" gasped Clark. "Jess, how could I possibly be proud of a reputation that claims I treat women like… playthings?"
Jessica almost smiled. She should have known that Clark would feel that way. It was one of the things she liked most about Clark — how he saw the world. Unlike most men, who would have been tempted to brag about their 'conquests', Clark saw them as a matter of shame.
"I really don't understand why women still want to go out with me," Clark continued when she didn't respond. "Given my reputation. Maybe they see it as a challenge or something. You know, tame the beast." He was silent for a moment before turning to look at her fully. "Besides, I have a feeling that I'm really paying for my reputation now," he said significantly keeping his eyes locked with hers.
Jessica looked down — her hand stilling in his hair. She understood what he was implying. He'd obviously come to the conclusion that she was unwilling to get involved with him because of his reputation. Nothing could be further from the truth. Oh sure, his reputation would have been an issue in the beginning, but she'd gotten to know the man behind the reputation — a good, kind, caring man. A man she had fallen in… She stopped her thought — as she'd been doing more and more lately — before finally facing the truth. She might not like it. She might not want it to be true, but the reality was that somewhere along the line — she couldn't say exactly when — she'd fallen in love with Clark Kent.
She quickly glanced at the man sitting beside her before again looking away. It really didn't matter how she felt. She couldn't give him what he wanted and she couldn't even tell him why, so what good had it done to admit her feelings — even if only to herself.
After a long moment of awkward silence, Clark sighed. She obviously had no intention of responding. Then he shrugged. "That's why I didn't want to come here tonight. Every time I see her it's the same thing."
"She wants to get back together," Jessica said.
Clark nodded. "It's not going to happen. I'd give almost anything to take back the few months we were together. Or how I responded to it. Unfortunately, life doesn't work that way." He glanced back towards the museum. "I guess we should go back in there. I do have a story to get, after all."
Jessica shook her head. "I'll go back. You just wait here. I shouldn't be long. Then we'll go back to your place and get the story written up."
"Jess, you don't have to…"
"Let me do this, Clark," Jessica said, rising to her feet. When he finally nodded she turned and left, leaving him alone with his tortured thoughts.
Clark didn't watch her go. He couldn't bear to. Telling her all that had probably been a mistake. He had certainly ruined whatever chance he had with her now. He'd confirmed his own reputation. She hadn't even been able to hold eye contact since his confession. She obviously found him as despicable as he found himself.
He'd always known if he wanted a relationship with Jessica, they'd have to talk about this eventually. He had, however, hoped to wait until he had proven his feelings for her. How could he expect her to believe that what he wanted from her… What did he want from her? He gave a wry smile. He wanted to fall asleep beside her every night and wake up to her face every morning. Now, thanks to Perry's insistence that he cover this story, Cat's full court press, and his inability to keep Jessica from accompanying him… He ran his hands through his hair in frustration.
It didn't take Jessica long to get the information they needed about the artist, Andre Pasco. Apparently, like many artists, he had a job to keep himself fed while he worked on his paintings. Like his father before him, he worked at Lex Labs as a security guard. The job suited him because working the night shift allowed him to avoid contact with most strangers and from what Jessica was able to find out, he was very introverted. Apparently, that was why he hadn't come to his own opening. The reclusiveness of the artist was as much a draw for Metropolis' social set as the paintings themselves.
She was just finishing up when she heard a voice behind her.
"Where's Clark?" came Cat's voice.
Jessica turned around slowly, running her eyes over the woman standing there. She had never known such intense dislike. This woman had had the most remarkable man in love with her and she'd thrown it away and hurt him in the process.
"What can I do for you, Ms. Grant?" said Jessica.
"I asked where Clark is," Cat repeated.
Jessica ignored the question. "Can I ask you something?" she asked instead.
"What?" asked Cat, looking around for Clark.
"Why do you want him back? I mean, if you're just going to do to him what you did the last time. Or are you trying to claim that you've changed?"
Cat suddenly took notice of the woman addressing her. She looked Jessica over, as if sizing her up and finding her wanting. "You've obviously never slept with him," she said. "Otherwise, you wouldn't be asking."
Jessica clenched her teeth, but otherwise didn't react.
"I might need variety," Cat continued. "But that doesn't mean I don't want to come home to a great lover afterwards." She then moved closer to Jessica and lowered her voice as if she was about to impart some great secret and said, "Just remember this when he's taking you to heights you never dreamed possible. I taught him everything he knows."
"I doubt that," Jessica responded as calmly as she could, even if Cat's words made her feel sick to her stomach.
Cat narrowed her eyes. "Take my advice. You can't handle Clark. Oh, he might tell you he loves you and that he's never felt this way about anyone. You might even be able to get him to marry you, but he'll never be faithful. I taught him well. He'll be out looking for the next conquest before the ink is even dry on your marriage license."
"Do you have any idea how pathetic you sound?" Jessica responded, fighting to control her temper. "You had someone like Clark and you threw him away. Admit it, he's gone," Jessica concluded before turning around and beginning to walk away. However, before she'd gone far, she turned back around and returned. "And you're wrong," Jessica said. "You didn't teach him as much as you think. Clark is nothing like you." With those final words, she spun around and left the room as quickly as possible — before she seriously hurt Cat.
Once she had left the room, Jessica leaned up against the wall. She needed a moment to calm down before going back to Clark.
Clark. She closed her eyes. He believed that his reputation was the reason she was unwilling to get involved with him. He was so wrong. During the past few weeks, she'd been given a glimpse of his heart. And she loved it. She loved the way he cared about the truth. She loved the way he cared about people. She loved the way he cared about her. The problem wasn't his past. It was hers.
There was another problem. It was daily getting more difficult to hide her true feelings from Clark. She'd fallen in love with him. That fact would probably condemn them both.
Suddenly there was nothing at all amusing about Clark's attraction to her. Up until tonight, although she'd been falling for him, she'd never really worried much about how falling for her might effect him. He was a rogue. If she did manage to break his heart, she always suspected he'd just be out on the prowl the next day — hardly remembering her name. But that wasn't true.
There was only one way this could turn out — by her breaking his heart. She had to find a way to keep that from happening. But how?
Realizing she wasn't going to come up with any answers tonight — if there were answers — she grabbed some brochures about the exhibit and headed towards the door of the museum. She spotted a confectionary at the entrance — she desperately needed some chocolate — and made a quick trip inside before exiting the building.
"Hey, handsome," she said in a falsely cheerful voice as she approached Clark. When he turned, she smiled.
Clark smiled in response as he searched her eyes, but Jessica could tell immediately that his smile was as forced as the cheer in her voice and she guessed that he too sensed the pretence. She sat down on the bench beside him and handed him the pamphlets. She then handed him one of the two Double Fudge Crunch Bars she'd purchased. When he shook his head, she stuck his in her purse and unwrapped hers.
"So what did you find out?" he asked, dragging his mind away from his own self pity to focus on the story.
While eating her chocolate bar, Jessica proceeded to fill him in on what she had learned — saying nothing, of course, about her run in with Cat. The entire time, Clark fiddled with the pamphlets.
"Ouch!" Clark suddenly exclaimed, jumping slightly.
"What?" asked Jessica.
Clark growled, looking at the small cut on his finger. "Nothing," he said, "Just a paper cut." With that he stuck the finger in his mouth.
"Why do people do that?" Jessica asked.
"What?" asked Clark.
"Stick their finger in their mouth when they get a paper cut. I mean, if you think about it isn't that worse than doing nothing. After all, with the amount of germs the mouth produces, wouldn't you think that a person is only exposing the cut to germs by putting it in their mouth. I read somewhere that… What?" The last question was asked in response to the genuinely amused look that had appeared on Clark's face.
"I love it when you ramble," Clark whispered.
"I don't ramble," objected Jessica. "I just find it interesting that…" Her voice trailed off when Clark's hand came up to her face. She was completely powerless to stop him as his finger trailed slowly over her cheek. Her eyes came up and met his. She was instantly as lost in his eyes as he appeared to be in hers.
Clark pulled in a sharp breath at the look in her eyes. It was the look he had been searching for when she'd first come out of the museum. He didn't know where the courage had come from to touch her cheek. In fact, he wasn't sure it had been a conscious decision. Deciding to kiss her, on the other hand, was a conscious choice. The look in her eyes told him that she wanted to be kissed as much as he wanted to kiss her. He leaned in slowly — giving her the chance to pull away. He heard her breathing become shallow and rapid. He could feel the warmth of her breath against his lips.
Jessica's mind began screaming at her when he began to move closer. He was going to kiss her. She couldn't let it happen. She couldn't give him hope when she knew there was no hope. And how would he react when they finally caught up with her again and he found out that she'd been lying to him? How would he feel if she let him kiss her without telling him about herself?
Kissing him would be unforgivable. It would be as unforgivable as what Cat had done to him. But how could she pull away? He thought that she was reluctant to get involved with him because of his past — a past that he obviously felt incredible guilt for. Maybe a kiss would convince him that his past was not the problem.
She knew she was justifying her actions, but she couldn't seem to stop herself. Just one kiss. Just one soft touch of lips to lips. One small feeling of connection with another person. She hadn't been kissed in years — and never as a woman kissed by a man who at least cares about her. Surely she could have just this one moment.
No! No matter how much she wanted this, she couldn't let it happen. She had to stop this now.
Suddenly, she felt the soft brush of his lips against hers and every other thought was wiped from her mind. She gave one small moan of protest before her hand slipped into his hair. A tremor rippled through her body. A tremor that told her that she was a woman, responding to a man. That knowledge was as sweet as it was painful. She moved first to deepen the kiss — opening her mouth slightly in silent invitation.
Clark had never known such a sensation of pure bliss. He'd wanted to kiss Jessica from the moment he first saw her. Now he was doing it. When she opened her mouth to him, it was almost reluctantly that his tongue slipped in. He wanted to savor this moment — the moment of his first taste of her. And as he did, he instantly knew he was hooked. She tasted better than every fantasy he'd had of this moment. A groan escaped from the back of his throat. Her taste satisfied some need deep inside him — only to create new ones.
Suddenly, Jessica pulled back.
"Jess?" asked Clark, struggling to recover from the sudden cessation of the kiss.
"Please don't," she whispered, refusing to meet his eyes. Then when Clark acted as if he was going to ignore her, moving back in, she placed a hand on his chest. "I'm begging you," she whispered.
Clark stopped — his heart in his throat. He had thought the kiss was mutual — that it signaled a change in their relationship. A change he most definitely welcomed.
"Why?" It was only a single word, but in it Jessica could hear his confusion, his pain at her rejection.
"God, Clark, please don't ask me," she said, before rising from the bench and heading for the jeep.
Clark sat in stunned silence for a moment. He had no idea what had just happened. The kiss had been mutual — hadn't it? He hadn't misread the look of longing in her eyes — or had he? She had responded to his kiss — hadn't she? He glanced over at Jessica. She was standing by the passenger's door of the jeep, waiting to get in. He rose to his feet and, with a heavy heart, made his way to the vehicle.
Stupid! Stupid! Stupid! Stupid! Stupid! Stupid!
Jessica mentally kicked herself for what felt like the hundredth time during the past hour since Clark had dropped her off. They had gone back to his place to write up the story after their disastrous kiss. Then he had driven her home. Neither had said anything about the kiss since, but the tension that had existed between them told her very clearly just how stupid a mistake it had been. She had actually wanted to walk home and had suggested the same to Clark. But then he had looked so hurt — as if fearing that she didn't want the ride because she was afraid he'd try to make a move on her again — that she'd changed her mind.
How could she have let it happen? She brushed a tear off her cheek. She finally had a friend and she'd blown it by letting him kiss her. She snorted. Who did she think she was kidding? She hadn't only let him kiss her, she'd kissed him back.
Stupid! Stupid! Stupid! Stupid! Stupid! Stupid!
"…so on the last Friday of the month, a bunch of us often go to Casey's after work for a beer and a bite to eat," Jimmy was explaining to Jessica the next day. "I was wondering if you'd like to come."
"I don't know, Jimmy," Jessica replied, glancing at Clark. Other than work, they hadn't spoken to each other all day. She suspected he would be going to Casey's. Maybe it was better if she gave him a little room.
Jessica wasn't certain if giving Clark room was her real reason for not wanting to go to Casey's. She wondered if in reality she was the one who needed room. The kiss between her and Clark had made her feelings for Clark much too real. It had also brought up a lot of emotions she thought she'd come to terms with years ago. Given how close to the surface her own feelings were, she didn't have any idea how to respond to Clark without plunging both of them further into the abyss. No. It was better if she avoided Clark until her own emotions were under control.
"He's not coming," said Jimmy when he saw where she was looking.
"Who?" asked Jessica.
"Umm…" Jimmy said. He thought her hesitation had something to do with Clark. The tension between them today had been almost palpable.
"Maybe I will come," said Jessica. After all, the alternative was to go home and obsess about how badly she'd messed up with Clark and if he wasn't going to be there…
"Great!" exclaimed Jimmy. "Ten minutes. A bunch of us are taking the Daily Planet van."
"I'll be there," Jessica promised. She turned her attention to putting the finishing touches on her story. She was looking forward to tonight. Maybe a little fun would help her get her perspective back.
Jessica was surprised when Perry showed up at Casey's. He informed her that he came on occasion just to see what the younger set was up to these days, but Jessica suspected that he considered his reporters family.
She ate some chili and sipped a glass of wine. It wasn't her ideal supper, but the menu here was more that of a bar than a restaurant. The place was loud and noisy — just the type of thing Jessica needed to forget about Clark. It wasn't long before Jessica felt the tension begin to seep out of her shoulders and she began enjoying herself.
The people from the Planet were sitting at three tables. They would change positions periodically as people made use of the dance floor or pool table or decided to talk to someone new. Jessica felt as if she was finally getting to know her colleagues. Coming here tonight had been a good idea.
"Do you want to dance?"
Jessica turned to see Ralph standing there. Well, standing was a bit of an overstatement. He was already slightly inebriated. Ralph was a poor imitation of a playboy — leech might have been a better term. He obviously wanted to be as irresistible to women as Clark was — but, unlike Clark, he couldn't quite pull it off. He'd hit on her a number of times since she'd started working at the Planet. Yet, no matter how many times she said no, he didn't seem to get the message.
"I don't think so, Ralph," Jessica responded in exasperation.
Ralph shrugged before staggering off in search of easier pickings.
"You look like you've been rode hard and put away wet, honey," said Perry as he moved into a seat beside her.
Jessica laughed, looking over at Perry. "That's quite an image, Perry," she responded. "If I didn't know better, I'd think you were suggesting I need a shower."
"You wouldn't be avoiding the issue, now would you?" Perry asked.
Jessica sighed. "It's nothing. Just been a hard day, that's all."
"So it doesn't have anything to do with what happened at the museum last night?"
A shocked look passed through Jessica's eyes. Had Clark told Perry?
"Was Ms. Grant there?" Perry asked.
"Right," gasped Jessica in relief. "You wanted me to keep an eye on Clark." She'd almost forgotten about Catherine Grant with everything that had happened afterwards.
"What did you think I was talking about?" Perry asked.
"Nothing," Jessica responded too quickly.
Perry eyed her for a moment. There was something else going on here and he suspected he knew what it was. "You know, Clark's like a son to me," Perry informed her.
Jessica looked down. Clark was really not who she wanted to talk about — or think about for that matter — right now.
"I've always believed that with the right woman by his side, that boy could work miracles," Perry continued. When she still didn't respond, he continued. "I think he could be good for you too," he concluded.
"You've got the wrong woman, Perry," Jessica responded. "Besides, what makes you think…"
"You think I haven't noticed the way he looks at you? I'm not so old that I've forgotten the look."
Jessica glanced over at him. "I take it you've been in love then," she said, hoping to distract him. It worked. Perry got a far off look in his eyes.
"Her name was Alice," he said. "She was my wife. I loved her like I've never loved anyone before or since."
"What happened to her?" Jessica asked.
"She died in childbirth. So did our son."
"I'm so sorry."
Perry glanced at her. "Well, it was a long time ago," he said gruffly, before both fell silent — lost in their own thoughts.
Jessica was brought back to their surroundings by an increase in noise a couple of tables away. She glanced over and saw three young women at a table — probably no more than the twenty-one years that would be required to get admission to this place. They were giggling and whispering between glances at the door. Jessica turned to see what had caught their attention. She pulled in a sharp breath. Clark had just entered the establishment. But Jimmy said he wasn't going to be here. Part of her wanted to curl up under the table — and yet her heart leapt at the sight.
She quickly turned her attention to the dance floor to watch the couples dance.
"Hey, C.K.," said Jimmy, returning to the table Jessica and Perry were seated at.
"Hi, Jimmy," Clark responded.
"I didn't think you'd be here tonight."
"Changed my mind," said Clark. He'd gone home only to find that he was obsessing about Jessica. He'd thought to distract himself by coming here. Obviously not the smartest move. He pulled out a chair at the table.
"Hi, Perry," he said. "Jess."
"Clark," Jessica responded, a complete lack of inflection in her voice. It wasn't that she wanted to hurt Clark. It was that she didn't know how to respond — afraid that if she did let him see anything, he'd see too much. She couldn't let him know that his feelings were also hers. He had the right to find someone to love and be loved by and since that couldn't be her… It wouldn't be fair for her to do anything that might make him think there could be anything between them.
Clark noticed the lack of response from Jessica and felt the pain rip through his heart again. Surely he hadn't done anything so horrible. He'd kissed her — not raped her. If she wasn't interested, she at least owed it to him to let him prove that he could still be her friend. He wasn't sure if he was more hurt or angry.
Perry glanced between Jessica and Clark. Whatever was going on here was obviously serious. They could hardly look at each other. Still, there was a sadness coming from both of them. Was encouraging Jessica to go with Clark last night a mistake? He had known about Clark's relationship with Cat and had seen how it had changed the optimistic boy who'd first walked into his office into a hard man. He'd also watched as Jessica had pulled back layer after layer to find the man Perry had known was still hidden in there somewhere. Was it possible that Jessica was unable to see that man? What had happened last night that could have caused such problems between them?
Ralph rejoined the table as did a couple other reporters and soon the table seemed as if it were full of joyous people who didn't have a care in the world. Except if you looked closely. Two of the table's occupants were conspicuously quiet — except when directly spoken to.
"Excuse me," said one of the young women Jessica had observed when Clark entered the bar. She had come over to their table.
Everyone at the table quieted down and directed his or her attention to a very pretty young woman with long blond hair and a skin tight dress that barely covered enough of her to be decent.
"Yes," asked Ralph.
The woman ignored Ralph to address Clark. "Would you like to dance?" she asked.
"What's happening with your efforts to get a woman close to Kent?" Luthor demanded of Nigel.
"So far we haven't had any luck. But we found out that Kent often goes to Casey's with the Planet staff. We've got a very pretty young woman there. If she can get Kent to take her home, I promise he'll find her very distracting."
"Why's that, Nigel?"
"She's HIV positive," Nigel responded.
Luthor smiled. That would certainly distract Kent. They could have her inform him of her condition the moment he started nosing around in something that didn't concern him.
"Very good, Nigel," Luthor said.
Clark looked up. She was asking him to dance. "Umm…" Clark glanced briefly at Jessica, before suddenly seeming to come to a decision. "I'd love to," he told the woman, rising to his feet and leading her to the dance floor.
"How does he do it?" asked Ralph in disbelief. "Look at that body. Ten bucks says he takes her home." He looked around. "No one prepared to take my bet?" he asked.
Suddenly, Jessica was furious. Clark was ashamed of his reputation. She knew why he'd accepted the woman's invitation. He was still hurting from her rejection last night. She had no idea what she was going to do about that, but she could make Ralph think twice before making that type of comment again.
"No," said Jessica. "But…" She took a moment to remove something from her purse. It was a twenty dollar bill. "…I will bet twenty dollars that Ralph goes home alone."
Perry immediately snorted. The remainder of the table was silent for a moment before, almost of one accord, bursting out laughing. All, except for Ralph, of course. He mumbled something which Jessica purposely ignored. Soon everyone had forgotten about both bets — no one prepared to take either one. They began talking and laughing about other things. It was only then that Jessica's eyes once again drifted to Clark.
Jessica watched as the woman slipped her hand into Clark's hair before pulling his head down so that she could place her lips next to his ear. She whispered something which caused Clark to frown for a moment, before smiling. He pulled his head back and nodded. The woman smiled in return and then slipped out of his arms, making her way back to her table. Jessica frowned slightly. What was going on?
Clark made his way back to the table. When he spotted Ralph, he spoke.
"What's happening on that story about the latest takeover by Lex Corp?" he asked.
Jessica noticed that Ralph seemed to shift in his chair at the question. He seemed uncomfortable.
"Come on, Clark," Ralph responded. "You know the rule. No business at Casey's."
"I just heard something about the buyout being coerced and wondered…"
"Look, I checked out that deal thoroughly. There was no coercion. The buyout was legit. The rumors are just that. Rumors."
"Coming?" asked a woman's voice behind Clark.
Clark quickly glanced at Jessica before grabbing his jacket. Pulling his wallet from his pants, he removed some money and tossed it on the table.
"That should pay for the drink," he said, gesturing to the drink he'd ordered but not yet touched. Without looking at Jessica again, he turned, allowed the young woman to take his arm and headed out of Casey's.
Jessica bit her lower lip as she stared intently at her glass of wine. She wasn't going to cry. She wasn't! A voice in the back of her head told her she should be angry. How could he be leaving with another woman after the kiss they'd shared last night? And anger had always been her primary defense mechanism against pain. But for some reason tonight she didn't have the energy to be angry. All she could feel was an incredible hole in her heart.
Besides, Clark could do whatever he wanted. If he wanted to… She forced her mind away from what he obviously wanted to do.
She knew why he was doing this. He was reacting to her rejection the same way he had reacted to Cat's betrayal. She'd hurt him. She hadn't meant to, of course, but did that really matter?
She was vaguely aware of the men at the table discussing Clark's virility. Ignoring them, she turned slightly so that she could look at the door Clark had exited through.
She'd come to terms with all of this years ago, but meeting Clark brought it all up again. She should have handled their obvious attraction for each other differently — before it got out of control. He was clearly in as much pain as she was. Yet he had no idea why she was rejecting him. If only she had another chance, she'd find a way to make him understand.
Jessica jumped when the door she was staring at suddenly opened. With a gasp of disbelief, she watched the woman who'd left with Clark reenter the bar — looking decidedly angry. Jessica vaguely heard Ralph make some comment when he spotted the woman. Jessica ignored him.
"Excuse me," she said instead. She rose to her feet and headed towards the door, unnoticed by everyone except Perry. She just wished she'd handled things differently. She wasn't about to waste this unexpected chance.
"Anything yet on Ms. Miller," asked Luthor.
"I'm expecting some results from our latest search tonight. I'll let you know if it gives us a clue as to her identity."
"What's taking so long with that?"
"We've had to move slowly in order to avoid having anyone figure out what we're looking for," Nigel informed him.
Luthor nodded. He might want Kent and Miller neutralized, but there was no hurry. Of course, that could change with their next assignment — depending on what that was. What he didn't want was someone finding out that they were gathering information on Ms. Miller. After all, if she was running from something, exposing her would not help control her. In fact, if she could be compromised and they couldn't get a woman in place to control Kent, she might be the one to keep him in his place. She was his partner, after all.
Clark leaned against the jeep and closed his eyes when he heard the door to the restaurant slam. He was unable to believe how close he'd almost come to taking that woman home. He didn't want that type of life — the casual, uncaring sex. He didn't want to live with the guilt and shame of that type of existence. He never again wanted to live with the fear that he'd contracted AIDS or some other sexually transmitted decease. And never again did he want to hurt anyone the way he'd been hurt.
Yet, when that beautiful, young woman — he didn't even know her name — had suggested going back to her place, he'd accepted. After telling Jessica last night how bad he felt about all the women he'd used, he'd almost used another one — used her as an analgesic to dull the pain in his heart.
It was only while opening the passenger's door of his jeep that he'd realized he couldn't go through with it. She had been furious. He shuddered as he remembered some of the very unflattering comments she'd made to him before storming back into the bar.
His behavior today had been inexcusable. He had no doubt, however, that he would pay for it. It would undoubtedly be the source of much office gossip for the next couple of weeks at least. Of course, the story would get larger and more fanciful with each telling. After all, that was what usually seemed to happen. But that wasn't the worst of it. There was Jessica to consider.
He pounded his fists against the top of the jeep as he thought about Jessica. He could only imagine what she thought of him after his stunt in the bar. Any chance he might have still had with her was probably ruined because of that single moment of stupidity on his part. After all, she'd never believe now what he'd told her last night — that he was no longer the man behind the reputation. He stared over the jeep, past the parking lot and at the waters of Hobbs Bay that lay beyond.
The one thing he knew for certain was that he didn't want any more meaningless affairs that left him feeling dead inside. Yet, that was probably the only thing he'd ever be entitled to. It seemed that his past had destroyed any chance he'd ever have of having what he really wanted — a relationship like his parents had. He was destined for nothing more than the meaningless affairs he no longer wanted. Yet that didn't stop him from wanting and what he wanted was… What he wanted was the one woman who didn't want him. It was poetic justice.
He wasn't sure who he was angrier at — himself for falling in love with Jessica — especially when he should have known that, with his past, he wasn't entitled to anything real — or Jessica for not loving him in return. He knew, of course, that his anger was ridiculous. He hadn't had any ability to keep from falling in love with her and she couldn't manufacture feelings she just didn't have. Still, that didn't prevent him from being angry.
Jessica stepped out of the bar. The sun was already hanging low in the sky. It wouldn't be long before it set and night settled in. She looked around and quickly spotted Clark. He was standing by the passenger's door of his jeep, with both hands on the top of the vehicle while he stared towards the water.
Jessica was almost silent as she approached. She still didn't know exactly what she was going to say. All she did know was that they needed to at least try to talk this through.
"Hi," she said softly as she neared where Clark was standing. He jumped before glancing at her. He quickly redirected his attention to the waves lapping against the shore.
Jessica remained silent as she closed the remaining distance between them. She leaned against the side of the jeep, ignoring the fact that this action was bound to leave dirt on her coat. Seeing his face was more important to her than her coat.
"I think we need to talk," said Jessica.
"I don't see what we have to talk about," Clark responded.
Jessica winced at the clipped tone of his words. This was going to be harder than she thought.
"How about we start with what happened between us last night?" she suggested.
"How about we don't?" Clark responded immediately. He really didn't need a lecture from her about how he'd stepped over the line — blurring the boundaries of their relationship. She'd never given him any reason to believe she wanted to be more than friends. Yet he'd kissed her.
"Clark," Jessica responded.
"Look, Jessica, I think I get the picture. You don't want to get involved with me. I understand that. So why don't we just let it go? Let's not get into the postmortem, okay."
Jessica bit her lip slightly. He really wasn't going to make this easy. Maybe he was right. Maybe she should just let it go. She took a couple of steps towards the bar. Then she stopped and turned back to Clark. They needed to talk. She couldn't stand this unbearable tension hanging between them. However, it was obvious that she needed a new approach.
"This is my fault," she said.
Clark heard the words and turned to face her. What was she talking about? He'd made a pass at her last night. She hadn't been interested. That was his problem, not hers.
"What are you talking about?" Clark finally asked. "I'm the one who screwed up. I had no right to kiss you like that. I just…" His voice trailed off. When he continued, his voice wasn't much more than a whisper. "You can't help it if you're not interested in me that way."
"Is that what you think? That I'm not interested?" asked Jessica. "I only wish I wasn't," she said with a small snort. "In case you didn't notice, you weren't the only one kissing last night."
An expression of confusion passed through Clark's eyes. Since their kiss, he'd managed to convince himself that she didn't share his feelings.
"But I thought…" Clark began and then stopped as he tried to grapple with this new information. It made no sense. If she was interested, what had today been about? She had hardly been able to look at him. Suddenly, he understood. She was interested, but his past must be scaring her. If that was true, maybe there was a reason to talk.
"Can we go for a walk?" asked Jessica. She knew she was making a bid for more time to figure out how to tell him this — whatever 'this' was. She still didn't know exactly what she was going to say.
Clark nodded in response to her question. They headed closer to the water's edge and then began walking along a pathway that ran parallel to it.
They walked along in silence for a few minutes as Jessica struggled with where to begin. Maybe she should just tell him everything. Maybe he would still look at her with that expression that made her legs turn to jello. Probably not, but maybe. And if he didn't, wasn't that better than hurting him?
She needed chocolate. She reached into her purse and withdrew the bar she'd stuck in there last night. She opened it, broke it in half and silently offered Clark half. When he declined, she began eating it.
"Where do you put them?" Clark asked, breaking the silence.
"It's just… Jess, you eat more chocolate bars than anyone I've ever known, but you never seem to gain any weight. How do you do it?"
Jessica shrugged. "I figure it's a better addiction than smoking or drugs."
Clark nodded. He supposed that was true.
They continued their silent stroll for a moment more before Jessica, finally came to a decision. He deserved to know the truth. She took a deep breath, stuffed the now empty candy bar wrapper back in her purse and began.
"I need you to just listen to what I have to say," she finally said. "I'm afraid I'll lose my nerve if you interrupt." She briefly glanced at Clark to be sure he understood, before directing her attention once again to the path in front of her. "I think… No. Scratch that. I know that I'm falling in love with you," she said.
"Jess…" Clark interrupted, taking her arm and pulling her around to face him.
"Don't, Clark. Please," Jessica said, putting her hand up to his chest to stop his forward movement. She couldn't bear to look in his eyes — to see hope there when she knew she was about to take it away. Maybe that hadn't been the best way to start. She stared intently at the hand resting on his chest while trying to gather her thoughts again.
Clark stopped but didn't move further away. He knew she didn't want him to interrupt, but when she'd admitted that she was falling in love with him, he'd been unable to resist.
"I wish I weren't falling in love with you. God, you have no idea how much I wish I wasn't," she said, still not taking her eyes off her hand. "And I know you think this has something to do with your past, but it doesn't." She paused. "I…" her voice trailed off. Now that the moment was finally here, she found that she couldn't go through with it — she couldn't stand having him look at her the way others had. So instead of telling him the reasons they couldn't get involved, she forced herself to meet his eyes. "Clark," she said softly. "I can't get involved with you. I can't get involved with anyone. I wish I could, but I can't."
"Why?" asked Clark. He'd been so sure that it was because of his past, but if that wasn't the reason…
Jessica's gaze reverted once again to her hand. "I can't tell you that, Clark. Please don't try to make me." Her voice dropped to a mere whisper. "Leave me some dignity," she begged.
Clark's hand came up to cover the one she still had resting on his chest. His other hand touched the bottom of her chin, to again raise her face so that he could look in her eyes.
"I'll wait," he said softly. "No matter how long. I'll give you whatever time you need, Jess."
A look of absolute horror passed through her eyes. She broke away from him and headed towards a park bench. Clark watched as she settled on the bench before approaching himself. As he sat down, he involuntarily flashed back to the last time he'd sat on a park bench with Jessica. He had to pull his mind away from the memory of that kiss — to prevent himself from simply taking her in his arms and kissing her until she finally admitted that she was his.
"Time," Jessica finally said. "Clark, time won't change anything." She looked up at him as a tear slipped slowly down her cheek. She gave a small snort. "Actually, that's not exactly true. Time will change one thing. Some day you're going to meet someone…"
"She will absolutely adore you," Jessica continued, her hand coming up to run down his face. "And I'm going to have to watch you fall in love with her." She gave him something approaching a smile as tears began flowing freely down her cheeks. "And I'm going to hate her," she concluded, her chin quivering slightly.
Clark began shaking his head. "No. I won't…" Her fingers on his lips cut him off.
"Maybe it would be easier on both of us if I just left Metropolis," she said.
"What?" Clark gasped. He was understanding this conversation less and less. It seemed with every additional comment, he felt more confused.
"I just think that if I weren't here, you'd…"
"No! What are you doing, Jess? Okay, you don't want to get involved with me. I'll accept that. You don't have to leave just to get away from me." He didn't know what he'd do if she left. She was his basherteh. He knew that. He couldn't let her go.
"Clark, I can't have you waiting for me. And if my staying here is going to make you believe that someday I'll magically change my mind…"
"It won't. I promise," he lied.
She looked at him for a long time, her hand still gently caressing his face. She knew that once she stopped, she'd have to make a concentrated effort in the future to keep from touching him.
"I wish things were different, Clark. And I'm so sorry that I've hurt you. That was never my intention. If it were possible…" Her voice broke.
"It's okay, Jess," he said softly. He took her free hand and, raising it to his lips, briefly kissed it. "I still don't understand what this is all about. But… I never wanted to hurt you either."
"I'd like to still be friends, Clark," she said, removing her one hand from his cheek and the other from where it was still trapped in his hand. "I mean, if that isn't going to be too hard on you."
Clark actually smiled. "I wouldn't have it any other way," he responded.
She gave him a teary smile. "Could I have a hug?" she asked, her voice trembling on the words. She was immediately lost in his arms. She buried her face in his shoulder and, in spite of all her efforts not to, wept.
Clark held her, feeling her body trembling against him. None of this made any sense. This was obviously hurting her as much as it was him. He buried his hand in the hair on the back of her head and used his other arm to pull her closer, cradling her body against him. She said that she wanted his friendship. He vowed to himself that he was going to be the best friend she'd ever had. Then, eventually, he'd get to the bottom of whatever had her so convinced that they couldn't be more than friends. When that happened, he'd make her see that she was wrong.
Clark made comforting noises into Jessica's ear as he held her. He looked out over Hobbs Bay and saw the brilliant colors of the setting sun dancing on waters. The beauty of the sight contrasted sharply with the pain he could sense coming from the woman in his arms. He briefly wondered if he would ever again be able to watch a sunset without feeling her pain.
"I've got her name," said Nigel as soon as he entered Luthor's private study.
Luthor looked up from the papers he was studying. "Who's name? You mean, Jessica Miller?"
"Yes, sir. Her real name is Lois Lane."
"How did you find her?"
"There is an outstanding warrant for her arrest in New York State. It was issued when she was under eighteen, though, so it took some doing to find out about it."
"So that's why she's hiding?"
"I don't think so, sir. The warrant is limited to a hundred mile radius. The charges are for a break and enter, and theft. Apparently she was a runaway. She was arrested for theft when she stole some food and she was living in an abandoned building at the time, so they charged her with breaking and entering. Her parents came down from Metropolis to bail her out. Once she was released, she ran away again. She never appeared in court to deal with the charges. So a warrant was issued. However, given how minor the charges were, a hundred mile limit was put on the warrant. The state doesn't want the expense of transporting her further than that."
"So she could stand up on any street corner in Metropolis and say who she is and that there is an outstanding warrant against her and the police wouldn't do anything?" asked Luthor.
"That's correct, sir. And even if she did go back to deal with the charges, she'd probably only be looking at a fine after all this time."
"How long ago was the warrant issued?"
"About ten years ago."
"So that doesn't explain what she's running from. Keep digging, Nigel. She's running from something. I need that information."
It was almost three months since that night outside of Casey's. Jessica leaned back in her chair and looked at Clark. He was hard at work. One moment his hands were flying feverishly over the keyboard, the next he was rustling through his papers, searching for a critical piece of information. She sat there for a time, enjoying watching his frantic activity, before speaking.
"You finished yet?" she asked, clearly amused.
Clark looked up. "You can't be finished already," he gasped in disbelief.
Jessica laughed while stretching her arms over her head. Clark's breath caught in his throat at what those two actions together did to her blouse.
"So I guess that means you haven't finished your story yet," Jessica said. "I feel like Italian tonight and since I won the bet, that means you're buying."
"You have to get Perry to sign off on the story before you can truly say it's finished," Clark objected.
"Jessica, great story. Get out of here. I'll see you in the morning," came Perry's voice right on cue.
"Okay," conceded Clark. "Just give me a few more minutes to get my story done."
"Deal," responded Jessica, again leaning back in her chair and watching Clark. As she did, she thought about the past couple of months. At first things had been strained between them. But working together had helped. It had forced them to get past the awkwardness of revealing their feelings and become friends again.
Still, Jessica was concerned. She loved spending time with Clark, but she was worried that she was taking up too much of his time. He should be going out with other woman. Yet he was still refusing to date. She'd tried mentioning it on a couple of occasions. He'd sloughed off her concerns — saying that he was just waiting for someone to come along that he wanted to date. Jessica was afraid that wasn't the real reason.
She hated being in this position. She knew Clark wasn't going to get on with his life without her active encouragement. The problem was that she really didn't want him to. After years of being completely alone in the world, she loved finally having someone to pal around with and, more importantly, to talk to. She wasn't sure how she'd recover when he finally did take her advice. Still, she wanted him to be happy and that meant he had to find someone else. If only…
Her attention was diverted from Clark by the elevator doors opening. She watched as Lana Lang entered the newsroom. Jessica smiled. Lana stopped by from time to time — usually with some news from Smallville or to go out for lunch with Clark. The first couple of times it happened, Jessica felt an incredible sense of jealousy, but that had changed. There were a couple of reasons for the change. First, Clark's confession had told Jessica — indirectly — that Lana and Clark had never been intimate. After all, his relationship with Lana had taken place before he got involved with Cat Grant and since Cat was the first woman he'd ever been with… The second reason was Lana had recently accepted an offer of marriage from Steven Brockovich — a representative on Metropolis' city counsel.
As a result, Lana and Jessica had become friends. When Lana would come by to see Clark, she and Jessica would often gang up to tease Clark mercilessly. Clark often bemoaned the fact that he had ever introduced them.
Since Clark was bent intently over his computer, Lana made her way across the newsroom floor to talk to Jessica. She pulled out the chair beside Jessica's desk and, turning it so that she was facing the same direction as Jessica, took a seat.
"Ahh," said Lana. "I always knew I liked your desk more than Clark's."
"Why?" Jessica asked.
"Well, the view from here is fantastic."
Jessica's eyes followed Lana's and she laughed. The way Jessica's desk was positioned put her on a direct line of sight to Clark's desk. His suit jacket was hanging on the back of his chair and he was studying his computer screen.
"Yes, it is a great view, isn't it," Jessica replied.
Clark reached across his desk to grab some papers, causing his shirt to stretch across the muscles of his back. Both women sighed and then giggled.
Clark heard the sound and immediately looked for the source. When he saw Jessica and Lana sitting together at Jessica's desk watching him, he rolled his eyes and turned his attention back to the computer screen.
"So have you set a wedding date yet?" asked Jessica.
"Yes," replied Lana. "Have you?"
"What are you talking about?" stuttered Jessica.
Lana laughed. "Don't pull that crap with me. I've seen the way you look at Clark. And I've seen the way he looks at you. He's never looked at a woman that way before."
"Lana…" Jessica warned.
Lana turned towards Jessica. "Please, don't get mad. It's just… I think the world of Clark." Lana paused for a moment. "When Clark and I were in high school, we had a course in comparative religions. One day a rabbi came to class. He told us that when God created the world, he also created all the souls that would ever exist. And for every male soul, he also created a female soul. A soulmate, if you will. When a man finds his soulmate, he is said to have found his basherteh."
"Why are you telling me this?" Jessica asked.
"Because when Clark and I broke up… I assume you know we dated?" Lana asked. When Jessica nodded, Lana continued. "Anyway, when we broke up, Clark told me he was looking for his basherteh. In the years that followed, I think Clark stopped believing that she existed. Well, until you walked into his life."
"Lana, I'm not…"
"Are you seriously trying to claim that you don't feel a connection to Clark?"
Jessica sighed. "It's… complicated," Jessica conceded.
"Then simplify it," Lana said.
Just then, Clark looked up from his work. Lana smiled and rose from beside Jessica's desk. "Anyway," she said, speaking to Jessica, "I expect to see both you and Clark at my wedding." She winked at Jessica before making her way over to Clark.
Jessica watched them interact for a moment. It seemed Lana was wanting some information from Clark about the new minister in Smallville — since, although her family had since moved to Metropolis, Smallville was where Lana wanted to get married. He was young and Lana was inquiring about whether Clark knew if he'd ever performed a wedding before.
However, Jessica's mind was hardly focused on their conversation. She was still pondering Lana's words to her. Simplify it. If only she could. But what bothered Jessica most was that Lana's words only served to crystalize what Jessica had been thinking. In spite of his promise not to, Clark was obviously waiting for her to change her mind. As much as she might hate it, that left it up to her to force him to get on with his life. Maybe she…
"Ms. Miller?" asked a man's voice, interrupting her thoughts.
Jessica jumped slightly. She had been so engrossed in her thoughts that she had missed the man's approach.
"Yes, I'm Jessica Miller," Jessica said, pushing away thoughts of Clark to focus on the man beside her desk. He was young. His hair was in slight disarray, as if he had a habit of running his fingers through it. To prove her point, he suddenly did exactly that. She also noticed his suit. He was appropriately dressed, although the suit was obviously purchased off the rack indicating that the man in front of her was probably a professional — but a professional without a lot of money. "What can I do for you?" she asked when he didn't speak.
He looked around for a moment before gesturing to the chair — silently asking if he could take a seat. Jessica gestured to the chair and nodded. He waited until he sat down before speaking again.
"Ms. Miller, my name is Richard Beaulieu. I'm a lawyer and I represent Stanley Gables."
"The man who was charged with negligent homicide in the deaths of the people during the chemical accident at Lex Labs?"
"That's him. Now, my client has asked to speak to you and Mr. Kent — against my advice."
"About what?" asked Jessica.
"I don't know, Ms. Miller. Mr. Gables refused to get a lawyer. I'm with the public defender's office so I was appointed to give him legal advice. He has consistently refused to talk to me. Then today, I got a phone call from Mr. Gables. He said he was finally ready to talk. So I went down to the jail and all he would say was that he wanted me to set up a meeting with you and Mr. Kent. I don't think it's such a good idea, but…" He shrugged his shoulders. "He's the client," he concluded helplessly.
"Clark," Jessica called over the man's shoulder.
Clark came over and Jessica quickly filled him in.
"Tell him we'll be down first thing tomorrow morning," Clark said.
"It's important that I at least be there," said Beaulieu.
"That's fine," Jessica assured him. "How about we meet you at the jail at…" She glanced up at Clark. "Nine?" she asked. Clark nodded.
"Good," said Beaulieu, rising from the chair and heading towards the elevator.
"What do you think that was all about?" asked Clark.
"I'd guess it means Gables doesn't think we know the whole story — and that would indicate that other people are involved. Either that, or he is trying to get public opinion supporting him."
"I guess either way, we'll know tomorrow," Clark concluded.
"What?" exclaimed Luthor. "I thought that situation was under control."
"I thought so too, sir. I had a talk with Mr. Gables when he was first arrested. He knows we can get to him even in prison. He agreed to keep his mouth shut in exchange for which we would arrange to have our source in the D.A.'s office assigned to handle his case."
"So what happened?"
"I don't know, sir. All I do know for sure is that he contacted his lawyer today and asked him to set up a meeting with Jessica Miller and Clark Kent."
"He can't talk, Nigel. Make sure he doesn't. You know what's at stake here."
Jessica and Clark arrived at Metropolis Prison about ten minutes before nine the next morning. Richard Beaulieu met them there. Beaulieu approached the window to inform the guards that they wanted to speak to Gables. He'd arranged the meeting last night and so was confident there would be no delays. As a result, he was surprised when they were asked to wait.
It was about twenty minutes later when a woman in a business suit appeared. Jessica noticed the attractive blonde probably as much as either of the men and certainly more than Clark. Jessica watched as the woman's gaze took in the occupants of the room, landing on Clark for an extra second and Jessica felt the same tightening in her chest she normally got when a woman took notice of Clark. She forced her feelings of jealousy down. He wasn't hers.
The woman asked the three people waiting to speak to Mr. Gables to accompany her into a private room. Once everyone was settled around a table, she spoke.
"I'm Mayson Drake," she told the group. "I'm with the district attorney's office."
Everyone else introduced his or her self before Richard Beaulieu spoke. "What does the district attorney's office want of us?" asked Beaulieu. "We're here to talk to my client, Stanley Gables."
"Mr. Gables committed suicide last night," Mayson informed them.
"But that doesn't make any sense," said Jessica. "Gables asked for a meeting with us yesterday. There is no way he would take his own life now."
"Miller," Jessica completed.
"Ms. Miller, I don't know what to tell you. Mr. Gables hung himself in his cell. I've spoken to the prison doctors and they've informed me that Gables was mentally unstable. Don't necessarily expect his actions to make sense."
"Well, thank you, Ms. Drake," said Clark, rising and offering the woman his hand.
Jessica noticed Mayson blush slightly when she took Clark's hand.
"Mayson, please, Mr. Kent," Mayson responded.
"And I'm Clark," Clark responded.
Lois made note of the fact that Mayson apparently had no difficulty remembering Clark's name. Given Mayson's obvious attraction to Clark, Jessica made an impulsive decision.
"When we get out of here," Jessica interrupted, "I'm sure we'll have more questions. Could Clark and I meet with you later?"
Mayson glanced at Clark. "It would have to be after hours."
"That would be great. How about seven? We could take you to supper," said Jessica.
"Jess, you can't…" Clark's voice was cut off by Jessica's elbow in his ribs. He gave a small "ooff" and fell silent.
"Fine. Where do you want to meet?" asked Mayson.
"How about Harrington Court?"
"Isn't that a little expensive?" asked Mayson.
"It's our treat. Besides, I sort of feel like dressing up and going out somewhere nice tonight," Jessica explained.
"Jess, you…" Clark tried again with the same reaction as before.
"Okay, I'll meet you there at seven," said Mayson.
"Actually, Clark doesn't mind giving you a lift. Do you, Clark?" asked Jessica.
"See. Clark will be by for you at seven. What's your address?"
Once Mayson had given Clark her address and Jessica and Clark had gotten back in his jeep, Clark was finally allowed to speak.
"Jess, you've got your Tai Kwan Do exam tonight. You can't…"
"Oh, no. Clark! Why didn't you say something?" Jessica exclaimed.
"I tried, but… I get it."
"What?" asked Jessica as innocently as she could.
"Jessica," Clark said softly. "I can find my own dates."
"Can you?" she asked. "Look, Clark, you told me if I stayed you'd get on with your life."
Clark closed his eyes for a moment. He had promised that, but how could he? How could he go out with other women when his basherteh was sitting next to him? Why couldn't she see that? And why couldn't she understand that there was absolutely nothing they couldn't overcome if they faced it together?
"Mayson seems like a nice woman, Clark," Jessica said, trying to fight back her own emotions. "And I think she likes you. Why don't you just give her a chance?"
"Do it for…" Her voice broke. She silently cursed her voice for the betrayal. "Do it for me, Clark," she finally managed to say.
Clark looked over at her, opening his mouth to object, but then he saw the wet sheen to her eyes and suddenly Clark realized what it had cost her to set him up on a date. It was an act of love. With that realization, all his arguments about why he couldn't do this vaporized. How could he deny her anything? After a moment, he nodded.
Jessica hated this. She hated it with all her heart. But there really was no other choice. At least she had her exam tonight. That meant she wouldn't be sitting at home obsessing about what was happening every minute of Clark's date.
"Good work, Nigel," said Luthor as he watched the news broadcaster tell of Stanley Gables' suicide.
"Thank you, sir," Nigel replied.
"Anyone questioning the suicide story?"
"Kent and Miller… or should I say, Lane… seem to have some doubts."
"Any information yet on Ms. Lane?"
"All I've been able to find out is that it has something to do with the military. It must be serious. The security clearance is so high that I've not even been able to find out which military department this involves. I do have a couple of our best men on it though. Hopefully we'll get a break soon."
"Make sure that we do," Luthor said. "If those two get too close, I might need some way of controlling them in a hurry."
"Why not just kill them, sir?"
"Because death attracts too much attention. I prefer not to kill unless, of course, there's no other viable option — like with our Mr. Gables."
Jessica cursed when her keys fell to the floor. She really wasn't having a good night. If she thought having a Tai Kwan Do exam would keep her mind off Clark and Mayson, she was sadly mistaken. She'd even managed to fail her exam.
All she'd been able to think about was what was probably happening between Clark and Mayson. At five after seven, she had imagined Mayson slipping her arm through Clark's as they made their way to his jeep. At eight ten, she'd seen them laughing and talking as they ate their dinner. By nine o'clock, she'd gotten progressively more edgy as she thought about them heading back to Mayson's. She'd tried not to think about what would happen then. She suspected that philosophy wouldn't work when she climbed into bed tonight.
Still, fixing Clark up with Mayson Drake had been the right thing to do. After Lana's comments earlier today, she'd realized just how much she was preventing Clark from finding someone. Her heart ached as she considered how much she wished she could be that someone.
She closed her eyes and steadied herself for a moment against the door to her apartment. When she'd finally pulled herself together, she looked around for her keys. It only took her a moment to find them. She picked them up and fumbled to get the door to her apartment unlocked, swearing again at the length of time it was taking.
"I take it the exam didn't go well," came Clark's quiet voice from the shadows.
Jessica jumped. She was definitely losing her edge. She hadn't seen or heard him there. She didn't look at him, knowing that he would see the dried tear stains on her cheeks. She quickly wiped her sleeves over her face in an effort to hide the tears.
"What are you doing here?" she asked, forcing herself to use a tone that implied that she was displeased to find him here.
Clark shrugged, although she couldn't see him. "Maybe I just wanted to talk to you about Gables' suicide," he said.
Jessica, still refusing to face him, finally had the door open. She walked inside, flicked on the light and, without inviting him in, made her way directly to the washroom.
Clark walked through the door she'd left open — closing it behind him.
"So how was the date?" Jessica asked through the washroom door. She didn't really want to know, but thought that at least if she did ask while in the washroom, she'd be saved from having to act pleased if he'd had a wonderful time. She looked at herself in the mirror and was immediately glad she'd come here without looking at Clark. It was very obvious she'd been crying. She couldn't let Clark see that.
Turning on the cold water, she washed her face. When she'd finished, she looked at herself again. It was better, but not by much. Well, maybe she could blame it on failing her test.
"It was okay," said Clark. "Mayson seems nice enough." He wandered around her living room. He really didn't want to talk about tonight. He'd been on enough dates that he'd gone into a kind of automatic pilot — acting the perfect escort while allowing himself to feel nothing.
His jeep had driven itself to Jessica's place afterwards. So why exactly had he come here? Maybe part of him wanted to be sure Jessica was all right. Maybe part of him just wanted to be where his heart already considered home. Or maybe he just wanted to assure himself that he could still feel. Whatever the reason, after he'd said good-night to Mayson, all he'd wanted was to be with Jessica. He wandered into Jessica's kitchen and began making coffee.
The final drips of water were making their way through the filter when Jessica finally emerged from the washroom — having done all that she could to repair her face. She stood silently in the doorway, watching Clark. She had intended to bawl him out for coming over here after his date, but watching him now she didn't have the heart to go through with it. He looked so incredibly miserable.
"So what did you learn about Gables' death?" Jessica asked.
"Huh?" asked Clark, forgetting that that was the excuse he had given for being here.
"Gables' death," Jessica said again. "You said you wanted to talk to me about Gables' death," she reminded him.
"Oh, right," Clark replied. Okay, so they were going to pretend that nothing had happened this evening. Clark poured them both a cup of coffee. Jessica came over and began fixing her coffee while Clark did the same with his.
"Mayson is convinced that Gables' death is a suicide," began Clark.
"But why would Gables ask to speak to us and then kill himself? Either he really was crazy or…"
"He knew something that made him too big a risk to be left alive."
"And if that's true…"
"What did he know?" concluded Clark. They looked at each other and smiled, both of them suddenly realizing how good it felt to talk about something neutral — especially in that casual way they had developed of completing each other's sentences. They carried their coffee into the living room before continuing.
"I'd say it must have something to do with the accident at Lex Labs," said Jessica.
"We should find out what Gables was working on at Lex Labs."
"I think we need to go farther than that," said Jessica.
"What do you mean?"
"I think we also need to find out everything we can about Stanley Gables and Lex Labs."
Clark nodded. "We should probably get Jimmy to see what he can dig up."
"I agree. I think we should also talk to the coroner who did the autopsies on the bodies — see if he can tell us what killed those people. If I recall correctly, the police report only said the people died from some unidentified chemical poisoning. They expected that the autopsy would give them a more conclusive answer, but I don't remember ever hearing exactly what it was. I'm sure the autopsy's must be finished by now."
"Good idea. We should also find out who was handling the case — both for the police and the D.A.'s office."
"What about talking to his immediate supervisor?"
Clark shook his head. "Let's try talking to janitorial staff, security personnel, people like that first. After all, if Gables was about to name names, his immediate supervisor might be one of those he was planning to name."
Jessica looked at Clark thoughtfully — her expression telling Clark that he'd given her an idea.
"What?" asked Clark.
"Do you remember Andrew Pasco?"
Jessica nodded. "He's a security guard at Lex Labs. Do you remember how the museum curator…"
"George McDonald," Clark added.
"…said that about a year ago he started capturing this unusual sense of pain on canvas."
"Luthor bought Lex Labs about a year ago."
"You don't suppose…" Jessica started with excitement in her voice.
"Hey, slow down. Let's not jump to any conclusions here. Let's just take this one step at a time — see where this leads," warned Clark. "After all, Luthor has somehow got people to believe that he's the second coming."
Jessica smiled. "I've got a feeling about this one, Clark. I think this is the break we've been looking for."
Clark shook his head, a small smile coloring his features. "Who am I to argue with your intuition?" he asked.
Jessica's smile widened. "You're learning," she said.
They batted a few more ideas back and forth. Finally, after a series of long yawns from both Jessica and Clark, Jessica suggested they call it a night and rose from the couch to see Clark to the door. When Clark just continued to sit there, staring at his now empty coffee mug, Jessica retook her seat.
"Clark?" she asked.
"There's something I think we need to discuss," he said quietly.
Jessica's chest immediately tightened. However, she didn't respond.
"It's just… I know what you were trying to do today. With Mayson, I mean. Jess, I need you to promise not to do that again. If I find someone I want to date, I'll be the one to ask. But I don't want to feel that I have to date just because of some promise to you to get on with my life."
Jessica swallowed hard. "I just thought…"
"I know," Clark interrupted. "Just let me do this my way. I know you don't want to get involved with me." Then in response to her look, he corrected himself, "Can't get involved with me. By the way, some day we're going to have to have a serious talk about that. Anyway, I need to deal with this my way."
Jessica wasn't sure whether to be relieved or upset at him. On the other hand, he was right. She had no business assuming she had the right to pick Clark's dates. After a moment, she nodded.
"Thank you," Clark said softly, rising to his feet and heading for the door.
The young man in an army uniform rushed across the base with a facsimile clasped in his hand. In spite of his army style hair cut and uniform, he looked much younger than his twenty-two years. In fact, he almost looked like a boy who'd dressed up in his father's army uniform. When he reached the building he was heading for, he entered, making his way towards a well known office.
"I think you might want to see this, Colonel," said the young man as soon as he entered.
A middle-aged man, also dressed in an army uniform, looked up from where he was focused on some papers and took the paper being offered by the younger man. He studied it for a moment.
"Someone was making inquiries into Lois Lane's file?" he asked — his excitement at this news warring in his mind with caution.
"Yes, sir," the young man responded.
The older man smiled — something he rarely did these days. "It's been over two years since our last solid lead. Get on this right away, Brad."
Jessica burst into Perry's office the next morning with Clark trailing behind. Clark watched in fascination the excitement on Jessica's face as she filled Perry in on their theory. He only spoke periodically — filling in the occasional detail that Jessica missed. When they had finally concluded, Perry looked at them thoughtfully.
"Do you have anything solid to back this up?" asked Perry, taking the wind out of Jessica and Clark's sails.
"Not yet," said Jessica. "But if you'd just give us some time to investigate, I'm sure…"
"One day," said Perry.
"But, Perry, there are so many angles to be covered. Surely you can't expect us to solve this in…"
"One day," Perry repeated. "I don't expect you to have the full story by then, but I do need one tangible piece of evidence that there is something here worth investigating." Jessica opened her mouth to respond, but was stopped by Perry's voice. "Sorry, honey. I can't tie up my two best reporters on what could turn out to be a wild goose chase. I mean, this is just a little hard to believe. You're talking about Lex Luthor here — the biggest philanthropist this city has ever seen. I'll give you 'til tomorrow morning, but I need something more than hunches and speculation by then. Otherwise, you'll have to look into this on your own time."
Jessica snorted and rose from her chair. "Well, if we only have one day, we'd better get on it," Jessica said, storming out of Perry's office.
Perry looked over at Clark. "It looks like you've got a tiger by the tail there, son," he commented. "If I were you, I wouldn't let go."
Clark smiled. "I don't intend to, Perry," he responded before rising to follow his partner out of the room.
Jessica was already at her desk making notes when Clark finally joined her.
"What are you doing?" he asked.
"If we only have one day, we probably should divide the work up so that we can cover more ground."
"Good idea," Clark responded, picking up one of the lists.
"You can take whichever list you want," Jessica informed him.
Clark glanced at the list she was still feverishly writing. "This one's fine," he said. "But first… Jimmy!" he yelled. A moment later Jimmy joined them.
"We need you to dig up everything you can find on Lex Labs and on Stanley Gables."
"And we need it fast, Jimmy," Jessica added.
"Okay," said Clark when Jimmy had scurried off to do as instructed. "I'll get to work on my list. 'Talk to whoever was handling Gables' case for the D.A.'s office,'" he read, heading back to his seat.
Jessica looked at her list. The first item on it was to call the lawyer who had represented Stanley Gables. Maybe he knew more than he had told them. He had given them his card. After a moment of fishing around on her cluttered desk, she pulled it out. Picking up the phone, she dialed the number and asked to speak to Richard Beaulieu.
Clark grabbed his phone book and located the number for the D.A.'s office. When a receptionist answered, he asked for the D.A. who was handling the case against Stanley Gables for the deaths at Lex Labs. He waited patiently to be connected.
"Mayson Drake here," said a woman's voice answering the phone.
"Mayson?" Clark gasped in disbelief.
"Hi, Clark," Mayson responded immediately. "I'm so glad you called. I had a really nice time last night. I was sort of hoping we could do it again."
"Umm…" Clark stammered. He hadn't expected to be talking to Mayson — although if he thought about it, it made sense. After all, she was the one who had informed them about Gables' death. And hadn't she said something about that last night. He suddenly realized that he really hadn't been listening to her. "Well, I'm a little busy at the moment, but… Well, I had a nice time too," Clark said. He really wasn't interested in a repeat performance of last night. Last night had reminded him just how empty his relationships had been before Jessica. Going back to that was more than he could bear. "Listen, the reason I'm calling is that I understand you were the one handling the case against Stanley Gables."
"You mean the charges of negligent homicide? Yes, I was handling that. But what interest could that be to you now? The case is closed."
"I understand that, but…" suddenly Clark hesitated. It probably wasn't wise telling more people than necessary what they were doing. "Well, we're doing a follow up story. You know, with his suicide and everything. Anyway, I was wondering if I could get a look at the file."
"Sorry, Clark. Our files are confidential."
"But the case is closed now that Gables is dead," said Clark, using a voice that was slightly suggestive. Before meeting Jessica, it was a voice he'd used a lot to get information from women. Now it felt… slutty, somehow. But they really did need to get a look at the file. "Couldn't you bend the rules a little? Just this once."
"Okay, I guess it wouldn't hurt," she said after a moment's reflection. "It will take me a couple of hours to have it ready for you."
"A couple of hours?" asked Clark.
"Well, I need to go through and take out any… umm… confidential office memos, things like that. Why don't you come by then?"
"I'm afraid I'm really swamped today. I'll send a runner over for it. Two hours, you say?"
"Yes," replied Mayson, the disappointment in her voice unmistakable.
"Great!" replied Clark, trying not to notice the sound of her voice. "Thanks, Mayson. I owe you one." The final statement was out of his mouth before he could contemplate how she might want to collect.
"I'll hold you to that," Mayson replied immediately, her voice suddenly sounding much more hopeful.
After he'd said good-bye and hung up, Clark removed his glasses and rubbed the bridge of his nose. When he heard Jessica approaching, he returned his glasses to his face and looked up at her.
He filled her in on his conversation with Mayson and she informed him that Richard Beaulieu had no idea what Gables wanted to talk to them about. All Beaulieu knew was that it had something to do with the accident at Lex Labs.
"Their investigation has to be stopped," said Lex, looking accusingly at Nigel.
"I'm sorry, sir. I haven't been able to find out anything more about Ms. Lane. Certainly, nothing that would have caused her to remain hidden for so many years."
"You know, Nigel. Maybe we already have enough."
"Well, we know her name is Lois Lane. And we know that the military is looking for her. She doesn't have to know that we don't know why they're looking for her."
Nigel smiled. His boss was right — as usual. That should be enough information to make Lois Lane their puppet — unless she was willing to risk having them tell the military where they could find her and if she was, she wouldn't have gone to such elaborate lengths to hide her identity.
Clark was going through the D.A.'s files on Gables' project when Jessica approached.
"Anything interesting?" she asked.
"Not so far," said Clark. "You've got to see this file. It's pathetic. I don't know how the D.A.'s office expected to prepare a case with only this."
Jessica took a look over Clark's shoulder. "Well, I got a hold of Andre Pasco. He's agreed to meet with me."
"Great," said Clark, rising to his feet. "Let's go."
"No," Jessica said. "Look, Clark, he made it very clear that he didn't want to meet with either of us. I finally got him to at least talk to me — by claiming I wanted to talk about his paintings. If you show up there, he's never going to talk. This guy is really skittish. Besides, we each have our list. Have you finished yours or something?" There was a grin in her voice at the last question.
Clark snorted. She was obviously making reference to their constant competitions to see who could finish an assignment first. Still… "I don't like this, Jess. I just think…"
"I'll be fine. Why don't you just get on with…" She picked up his list and looked at it. "…contacting the police."
Clark looked at her for a minute before nodding. She was right. They only had a day to work on this. And Andre Pasco wasn't likely to be dangerous. From the look of his paintings, he was more likely to be scared.
Clark picked up the phone and called the police as he watched Jessica step into the elevator.
"Inspector Henderson, please," he told the woman who answered the phone. He was then subjected to some music by the Bee Gees while he waited. He hummed along until suddenly Henderson's voice was on the other end of the line.
"Hello, Inspector. Clark Kent here."
"So what can I do for you, Kent?" asked Henderson.
"I'm looking into the accident at Lex Labs again and I was wondering if I could ask you some questions," Clark said. He couldn't quite say why he had no problems telling Henderson what he was doing when earlier today he'd only given Mayson half the story. He dismissed the thought. He'd known Henderson longer. There was nothing more to it than that.
"But that case is closed now that Gables is dead," responded Henderson.
"Look," began Clark, "Gables wanted to talk to Jessica and me. Then he commits suicide before he has a chance to do so. Then I get the file from the D.A.'s office and it is almost empty — almost as if someone knew this wasn't going to trial," Clark said, voicing an idea that had been playing around in his head.
"Hey, wait a minute," responded Henderson. "I did much of the work on that file myself."
"But then why is the file so bare? Where are the autopsy notes?"
"They probably hadn't been sent from the doctor yet."
"What about photos of the crime scene? Why weren't photos taken of the crime scene?"
"Photos were taken," objected Henderson.
"There aren't any in the file I have."
"They probably got misplaced. Look, Kent, there is no conspiracy here. Photos get misplaced all the time."
"What about witness statements? There aren't even many witness statements," added Clark.
"I really don't like your insinuations," said Henderson. "This case is closed. Do you have any idea how many open cases I have on my desk at the moment? Now if you'll excuse me, I'll be getting back to them before you start accusing me of neglecting them."
"I didn't mean…"
"Good-bye, Kent," Henderson concluded and suddenly Clark was listening to a dead phone line.
That hadn't gone the way Clark wanted it to. He knew Henderson was a good cop. He was just so frustrated looking at a file that was missing so many essential elements.
"You did what?" exclaimed Luthor into the phone.
"I gave him the file," Mayson repeated. "Look, would you quit worrying. I know how to sanitize a file. He'd have been more suspicious if I'd refused to give it to him. Besides, aren't you the one who told me to do whatever was necessary to get close to Clark. Thanks to me, you now know what he's up to."
"You better be right about this, my love," responded Luthor. He really hated creative action on the part of his employees — unless it worked, of course.
"You worry too much, Lex," Mayson responded.
Jessica rechecked the address she'd been given. Surely this couldn't be the right place. The building was literally crumbling, but the address was the one Pasco had given her. She briefly wondered if this were some sort of trap. Well, there was only one way to find out. After paying the cabby, she stepped out of the taxi. She looked around. When she didn't notice anything suspicious, she made her way into the apartment building.
The interior was as rundown as the exterior of the building indicated. Pasco said he was on the top floor so she made her way to the stairs and quickly ascended them. She knocked on a door and a moment later it flew open. A skinny man with a wild look on his face stood there.
"You're Jessica Miller?" he asked.
"Yes," Jessica responded.
He glanced nervously around the hall, before grabbing Jessica's arm and pulling her into the apartment. Jessica's breath caught in her throat, but she forced herself not to resist. Once inside, the man released her, slammed the door shut and did up a number of locks before turning to Jessica.
He gestured her further into his apartment. Jessica looked around and was amazed by the difference between the apartment and the building. There were large windows making the place bright and airy. The apartment had been transformed into a studio, with all the items necessary to allow the occupant to paint. It was as if a montage of color had been randomly strewn around the room.
"I've come here to find out what you might know about the accident at Lex Labs," said Jessica.
"I thought you wanted to talk about my paintings. I'm not talking about Lex Labs. I wasn't even there when it happened," Andre said, walking back to the door.
"But you do know what's going on there. Don't you?"
He covered the distance back to Jessica. She stood still in spite of the speed of his approach. He was right in her face when he whispered, "They killed Gables. Why would they hesitate to kill me?"
"Who would kill you?" asked Jessica.
He shook his head, giving her an almost amused smile. "Oh no you don't, Ms. Miller."
"Look. No one has to know that we talked. What you tell me will be completely off the record. I just need a place to start."
"Stay out of this. These guys are dangerous."
"This is my job," Jessica responded.
Andre studied her before giving a small snort and gesturing her to a chair.
"If I tell you what I know, you can't tell anyone where you got the information."
"You're name won't get out," Jessica assured him again. "I won't even use information which might allow someone to trace this information to you."
He thought about it for a long moment before nodding and beginning to speak. "You know that I'm a security guard at Lex Labs," he began. "I've been doing that job now for almost ten years. It gives me time during the daylight to work on my paintings. Anyway, it was a good job. Decent pay. Good benefits. Things like that. Even the work was pretty good. That ended about a year ago."
"Was that when Lex Luthor took over Star Labs?" Jessica asked.
"Well, for the first month or so after Luthor took over, everything seemed pretty much the same. Then things started to change. At first, I didn't understand the significance of the changes. A night shift began working at Lex Labs. I thought at first that it was just because they had more projects than they had time in the labs — so they decided to double lab usage by having a night shift."
"What changed your mind?"
"I overheard a conversation one day. It was between Mr. Gables and some guy I didn't know. I was using the washroom in the lab. I wasn't supposed to, but I didn't want to take the time to go back down to the washrooms I was supposed to use. When I came out, two men were there. Since I wasn't supposed to be there, I hid. I didn't know what I'd learn."
"What did you learn?" Jessica asked, hardly able to wait for him to get to the point.
"Have you ever heard of mustard gas?" he asked.
"Wasn't that the gas that was used for chemical warfare during the first world war?"
Andre nodded. "They were talking about it. I don't know the details, but whatever work Mr. Gables was doing for Lex Labs had something to do with mustard gas. I also got the impression that they were planning to use the gas for warfare. It almost sounded as if they had used it for that purpose already."
"Do you have any idea who the second man could have been?"
Andre shook his head. "He had an English accent. That's all I know. I hadn't seen him there before or since. Anyway, after I heard the conversation, I started paying special attention to that lab. A few months later, I noticed that the lab animals were all dead. It's not unusual for lab animals to die. But there were so many and they…" He shuddered slightly. "They had bled from their eyes and mouths. Their fur was mostly burned off and the skin underneath was covered with horrible burn-like sores."
"That's much the same as what happened to the people who died. Why didn't you come forward and talk to the police?"
"I assumed the experiments were legit. Or if they weren't the police would get to the bottom of it when they examined the bodies. Besides, Ms. Miller, if they were producing something to use in chemical warfare that wasn't legitimate, what would stop them from killing someone like me? And they must have killed Stanley Gables. What would one more matter?
"I tried to tell the world what was going on," he continued, gesturing to his paintings. "I couldn't do more than that."
"But if they are producing mustard gas… I didn't think it was instantly deadly. At least if my memory is correct, I've seen photos from World War one. There were whole lines of men with their hands on the shoulders of the people in front of them — because they'd been blinded by the gas. Everyone here died."
Andre shrugged. "I really don't know anything more than that."
"Have things gone back to normal since Gables' arrest?" Jessica asked.
"You mean is there still a night shift? Yes. And there is one more thing. I don't know if it's connected, but a couple of weeks ago I saw some people removing large barrels filled with something from the lab's storage facilities. I found it odd because that type of thing usually happens in the day time."
Jessica nodded. They obviously didn't know the full story yet. At least the information Pasco had given her should be enough to convince Perry that this was worth investigating. Of course, they would still need to make sure that Lex Labs didn't have authorization to manufacture mustard gas. However, if it didn't, an operation that had been going on for about a year couldn't have escaped the notice of those in charge. Also, there was obviously a bigger agenda here than just a few unauthorized experiments.
Clark had spent the afternoon looking through the files Jimmy had found for them. The information about Lex Labs was basically what they already knew. Star Labs was Lex Luthor's first big purchase when he'd arrived in Metropolis. He had kept the majority of the personnel on. There were a few changes to the board of directors and he hired additional people — including Stanley Gables.
Stanley Gables himself was a chemist. He had worked for a small company called Disposals Incorporated before coming to work for Lex Labs. Disposals Incorporated did exactly that. It disposed of dangerous chemicals for other companies. He had worked his way up in the company until he became its chief chemist. Still, his job at Lex Labs had been a big promotion as was the resulting increase in his salary. But that would be expected.
Clark felt completely frustrated when he finished up. He really hoped Jessica was having better luck.
The sun was beginning to set as Jessica arrived back at the Daily Planet, but she had no doubt that Clark would still be here. She was just getting out of the taxi when she noticed Clark emerge from the building.
"Clark," she called.
He turned at the sound of his name. "Hold that cab," he yelled back. She did and when he reached her, he gestured her back in and crawled in next to her. He gave an address to the driver.
"What's going on?" asked Jessica as the cab pulled back out into traffic.
"There's a fire at 1845 Simpson St.," he said. "The call just came in over the police scanner. Perry didn't have anyone else to send. I figure you can tell me what you found out on the way."
Jessica glanced at the cabby and shook her head. "Later," she said.
"That bad," she responded.
"Okay, we'll talk about it later," said Clark, before proceeding to fill her in on the little he knew about the fire. Apparently it was in Suicide Slum. From what they could tell, the fire was in a residential area. Given recent complaints about the length of time emergency services were taking to respond to calls from Suicide Slum, Perry wanted someone there.
They pulled up at their destination before the fire engines had arrived. There was, however, quite a crowd gathered out front. Clark paid the driver and both climbed out of the car. It was then that they heard it. A nearly hysterical woman was trying to break away from the hold her neighbors had on her in an effort to get back inside the burning house.
"What's going on?" asked Jessica.
"Apparently, her two young children are still in the house," said one of the neighbors.
"How old are they?" asked Jessica.
Jessica glanced at the house helplessly. There had to be some way she could help without exposing herself. However, before anything came to mind, Clark was heading for the house.
"What are you doing?" asked Jessica. "You can't go in there."
"If I don't, those kids are dead," said Clark, not slowing his pace towards the house. "Where are they?" he yelled at the woman.
"In their bedroom. Upstairs," the woman replied. "Please, get them."
"But, Clark…" Jessica's voice trailed off in helpless confusion as Clark pulled his jacket up over his hair and rushed into the building. "Oh, God," she breathed, before taking a quick look around. No one was looking.
Doing something she hadn't allowed herself to do in a long time, she stared intently at the wall of the house. The wall seemed to disappear from her vision and she was suddenly staring inside. She watched as Clark ascended the steps. She could see the children in an upstairs bedroom. She focused her hearing and could hear the sounds of two little heartbeats. They were obviously still alive. The fire was not completely out of control yet. She told herself not to panic and do something rash. After all, Clark seemed to be doing well. Maybe he'd be able to get to them and pull them out of there. Then the firemen would arrive and put out the fire.
Her heart clenched in her chest when she realized that Clark was beginning to have problems. The smoke was thick and he was obviously having trouble seeing. Her enhanced vision allowed her to see in spite of the smoke. "Come on, Clark," she whispered. Then she heard him cough. He doubled over, but seemed to recover and, reverting to a crouched position, continued his trip. He made it to the top of the stairs before collapsing onto the floor obviously struggling to breath.
All Jessica knew for certain at this moment was that she couldn't let Clark die. Faster than the eye could follow in the dark, she disappeared behind the building, found an open upstairs window and flew inside. She found Clark quickly.
"The kids," he whispered between fits of coughing.
She nodded and was gone in a flash. She grabbed the children. At least in their unconscious state they wouldn't know who had come for them. She made her way back to Clark and pulling him to his feet, flew him down the stairs and to the front door. She put the children in his arms and pushed him out the door — disappearing back into the house before anyone could see her.
Clark doubled over in a fit of coughing as he staggered out of the house with two little children in his arms. People immediately came forward, removing the children from him. The past minute had been like a dream. There was only one thing he was sure of. Jessica had been there.
But where was she now? He stumbled around to look back at the house. She wasn't there. His heart leapt into his throat. She must still be in the house.
"Jessica!" he yelled towards the house. "Jessica!" he yelled again when she didn't come out. He had to get to her. He headed back to the house.
"Clark," came a voice behind him. He spun around to see Jessica making her way towards him from the crowd.
Jessica immediately wrapped her arms around him in a hug. "Don't mention me," she begged into his ear. "I'll explain later."
He pulled back slightly so that he could see her eyes. But before he had a chance to respond, a fireman came over. "Come with me," he told Clark.
"I'm fine," Clark tried to object as he coughed uncontrollably.
"I insist," the fireman said as he led Clark in the direction of the ambulance.
Lois immediately disappeared back behind the barrier that had been erected to keep the onlookers away from the fire that, in spite of the efforts of the firefighters to stop it, was now consuming the house.
Clark welcomed the oxygen he was given. He sat silently, taking the oxygen into his lungs, trying to figure out what had happened in that house. "Don't mention me. I'll explain later." The words Jessica had said to him echoed in his mind. But what could possibly explain what he'd seen?
Jessica wandered among the onlookers, listening in on their conversations. She let out a sigh of relief when no one mentioned her. Clark had obviously seen her, but as for the rest, her secret still appeared to be intact. She noticed that the news crew from LNN was interviewing the mother of the children. Being careful, as she always was, to stay out of the camera's shot, she listened in. The woman was making Clark out to be the hero. Jessica smiled. As long as that continued, no one would know about her actions.
She also used her status as a reporter to question people more directly, but again no one seemed to know about her involvement. She made some notes — they would need them for the story — and began to relax. There was still the matter of Clark knowing, but she trusted him not to say anything — although she was still nervous about how he was going to react to her after this. Still, she knew he wouldn't betray her.
"Hey, beautiful," said a voice behind her. She turned to see Clark standing there.
"They let you go?" she asked.
"They wanted to take me to the hospital as a precautionary measure, but…"
"You should go, Clark. You might have done some damage to your lungs."
"I'm fine, Jess," Clark said dismissively. "I saw you talking to people. I assume you have enough for the story."
"Then I think we should get out of here. I've got a lot of questions myself — questions that I suspect you don't want anyone to overhear."
"So what have you found out?" the man behind the desk asked.
"Well, we finally traced the inquiries about Lois Lane to a Nigel St. John," said the young man in army fatigues, Brad Roberts.
"Who is he?"
"He used to work for MI-6."
"Does that mean that British intelligence is aware of this too?"
"I don't think so, Colonel Trask. Apparently he left them years ago." There was a moment of silence before Brad continued, "What is it, sir?"
"Nigel St. John," Trask said, pondering the name. "It seems to me that there was a Nigel St. John working for a man I did business with a number of years ago. His name was Lex Luthor. He's now some bigwig in Metropolis. Check it out. See if I'm right."
"Yes, sir. Also, Colonel, I got the distinct impression that MI-6 would like to get their hands on St. John."
"Only after I get my hands on Lois Lane," Trask insisted.
Both Jessica and Clark were silent on the taxi ride back to his apartment. Jessica was trying to figure out exactly how much she should tell Clark. After debating the issue in her own mind for some time, she decided to tell him the whole story. What he knew right now was certainly enough to destroy her life. So she might as well trust him with everything. She flinched inwardly at what everything would have to include. At least now she could explain to him exactly why they could never get involved. She swallowed hard when she imagined the look she knew would be in his eyes when he finally understood.
After they ascended the steps to his apartment, Clark took a moment to remove the key he kept under a plant that sat next to the door. Jessica gave a small chuckle. When he turned towards her, she spoke.
"When are you going to learn that you really shouldn't keep your key there?" she asked.
Clark gave her a soft smile. "I guess it's my Kansas upbringing." He opened the door. "I wandered a long way away from most of my upbringing. Maybe keeping the key under a flowerpot is my attempt to retain some connection with my past."
They entered the apartment and Clark immediately went to make coffee.
"I'm going to type up the story while you do that," said Jessica following Clark into the kitchen. "That way we can send it to Perry."
"And then we can talk," Jessica promised, realizing what Clark was thinking.
Clark let out a breath and nodded. Perry did need that story. "Before you do, just let me say one thing."
"Thank you for saving my life," he said softly.
They held eye contact for a moment before she responded. "You're welcome," she whispered.
Clark turned his attention back to making coffee. None of this made any sense to him. He'd tried to find a rational explanation for what he'd witnessed, but was at a complete loss. He fixed their coffee and began carrying it into the living room. He stopped short when he saw Jessica sitting at his laptop. Her fingers were flying over the keys at what could only be described as superspeed. His mouth dropped open.
Jessica looked up and saw him. Her hands immediately slowed to a normal pace as she gave him an apologetic smile and a shrug. She had been so caught up in what she was going to say to Clark that she hadn't noticed that her hands had continued to speed up — until her hands were flying over the keyboard. It was a stupid mistake — and one that could have caused her serious problems if Clark didn't already know that she wasn't exactly normal.
"So that's how you do it," Clark said, when he finally recovered the power of speech.
"Do what?" asked Jessica.
"Win, when we have a contest to see who can get their stories done up first."
Jessica's fingers stilled on the keyboard and she looked up at him in shock. Of all the things that must be going through his mind at the moment, he would focus on that.
"You've been cheating," said Clark, almost in disbelief.
Jessica suddenly burst out laughing, the tension between them making his comments that much more entertaining. Her laughter was contagious and Clark soon joined her.
"Do you really think I can do this in the office?" Jessica asked, when she finally recovered from her laughter.
"I guess not," said Clark. He handed her a mug of coffee and leaned over to read what she'd written. "You've made me out to be a hero," he objected. "You're the hero here."
Jessica shook her head. "I don't want anyone to know what I did," she said.
"But I'm not the one who saved those kids."
"But you are, Clark. You knew the risks and still you ran into a burning building to save them. I haven't allowed myself to do anything like that in years for fear of someone finding out about me. If you hadn't gone in, I'm not sure I'd have been willing to risk it. You're the reason those kids are still alive."
She immediately returned to her typing, quickly finishing the story. "Do you want to read it before I send it to Perry?" she asked.
He shook his head.
"You should know that I put it in my name alone," Jessica continued. "Considering I made you out to be the hero, I didn't think you'd want your name on the story."
Clark laughed and nodded.
She sent the story and began to shut down the computer. The task seemed to be finished too quickly. She clicked the top shut and sat staring at the computer for a long moment.
"I don't know where to start," said Jessica.
"Well, why don't we begin with what I know? You ran into a burning building, moving too fast to be normal, and then carried me and two children to the door. You then disappeared into the building and ended up on the other side of a roped off barrier. And I know that you're afraid of cameras. You always seem to fade into the background when television crews show up at a story — you thought I hadn't noticed, didn't you?"
She nodded, although she should have realized he would notice. He noticed everything about her, after all.
"I've been trying to figure this out," Clark continued. "Super fast, super strong, afraid of cameras… You're not a vampire, are you?" The question was asked with a note of humor in his voice, but when she didn't respond, he continued. "Are you?" he asked.
She looked up. "No! Of course, I'm not a vampire. I can go out in the daylight, can't I?" She paused. "Maybe I should start at the beginning. My name is not really Jessica Miller. I took that name a couple of years ago. The real Jessica Miller died in childhood."
"So what is your name?" asked Clark.
"Lois Lane," she said softly.
"Lois Lane," he repeated slowly. "Yeah, that works."
She brought a hand up to his cheek. "Are you trying to make this easier for me?" she asked.
He captured her hand with his and brought it to his lips. He softly kissed the pads of her fingers. "Jess… or Lois…"
"You better make it Jessica," she said. "After all, I really don't want you forgetting and calling me Lois when someone else is around. Besides, I'm used to the name Jessica. I've been using it for two years now."
"Okay, Jess, I want you to know you can tell me anything. I'd never hurt you. You know that, don't you?"
She gave him a sad smile, but other than that didn't respond. She did trust him — but this was a lot to ask of anyone. Still, he already knew enough to destroy her life. She didn't believe he'd do that. So she forced herself, for the first time in her life, to trust someone with her secret.
"My parents — my adoptive parents — are Samuel and Ellen Lane. They had been married for about five years when I came into their lives. They had been trying to have a child and didn't think they could. About five years later, however, they did, but that's really something for later. Anyway, my dad has a cabin in Minnesota on the north shore of Lake Superior near a little place called Lutsen."
"I don't see you as coming from a family that liked the wild outdoors," commented Clark.
"I don't. We're from Metropolis. I grew up here, but my parents used to go to Lutsen in the winter for skiing."
"Now that makes sense," said Clark with a smile. Ever since he'd kissed her fingers, he'd been holding her hand. Now she brought his hand over into her lap and began absently playing with his fingers.
"Anyway, they were up there one night and they saw something. They didn't have a clue what it was. They thought at first that it was a burning plane or a meteor."
"What was it?" asked Clark.
"A small space ship," said Lois, avoiding eye contact.
Clark waited for a moment for the punch line, but one didn't seem to be forthcoming.
"Anyway," continued Lois, "my dad is a doctor, although his real passion is more that of a scientist than a doctor. So he grabbed my mother and trudged through the woods. They found this small craft. Mom insisted that they call the authorities, but Dad was too enthralled about his discovery to stand the idea of anyone but him examining the craft. He carried it back to the cabin and figured out how to open it. I was inside." She glanced over at Clark, but couldn't read the expression on his face. She looked down at his hand and gently ran her fingers across his palm before continuing — comforted by the fact that he hadn't withdrawn his hand.
"I really am not sure why they kept me. I guess they were just so desperate to have children, but my mother was never really able to accept me. It got worse after Lucy was born. I think having her own daughter made her realize… I don't know." She gave a humorless chuckle. "I suppose I should have resented Lucy terribly, but the truth is that I adored her."
"Do you have any idea where you came from?" Clark asked, saying the first thing that he'd said since she'd started her remarkable story.
Lois glanced over at Clark and nodded. "There was a navigational device in the ship. It looked like a small globe. When I was about five, it spoke to me. It told me that I'm from a planet called Krypton. Krypton was on the verge of destruction, so my parents found a planet where the inhabitants were compatible with their people — Earth. They put me in the ship and sent me away just before the planet exploded. As far as I know, I'm the last of the Kryptonians.
"I'm not exactly sure what they meant by compatible. I mean, I look human. I've just got some… added abilities."
"Like your strength and speed?"
Lois nodded. "And my ability to fly, my ability to start fires with my eyes, freeze things with my breath, look through things, hear and see incredible distances."
"But if that's true, why do you study Tai Kwan Do?"
"Tai Kwan Do is more about control than anything else. I need control, Clark. It's essential if I'm not going to hurt someone." She paused. "And I can't be hurt," she said, almost as if that part was a curse.
"You said you can fly?" Clark asked, focusing only on one part of what she'd said she could do.
She glanced over at him and saw the disbelief in his eyes. She floated up off the couch and said, "I can fly."
Clark's mouth dropped open. "Wow!" was the only word that managed to escape his lips. His mouth made movements as if he would say more before finally saying, "Wow!" again.
Lois laughed and shyly asked, "Do you want to fly with me?"
Clark's mouth tried to work again. Finally, he managed to voice the word he wanted to say, "Yes."
She smiled, floated back to the floor and took his hands in hers. Suddenly, Sir Isaac Newton's most famous law — the one about gravity — ceased to have meaning as they floated up, half way between the floor and ceiling.
"This is incredible," Clark finally managed to gasp. "Jess, if I could do this, I wouldn't do anything else."
Lois lowered them back to the floor. "I love it too, but it isn't something I can do much. It's just too dangerous."
"Dangerous?" Clark asked.
Lois took a seat back on the couch. She smiled when Clark sat down beside her and offered her his hand again. That gesture did more to alleviate her fears than anything Clark could have said. She played with his hand for a minute before continuing.
"I told you that my father was a scientist, of sorts," she said.
"Right," responded Clark.
"There were some advantages to having a doctor/scientist as a father. He's convinced that I'm human…"
"I never doubted that for a second," said Clark.
She reached over and gently stroked his cheek. "He thinks that the Kryptonians and the Earthlings are of the same species — they've just evolved differently to adapt to different planets. The disadvantage of having a scientist for a father is that I was never sure if he considered me his daughter or his research project." She felt Clark's hand tighten on hers. "I sometimes wonder if that was part of the reason my mother resented me. That she thought I was more interesting to my father than she was." She sighed. "I guess that's ancient history now. What I was going to say is that my father documented all his research. Then when I was fifteen he decided to publish his findings. I don't think it ever occurred to him how that might affect my life.
"Of course, no legitimate science magazines wanted anything to do with his paper. But that didn't stop him. He finally found an obscure publication called UFO Today. They published his paper."
She paused. "A few days after it came out, some men showed up at our door. I was on the way home from school when I spotted them. I snuck up close enough so that I could use my hearing abilities to overhear the conversation but not so close that they would see me." She paused and for a moment was lost in memories of the past.
Lois had been skipping down the street towards her house doing something she'd only just discovered she could do. She hadn't even told her father about it yet — it just seemed too special. She had discovered that if she concentrated, she could stay off the ground a fraction of a second too long between steps. She knew she probably shouldn't be doing this outside — someone might notice — but it was just too much fun to resist.
As she rounded the corner, she noticed an army vehicle pull up in front of her house. She slowed and then stopped as she noticed one of the two men inside get out and make his way to the door. He knocked and her mother answered the door. Lois slipped into a neighbor's yard and took a seat by the fence, stretching out with her enhanced hearing to listen in on the conversation.
"I'm Jason Trask. I'm a colonel in the U.S. Air Force. It's absolutely crucial that I speak to Dr. Lane. Is he here?" asked the man.
"I'm afraid he's at work," her mother responded. "What do you want to talk to my husband about?"
"He published an article about some research he had done. I need to find out who the subject was. You wouldn't happen to know would you?"
"Why would the military be interested.?" asked Ellen.
"Mrs. Lane, I assure you we don't want to hurt this creature," said Trask, causing Lois to cringe. "We just want to be sure it doesn't pose a risk to the United States or the people of earth. I assure you that all we want to do is talk to it. I assume from Dr. Lane's article that it does talk."
"Umm… Well, yes. Look, you're going to have to discuss this with my husband," said Ellen.
"Of course," responded Trask. "I'll come back later tonight."
"I'm sure both my husband and daughter will be back by then. You can talk to both of them together."
Lois cringed again. She closed her eyes as a tear slipped slowly down her cheek. She suspected that for the rest of her life she'd wonder about her mother's slip. Her mother had just let this strange man know that she was the test subject and in spite of the man's assurances that they only wanted to talk to her, she was scared. He had talked about her as if she wasn't even human — bringing out fears she'd always had about herself. She shivered when she thought about the term he'd used to described her — creature.
Looking through the fence, she saw the man make his way back to the jeep and get inside.
"They call the creature their daughter," Trask said in disdain.
"You're kidding," the man in the jeep replied.
"We'll have to be careful how we handle this. We will have to take the creature into custody. We'll make up a story for the Lanes, but there is no way we can allow this alien to continue living at large."
Lois didn't hear the remainder of the conversation. She was too lost in her thoughts. She waited where she was for a long time trying to figure out what to do. Of course, there was only one thing to do. Her parents would protect her from what these strange men wanted to do to her. She headed home.
"Jess?" asked Clark.
"Huh?" asked Lois. "Oh, sorry, I was just thinking."
She was silent for a long time before filling him in on the incident she'd remembered. Her emotions were very close to the surface. This was the first time she'd ever told anyone else about it — or the way Trask had described her. Clark gave her hand a squeeze occasionally, giving her the courage to continue with her tale.
"So what happened when you told your parents what you'd overheard the two men saying in the jeep?" Clark asked when she finished.
"They didn't believe me," Lois said softly, her voice still filled with pain at the memory. "They decided to have me talk to this Colonel Trask."
"What happened when you did?"
"I didn't. I ran away that day — before Trask returned."
Clark felt a pain in his chest as he imagined the woman he loved fleeing from her own home in fear at the age of fifteen.
"Hey, it's okay," Lois said at seeing the pain that passed over his face. "I mean, I had some advantages that other kids that run away from home didn't have. My strength and flying didn't develop until later. But at least I was invulnerable and I didn't have to eat as much as other kids so…"
"Where did you go?"
"I figured Trask would be looking for me in Metropolis, so I hitched a ride to New York. I found an abandoned building to live in."
"But how did you live?"
"I don't need much. I mean, I still needed to eat at the age of fifteen — but not as much as other girls did," she said. Then to his look of confusion, she added, "I don't have to eat now, although I certainly like to. Anyway, other than that… Besides, you learn to survive," she said, a note of shame in her voice.
Clark's expression darkened. He had been working as a reporter long enough to know how a lot of young girls survived on the streets.
"No," said Lois. "I know what you're thinking, but you're wrong." She gave a humorless chuckle. "That wasn't exactly an option for me. I just meant that I stole what I needed. Well, until I got caught. Since I didn't have a home and was under eighteen, my parents were contacted. I was released into their custody. I ran away again, about two weeks later, when I overheard my parents arguing about whether to contact Colonel Trask. I never made it back to court to deal with the charges. I imagine they're still looking for a young Lois Lane who never showed up for her court date."
"So I'm sitting here with a fugitive from justice," Clark said with a laugh. She looked over at him, giving him a look that told him that she appreciated his attempt to keep the mood light.
"After that," she continued, "I got a job as an exotic dancer. It might not have been the most dignified job, but no one asked my age or for identification or even an address. I was sixteen at the time, but could easily pass for eighteen. And at least it kept me from being a thief — which would attract the attention of the authorities. When I was seventeen, I learned to fly.
"I'd noticed pictures of me were beginning to appear. You know, missing person posters. So when I realized I had a way to leave the country, I took it. I changed my name and managed to get lost in the world for a while."
"Maybe it was just your parents looking for you?" suggested Clark.
Lois shook her head. "The pictures asked people to contact the military — even offering a reward. No, it was Jason Trask — or someone in the same department." She sighed. "Every so often they manage to catch up to me — I often don't know how. And then I have to leave again, change my name and start a new life.
"I usually hide out at the cabin for a few days when I'm trying to find a new identity. So far no one has caught me there."
"You mean the cabin where you were first found."
Lois nodded. "My parents still own it. After they found me, my father converted it into a lab of sorts — where he could test my abilities without people around to see. So it always seemed like an appropriate place to hide between identities.
"I became Jessica Miller a couple of years ago and managed to get a job at the Borneo Gazette." She smiled. "I don't use my powers. It just too dangerous. However, there is one power I do use — my hearing abilities. I figure no one knows when I'm listening in. That's how I managed to find out about corruption in the Borneo government. That got me the call from Perry White. I knew it was risky returning to Metropolis, but I've always wanted to work for the Daily Planet. So I came and I guess you know the rest."
"So that's why you always disappear into the background whenever there are news cameras around," said Clark. "You're afraid of being recognized." When Lois nodded, Clark continued, "Why?"
"They'll find me, Clark."
"But you said you can't be hurt. If that's true, what could they do to you now?"
"I am invulnerable, but there is one thing that can hurt me. It's a rock that was pulled in with the ship from the planet Krypton. My father called it Kryptonite."
"But how would they know about… The paper your father published," Clark concluded, answering his own question.
"Is this why you said you couldn't get involved with me?" Clark asked. "Were you afraid that I wouldn't want to be with you if I knew all this?"
Lois released Clark's hand and got up off the couch, her back to him.
"Jess, I love you. None of what you've told me makes any difference to me."
Lois turned around. "But I don't know how long I can stay. If the past is any indication, it's only a matter of time before they catch up to me again."
"Then I'll leave with you. Or we'll find a way to fight them," said Clark, rising and coming over to her. He reached forward in an effort to take her in her arms but she avoided him. She put some distance between them, again turning her back to him. "Jess?" he asked.
Lois tensed. She had hoped to be able to avoid telling him the rest of it. If only he'd been frightened off by who she was or by the idea of having military following her. She should have known, of course, that none of that would dissuade him. Still, she really didn't want to tell him the rest — she wanted to keep some measure of her dignity.
"Jessica?" he asked again.
"Just give me a moment to figure out how to tell you this," she begged. She closed her eyes and steeled her resolve. There was nothing to do now, but just tell him. Maybe if she just pointed out a couple of things to him, he could put the pieces together himself. She didn't think she could just tell him straight out. "I told you that I'm invulnerable," she said softly, not facing him while she spoke.
"And I told you that it doesn't matter to me," responded Clark.
She turned to him then. "Think about this, Clark," she said. "What happens to a woman when she… the first time she's intimate with a man?" She gave him a moment to let that sink in before saying, "Now does it matter that I'm invulnerable?"
She watched his face as he struggled to piece together what she was telling him. She knew the instant it sank in. Her heart broke at the look of anguish that passed through his eyes. He slowly sank down onto the couch.
"Why do you think I said that hooking wasn't an option for me?" she asked.
"I just… Are you sure?" he asked.
She took a seat beside him, being very careful not to touch him. "I'm sure, Clark."
"But have you… I mean, maybe…"
"When I first started living on the streets, I was sleeping in an alley. One night I woke up to find a man lying on top of me. My strength had not yet developed so I couldn't push him off, but… He couldn't rape me," she concluded on a whisper. "I'm not sure which is worse, being raped or not being raped." She looked over at Clark again. "I came to terms with this a long time ago." She gave him a sad smile. "Or at least I thought I had, until I met you." She pulled in a jagged breath. "So you can see why I say that we can't be together," she concluded.
Clark sat in stunned silence, barely noticing the woman beside him. He felt as if he'd been punched in the gut. He struggled for each breath. Since he'd first laid eyes on Lois, he'd been dreaming about them being together. The knowledge that it could never be was almost too much information to process.
Lois watched him while fighting the lump that was growing in her throat. She knew that they couldn't be together, but watching that realization set in for Clark was almost unbearable. She pulled in a jagged breath. She had to get out of here. She rose to her feet and headed for the door.
She was just opening it when a hand appeared over her shoulder, pushing the door closed. The noise resounded in the quiet of the apartment. A mere second later, another arm appeared over her other shoulder also coming to rest on the door — effectively trapping her between his arms. Clark didn't touch her but was so close that she could feel the heat radiating off his body. When he finally spoke, his voice was slightly raspy.
"Tell me something," Clark said. "When you say you're invulnerable, does it mean you can't feel this?" Following the words, Lois felt a soft stream of warm air against her neck. She made a noise that was somewhere between a moan and a sob.
"I guess that answers that question," said Clark. "What about this?" One of his hands abandoned its post on the door to run lightly down her arm and then, around her waist.
"Clark," Lois whispered.
"Jess, I won't pretend that what you just told me doesn't matter to me because it does. But there's one thing I know beyond a shadow of a doubt…" His arm tightened around her waist as he pulled her back against him. "…I can't lose you." This time, when his head came down to her neck, he planted a string of kissed over it until he reached her ear. "I am in love with you. Whether you're Jessica Miller or Lois Lane or from a planet called Earth or one known as Krypton," he whispered into her ear.
Lois gave a small whimper. She allowed herself to get lost in her embrace for a moment before speaking. "But, Clark," she whispered, "it won't work." When he started to object, she cut him off. "Not just for you, but for me. I couldn't live like that. It would only reinforce every day just how different I am. I couldn't stand to see the look in your eyes — maybe not today or tomorrow, but eventually. You can't tell me it wouldn't be there." She gave a small sob. "I'm sorry, Clark," she concluded, breaking free of his hold on her and throwing open the door. And suddenly she was gone.
"Jessica," breathed Clark, now staring at the empty space on his steps where only a moment before his basherteh had stood. He collapsed onto his knees as shock finally set in.
Lois flew as fast as she could just over the tree tops — heading north. She seldom let herself fly, but tonight the only thing she knew for sure was that she had to try to out fly the pain. Tears streamed down her cheeks, only to be picked up and torn from her face by the wind. She decided that, if she stayed low enough to avoid radar, and flew fast enough to be almost invisible to the human eye, she wouldn't be seen.
When she finally arrived at the North Pole, she lowered herself onto an iceberg and slowly sank down on the edge, dangling her feet in the water. Clark had said he wanted to be with her — even knowing the whole story. She wanted to take his statement at face value. After all, she believed he meant what he'd said. He probably really did think losing her would be worse than living without ever being able to make love. The problem was that, although Lois rejected Cat's comments that Clark could never stay faithful, he was still a man. Not only that, but he was a man who could have any woman he wanted. Sure, she could keep him bound to her. But eventually, he'd need what she couldn't give him. He'd find it easily enough and then the guilt would set in.
She briefly considered the idea of giving him freedom to be with other women when he needed to but almost immediately, rejected that idea. She could never live like that. It would tear her apart inside. And as it slowly tore her apart, it would tear them apart as well.
No. The only solution was to try to salvage what they could. She hoped he still wanted to be her partner and, maybe, even her friend. But the only hope she had of keeping him in her life to any real degree was for her to make him understand that they could ever be together romantically.
She watched the water for a long time, concentrating on the way the crests were dancing on the surface, until the pain subsided from unbearable into the familiar ache she'd lived with for so much of her life.
When she finally felt somewhat calmer, she headed back to Metropolis. The fast flight heated the air around her, drying her clothes and shoes. As she landed in a deserted alley near her apartment, she noticed the first signs of morning creeping onto the eastern horizon. She walked slowly towards her apartment as fatigue settled in — not a fatigue of the body, but of the soul. She wondered how she'd be able to pull herself out of bed to make it into work today. She dreaded facing Clark, but there was nothing to do, but to face those first awkward moments before she'd built this up in her mind to such a degree that she would be unable to face him at all.
At least they had the story to work on. Lois suddenly remembered that she hadn't filled Clark in on what she'd learned during her talk with Andrew Pasco. Well, no matter. She could do that this morning when they talked to Perry. Maybe they could once again use work as a method of finding a way back to their friendship — although she would certainly understand if Clark no longer wanted to be friends. She had to prepare herself for that possibility.
She spotted a familiar figure leaning up against a long black limousine as she approached her apartment. She sighed. This was the last thing she needed right now.
"Hello," said Lex Luthor. "I was hoping you'd make it home tonight. I think you and I need to have a little talk."
"I'm sorry, Lex, but it really is late. I need to get some sleep before I have to go in to work this morning," Lois said, heading past Lex Luthor for her apartment.
"I really think we should talk, Ms. Lane," Luthor responded, causing Lois to freeze in her tracks.
"What are you talking about?" asked Lois turning around to face Luthor. "My name is Jessica Miller." She doubted that the name by which he had referred to her had been merely a mistake, but it was worth a shot.
"Is it?" asked Luthor, raising his eyebrows at her. He stepped back and opened the door to his limo. "Like I said, Ms. Lois Lane, I think we need to talk."
Lois looked at him for a moment before stepping forward and crawling into the car. There really wasn't much choice. He knew her name. She had to find out how much more he knew.
It was a few minutes later when a pale woman emerged from the car. Luthor had been absolutely clear in his demands. Either she backed off any stories that made him or Lex Corp look bad and get her partner under control in this area, or he was going to contact the military and tell them where they could find one Lois Lane.
"I guess I don't have much choice," mumbled Lois when she realized the options.
Luthor smiled. "If you understand that, then we're communicating," he'd replied, before opening the door of the limo for her to disembark.
Lois stood on the sidewalk staring blankly into space for a long time. She ran through every possible solution in her mind before finally coming to accept that there was only one option. She would not betray Clark. And she would not help Luthor hide his transgressions. There was only one thing left for her to do. She hurried upstairs, grabbed her suitcases and threw them on the bed. She packed as many clothes as she could as well as the picture of her and Clark from Lex Luthor's ball. She quickly wrote three letters and then, with a final look around, left her apartment. As she left, she put her key and a letter to the landlord under her landlord's door.
There were two more things she needed to do before disappearing. Her first stop was the Daily Planet. Only the night lights were on, giving the newsroom a soft glow. She slowly ran a hand over her desk, saying a final goodbye to her dream job, before heading to Perry's office. She placed her letter of resignation on Perry's desk and headed quickly out of the newsroom before the regrets could overwhelm her.
She hesitated before making her final stop. She was conflicted about seeing Clark. She knew she could never tell him that she had to leave. He would insist that he had to come or that she couldn't go. And after the discussion they'd had earlier today, she knew he couldn't come. And after what Lex had told her today, she knew she couldn't stay.
She made her way to the door of Clark's apartment and stood silently on the steps for a long time. She looked at the letter she'd written him to say goodbye. She had intended to slip it under his door. But she was suddenly unable to do so. How could she possibly say goodbye to her heart? She glanced through the door and saw him asleep on his couch — still fully dressed. He'd obviously had almost as disastrous a night as she had. Tears slipped slowly down her cheeks. No parting had ever been more painful in a life filled with partings. Finally, she stuffed the letter back in her pocket.
"Good bye, my love," she whispered and a moment later, only a gust of wind informed the world that anyone had ever been there.
THE END OF PART ONE
Don't worry. Barring any unforeseen circumstances, part two will be posted next week.