By Kaethel <Kaethel@wanadoo.fr>
Submitted March 2002
Summary: Clark is shown a glimpse of a Lois he rarely sees in this "Prankster" episode rewrite. How can he deal with a partner who is frightened and vulnerable, without letting his own feelings get in the way?
This one was posted to the MBs on February 19th, for my dear friend Tracey on her birthday. :) I hope you'll like it, Trace — and sorry for keeping it a secret under wraps until *that* day, but I wanted it to be a surprise. Sneaky, me? Naaaah. <eg> Happy birthday! :))))
Many thanks to Wendy Richards and LabRat, who beta-read this in record time and without whom I couldn't have brought this fanfic to final draft. Your brilliant suggestions, unflagging support and edits were extremely helpful, so thank you both. Thanks also to my GE Erin Klingler, for her nice words and proofreading. :)
Feedback is very welcome at Kaethel@wanadoo.fr
Pizza and a movie. A Mel Gibson movie, at that. Not that he had anything against the famous Hollywood actor, and he actually liked the Lethal Weapon trilogy, but they'd watched it four times in the last two months, and well… Clark shifted his gaze away from the images displayed on his television to rest it on the sleepy form of his partner where she was dozing in the crook of his arm. She snuggled up to him, sleepily wrapping herself closer and reaching to encircle his waist, and a light snore escaped her mouth, triggering a silent chuckle from Clark.
Nothing was unusual in the designation of the evening but it had rung false to him right from the start. It hadn't taken much probing to find out what was wrong with Lois's clingy and almost over-cautious attitude though. Her attempt at downplaying the phone call she'd received from Kyle Griffin had been only half-hearted, as if she knew she wouldn't fool him for long. She'd beat around the bush for two minutes at best before she'd blurted out the true reason for her barging into his apartment at ten in the evening, dressed in baggy sweats, oversized shirt, and baseball cap, and carrying enough pizza and beer to feed the Metropolis Tigers.
It was so typical of Lois to hide what was on her mind under the pretence of an overboard strike of cheerfulness. Clark knew from experience that she hated being frightened, and worse, admitting it to anyone, even herself. When she'd sought out protection from Barbara Trevino last year, she'd dropped by unannounced, in quite the same fashion as tonight, blinking back tears under the stress and anxiety assaulting her.
Tonight, she'd pretended to be stronger. She'd wanted him to believe she was barely annoyed by something that was part of the job description. The whispered confession of her fear had broken Clark's heart and there had been nothing he'd wished more in the world in that second to take her in his arms and soothe the raw terror her eyes had betrayed. His embrace instinctively tightened around her, his arm wrapping itself around her shoulder and pulling her closer.
The Prankster, as he fancied being referred to, wouldn't hesitate to use any means to slake his thirst of revenge against the reporter whose investigation had sent him to jail five years earlier. Clark's words of reassurance had torn at him with guilt; he knew he couldn't protect her as much as he wished. He'd promised that he wouldn't let her death happen, but how could he claim to be so sure and arrogant about his power over fate? The smallest possibility that Lois might be in any kind of danger scared him to the core, but he knew he couldn't look after her every single minute of the day — not that she'd ever allow him to! — and he dreaded arriving just too late to save her that one time, the all important time, that would bring his world crashing down and turn his life to ashes. One might argue that Lois dangled over the jaws of death on a weekly basis and that he should be used to it by now, but habits didn't change the truth of the matter. Lois was human, vulnerable, and if anything happened to her he'd never forgive himself.
It wasn't only about selfish guilt though. She wasn't just another woman on the street whom he'd saved from a mugging or two. She was Lois Lane, ace reporter at the Daily Planet, his partner, best friend, and…
…and nothing more for now, even though he'd never abandoned the hope that their relationship could turn towards a more romantic basis at some point in the future.
His sigh accompanied the return of a thought that had made him obsess for months now. He'd loved Lois from the first moment she'd burst into his life. He'd fallen for her enthusiasm, for the recklessness and courage that mingled so perfectly with the beauty of her soul. Getting to know her had never lessened his feelings, strengthening them instead as he discovered the fragile persona hiding beneath the tough woman. She shared his values for justice and life, and the rift between his naive hope and her cynicism had slowly filled over the past year and a half.
Knowing she was here in his arms tonight, drawing comfort from him, finding a restful sleep after hours of anguish, soothed a fear he'd been trying to ignore for months.
After the fiasco of her wedding to Luthor, he'd been afraid that he'd lost her for good, that their friendship would never be the same again because he'd been too stupid and selfish to hold back his feelings. He'd wanted to spare her the hurt and embarrassment of turning down a friend because she couldn't return his love. Then frustration and resentment had taken a toll on him, and he'd shown her a side of himself he wasn't proud of. The heinous words he'd spat at her on several occasions during that time often came back to haunt his tortured mind, but they'd never really talked again about a period of their lives they'd both rather forget.
There was no need to turn the knife and reopen an old wound that still ran deep. Besides, the withdrawal of his declaration had pretty much settled things between them, as pathetic as it had been. He sincerely wondered if Lois had bought it at all; she acted as though nothing had happened, but Clark had noticed the imperceptible changes in her attitude after the Planet had come back online.
At first, she'd been a little jumpy around him, starting when he brushed a bit too close, touched her shoulder, or placed a hand onto the small of her back in a move that had become natural to him over the course of a year. The physical closeness they'd shared before her engagement to Luthor had taken on a new meaning, one that was awkward and that she obviously didn't appreciate.
But just when he'd begun to be more careful, Lois had surprised him, radically changing gears and initiating friendly contacts. A hand on his arm to back him up when Perry challenged an investigation he qualified as a wild good chase, a playful poke on his chest when he teased her and she faked irritation, a feather-like caress on the nape of his neck when she was looking at his screen over his shoulder, her fingers absently playing with his hair.
Her behaviour had made him hope again. Not that he'd ever ceased to hope, as a sarcastic part of his mind hurried to remind him, but he'd quashed down all optimistic possibility of romance with Lois during the months of her engagement. Now he was allowed to let a loving gaze travel along her tense body as she snuggled closer to him, mumbling unintelligibly in her sleep.
He shifted tentatively, careful not to wake her as he slid himself off the couch and out of her embrace, dislodging her fingers from where they'd gripped at his t-shirt. She immediately rested her head against the cushions, her body twisting as she settled. Her hand groped for the edge of the couch.
If she spent the night in this position she'd be awfully stiff in the morning, Clark reflected as he surveyed the situation with a critical eye. And a stiff Lois Lane was not something he wanted to wake up to, he added, chuckling inwardly at the afterthought.
He lifted her legs to the sofa, holding his breath when she let out a sigh, but she turned her back to him, burying her head in the back of the couch, visibly too deeply asleep to be aware of anything around her. She'd certainly feel more comfortable in his bed; his couch was okay, but -
The thought died in his mind before it formed completely, and remorse quickly replaced it. They'd barely got their friendship back and he already wanted to spoil it with a move that could be too easily misinterpreted. If Lois woke while he was carrying her to his bedroom, she'd probably question his intentions. Six months earlier, he wouldn't have thought twice before scooping her into his arms and obeying his instincts, but things might still a bit too wobbly between them for him to take such a risk.
/On the other hand…/
No! There was no other hand in this matter, he decided stubbornly, shutting off the small but nonetheless annoying voice that had dared chime in with a dissenting opinion.
All right, maybe he was that, but it was better than losing Lois, as he'd come close to doing not so long ago. Tripping up wasn't allowed any more. He'd almost had to pay the hardest price for his mistakes and wouldn't take a second chance with his best friend's feelings. If she ever decided to take the next step in their relationship — and God willing she would someday — he'd gladly follow her lead, but until then he was determined to be the friend she needed. No strings attached.
Besides, there were other ways to make sure she slept comfortably than giving her his bed. The decision now firmly planted in mind, Clark jogged to his bedroom. He grabbed a blanket from the top shelf of his closet. At least she wouldn't be cold during the night. A visibly playful part of his mind pointed out that he could have achieved the same effect if he'd let them both sleep, entwined on the sofa, but he dismissed it with a mental shake. Much as the possibility appealed to him, it screamed danger and was therefore not conceivable.
Clark returned to the living area, now determined to set his plan into action and wondering if he could get away with using a little bit of superpowers to lift Lois off the couch and wrap the blanket around her, but he stopped dead in his tracks when he saw the almost convulsing motions of her restless body. She was tossing and turning, her mumbling becoming more frantic and mingling with small cries of fear.
He was by her side in a second, pulling her into his embrace and whispering soothing words in her ear, hoping his presence alone would chase the nightmare away. She was still asleep, from what he could tell, but her hand clutched at the front of his t-shirt as if it would never let go, and her legs were once again dangling over the edge of the couch.
This would never work, he thought reluctantly, letting the earlier small voice in his mind taunt him with an arrogant /I told you so./ Agreeing grudgingly, he slipped an arm under Lois's legs and wrapped the other around her back, lifting her effortlessly and breathing a relieved sigh when his closeness seemed to have a soothing rather than a scaring effect.
His walk back to the bedroom was a vain struggle against the consequence of Lois's warm breath on the skin of his neck. Friends. They were friends. He repeated this truth to himself several times, letting it sink in and cool his unwelcome ardour.
He deposited her on the bed only seconds later and drew the quilt over her, resisting the urge to bend down and brush a kiss on her forehead. A wave of protectiveness washed over him, just like every time Lois showed a side of herself that never appeared to the outside world. She hadn't let him comfort her since the Luthor fiasco, and despite circumstances he'd have rather avoided, Clark was grateful that she hadn't completely shied away from him. And he'd make sure she never got hurt ever again, he promised silently as he started back to the living-room.
"Clark?" a sleepy voice murmured behind him and froze him in place.
He didn't take time to think before he was back at her side, perching himself on the edge of the bed and gazing down at the flutter of her eyelids as she woke.
Lois tried to recollect her thoughts as sleep gradually eluded her. She remembered arriving at Clark's apartment with an armful of pizzas and enough videos to keep them up all night, she remembered sitting on the couch and blurting out the truth about Griffin's threats, and she remembered how he'd reassured her, promising he wouldn't let anything happen to her.
And then she'd spotted the sincerity in his eyes, an emotion that barely hid something else…something more. The confusion her heart had woven around his withdrawn confession a few months earlier had lifted, replaced with a crystal clear awareness of the unspoken feelings between them. The spark of desire that had crackled between them for a short moment had enlightened what she should have seen long ago.
She tensed infinitesimally when Clark sat beside her, responding to her soft call of his name. "I'm sorry I woke you," he murmured, the gentle sound of his voice rendered more intimate by the darkness around them.
"It's okay," she responded automatically, moved by his thoughtfulness. "I wasn't sleeping very well anyway," she added, shuddering as the brief but nonetheless violent images of her nightmare resurfaced.
He rose from the bed. "I can make some herbal tea if you want, it'll just take a minute to —"
"Clark." Lois's hand reached for his arm, stopping his momentum and urging him to stay where he was. "Please."
He nodded and sat back beside her, staring at the hand that was still resting on his wrist. Lois was tempted to withdraw it, feeling self-conscious and wondering if she'd embarrassed or annoyed him. It had been a long time since he'd shown some kind of negative reaction to her touch, and the unexpected return of his discomfort saddened her.
She knew the reason though. She knew that what was lurking beneath the caution of her partner wasn't an outright rejection of her, but a fear that he might be overstepping a line she'd drawn in the sand when she'd turned him down. Her confidence surprised her, but each time she probed the certainty of Clark's love for her, testing its likelihood, she was transported back to that bench in Centennial Park, where he'd confessed his feelings for her some months ago. It was the same honesty that had adorned his gaze back then as the one she'd perceived in his eyes tonight, the same feelings bared to her in the space of an instant.
And she knew.
She knew that Clark had lied when he'd retracted his feelings, she knew that every little gesture, every little glance was more meaningful than she'd ever let herself think.
Without warning, her hand slid down his wrist to reach for his. Her palm pressed itself against his, her thumb brushed a caress on the back of his fingers until he wrapped them around hers, accepting the touch she'd initiated.
He looked up at her, that same sincerity shining in his eyes and making her want to reach for him…hold him… "You should get some sleep," he said softly, his voice betraying a tenderness he hadn't let her hear for months. "I'll be right next door."
She let out a short breath. "Clark, I —"
"Yeah? Do you need anything?"
"Yes," she replied in a hoarse whisper. "You."
Clark didn't take time to process the information or carefully weigh his options before he was drawing Lois into a hug. She returned the embrace with a grateful but nonetheless shaky sigh, and he let his fingers draw small patterns on her back, feeling the tense muscles progressively relax under his touch.
He'd seen the shimmer of held back tears in her eyes, heard the broken tone of her voice, and he'd understood. Lois wasn't one to usually fear for her life, but only because danger came unexpectedly. It didn't lurk in the background, taunting her for days before it hit her. This time was different though. She knew Griffin, knew what he was capable of and he'd been flaunting his power over her for two whole days now. He could be anywhere at that moment, secretly observing her and waiting for the best moment to strike.
Clark instinctively took a look around the apartment, X- raying the walls and searching out even the tiniest clue of an unwanted presence in every dark corner. There didn't seem to be any bugs around, thank God, but he mentally kicked himself for not having thought about the dreadful possibility earlier.
He had to admit he felt better knowing Lois was here with him instead of alone in her apartment.
It was only when Lois pulled away from his embrace with a slight frown that he realised he'd voiced the thought aloud.
"I…I'm sorry," he stammered, a blush creeping up his face as he waited for the explosion. "I know you hate being baby-sat and that you're perfectly able to take care of yourself, and you probably think it's patronising of me to play the bodyguard around you, I mean you made it clear on more than one occasion that even Superman wasn't allowed to go all protective on you and I wouldn't want you to think that…what?" He trailed off with a hurt expression as he watched his partner struggle to keep a straight face. Whatever reaction he'd expected from her, laughter wasn't it, and he frowned, reviewing his earlier words and trying to find what could have triggered such a response.
"Sorry Clark," she gasped after a while. "But the way you said it made it look like I would hit you if I didn't have a good excuse."
"What, you mean you wouldn't?" he asked, the teasing gleam returning in his eyes.
But she shook her head sadly, failing to pick up on the banter he was trying to install into their conversation. She lowered her eyes and took a careful breath, steadying herself by leaning her hands on his shoulders. "I hate being afraid," she said at last, her voice so low that he doubted he'd have picked up the meaning of her mumble if it wasn't for his superhearing.
"There's no shame in being afraid. No shame in letting go of your feelings sometimes…"
She looked up at him sharply, catching him off guard. "Then why don't you?"
"Why don't I what?" he asked, confused. "Why am I not afraid? I am, Lois. Trust me, there are more things that I could say that scare me, and —"
"Why don't you let go?" The question was abrupt, cutting him off in mid-sentence and accompanied by a look that didn't allow him an escape.
Whatever was she talking about? "I…well…"
"I never gave you much of a chance to let go around me, Clark," she whispered sadly, suddenly avoiding his gaze. "Guess that's just one of my many f-flaws. I've been so selfish with you." Her voice cracked under the weight of her admission, and he couldn't bear to see her blame herself so unfairly.
"You've never been selfish, Lois. Look at how many times you stuck your neck out for me, look at how many times you helped me through difficult times of my life!"
She sniffled, blinking back tears. "You wouldn't be able to give me an example of that."
"How about when my apartment was robbed last year? You helped me go through the police proceedings, supported me when Henderson claimed there was nothing he could do —"
"I was just chasing a good story," she retorted morosely. "Besides, I almost accused you of having stolen Superman's belongings."
"You couldn't have known he'd asked me to take care of his globe," he reassured her gently, feeling more worried as she kept thrusting his arguments back at him. "And there were other times, too, when you didn't hesitate to stand up for everyone else and defend them. When Jack and Steve were laid off last year, you were even ready to go on strike!"
She snorted. "Purely vindictive."
"And you helped Superman, too," he added with a cheerful note, hoping his enthusiasm would be contagious. "You made him understand that whatever he could do was enough."
"How…I told *you* that," she pointed out, her eyebrows rising in puzzlement.
Clark lowered his head, feeling a blush creep up his face as he lied yet another time. It was for a good cause this time though. "I repeated to him what you'd said. But anyway," he continued, hurrying on to shake off the discomfort seizing him every time he had to refer to himself as a different person, "it helped him more than he could ever tell you." And it had. If it weren't for Lois, Superman would have retired only a few weeks after his first appearance, having lost all hope of bringing any good to Metropolis. "You're more generous than most of the people in this city, Lois," he added, collecting himself. "Don't let anyone tell you otherwise."
She stared at him for a moment, and he waited, hoping she was starting to believe him. She sounded so insecure, so certain that she was self-centred and took from him things she didn't offer. She had no idea how much her friendship filled his life, how easily it fuelled him with joy…how he couldn't ever contemplate not having her at his side.
"Then why doesn't anyone seem to let go around me? Why don't *you* let go?" she insisted.
"I know I rejected you, Clark, but…it was probably the worst mistake I ever made."
He gasped, completely taken aback by her admission. Rejected him…there was only one time she'd rejected him, only one event that still twitched at his heart whenever he let his mind wander back to the memory…
And she was saying…she was saying it had been a mistake?
The *worst* mistake she'd ever made?
He couldn't let himself believe, couldn't let himself hope that she had…that she was…
Her hand left his shoulder to cup his cheek in a gesture reminiscent of one he often indulged in, and she chuckled through her tears. "Yeah. Kind of late to find out, huh?"
"No, I…no," he said simply, knowing further explanations weren't needed.
A flurry of emotions played on her face, alternating between surprise and wonder, fear and longing, tenderness and…and love?
Could he let himself hope that it was what she felt?
She shifted, raising her face towards his, and he realised that she was going to kiss him.
She was going to kiss him.
The certainty blew up in his mind, ravaging his carefully thought out plan to wait for time to heal their wounds and repair the friendship they'd almost lost. And, he realised, he wanted this. He wanted this so much, *had* wanted this for so long, longed to see the flicker of awakening desire in her gaze when she looked at him, ached for the feel of her lips against his…
He couldn't be just Lois's friend. He couldn't close that invisible door between them forever, lulling her into a false sense of security that his feelings didn't go beyond the brotherly love she liked to draw from him. He couldn't…
He waited, his heart beating a wild rhythm in his chest as her lips rose up to touch his. His eyes fluttered closed with the first touch of her mouth, the contact lasting a mere second before she was pulling away. He sensed her hesitation, felt the question hovering between them as she waited for his reaction, and he closed the distance in response, locking his lips to hers and giving in to the primal needs urging him to kiss her.
Her hands trailed up the sides of his chest and shifted course until they locked behind his neck, pulling him closer and deepening the encounter. He groaned against her mouth and shifted, pressing her body tighter to his, and her back arched in response to the feather-like circles he was tracing down her spine.
When he broke off the kiss, both their faces were flushed and their breaths came in short gasps.
"God…" he breathed through his panting. "What was *that* for?"
"Do we need a reason?"
He was quick to reassure her, the slight shake of his head and soft smile playing about his lips probably telling her more than his words. "No. I guess not."
He bent to take her mouth in another gentle kiss, and his senses swam. Lois was clinging onto him, sighing appreciatively when he responded to the shy teasing of her tongue on his lips, letting their passion drive the storm of emotions crashing around them in tidal waves, mingled in their soft caresses and whispered words of tenderness.
One last lingering kiss later, Clark lay back against the headboard and pulled Lois closer against his chest. A comfortable silence settled, following the heated encounter. His hand was brushing a caress through Lois's hair, the silken strands teasing his fingertips. The intimate gesture brought a contented sigh to his lips as he reflected on the unexpected turn of events.
Never in his wildest dreams had Lois been so responsive to his kisses, never had she melded her body against his so suggestively, seeking his touch and…and doing a fair bit of exploration herself, too.
His earlier regretful musings came back to him, and he frowned, realising he'd had absolutely no control on the evening whatsoever. He'd convinced himself that he should avoid any romantic approach that might scare Lois away. Her friendship meant too much to him to risk losing it again…
But she didn't seem frightened. In fact, the longing written on her face had been loud and clear, leaving no room for misinterpretations. And if he'd had any lingering doubts, the way she'd responded to his kisses and caresses was enough to erase them completely. Whatever had happened to make his beautiful partner change her mind about him, she was now resting peacefully in his arms, snuggling up to him, her arm wrapped around his waist and her head pillowed on his chest.
No barriers or restrictions.
He knew they'd have to talk, that their relationship couldn't evolve so quickly without any obstacles looming up in their path, but tonight he wanted to enjoy the moment. Tomorrow would have to wait.
"Thank you, Clark," Lois said softly, her voice a shy murmur piercing the darkness.
He gazed down at the sleepy face that his best friend — girlfriend? the word tiptoed in his mind — raised towards him and gave an adoring look to her features reflected in the soft moonlight. He bent to kiss her forehead. "What for?"
"For making me feel safe." She shifted in his loose embrace, scooting closer to him, and brushed the hint of a kiss on his lips. "And loved."
Clark responded to the kiss with one of his own, then lifted a hand to brush her hair back in a tender gesture, repeating her words and confirming the new, promising turn in their relationship. "And loved."
February 19th, 2002