By LabRat <labrat@blueyonder.co.uk>

Rated: PG13

Submitted: May 2003

Summary: Having discovered new depths to her partner at the Corn Festival, Lois begins to wonder just what she might be missing in this reworking of the episode "Green, Green Glow of Home." How might events have progressed if she'd been a little more in touch with her feelings…and desires?

Authors note: This particular little vignette has had something of a long and appalling history. If I tell you that it was originally intended to be one of the series of little nfic romps that I began writing for this fandom with, that might give some of you some indication of just how many years it's been languishing on my hd. Even worse, it's been languishing for all that time 90% done. <blush> I guess other stories just kept rudely pushing it back in the queue.

When I finally began posting this over in nfic, I really hadn't anticipated that it would be suitable for conversion. At that point it was only two segments long; take away the nfic content, there wasn't a whole lot left. However, halfway through writing and posting, the Muse went off on a few tangents and ended up doubling the total page count — and with a lot of gfic material too — which made me wonder if I might actually end up with enough to make a gfic vignette after all. So…here it is. ;)

Thanks to Kaethel and Wendy for all their help. And to the members of the Lois and Clark Fanfic Messageboards (http://www.lcficmbs.com/) for providing answers to my questions. Thanks too to AnnieM, who beta- read this one from the midway point and who helped enormously with some insightful comments and laughing in all the right places. <g> Finally, my thanks to Jeanne, who did her usual, excellent work in GEing this one for the Archive.

I had intended this to be a birthday fic for Annette. Was somewhat hampered in my plans by the fact that for some reason I got the date wrong, but anyway…this is for you, Annette. Call it a belated birthday present or a very small thank you for all your hard work in providing us with our marvelous playground. :)


Lois stepped out into the darkness of the hallway and winced as the bedroom door clicked to a close at her back, seeming overly loud in the calm silence of the slumbering farmhouse.

She stood for a moment, breathing heavily as though in the midst of some clandestine burglary, waiting to be discovered. But nothing stirred, the silence was unbroken, the darkness continued to press against her.

She peered over the banister and down into the living room, trying to adjust to the blackness taking shape around her. She had never realized until now just how dark it was in the heart of the country. Here, there were no streetlights to illuminate the room through its large windows on her right. No buildings across the way to shed a faint ray of light to guide her steps. It had been a warm, muggy night, so there'd been no need to light the fire in the mock Georgian fireplace. There were only the blackness and the shadows. Deep and somnambulant and somber. Weighted and old. Like everything it seemed, in this alien territory that scared the hell out of her.

Why had she let herself be persuaded to come down here anyway?

She knew why. Because Perry had snow-blinded her. Although…she mused reluctantly as she gingerly made her way to the foot of the staircase, wincing at the inadvertent creak of a loose step halfway down, and paused again to take new bearings…it did seem that her partner *could* have been right and there was a story here after all. Maybe.

She barely held back a derisive snort as she glanced upwards into the shadows of the upper hall. Who could have known her partner actually had instincts? A nose for news? Did he feel the same tight clenching in his gut when he heard Farmer Irig's story secondhand as she did when she caught the scent of a story hiding in the shadows? Did the hair raise itself up on the nape of his neck?

She shook her head. <Why do you want to know?> she asked herself scathingly. <Like it *really* matters. And anyway,> she added, <even a Hack from Nowheresville is entitled to fall into a story by accident now and then.>

Her conscience protested that slight, apparently more convinced than she was that luck had had nothing to do with this one. But she refused to listen. If Clark was actually a half-decent reporter then that meant…well, all kinds of things she'd rather not think about, thanks very much. Like she'd been wrong to dismiss him so lightly for one. And maybe just a little -


She frowned.

<Dishonest? Lying to yourself? You knew he was good right from the first. Right from the moment you listened to Perry reading out that story about the theatre and — >

Her frown deepened into a scowl.

< — if you were wrong about that, maybe you were wrong about other things too. Maybe you were lying to yourself about more than that. Maybe he's — >

< — worked his way under my skin, just like every other creep I've ever known,> she growled silently, shutting down the irritating voice in her head before it could make a dent in her psyche. <Men are all the same, Lois. They use that trick all the time to make you notice them. Worming their way into your good graces, pretending to be sweet and…cute…interested in what you think and want…and having that gorgeous smile that makes you just want to…>

She shook herself mentally, steering herself back on track. <…and then when they get what they want…boom…suddenly they're Jack the Ripper and Benedict Arnold combined. Tearing your heart out and dropping the pretence.>

<Clark's different.>

The small voice broke into the suddenly bitter turn of her thoughts.

<No, he's not,> she told herself in disgust. <He's just better at hiding himself, that's all. You'll see. You give in to his tricks and he'll turn out to be just like all the rest of them the morning after.>

She tore her thoughts clear of musing over her partner abruptly, unwilling to let that other self within her tell her she was wrong. Unwilling to let herself be tricked into believing that maybe in this whole rotten world there might just be one guy who was honest and decent and who meant it when he seemed to care. She wasn't going to let him get to her that way. Or spend any more time mooning over him like this.

<Mooning!> she protested the idle thought. <I do not moon! And I definitely do *not* moon over any man!>

She ignored the faint snort of disagreement from deep in her head and impatiently surveyed her surroundings.

Her eyes were adjusting to the complete absence of light now. She could make out the huddle of blankets on the sofa that formed her partner. He seemed to be blissfully asleep, even though the accommodation must be less comfortable than he was used to. Or…that he'd expected? Lois felt a soft flush heat up her cheeks as her mind flew back to Martha Kent's misconception when detailing the sleeping arrangements. How could the woman possibly have thought…?

Her eyes narrowed as she made a mental note to discuss that one with her partner at some later date. What *had* he been telling his mother about them? About their… <we don't have a relationship,> she protested the thought even before it formed and innocently shorn of all romantic connotations as it was. <We don't have any relationship at all. And if I find out, Clark Kent, that you've been telling good ol' Mom that we're…that we've been…>

Her pique escaped in a low, indeterminate growl and, aware that she was becoming angry enough to march over there now, pummel her partner awake, and demand to know just what he'd been saying about her to people he shouldn't, she stamped down on it thoroughly.

She wasn't going to get distracted with personal asides. Not now when there was a story to be had. She contented herself with directing a dark glare at her partner's oblivious back as she passed through the room. If there were any justice in the world, it would sink into his skull and give him nightmares, she thought grumpily.

Her only consolation had been that Clark seemed as embarrassed by the assumption they were lovers as she was. Although that would have been hard. *She* had felt like sinking through the floor and just dying there and then. And he'd probably just been faking it anyway. He'd probably planned the whole thing. "Oh, I'm sorry, Lois, it's just a mistake, but let's not upset Mom any…" Har! Well, she'd spiked *that* little notion right off the bat!

She gave her slumbering partner another furtive glance and sighed softly. Actually, he did look pretty comfortable. She wished she could have found sleep too. But she was restless. Out of sorts. The silence disturbed her. No cars passed by her window. There was no occasional tuneless, early morning drunk or the sound of Mr. and Mrs. Aristino fighting again in the apartment building across the street. Lois scowled. It just wasn't natural for anywhere to be this quiet.

Of course, the lack of decent background noise to soothe her into sleep wasn't the only reason for her bout of insomnia. If she was honest, she just couldn't settle knowing she was in her partner's bed and, somehow, the fact that it wasn't really his at all anymore, that he now used it only occasionally on fleeting home visits, hadn't slept in it more than a handful of times in the past years, didn't help ease her any. It was still too weird to rest easy with. It unsettled her. The core of Clark Kent was stamped on the room like a tangible presence, even so many years after he'd left it behind. Almost…as though he was there in the room with her.

She'd found herself imaging she could smell the scent of him on the pillows. That familiar combination of maleness and fresh cologne that she had begun to attune herself to in the newsroom. That somehow always ignited a warm glow in her when she became aware of it close by as he approached her desk. Together with the savory smells of the coffee and Danish he always seemed to bring with him, those scents had become a part of him in her head and she found that each day she welcomed the routine of that more and more. Welcomed seeing him. Missed that small part of her day on the odd occasions it wasn't there…

Missed him.

Lois shook her head, dislodging more, unwelcome thoughts, telling herself firmly that you could miss a rat if its running up to your desk and offering you cheese became enough of a daily habit. What did that prove?

<Does he have anything *to* prove?>

She sighed. This was what came of letting your guard down. You started to believe there were actually good and decent men out there. She'd had *fun* earlier tonight — dammit! She directed another scowl at her oblivious partner as though it had all been his fault. And it *had* been. Where did he get off being fun? Being…different. Being…


<Well, that's who I am. Clark.>

She snorted. Yeah. Her expression smoothed itself out — the traitor — and she found herself staring just a little wistfully at the sofa again, standing indecisively in the middle of the room. It had been nice. Maybe one of the nicest evenings she'd ever had. Clark had been…sweet…and they'd laughed a lot — really a lot — and okay he hadn't had the opportunity to pressure her into ending the evening — spoiling the evening — with a tussle on the sofa or a fumble in the cab on the way home, not with Mom and Pop hanging around. But…well, maybe, he wouldn't have anyway. Somehow, she thought that maybe it hadn't even been in Clark's head to invite her in for coffee, that the thought hadn't even occurred to him. That he'd just been enjoying the fun of the festival and good company…just like she had.

Now, there, you see? That was weird. Wasn't it? He hadn't even taken advantage of the darkness, and the fact that she'd had a few of those lethal pink lemonades they'd been selling (masquerading under the innocuous, innocent-enough sounding name of Peach Georgias when they really concealed a kick like a six-legged mule) to sneak a quick kiss under the old maple tree. What kind of guy didn't have sex on his mind constantly?

Did he think she wasn't worth kissing?

The scowl was back. Her eyes narrowed on him.

Maybe he was gay.

All the sweet and considerate ones usually were.

Her other self gave her a skeptical look.

No, maybe he wasn't gay. But, for goodness sake, there had to be *something* wrong with him. Hadn't there? He couldn't really be what he seemed. There had to be something. Something he was hiding. The wolf beneath those appallingly garish ties.

And what was it with *those* anyway? she considered grumpily. Signs of a disturbed personality, you asked her. Schizoid even. She cast another wary glance at the recumbent form on the sofa. Nah. Not Clark.

<Why not Clark?> a surprised part of her spoke up, with not a little scorn in its undertone. <Geez, Lois, haven't you learned yet that you can't trust a pretty face and a few…amazingly firm…abs?>

Well, Clark though…he was pretty laid back. To the point of aggravation and where it should really be a criminal offence. Maybe that was the point though? Maybe those ties of his were a desperate cry for help. A struggle for the repressed rage inside him to work its way out. An unconscious pointer to the serial killer within.

<Clark?!?> The image she'd worked up almost made her giggle. She suppressed it with an effort. You might as well imagine Big Bird with an Uzi taking out a few Saturday Blue-Light Special shoppers.

But then…who could tell? Those ties definitely were an aspect of *something* not right in that head under that dark, thick hair that…had that really cute habit of tumbling over his forehead so that her fingers itched with the compulsion to stroke it back into place and…

Those ties. Definitely not right. Definitely a sign of a split personality. No doubt, one day, she'd probably be the one staring fish-eyed at a camera lens and telling the world, plaintively, 'but he always looked so quiet…'.

<But, Miss Lane,> said the LNN reporter in tones of incredulous scorn. <Are you *seriously* trying to tell us that you worked side by side with Clark Kent every day for six months, you saw those abominable *ties* and you never suspected that one day he might snap and climb to the top of City Hall with a high- powered rifle?!? That you just didn't have a *clue*?!?>

She glared at the hapless illusionary hack in her head in a way that made it fortunate he was a figment of her imagination. Well, how was anyone supposed to know what people were carrying inside them these days, like some malignant cockroach? Clark was as likely a candidate as anyone else.


Well, he looked so…vulnerable. Lying there, huddled under his blankets. That dark hair tousled, his features shadowed. Besides, she thought with an amused twist of her lips, how could anyone who still kept his favorite Snoopy blankie in the top drawer of his bureau be anything but a great big softie?

<You keep the Woodstock tooth mug you got for your third birthday in your — >

Yes, well that was entirely different! Not the same thing at all. They weren't talking about her, she told her other half primly. They were talking about Clark.

Yes. Clark.

She sighed. An enigma wrapped up in a mystery bundled up in a Snoopy blanket. What was he really?

Someone she could trust?

Well, actually, she supposed she already did. In a way. She trusted him — kind of — with her story notes. That was new. Wasn't it? She hadn't trusted anyone with anything relating to a story since…well, since that rat-faced slime monster with the name beginning with C.

<We're not talking about work though and you know it, Lois.>

Absently she began to chew on her lower lip. Okay, no, they weren't. Did she — could she — trust him with her heart? That was the sixty million dollar question. No. Could she? No. Well…maybe. Perhaps. She sighed. She didn't know. She only knew that, for some reason she hadn't quite fathomed yet — beyond the tug and familiar ache of physical attraction that she had to admit she felt for her partner (and what did that prove about anything other than people were bundles of reckless hormones just keen and eager to mess up someone's life?) — she *wanted* to trust him. And that was a startling enough step forward all on its own. And definitely all that she could bear to analyze for the moment.

Clark was…well, he was okay. Not half as irritating to be around as she'd figured he would be when Perry foisted him on her. Even, maybe, almost…nice to have around. Good to be with. There were days — moments — when she almost thought it was fun — exciting — to have him as a sounding board, to be able to toss ideas around with and brainstorm on a story. Maybe he was becoming a friend. She thought that she could live with that. Clark as a friend. But, beyond that? Well…anything beyond that was just clutching at moonshine and starlight. The kind of thing that happened between the covers and between the sheets of the romance novels she devoured late at night in her


bed. And that kind of thing just didn't happen in the real world. Surely life had taught her that if nothing else? And taught her painfully, too. So, he couldn't possibly be…

<- what you've been looking for all your life?>

In the moment of black silence that followed that thought, that followed her appalled dismay that the thought should even be in her head — let alone have the gall to work itself into her conscious mind and present itself to her as though it expected her to take notice of it, even act on it for pity's sake — the clock over the mantle softly marked the hour with a musical chime.

Startled by the unexpected interruption to her musing, Lois was propelled abruptly back to an awareness of her surroundings. And to the realization of the fact that she had apparently been standing there, in the center of the room, lost in licentious speculation and starry-eyed mooning over her partner, for at least a good ten minutes. She blinked and then glanced furtively around her, as though afraid a shadowed observer — no doubt snickering as it watched her sink deeper into her hormone-clouded haze — might have been watching her stand there like the most brainless, ditzy, bodice-ripper heroine, drooling over some…beefcake.

<Boy, those months of abstinence must finally be getting to her, huh, if she could even contemplate breaking the fast with…>

Abruptly, Lois shook herself briskly, like a dog getting rid of fleas, and pushed all thoughts of Clark Kent firmly out of view before they could lead her down the rose-strewn path again, vastly annoyed with herself and them now. And him. Definitely with him.

<Lane, get a grip! He's not *that* interesting.>

She'd been trying to get away from him, hadn't she? Away from that room, thick with memories of the boy he had been and thoughts of the man he had become. Away from that adorable little bear that somehow had ended up in the bed with her, even though she'd insisted his winning it for her didn't really mean that much — not to him and certainly not to her. Lois Lane wasn't that soppy! But there it had been — propped up on the pillow next to her and watching her with black eyes that seemed to know too well what she was thinking.

Which…she just wasn't going to do any more of, thank you very much! <And damn you, Clark Kent, for making me!> Her gaze fixed, smoldering, on the sofa and its occupant and this time there wasn't the remotest iota of longing or romance in it. Disgust, maybe. Yes, disgust, that was it. And damn irritated, too.

Men. Why were they always so confusing? Never straight forward? They were simple beasts after all, their needs uncomplicated, their motivations basic. Beer, sex and football. In varying order depending on opportunity and means. You'd think fathoming them would be easy enough!

And why was she still standing here?

With a puzzled backwards glance at the sofa, she made her way carefully through the living room and into the kitchen. Stealthily, she pushed her way through the screen door and out on the stoop, rolling her eyes as she did. Didn't these people lock any doors at night? Hadn't they heard of muggings?

It was cool on the stoop and there was a fresh, faint breeze rising up out of the west. It stirred rough fingers through her hair as she leaned against the porch frame at the top of the little flight of stairs down into the yard. She shivered slightly and considered that she should really have gotten properly dressed before she ventured out; it was too chilly to be wearing just the sleep shorts and t-shirt she'd pulled on before falling into bed.

Her partner's bed. Where it was too easy to imagine his body pressed against hers in the darkness, that soft, smoky voice murmuring endearments against her skin as her heart cried out for that connection, that warmth…for the touch of tenderness that would take away the loneliness, if only for one small moment…

Lois frowned darkly. <Would you quit that?> she told herself ferociously. Even if it were true…which it wasn't!…Clark Kent wasn't exactly her ideal candidate.

She turned her gaze to studying the yard and outbuildings for a time, letting her thoughts drift, and then tilted her head. The sky was cloudless and clear and the stars, she had to admit, had a sharp, glittering quality that the smog of Metropolis leeched out of them. They seemed so close too. Like she could almost reach out and touch them with the tip of a finger. She stretched out a hand briefly, watching the nearest of the stars vanish beneath her spread fingers, and then lowered it again with a shake of her head, chiding herself for the indulgence.

She snorted softly. "God, Lane," she muttered aloud in disgust. "One day in Wonderland, one sniff of the scent of corn, and you're acting like a wide-eyed kid in Disney World."

"Wheat," a soft voice murmured from directly behind her and she started violently as a pair of large hands settled themselves gently on her shoulders.

Lois didn't scream. She'd long since trained herself out of that instinctive fright reflex — what good was screaming when you were surprised into fright? It could destroy a good reporter's chance of getting the take, screaming at the slightest startle. But he had scared her, even so.

She whipped around, eyes stuttering wide in her suddenly pale face and she teetered dangerously on the edge of the stairs for a moment with the violent motion, before Clark reached out hastily and gripped her arms tight, steadying her and pulling her upright before she could tumble down them.

"Dammit, Cla — !"

Her furious yell was cut off as one of those hands clapped itself against her mouth. Her eyes stared up belligerently into her partner's before he sheepishly removed the gag. He let her go, stepped back a pace. Maybe he was expecting her to take a swing at him. She might have too — the nerve of him, manhandling her like that — except for the fact that she seemed unable to move, all at once. The touch of his hands still lay against her skin, so that she almost imagined that if she looked down she would see the imprint of his fingers glowing there, like a brand. The heat of that touch seeped into her, sparking a fierce, answering glow of warmth deep within her…

She felt herself grow hot. With embarrassment now rather than anything more romantic.

Looking down was impossible though. Her eyes seemed to be fixed on his face, a face shadowed into mysterious plains and hollows by the darkness. She stared into those shrouded eyes, like some lost soul trying to find its way home in the depths of the gaze that was intent on her now.

"Sorry," he whispered, with a judicious glance upward and across one shoulder for the darkened upper level windows. "I didn't mean to scare you, I —"

Lois started violently and then, as though he'd broken some kind of spell, recalling her abruptly back to the present, her expression clouded. "*Scare* me!" she began furiously, but sotto voice now as she too darted a swift look upwards, before returning her scowl to him. "What else did you expect, sneaking up on a person like that out of — what about it?"

He looked confused. "What?"

"No, wheat. What about it?"

"Oh. Just that it's mostly what we grow around these parts. Not corn. It's a popular misconception, but the yield in corn just isn't —"



"Save it for the next 4-H class."

"Oh. Okay." He tilted his head, eyeing her curiously. "What are you doing out here anyway?"

She rolled her eyes. "Don't worry, Kent. I wasn't trying to sneak off into the night with the family silver," she told him tartly.

Somewhere within, a dim part of her was aware that she was retreating into sarcasm to counter the disconcerting effect this man seemed to have on her this evening, this strange and frightening hold he appeared to have gained over her, so powerful, so deeply bound in longing, that she was mired in it like Brer Rabbit in the tar, unable to break free of it. That understanding of a new vulnerability, though not acknowledged, simply made her more annoyed.

Clark sighed. "Lo…is."

She shrugged. "Might ask you the same question," she tried deflecting him further.

He shrugged back. "I heard the screen door. I wondered why you were up; thought I'd come see if something was wrong."

"No. No, nothing…nothing's *wrong*. Nope." She shook her head decisively. "Just came out for some air. No local ordnance against that, is there?"

"Well, only if you bring a cow and two chickens with you," he said drolly. "And even then, I think you're okay providing there isn't a hailstorm going on at the time."

She rewarded him with a moue of impatience for his lame attempt at wit. "Cute," she said. And then added brightly with the saccharine false charm of a hostess prodding a guest that had outstayed his welcome long since, "Well, anyway, now that we've cleared that up…"

He frowned. "You're not intending to stay out here much longer, are you?"

"And if I am?"

"Well, you're cold," he said, studying her with an anxious pinch in his brow. "I mean…you look cold. It's cold out here…" He paused, drawing in a small sigh of breath, and then continued on a new tack, "Couldn't you sleep?"

She hitched her shoulders in a noncommittal reply.

"You know my Mom has a recipe for warm milk that's guaranteed to settle you. Always worked for me when I was a kid." He grinned at her. "Wanna give it a try?"

"I hate warm milk."

Clark ignored the grumpy undertone and her scowl. "I can always put some chocolate in it," he coaxed, apparently unaffected by its sting.

Lois paused. Her scowl deepened as she tried to hold on to grumpy, but to her dismay the lure of chocolate made it waver. Geez, was she really that…pathetically dependant?

"I know how you like chocolate." His smile warmed as he reached out and tucked a wayward strand of hair behind her ear.

"How do you know I like chocolate?" Lois said suspiciously as she stepped back a pace, out of his reach. Her heart was hammering hard now, every fiber of her, every molecule and nerve, seemed to be aware of him, standing there, so close she could almost feel the warmth radiating off him, could almost reach out and return the gesture. That darned lock of hair. Why did it have to look so adorably cute?

Almost unconsciously, she curled her fingers into tight fists and then folded her arms over her chest for good measure. Not that she was afraid she'd give into the temptation. Uh uh. Lois Lane wasn't ruled by her hormones. She had better control than that.

Didn't she?

Clark cleared his throat, glanced away from where his gaze had been drawn downwards by her movements and then shrugged. "I've seen you pigging out…uh, picking out a lot of chocolate bars when you're stressed. That's all."

Lois flushed. "I like *health* bars," she said, in a tone that contradicted him. "If that's what you mean." Clark seemed to be hiding a smile. She frowned at him, but that only seemed to encourage him to let it out a little more. She looked away, out into the night.

"They're good for you," she added, her gaze fixed on the quirky shadow of a stunted tree over on the other side of the yard.

"Health bars? So I hear."

She flicked a glance his way, bristling. Yup, he was laughing at her. She hated that. On the other hand…there had been chocolate mentioned. She closed her mouth on the retort that had sprung ready to roll and loaded like an Exocet to her lips.

"Chocolate would be nice," she conceded reluctantly and then, as he gave her a look that seemed way too knowing to her, as though he'd anticipated her positive answer, as though he thought he could predict her responses, "That is…aren't I keeping you awake?"

He shook his head as he reached to pull back the screen door and allow her to proceed him through.

"I couldn't sleep either. I was thinking about Wayne Irig. I hope we find him soon."

Their story. Lois seized on the opportunity to get onto a professional tack, distract herself from the closeness of that male body, too near for comfort after the whirling confusion of her earlier thoughts. Thoughts that had surely only been the product of the darkness and the night. A time when loneliness and lust snuck up on a person, more often than any other. A time when the emotions were distorted, magnified, into something they really weren't in the clear light of day.

She glanced back across her shoulder at him as she passed through and into the kitchen. "You really think he's in that much trouble?"

"Don't you?" He glanced back at her, surprised, and she shrugged.

"I guess. Let's just say I don't think he's holed up in some motel anymore," she added as he lifted a brow. "In fact," she continued, "I think maybe we should go back to the site in the morning, do a little bit of snooping around."

"You think Sherman was lying too, don't you?"

"Little Miss Welcome Wagon? You bet. And Irig phoning to let us know we should just forget about him right after we spoke to her?" She made a face and then shook her head forcefully. "There's something going on here and I'm going to find out what it is." She stopped. He was grinning at her. Why was he…oh. She frowned at him. "I mean in a backwater like this it's probably not going to be front page stuff…whatever it is…but, you know…maybe, there might…just…be…something."

"Right." He nodded. "Probably just the boondocks branch of government corruption then…small change stuff, definitely." He laid a mock sympathetic hand on her shoulder and then moved off for the cozy kitchen. She seared a black look after him, able to spot his grin widening even in the shadowed room.

As he reached to switch on the kitchen lights and they bloomed into life, she was suddenly struck by something that had been on the periphery of her awareness right from the moment he'd ambushed her. The shadows of the stoop and the darkness of the house until this moment had mercifully blurred the realization though…till now.

He was naked.

No, no…geez, Lane, what are you thinking? He's not naked!

She squeezed her eyes shut for a moment, feeling herself blushing furiously at the licentious fantasies of her mind — shame on it! — and then opened them again cautiously.

Clark hadn't changed. He wasn't naked — that would be too much to — no, not hope for, she wasn't hoping for…at least she hadn't meant to…eeesh.

No, not naked.

He was, however, wearing nothing but a faded pair of boxer shorts. Which explained one mystery that had been on her mind for some weeks now.

Her blush deepened. She did not spend all of her time wondering if Clark wore boxers or briefs!


"Are you okay?"

She started and then abruptly closed her mouth, becoming belatedly aware that her jaw was hanging as she realized she was staring fixedly at a smooth chest with abs that Fabio would have happily died for. She'd only got a brief glimpse of that body once before, but she'd never had the chance to actually…

<stare at him like you've never seen a nak — bare chest before?>

<Geez, Lois, why don't you just drool and ring the dinner bell for pity's sake?>

"I uh…"

But to her horror his expression suddenly changed, he dropped his head, and then brought it back up to look at her. A deep flush had spread on his cheeks.

"I'll…um…just go put a shirt on…" he said hastily, before he headed rapidly for the sofa.

Behind him, she closed her eyes again. <Lane, you complete idiot.>


<You idiot, Kent.>

Clark felt the heat in his cheeks deepen as he hurriedly pulled on the college t-shirt. What the heck must she be thinking?

<You have to ask what she was thinking? Looked pretty clear to me.>

Well, any woman would ogle like that, if you displayed yourself like…like a prime side of ribs in a butcher's window, he told himself scathingly. She might have been looking, but she'd been embarrassed. First he'd scared her, then he'd embarrassed her. Way to go, Kent — two for three. Want to try for a home-run?

He hadn't meant to do either. But he had been concerned when he'd heard her moving around restlessly upstairs. And then when she'd gone outside…

It had been a strange thought — to worry about her out there in his own backyard. Before this week he would never have considered that his childhood home could be a dangerous place. Smallville? He'd have laughed uproariously at the thought, had it been suggested to him. That yard out there, where he'd spent days lost in fantasies of cops and robbers, cowboys and indians, with his friends or alone? The woods surrounding the farm that had been treasure troves of light and shade, where he had wandered without a care or thought of alarm? Suddenly, that security seemed something lost, a memory from years past that had faded and was gone.

Suddenly, Smallville seemed a place of harbored secrets and danger. He could almost smell it on the air. Sherman was lying; he knew she was. And where was Wayne Irig? How could Wayne possibly be in danger here — in this tranquil backwater? It seemed…ludicrous. And yet…

So, sleep had been eluding him. Apart from worrying over the whereabouts of his father's friend and the possible dangers that such a huge and obviously not entirely on the up government operation could bring to his hometown and the people he loved, he fretted over the loss of his powers.

Curious that he could. There had been times in his life when he would have given everything he had just to be normal. Just any other ordinary man. And even when he had grown more easy with himself, he had still never imagined that his powers defined him. He was Clark Kent. Son of Martha and Jonathan. And his powers had no part in that.

Initially, he had almost been pleased when he had discovered that the strange green crystal had given him what he'd spent more than one angst- ridden teenage night longing for. But the bloom had faded from that particular rose pretty quickly. The world was so strange now. It seemed…washed out and faded. Colors were less bright to him. The small, incidental sounds that he had subliminally learned to attune himself to habitually were gone. It disturbed him that he couldn't hear the soft, familiar and comforting sound of Lois' heartbeat. He had never realized until now how much of his powers he used to judge a person's mood, to keep himself aware of them. He felt…disconnected from the people he cared for. As though he were trapped behind a sheet of glass. As though he was living in a world populated by shadow-folk, rather than real people.

He knew that it was all relative. That he was a perfectly fit and healthy human. And that if his condition persisted and his powers never returned he would learn to compensate for their loss, adjust to being…ordinary. But the loss was disturbing all the same. And for the first time in his life he'd become aware of just how much a part of him his powers truly were. Something he had long denied. And then, of course, to round it all off — there was Lois. How could he sleep when she was there in the same house? Only a few rooms away? So close that he could almost hear the steady cadence of her breathing as she slept and the soft, burrowed sound of her heart…

Or, at least, imagine that he could, an illusion based on memory rather than the reality of now.

Except, to his surprise, Lois hadn't been sleeping either. And when he'd heard her move down the stairs into the living room and then outside, he'd been anxious enough to follow and check that she was okay.

Feeling sufficiently decent as he tugged the hem of the shirt into place, he turned back with the thought, and was transfixed anew at the sight of her, standing there awkwardly on the other side of the room.

Lois Lane. In his parents' kitchen. Drinking warm milk and chocolate. With him. At three a.m.

Clark found himself smiling as they headed for the kitchen. Ah, well…he'd had worse fantasies.

The guest star in most of the better ones eyed him as he began to pluck mugs and spoons and chocolate powder from the cupboard overhead and fill the kettle from the sink faucet.

"What's so funny?"

"Huh?" He glanced at her, surprised out of his thoughts, as he plugged in the kettle. "Oh…um…nothing. I was just…thinking…" He trailed off as he got his first good look at her under the warm glow of the kitchen's light. No trace of make-up, hair sleep-tangled out of its usual sleek and shining bob and fluffed into a brunette halo that framed her face. And her eyes. Wow…those eyes. He felt himself drowning and it was only the sudden, startled look that took over her face and the quick hand Lois raised to pat at her hair that made him realize he'd been staring.

One perfect eyebrow in that perfect face rose dangerously. "Thinking what?" Lois's eyes narrowed on him suspiciously.

"That…" he paused and then finished with simple, honest sincerity, "That this is nice. Just…really nice."

Lois blushed faintly. "Oh."

She sat down at the small table to watch him as he moved around the kitchen.

"So, where do you think he is?" she said finally. "Irig, I mean."

He glanced at her, but he had the suspicion that Wayne Irig wasn't really what was on her mind. Her tone was less interested than her question suggested, and he had the feeling that she'd spoken more to break the silence and stop it from developing into something uneasy between them.

Nevertheless, he gave it serious consideration, as he poured hot water into the mugs and moved to place them on the table. "Well, he can't be that far away. He must still be here — in Smallville — or close by," he pondered as he took a seat on the opposite side of the table.

And if he was, Superman could have found him in an instant, he thought, surprising himself with the bitterness of the thought. Something he hadn't considered about his sudden 'good fortune'. Without his powers, how was he going to feel the first time someone died in a train wreck that he could have saved? When a child he could have rescued suffered? When he wasn't there to help?

"Or maybe one of those army trucks shipping him out. He could be anywhere — is there an airport close by? A private airport?"

He shook his head. "Crop dusters, but that's about it. Nothing the army would use."

She picked up her mug, sipping thoughtfully as she considered. "But maybe they could — " she started and he listened attentively as she outlined her theories and gave him her suspicions about what was truly happening in his home town.

But for some reason Clark couldn't find any interest in discussing the assignment. Or in listening to Lois's latest theories on it. In the end, he simply settled himself back against his chair, cradled the warming mug of chocolate in his hands, and let her words flow over him, delighting in the sound of her babbling on. Simply savoring the fact that she was here. With him. That, with barely a nudge, he could almost imagine that they were…


"Huh? Oh." He straightened up abruptly, placing his half- empty mug on the table before him. "Sorry. I…" He rubbed a hand through his hair. "I guess I was starting to drift."

Lois gave him a look that he was sure revealed more anxiety for his health than she was aware of, or probably wanted him to see. "You are okay, aren't you? I mean, you looked so sick earlier and I know you said you were fine now, but —"

"No, I'm okay. Really." He smiled at her as she looked less than convinced and then shook his head. "It's just been…a long day." And he was only now becoming aware of how much he relied on his powers to stave off tiredness. Without them he was bushed. Wiped out. But he couldn't tell her that either.

Silence settled on them again. And something else. Something that sizzled through the air between them, unvoiced, unacknowledged, but all too familiar. Powerful.


He swallowed hard and buried his nose in his mug again, trying to deny the force that was seeding a soft heat in his stomach, clenching the muscles there tight.

Nothing more than the time and the place, he told himself firmly. Her guard is down, that's all. She's lonely, out of place here. Vulnerable. It doesn't mean anything. Strange place, the companionable warmth and sense of intimacy that rose inevitably out of sharing a mug of chocolate and soft talk in the early hours, knowing the rest of the house slept soundly around you. That kind of thing always inspired closeness. Like conspiracy. But it wasn't always real, was mostly illusion. Nothing more than that.

Lois had ducked her head to bestow a fascinated stare on her own mug. "Yeah," she said finally. "I guess. I mean…we should go back to bed. Uh — " Her head jerked up, her eyes widening. " — I mean, you should go back to the sofa. I should go back to bed."

He couldn't resist a grin. "Yeah."

Neither made the first move. Clark's grin faded. "Um…well, I guess I'll just…" He got stiffly to his feet, glanced across his shoulder and gestured haphazardly in the direction of the sofa. Lois nodded. "Well, goodnight, Lois."

She nodded again.

Clark turned and ambled for the sofa, a curious sense of regret welling up in him.


Lois watched him walk away from her.

She found herself holding her breath. Why had she never noticed before how beautiful that smile of his was?

Something had changed between them.

The thought was a startling one. But she knew it was true. Something had changed. Here, in the last hour or so. Here in this somewhat innocuous kitchen.

She tried to force herself out of what was taking hold on her by viewing her surroundings with condescending amusement. A country, boondocks kitchen. It was hardly a moonlit glade, now was it? Or a shimmering, secret lake in a flower-strewn forest. Or even…

The thought trailed and died, unable to sustain itself. She didn't feel amused. She felt…

Oh, she felt so…

She found herself moving abruptly to her feet, taking a step after him before she was entirely aware of what she was doing.

Afterwards, she could never say what it was that prompted her to say her next words aloud. Oh, she knew why they were in her mind — and heart — finally she did know and was prepared to let herself acknowledge the fact of it. But to actually speak them into the soft, electric- filled darkness of the living room…

Perhaps it was the intimacy of the cozy time spent in the kitchen with a mug of chocolate warming her hands and the warmth of the company. Perhaps it was that in the small hours of night secrets are often spoken as barriers fall. Maybe it was an acknowledgement of the heat that had been between them since the moment he had appeared out of the shadows on the stoop. Undeniable heat. And something more. Something…longing. A soft yearning. Or perhaps it was just the giddy feeling that seemed to rise in her all at once from the pit of her belly like bubbles surging through water. But for whatever reason…

"Sooooo…" she said, striking a coy pose as she tucked her hands behind her back and tilted her head to study his retreating back. "Don't I get a goodnight kiss then?"

Clark froze. Watching, Lois could see the muscles…those beautiful, well- defined muscles…in his back and shoulders tighten and then he turned to face her.

"God…Lois…" he said hoarsely.

He sounded like a man in torment. He sounded like a man barely on the edge of control.

He sounded like a man who didn't need to be pushed.

But Lois Lane had never been one to heed such warning signs. And, besides, maybe she wanted to push. Maybe, a good, hard…push was just what he needed.

Maybe it was what they both needed.

Her approach was diffident as she moved towards him, but her intent was anything but. It had taken a lot of nerve to allow the confusing sensations and emotions that had been roiling in her all evening, building within her through the laughter and fun of the festival, the journey home, mellow with alcohol and good times, the disturbing intimacy of using his bed…it had taken a lot to allow those feelings a voice. Now that she had, she wasn't about to let her prey get away from her now. Wasn't about to let either of them back out of this moment of truth.

She gave him a quick glance, hesitated only a moment as she screwed down her nerve, and then she raised herself on tiptoe, put a cool hand against the side of his neck to balance herself and pressed her lips to his cheek. It was a brief kiss, almost platonic. She withdrew slightly, closing her eyes as she breathed in the warm spice of his scent in the darkness, as she felt the rush of blood in the pulse beneath his skin, the heat that rose from him. She seemed to hang there for an eternity…willing him to make the obvious move.

<Come on, Clark…take the hint>, she whispered silently. <Just a little turn of your head, that's all…just an inch…or two.>

Beneath her fingers she could feel the raging of his pulse and he was trembling so fiercely beneath her touch. But he remained unmoving and finally she drew away, disappointed.

Only to find herself pinned in place as his hands settled on her upper arms, holding her just slightly clear of him. For an eternal moment he stared into her eyes, seeming to search for something deep in her soul. Whatever he was looking for, he seemed to find it. His own eyes darkened and he crushed her to him as he took her lips in a soul-destroying, almost desperate kiss.


As his lips closed hungrily over hers, Clark wondered for one insane moment if he was dreaming. In the same instant that he surrendered himself to the inevitable, his control shorn abruptly away from him and lost as the kiss deepened into something that swept away his breath, sent his senses spinning into an oblivion of heat and pounding desire, he nevertheless instinctively sought to give Lois a moment's respite, a chance to retreat — if retreat was what she wanted. His hands dropped away from the tight, almost bruising grip they had on her arms, releasing her as he tore his lips free of hers and strung a line of darting caresses along the line of her jaw.

Retreat wasn't in her game plan it seemed.

Instead of pulling away from him, as he'd almost expected (or slapping him in the face for totally misreading the situation as his imagination had almost convinced him she would), she pressed herself harder against him, the length of her body molding itself to his own as she burrowed her hands into his hair and breathed soft exhortations for him to continue against his cheek. The result was sweet torture, a sensation overload, and he heard himself make a guttural sound that was half- protest, half-encouragement as he wrapped an arm around her waist, spreading his fingers against her hip to hold her with him, press her tighter still. Suddenly, having her retreat wasn't in his game plan either. If she moved away, if she with- drew, if he lost that contact of her body against his own, he thought he might just die where he was.

Seemed like both of them were in agreement that being in his arms was where she should stay.

Lois. In his arms. Wanting to be. Kissing him. Doing that…thing with her…and making those…and then there was the way that she kept…and…whoa…how did she manage to do that without…

He closed his eyes, his breathing coming shallow and fast, as his thoughts began to dissolve and shred apart. Lois began to pay attention to his left ear, the tip of a delicate tongue caressing the lobe and inner shell in ways that pulled a taut, almost unbearable wire of tension tight within him.

He was definitely dreaming.

He'd been here before, of course. An eternity of times, times beyond counting. He had taken her into his arms this way in the still, moonless silence of an Alpine forest, had held her tight against him and savored the sweetness of her lips against his own as they'd lain on a sun-drenched Hawaiian beach, had heard her sigh her pleasure and passion against his skin as he'd caressed her in the twilight warmth of a Singapore night.

And it wasn't always passion. There were nights when he had spent time with her sitting at an umbrella-shaded table on a pavement caf‚, under the warmth of a sapphire Tuscany sky. When they had laughed and teased and strolled the tree-lined avenues of a Parisian boulevard, hand in hand, fingers laced, and her face alight, her dark eyes luminous, with the pleasure of warm companionship.

And, always, those moments were shredded eventually. By the dawn light creeping into his room like a thief, that stealer of dreams, or the voice of a cranky Editor-in-Chief demanding his story, on his desk…NOW! Or Jimmy slapping him against one shoulder and asking if he could have a dollar for them. (Jimmy maintained that, with inflation running at an all-time high, a penny wouldn't get you anything these days.)

And in their wake, reality was cold. Cold and lonely…and desperately disappointing.

The details might change, the locations, the circumstances, but always they ended the same way. Always. With this woman in his arms, with her soft curves pressed tight against him, her passionate murmurs warm against his ear as he…

…felt her shift closer against him, her soft curves pressing their warm weight against his chest through the thin layers of material that separated them…frustratingly close, but not close enough…that tantalizing touch, that hint of what delights might lie beneath, making him ache suddenly with frustration and the need, rising up in him like a spark from a sudden inferno, to feel the connection of flesh to flesh, with no barriers between…

Yes, they always ended the same. Like this. Like now.

Only one thing convinced him that this was no fantasy, no office daydream, that this was real.

In all of those sweat-soaked nights and daylight fantasies, not once — not even remotely — had his subconscious suggested to him that the idyllic place and time to consummate his passion for Lois Lane was a small farmhouse kitchen in the dead of night while his parents slept soundly upstairs.

There were haylofts for that kind of thing, a distant part of him thought, almost offended. Lazy summer picnics down by the lake. Or a bed of sun- warmed moss out in the woods. His fantasies had availed themselves of all of these. Quite frequently.

But, never here. And never like this. He had no exhibitionist tendencies in him (although he suspected that if Lois was to offer to make love to him in the middle of Metropolis Grand Central he might not object. Any port in a storm, after all.) and had always maintained — both consciously and otherwise — that something as beautiful and intimate as making love to the woman of your dreams (and sweat-soaked fantasies) should be conducted in private. Not to mention somewhere where you weren't likely to be interrupted.

Unless his subconscious had suddenly decided to rebel, he couldn't imagine it would change its mind on that one.

So…he guessed that, this time, it must definitely be real then.

Having come to this more than satisfactory conclusion, he decided to quit wondering and just enjoy. He had the vague impression, as he pulled Lois closer and bent his full and minute attention to exploring the heavy, warm sweetness of her mouth on his, with its lingering hint of chocolate, that something about those meandering thoughts…something in there…should be causing him concern. Something that he had already noted, but had failed to consider the entire implications of. But it was lost in another moment, lost with every other thought in his head, as he surrendered himself to nothing but sensation…

…to the wonderful, thrilling sensation of having her in his arms.

His hands shifted their grip on her, sliding back up her spine and onto her shoulders, where they kneaded fitfully at the long bones before moving on restlessly to curve themselves around the sides of her neck, his thumbs hooking beneath the points of her jaw, as he deepened his exploration of her mouth. Lois made a sound deep in her throat — like nothing he had ever heard, though he had certainly kissed women before her. That sound thrilled him, sent a shiver of answering anticipation racing through him, fluttering like something fragile in the pit of his stomach and deeper still, as something primal within him responded instinctively to the unconscious invitation held in that soft sound of pleasure.

Her hands had tangled themselves into his hair, holding him in place against her lips, even as he cradled her in his own grip. Neither willing to let go of this moment, neither able to stop…

Her perfume rose around him, clouding his senses, enflaming him further — a promise and a temptation, it spoke of mysteries he had yet to explore, pleasures he had yet to find, to give her in return…

Her scent, rich, warm and spiced with desire, the touch of her skin against his palms, smooth like silk, slightly cool, the taste of that skin against his lips as he ran a rash of fervent caresses across her cheek and brow and the sound of her heart beating beneath his fingers as he spread them against her neck…these were the connection to life he'd been missing since his powers had vanished. These were what enriched the world around him, what made it real.


Lois made it real.

And, oh, but a part of him — a part that was half-afraid, half- resentful — still expected to have this dissolve in another moment, the feel of her skin, the touch of her lips, all of it to fade like smoke in the air. And to find himself alone once more in the dark shadows of his room.

Except…she didn't seem inclined to.

With a soft sigh of gratitude to a universe which had finally, it seemed, decided to get things right, he nuzzled at the long, delicate curve of his partner's neck. "Lois…" he murmured as he found an enticing spot behind her right ear. "Lois…"

"Mmmmm…Don't stop…Clark…oh…Clark…"

Her voice against his cheek held the same husky quality it had earlier, when she had initiated this, and it had the same effect on him now as it had then.

He had truly begun to think he'd gotten away with it, as he'd walked away from the kitchen and headed for the sofa. A nonchalant goodnight…well, okay, a slightly flustered goodnight…and he'd been seconds away from being free and clear and out of the reach of temptation and trouble. Trouble that came with capital 'L'.

Turning his back on her though had taken an amount of effort that had shocked him and he'd been dismayed to find that he was actually trembling as he did so. What was happening to him? For goodness sake, he'd spent almost an hour in his parents' kitchen, sharing warm milk and small-talk with his partner. Hardly the most erotic way to spend time. Lois, it seemed however, was quite able to throw his body into total chaos and his emotions into a whirlwind by doing not very much at all and simply by being around.

It was nothing more than the coziness brought on by a severe attack of early morning insomnia, he'd told himself firmly. She was his partner. Nothing more. At least…nothing more for her. She had enough trouble putting up with that. If she thought for one minute he harbored ambitions to go beyond that…

His partner, he'd repeated grimly. His colleague.

His colleague.

Someone who had shown not one hint of physical attraction to him. Okay, well, maybe a little. But certainly she'd shown no sign that she wanted to act on whatever…small…spark of natural, common…something…was between them.

He had clung on to those realities in an effort to gain some control over his body and emotions, both of which suddenly appeared to be raging out of control.

The fact that they were not alone here. The faint discomfort he felt at being in territory he associated with his childhood and the awkwardness of his teenage years, mingling with adult thoughts and desires that seemed to have no place here, opposing emotions that were in embarrassing conflict.

The certain knowledge that Lois Lane would sooner solicit the attentions of Orlan Hamble, the assistant editor from advertising — whose breath, she frequently complained, smelled like he habitually flossed with fish paste — than those of a partner who she generally considered an abject nuisance most days of the week and a pretty pitiful specimen of manhood at any other time.

He had just started to think that he might actually be able to make it to the sofa without embarrassing himself in front of Lois when she'd torpedoed any hope of salvation with that soft request. The sly, throaty quality to her words, had shivered through him like a fever, almost as though…

…as though her voice — and her request — had given him tacit permission to turn back to face her and to take note of what he'd been trying to avoid taking note of for the last hour or so, since he'd found her on the stoop. The way that those shorts and the faux innocence of her posture showcased those long, smooth legs of hers. The way that her hands, clasped behind her back, pulled back her arms and stretched the material of her t- shirt taut. When he had forced his gaze upwards, with both reluctance and mortified shame, her eyes on his had been molten, her lips moist. Inviting.

When she had reached up, those lips had pressed fire and heat against his cheek and he had been able to feel the tremulous need that was in her, quivering through the soft curves pressed enticingly against him and his control had wavered, his heart hammering its storm within the cage of his ribs, as though it was a frenzied animal trying to tear itself free of its prison.

Yet, still, he'd made no move to act on the impulses and desire warring through him. He might never have done — confused and shaken by the power of his responses, bewildered by her sudden desire for him, uncertain of what game she was playing here and of how far she might want him to take it…

What had crushed the last vestiges of the tight control he'd been trying to hold on to wasn't the kiss, nor the offering it implied. Those he could have resisted. Just barely. No, it had been in the way that she had withdrawn when he'd failed to reciprocate. The look of disappointment in her face, the darkness that had flickered into her eyes…and the sure and certain sudden knowledge as he had watched her retreat that if he rejected her now she would never make that offer again. One chance was all that you got with Lois Lane.

And that he couldn't resist. Had no defenses against. He had no way to fight the flicker of hurt in her eyes or that sense that she was closing herself off from him, moment by moment, heartbeat by heartbeat. He couldn't bear to watch her draw back from him that way, to shut herself off from him. In just an instant more, he'd understood, her disappointment would turn to embarrassment, the moment would be lost, replaced with an awkwardness that their friendship might never survive, letting it be damaged beyond repair. It was already newborn, fledgling and fragile. It would never survive an aborted seduction attempt.

Besides, he'd had to question his reticence. A beautiful, desirable woman was offering herself to him, wanted him…what was wrong with him? Why was he holding himself back from her? Why was he even thinking of rejecting her? She was a grown woman, not a child, not some teen experimenting with fire without understanding the consequences of what she was doing. She wasn't drunk or under the influence of some love potion or spell. He wasn't taking advantage of her here. She understood precisely what she was offering him. They both did. They both wanted it. Why deny that? Why fight against it?

Put like that, he'd had no answers and his stoic refusal to let her tempt him seemed ridiculous. Yes…pretty dumb, even.

In another moment, her dark eyes had drawn him in and he had stopped thinking, stopped trying to fathom her…he had taken hold of her, his need for her flaring up into a surge of heat and fire and he had kissed her…and everything stopped. All his thoughts, all his questions. Everything but the pulsing beat of his heart against hers and the feel of her lips against his own, and his kisses had grown more reckless as the fire consumed him.

Now, he obeyed her soft pleading, reclaiming her lips and hearing her sigh into his mouth as she whimpered softly. His hands ran a path down the length of her spine, caressing her hips, cradling them for a moment as he spread his fingers to steady her, as the force of the passion between them became something almost physical, rocking them back and staggering them.

Lois sighed again as he shifted to press his lips to the soft, perfumed hollow at the base of her throat and then moved impatiently on, even as her own kisses grew more forceful, more demanding, heated with urgency and need, staggering him slightly backwards again before one blindly flailing hand found purchase against the sofa behind him and he managed to recover balance. Leaning against the support, he let go and thrust his hands into the soft, silken mass of her hair, feeling it spill across his fingers as he responded to that increasing heat between them, his own kisses deepening.

He was vaguely aware that letting go of the back of the sofa had been a bad idea, only with the distant realization that the arm was too low against the back of his knees to keep him upright. In another moment, as Lois pressed her passionate assault on him, he landed on the cushions with a softly expelled breath. His startlement was abruptly over-written by the sudden discovery of just how much more interesting this new prone position had become. With Lois's full weight on top of him they were suddenly connecting in entirely new places…and highly interesting places at that.

He heard her chuckle against his ear — a sound that sent a skitter of molten heat coursing down through him, where it settled in a warm, liquid pool in the pit of his belly, but which also disconcerted him quite a bit. There was a distinct note of…evil…in that amusement. Above him, in the deep shadows of the room, her face was a mystery, giving him no hint of her intentions. And then she moved abruptly, her weight shifting against him in ways that caught his breath in his throat. In another moment she had straddled him, her hands caught in the waistband of his shorts to steady herself as she looked down at him.

The low light from the kitchen behind them caught in her eyes. Her gaze was dreamy, her eyes dark pools. She smiled and he reached up, framing the fragile bones of her cheeks to draw her gently down to where his lips waited.

Her hands burrowed their way beneath his t-shirt, warm and welcome as they traveled across his stomach and chest. He closed his eyes, surrendering himself to her attentions as he let his head fall back against the sofa's arm.

His hands, spread across her back, moved in soft, fitful caresses, before he shifted, removing his hands and ignoring her faint protests as he took hold of her around the waist, maneuvering them both so that their positions were reversed. He was slightly hampered in his intent for a moment as he discovered that she was harder to shift beneath him than he'd expected, provoking a grunt of effort from him and causing him to blink in surprise. Then he adjusted to the unfamiliar sensation of weight and gravity and succeeded in his aim. He found himself flushing, was dismayed to discover he had broken out in a sweat, and he hoped that his clumsiness had been brief enough not to have been noticed. He had recognized the more shattering implications of losing his powers, but curiously it was the small and insignificant things, the daily habits, the minutiae of his life, where the loss ambushed him most and made him aware just how much they had been a part of his life. A part of him, of who he was.

Lois smiled up at him from her new position — was it just a little tentative? — and then reached up with languid arms to hook them around his neck.

"Very smooth, Farmboy," she murmured, her voice carrying just a touch of smokiness within it, that trailed spectral fingers down his spine, making him shiver. "Have you been practicing?"


Lois almost laughed aloud at the startled look that came over her partner's face. Then, because she could tell he was working up to an adorable and no doubt stammering denial that he'd been doing any such thing, she tightened her hold on him, raising herself so that she could kiss him soundly.

With a sigh of pleasure that thrilled her, he relaxed into her embrace, his weight settling on her deliciously. Then he sat up, resting on his heels either side of her as he straddled her, his movements careful. Keeping his eyes fixed on her face, he reached down for the bottom of his t-shirt and drew it up and off in one smooth movement that drew her eyes irresistibly to the ripple the gesture caused in the muscles of that smooth chest. As she let herself relax fully into the contours of the sofa, one hand moved almost of its own volition to lay her palm to the warmth there, reveling in the sensations against her skin as she drew a soft caress across the hard, flat stomach and up along a taut chest.

She had never understood why men seemed to equate virility with being hirsute. She knew that some affinity with a bear seemed to excite some women, and that men endowed with that kind of body-hair seemed to flaunt it as though it was a powerful aphrodisiac, but she had never been impressed nor shared the enthusiasm. The skin beneath her questing fingers was slightly slick with the moisture of their exertions so far, giving a seemingly oiled smoothness as the pads of her fingers glided over it. She heard herself make a small sound deep in her throat in appreciation and then a hand covered hers, stopping it in its tracks and she looked up, startled, so lost in her explorations that she'd almost forgotten where she was.

Clark was grinning down at her, eyes twinkling with amusement, and she blushed, then laughed with him as she spread her hands up and onto his shoulders, tightening her grip there as the laughter died, as something much more serious flared up between them again, and she drew him down, letting him pleasure her with his lips as he set them to the sensitive juncture between shoulder and throat.

Desire flared up within her, like an inferno sparked by a spluttering flame and for a time there was nothing but the fire, running molten and volcanic through her…

And then Clark tore his mouth free of hers, panting heavily. "Lois…Lois…wait…wait a…minute…we shouldn't…we can't…"

Lois was having none of that. She growled, crushing her lips against his again. But he pulled away from her. Clearly with an effort, but that didn't mollify her any. "Lois…stop." He looked down at her, the soft brown eyes apologetic. "Lois, I'm sorry, but I can't do this. *We* can't do this…"

Lois stared up at him, beginning to feel all of the old pain of rejection well up in her as she stilled reluctantly beneath him. She felt a low heat rising in her cheeks — what had gone wrong? Had she misjudged what he wanted so badly? But he had been enjoying it, she knew he had. She *certainly* had. So, what had changed things? What was he — ?

And then the words he was murmuring registered in her mind as he cradled her face in his hands, words of apology and regret through the soft, hot kisses he was lavishing across her face and brow.

Regret? What was he saying?

"…don't have anything. I mean…you know…"

He didn't have…? Oh! A low giggle rose in her chest and he paused, drawing back slightly to look down on her again. Now that she understood his objections, Lois found them positively endearing. Not to mention his complete lack of preparation for the encounter. Most of the men she'd known, sexually or otherwise, kept a stock of contraceptives in their wallets just in case they got 'lucky'. Course, most of them had outgrown their sell by dates years since, but still…the intent was always there. Somehow, she wasn't surprised that Clark wasn't one of the guys.

She shook her head and stretched her neck to kiss him softly. "No need…taken care of…" she murmured breathlessly against his cheek as she let her lips discover the warmth of his skin…until she stopped abruptly, dragging herself clear of his embrace, her eyes widening slightly as she pulled back to look at him, stricken. "Unless…" she felt the heat rising again as she blurted, disconcerted, "I haven't…well, you know. With a guy. For a time. I mean I'm not…I mean I have…but you don't have to worry about…things…"

He frowned. "Things?" he ventured and then, obviously catching her meaning, "Oh no…no! I'm not worried about *that*!" he assured her hastily. He paused and then added haltingly, "You shouldn't worry about that either. I…" he floundered to a halt.

She reached up a hand, feeling the heat of his blush against her fingers and secretly touched by the sensitivity of the man lying against her. "I know," she said softly with a small smile. "I'm not worried. Not at all. I want you," she added solemnly and, as she saw the reaction to her words flare hot in his eyes, she lifted herself and reclaimed his lips.


Clark surrendered to the hands that clutched at his shoulders and pulled him down into Lois's embrace. Relief flooded through him. Confessing to his complete lack of sexual experience hadn't been something he'd wanted to be doing right then. Actually, what he wanted to be doing right now was…

He frowned, unable to fully let go of the faint thread of anxiety that had begun to seed its way through him, a subconscious understanding that this simply wasn't right beginning to bludgeon its way to the surface of his mind, despite the obvious distractions the willing, beautiful woman in his arms was providing. Though he was glad she wasn't concerned about the practicalities of their lovemaking, still, he didn't want her to worry about his previous sexual history. He didn't want her to worry about AIDS or STDs or anything else for that matter. He wanted her to enjoy what they were about to do. Heck, he wanted to enjoy what they were doing…he didn't want to think about anything else.

<So, why don't you just shut up and go with the flow?>

He shook off the irritable demand from a part of him less interested in what was right than in personal gratification.

He didn't want to lie either.

Lois demolished all of his good intentions an instant later, as her lips meandered a warm path down his chest, sending shivers through him and dissolving all of his control. All of his attempts to question. Drowning, he surrendered to it despite himself, as desire, like a tide, swept over him and tugged him down. Down to where she waited. To where all his dreams and hopes waited…

<…this is everything you've ever wanted…why deny it…?>

<…don't think, don't ask…>

No. No…

No, wait.

Something wasn't right.

This just wasn't…


"No!" He dragged himself to sit abruptly, swiping a hand through his hair as he shook his head.

Lois sat too, sighing and with a touch of impatience this time. "Now what?" she demanded, irritably. "Clark, there's nothing to worry about, I'm, you know, safe right now and —"

Clark turned his head to view her, ignoring her as he interrupted, "Why?"

Impatience ebbed as her face clouded with confusion. "Why what?"

"Why me? Why now?"


"Why do you want me now? Why do you want *me* at all?" He shook his head. "Lois, in all the time I've known you, you've never given me the impression you took this kind of thing lightly. Remember the rule?"

"What rule?" she said, more confused than ever now and then, as his stare deepened on her, "Oh," she said in a small voice. "That rule."

"Exactly. You told me you never sleep with your colleagues. You made a pretty big deal of it, as I recall. So, why me? Why now? Why change your mind for someone you've never shown any interest in till now?"

She was silent.

"I just don't understand it, Lois," he went on, his entire manner showing frustration now. "If it was anyone else, I'd say maybe you were feeling lonely, like a fish out of water, I know how much you despise the country, that maybe you're just feeling a little depressed, needing to…connect… But…I never got the idea that you would — " He hesitated.

She grimaced, her posture tightening with offence, as she straightened her shoulders and raised her chin slightly. "Say it, why don't you? Jump into bed with anything that moves just because I'm feeling a little…alone? Sleep around?"

Clark sighed. "Lois," he said gently. "That's not what I meant. That's not what I *think*."

"Why not? It's what everyone else at the paper thinks. Or haven't you been listening at the water cooler lately?"

"Gossip doesn't interest me," he said, face hardening. Yes, he'd heard some talk. But not as much as she seemed to imagine was going around and not all of it as unsympathetic to her as she seemed to believe. "I make up my own mind about people. But, from what I have heard? You know a lot of people — more than you might think — seem to share your opinion of Claude Rochert."

She looked up at him and he was surprised to see the shimmer of tears in her eyes, more surprised still by the look of hopeful longing he saw deep in those liquid depths. Did it really matter so much to her what people thought? If so, she did a pretty good job of hiding it.

But then, he had always known that beneath that tough-as- nails exterior and that Mad Dog Lane attitude there was something more. Something vulnerable and tender, with a heart that was softer than she let on.

She sighed. "Clark, is this really necessary? Can't we just, you know, enjoy the moment? Have fun?"

He shook his head. "No. No, we can't."

"Why not?"

"Because it's not fun, Lois. Not for me. I mean," he amended, looking flushed all at once, "it is — it *was* — fun, but — " He sighed and turned to face her properly, reaching out to take hold of her hands in his. "Lois, I'm just not good at this."

She lifted a brow. "Felt like you were doing pretty good to me," she told him. And then, a wistful addition, "For a time there anyway."

"It's not enough. Lois, I need to know what changed your mind. About me. We've been partnered for six weeks now. In all that time, you've never shown any hint that you felt this way about me. In fact, mostly you've never shown me anything but the impression that I was under sufferance and you'd much rather I wasn't there, getting in your way, at all."

She flushed and looked away, down at their joined hands. "We…let's just say I've seen a new side of you. Here. You know, we had a lot of fun tonight, Clark, at the festival." She looked up at him, something in her eyes almost pleading for agreement. "Didn't we?"

"Sure, we did, Lois, but —"

"So, you know, maybe I just…started to realize what I was missing. Or perhaps…" She shrugged. "…perhaps I've seen inside myself. And maybe…maybe I don't like what I saw."

His heart melted. "Oh, Lois…" He smiled slightly and disengaged his grip on fingers that had tightened around his, lifting a hand to cradle her chin and lift her head. "What's not to like?" he said softly.

"Oh, you know," she said airily, obviously trying for an attitude of 'who cares anyway'. "I'm opinionated, domineering, arrogant, pushy…or so my dates and my sister tell me."

"They're wrong," he promised, gently.

"Are they?" She ducked her head. After a moment she muttered, "Claude…Claude said I was about as feminine as a pitbull…"

That last was said so low he barely heard it. When he managed to decipher it, his eyes widened and a burst of laughter escaped him before he could stop it.

Lois glanced up at him, startled, and twitched as he leaned over to wrap his arms around her and tug her against him. For a moment he thought she'd struggle against that embrace. Wounded pride and offense was stiff in her spine, like a cat. But then she relaxed against him. The low burr of amusement was still in his voice as he apologized against her ear, "I'm sorry. But, Lois, honestly, that's the dumbest thing I've ever heard."

Clark shook his head. There had been a note of pique in what she'd just said that made him aware that she didn't *truly* believe what Claude Rochert had said. She was very aware of her femininity, had even used it to her advantage on occasion. But still…it must have hurt and a small part of her, buried deep, had taken it to heart it seemed, for her to remember it and have it still sting. Rochert, he knew, was able to find chinks in Lois's armor like no other man had and the scars he'd inflicted on her ran deep. Sometimes, it seemed that the hurt he'd caused, the damage he'd done, caused more pain after the fact than when he'd been around. Another man's insult she might have shrugged off. But Rochert…he was salt in any wound, could cut open her heart like no man had been able to before or since, even months after he had left. Like most of his kind, the wreckage he had left behind him survived long after he had moved on to fresh conquests and new hunting grounds.

Even so, he couldn't believe she was taking something so ridiculous so seriously. There was a spark of buried anger in him at Rochert for trying so hard to hurt her — and for succeeding — but for the moment he couldn't find his way past what a ludicrous method he had chosen. How could she even believe it for one moment? He pulled Lois closer.

"If you weren't the most beautiful, most feminine woman I've ever seen," he whispered. "I would never have —"

He stopped abruptly, his body tensing against hers and she pulled back, her eyes searching his face curiously. "Wouldn't have what?"

He hesitated, consternation taking hold of him, aware that maybe he was stepping into something he wasn't sure he wanted to get into. Then he shook his head, his dark eyes holding hers and something of what he was feeling — respect, admiration — must have been visible in his gaze, because she blushed suddenly as he reached to gently push back a loose strand of her hair. A small, self-mocking smile quirked at the edge of his lips.

"Wouldn't have fallen in love with you right from the first moment I saw you standing there, in Perry's office."

For a moment, in the narrow-eyed look she granted this declaration, he saw something jaded; a bitter understanding that this was just another line, all too familiar and all too old. The kind of thing men trotted out in the most intimate of moments, when they thought it was what women wanted to hear, when they thought it would gain them something, with no more understanding of its power than that it was a convenient means to an end.

The resignation in that look almost shattered his heart, clenching it tight against his ribs as pity welled up in him. She really hadn't had the best of experiences, had she? Claude Rochert. Her father. How many others? What had they done to her to damage her this way? To cause so much festering distrust and such lingering wounds to the heart?

Whatever it had been, whatever was in her past, he knew that she hadn't deserved it.

But it was there, in her, and the legacy of it was coming between them now. He tried to think of some way to defeat it, to let her understand that he was different, that she could trust him, but he was coming up blank and she was drawing herself further away from him with every second of tortured silence that passed.

But then, all at once, before that look could congeal and chill what had been between them, a new expression overtook her, as she apparently found the sincerity in his eyes and understood that he meant it. That it wasn't just one more glib throwaway. To his dismay, she immediately paled. Something akin to terror sparked in those darkly tormented eyes. Before he could speak, she made an involuntary sharp move, seemingly intent on escape. Startled, he thrust out a reflexive hand to prevent her rising from the sofa, gripping her arm tight as he darted a quick, cautious glance up the staircase.

To his relief, Lois seemed to understand the unspoken reminder and the cause of his sudden anxiety. With a glance that followed the direction of his, she subsided, but she pulled back too, freeing herself of his grip. He didn't push the point, letting his hand drop.

Huddled against the sofa's back, hugging herself tightly, Lois was shaking her head frantically. "No," she hissed at him in a conspiratorial tone. "You can't love me, that's just…that's crazy!" she accused. She sounded angry now and that puzzled him. She was almost acting as though he'd insulted her or something.

Clark frowned. "Why?"

"Why?" Her voice scaled a few rungs upwards on the vocal ladder with the reply, almost becoming a screech. Then, with another glance upwards, she made a visible effort to control herself. "Because…" she snapped out tightly in a low, offended mutter, "…because you *can't* just up and tell me that! It's nuts! You can't love me, it's not possible! Hell, Clark, you don't *know* me well enough to come out saying crazy things like that!"

Clark's eyebrows quirked nearly into his hairline. At his swift, astonished, and somewhat caustic glance around them, Lois flushed.

"We know each other well enough to jump into…onto a sofa together, but not to be in love?" he asked pointedly.

"That's…different," she insisted, but her voice wavered and she looked disconcerted now. "Love…" She paused, seeming to flounder and then dropped the fierceness abruptly, looking back at him in clear dismay. "Clark…what you said, it's…sweet, but I…I can't —"

"Lois, I'm not getting down on one knee and making a proposal here," he said. "And I'm not expecting any declarations from you, either. I just want you to understand that this matters to me. It's not some passing thing, some one night stand, not for me. It matters. You matter. And I want you to know that. It's important."

He sighed as her guarded expression didn't change. She looked hunted. He reached out and took hold of her hand and was encouraged that she let him. He kept his gaze on her face, as he said earnestly, "I'm not asking for the moon and the stars here, Lois. But I need more than one night with you. More than just being some kind of…consolation prize…you fall back on when you're lonely or having a bad hair day."

He watched her catch on to the important words in there. Her face tightened and he knew she was only too aware of the sudden specter he had introduced into the room with them. Between them. The missing part of this that was haunting him. The invisible gatecrasher at the feast.

"Consolation prize?" she said. She had recovered color now, her cheeks flushed.

He shrugged, pretending a nonchalance he didn't feel. "You've made no secret of your infatuation with Superman. So, I have to wonder, what makes me so special this morning? The fact that he's not around?"

He knew that the barb was a cruel one. But he also suspected it was true and he was hurt enough that he couldn't regret saying it. He saw her eyes darken even in the shadows, a mixture of anger and embarrassment flooding her expression. "Infatuation?!" she choked out.

"Can't be love," he pointed out. "You don't know any more about him than I do about you."

<Touche> a small and smug part of him applauded. He glared at it, sending it scuttling back into the recesses of his subconscious. This wasn't an exercise in point-scoring. Winning wasn't the aim. He hadn't even intended to get into this, but it seemed that his own hurt and anger over her mooning on the Superhero was closer to the surface of his emotions than he'd previously understood.

Lois's face showed him clearly that that other part of him had been right. He had scored a direct hit, perhaps even given her a mortal wound. She looked…ashamed suddenly. And he forgot about his own, petty pique, wanting suddenly to simply reach out and pull her back into his embrace, forget his qualms about her motives. She was wounded, in pain, and he couldn't bear to see that in her. How had he managed to get them to this? he thought miserably. Why did he have to spoil everything? For a time there it had been good. More than good. Incredible. Amazing. Everything he had every dreamed of and wanted for so long. And now he'd crushed it, smashed it…way to go, Kent. You're a genius.

But maybe that was the point. Everything he'd dreamed of…granted too easily. Somehow, he couldn't accept wishes come true at any cost. He had to know what he was to her, first. He had to. Otherwise…well, otherwise, it meant nothing. Was worth nothing. And that he couldn't bear.

Her discomfort was quickly overtaken by anger. Watching it take possession of her, he sighed inwardly. Always her first defense and her surest path of retreat.

"Why not?" she snapped. "I know that he's kind and decent and a good man. Isn't that enough?" She waved a hand at him as he looked skeptical. "Oh, what? The great proponent of love at first sight suddenly doesn't believe in it? Is it any harder to believe I fell in love with Superman the first time I saw him, than it is that you…you…fell in love with me that day in Perry's office?"

He looked at her, aghast. "It's not the same thing, Lois!"

"Why not?" she challenged, folding her arms. A dangerous sign.

"Because you're real!" he blurted.

She frowned. "And Superman isn't?"

"No! I fell in love with a flesh and blood woman that day. Someone I could hope might one day feel the same way about me. Superman can't ever give you that! He's —"

"— out of my league?" Her expression had cast itself in stone and he could feel her slipping away from him, all of the intimate warmth they had so recently begun to share evaporating in the icy chill that emanated from her.

"No," he said wearily. He rubbed a fitful finger at his temple. He was starting to get a headache. Another mundane reality of his loss that he could happily forego. He was beginning to wonder if 'normal' was all it was cracked up to be. It certainly wasn't turning out like he'd always imagined. "No, that's not what I meant."

She remained tense and for a slow tick of agonizing moments that silence settled between them like the death of all his hopes. He struggled to find something to say, something to do, that would take them back from here, take them back to where they'd been, to where it had all been so good, but he floundered, unable to find his way. Knowing that he'd ruined everything and that nothing would ever be the same again.

And then, with shocking suddenness, Lois's face crumpled into abject misery. "It's true though," she whispered. "Isn't it?" She shrugged before he could speak, deny it. "I guess I've always known it. Deep down. I just never let myself admit it. I was crazy to think there could ever be anything between us. Oh, it's not just me," as he started an automatic protest, "It's all of us. He's out of our league, Clark. He's beyond us all. He's…like a god." Clark winced, but she didn't seem to notice as she went on, "I mean, think about it — Superman, married, taking out the trash, changing diapers…it's…it's laughable really."

<Yeah…laughable…> Clark thought dismally. And Superman was a fool if he believed that he could get that simple wish come true. He wondered what Lois would say now if he confided to her that her superhero would happily give up everything for just those simple pleasures in life. To be normal. To have a wife and children, to lose himself in the mundanities of life, a calming balm to take away the hurt and pain and fear he was immersed in every moment of the day as he dealt with the wounds of the world. A home. Somewhere he could be certain of welcome and rest, succor and solace.

A home. With her.

To be with her. For the rest of his life.

To share everything he had and would have with her, laughter and tears.

Yeah, it was laughable all right. Hilarious.

Except, he noted as he came out of his miserable fugue, she wasn't laughing. She'd ducked her head, her attention fixed intently on her hands. "Maybe that's why I decided…"

"To settle for less?" he suggested. This time there was no bitterness in him. Just a weary resignation. Acceptance. But she looked up at him sharply.

"No! No, Clark, don't think that. Please. That's not how I feel about you. It's just…well, maybe I've finally let myself find reality. You know — " She hitched out a small attempt at a laugh. It sounded more like a sob, too raw and full of pain to be humorous. " — a girl can only hold on to fantasy for so long."

"And reality is?" he asked cautiously, ignoring her self- mockery.

She hesitated. "I said that Superman is a decent man. A good man. And…I know that you have a lot of those qualities too, that a lot of what's in Superman is in you, Clark. Maybe it just took me a little longer to see that, but the time we've spent here, seeing how you are here, your parents, your old school-friends, talking to them, seeing how they are with you…it's made me realize that. They respect you, Clark. They know who you are and what you stand for. Decent and honest. Maybe I needed to hold up that mirror, see that reflection of you through their eyes, before I realized what I'd been missing. Before I realized…"

She cut herself off, the wistful tone that had seeped into her words vanishing, as though she'd become aware that she was revealing too much of herself, said more than she'd intended to. He watched her, intrigued, wondering what she'd been about to say, barely daring to hope that it had been what he wanted her to say, had dreamed of her saying for so long. Knowing he could never ask and that she would never tell him if he did. Besides…it was, he suspected, a dream too far. A dream that perhaps never would find its way into reality for him.

Lois shook her head with a sigh. "Clark, I'm not looking for some kind of…surrogate. Honestly, I'm not."

She seemed to sense that he remained doubtful because she leaned forward a little, her hands tightening on his until it became painful, as though trying to convince him of her sincerity by sheer force. "Clark, it wasn't Superman I wanted to kiss me. It wasn't Superman I had so much fun with at the festival, who won me that cute bear, who shared warm milk and chocolate with me and made me feel…feel…safe and…and it wasn't Superman I was thinking of when we were…" She paused and then took a small breath before she continued, "It was you. It was all you, Clark. Just you."

She shifted, moving closer to him, before he could answer. His heart was thudding so hard against his chest now he thought it might burst out of him entirely. He held his breath, hardly aware that he was doing so. Her mood was confiding now, and hesitant, as though about to offer him secrets that she wasn't sure she entirely wanted to.

"I don't do one night stands, Clark. Claude forced that choice on me, but it wasn't mine. I thought I loved him. It wasn't something casual. Well," she said, with an echo of his own bitterness, "I wasn't aware that it was when I slept with him, at least. I thought we *had* something. I thought he…I thought he loved me, you know? When I woke up the next morning and he was gone…when I understood it had all been just a sick, twisted…that he'd *tricked* me just to get — " She choked off into silence and in her eyes he saw shame, twisting there like something malignant.

He couldn't bear to watch her tear herself apart over what that louse had done to her. Clark freed his fingers and put up a hand, grazing her cheek and finding the dampness there that glimmered faintly in the shadowed light.

"Lois…" he whispered, regretting initiating this. He hadn't intended for her to bear her soul like this, hadn't wanted to dredge up all the hurt and pain that Rochert had caused in her.

But she shook her head, putting up her free hand and pressing it against his, as her eyes met his steadily. "I can't promise you beyond tonight, Clark, but I can tell you that…that I'd like to try. To see where we can go, I mean. If this is…is something more than just…" She drew in a breath. "Can we try?"

For a moment he continued to stare into her eyes, his heart contracting as he met the soft plea hidden in them. Then he gave her his answer, leaning forwards to touch his lips to hers in a soft, questing caress. When he pulled back a moment later, Lois closed her eyes and wound her arms around his neck, pressing her cheek tight against his. He thought she might be crying again. Soft and quiet tears. He wrapped his arms around her and held her. "I'd like that too," he murmured.

He felt her hitch against him. It took him a moment to realize she was laughing softly. She drew away from him, snuffling slightly. "Good," she said, her smile slightly watery. But she drew the back of a hand across her eyes and tightened her shoulders. "Now…can we get back to the fun part?"

He grinned back at her. "Thought you'd never ask."

She came into his arms with a faint giggle and he tightened his embrace around her, feeling a soft wonder infuse him. What had he done to deserve knowing this woman? This incredible, beautiful, vulnerable woman.

As he turned his head slightly to nuzzle at her cheek she drew back a little, putting up a hand against his shoulder and pushing him slightly clear. He raised his head, questioning her silently, and she smiled as she reached out and carefully removed his glasses. Conditioned anxiety fluttered through him for the loss, his stomach muscles tightening, but she didn't pause to stare at him, eyes widening, didn't recoil from him, didn't gasp or faint or…well any of the one hundred and one reactions he'd imagined from her in any of his dream liaisons with her that had turned abruptly into nightmares. She simply twisted around to dispose of the glasses on the side table beside the arm of the sofa, and then turned back to face him.

Relaxing, he reached for her again, but she shook her head and he paused, confused. Her smile had turned slightly mysterious now. He watched her, curious, and then intently and with increasing interest, as she straightened to tug her t-shirt over her head. He reached to help her, and a moment later the garment was lost somewhere in the darkness of the floor and his arms were around warm, naked flesh, pressed against his own.

She couldn't possibly be aware of the symbolism, he knew, yet he was still touched by her actions. As though she had known that removing the glasses exposed him, made him vulnerable, and in taking off her shirt, exposing her own vulnerability to him, she had been making a gesture of trust in him, as much as asking for trust from him.

He swallowed past the sudden rock that had lodged in his throat and then, because the way that she was pressed against him was making thinking difficult and as desire darkened in his eyes, he leaned forward, meeting her offered lips with heat. Lois settled into his embrace with a soft sigh.

"Just love me, Clark…" she whispered. "Please…"

He could do that.

Finally…something he could give her as himself, as Clark, without his powers or his alter ego getting in the way.

That thought echoed in him, taking on new resonance as he gently bore Lois down to the softness of the sofa beneath them, a tight, flaring ecstasy rolling through him like a wild and restless tide as she molded her body to his own.

Without his powers…

There was a curious freedom in the notion. All his life he had forced himself to maintain a tight control on any situation that involved interacting physically with someone else. Especially when it was being intimate with a woman, someone so much more fragile than he was. An unfortunate incident or two — not serious, but enough to frighten a teenage kid experimenting with strange emotions and sensations that were scary enough to begin with without the added pressure of somehow making a mistake that could maim or even kill with one injudicious action — had made him cautious, wary. Perhaps too much so. The irony was that the very loss of control inherent in the act was what he couldn't risk. He had been so afraid, all these years, to take that risk.

It hadn't been the only reason he had held back from letting himself cross that final barrier, that ultimate surrender. There had been the need within him to give himself finally to someone he really cared about, really loved, for one. Someone with whom he could share everything, his entire being, everything that he was — wasn't that, after all the true essence of love? That ultimate sharing of oneself? To do that he had to be able to trust — his life, the lives of his parents, his friends, everyone dear to him could be shattered into oblivion in an instant if he made the wrong choice, if he trusted unwisely and was betrayed. But it had been at the core of his celibacy.

All in all, the ramifications of making love, for him, were so complicated by his powers that they had made it almost impossible for him to consummate any passion he'd felt before.

Their bodies glided together in electric heat and Lois moaned as she skimmed a hand across his chest and onto his shoulder, distracting him for a moment, bringing his focus back to her. She had thrown back her head, her hair fanning out around her, the long, white column of her throat drawing him like a lure. He set his lips to its base. She quivered, small mewling cries coming from her as her fingers clutched desperately at his shoulder.

Elation filled him as he moved to cover her more firmly; the wonder of knowing that he was free of the restraints of the past. Free to love Lois as he had wanted to from the moment he'd first seen her. Free to surrender himself, completely and utterly, to her, as he had never been able to before.

He trusted her, just as he loved her. Unconditionally and without qualm or fear.

His thoughts froze, his exhilaration dying abruptly and replaced by a new and sudden shame.

Yes, he did trust her. And he was repaying her poorly for it. His thought flickered back to that moment earlier, when she had taken his glasses. To the clenching fear that he would be exposed. Would that have been such a bad thing?, he thought now. Would it have been so awful? Shouldn't he show her that he did trust her? Wasn't it time he told her? Now, before they went too far? Before she committed herself to a man she believed she knew and yet knew so little of?


Lois's voice was uncertain in the darkness. He belatedly became aware that his body had stilled against hers, with the run of his thoughts. He made a conscious effort to reassure her, his movements, his caresses becoming almost frantic and to his relief she closed her eyes, her lips opening on a low whimper of pleasure, the soft, delightfully pliant, curves of her body newly sinuous and languid beneath him. But his heart wasn't in it; his thoughts continued to prickle at him, even though he tried not to listen.

Was there any point in telling her now? he thought, almost frantically. His powers were gone, they might never return. Superman might be lost for good, fading into just a memory. She might never *need* to know.

<That is such a cop out,> his conscience informed him.

He sighed against the side of Lois's neck. Yes, it was. Because it was about more than his powers, and he knew it. It was about him lying to her, concealing part of himself from her, about trust. What kind of relationship could seal itself to that without decaying? How could he commit himself completely and fully to this woman while hiding himself from her? And if she found out, a month from now, a year, ten, twenty…she would never forgive him for not telling her. She had been betrayed, lied to, by too many men before him. He couldn't offer her the hope of trust, the promise that she could give herself to him without fear, and then snatch it away from her in the cruelest of ways.

He lifted his head, put up his hands to cradle her face, stilling her as he looked down into her eyes. Lost in a haze of desire, it took her a moment to focus on him. Gradually though her eyes fixed on his, confusion in them. When he was sure that he had her full attention, he took a deep breath.

"Lois…" he started, as his heart tightened in his chest, its rough pounding reaching him even without the benefits of super- hearing.


Dragged reluctantly from the pulsing storm-tide of pleasure that had been rolling through her, washing over her, drowning her in so many thrilling ways…

…Lois clawed her way back to reality, looked up hazily into her lover's face, and reined in a full-blooded scream of frustration.

Dammit to hell! Damn him to hell!

What *now*?

She stared up at him, groaning inwardly as she found the earnestness there and another quick pulse raced through her. Impatience this time, rather than desire. Uh uh. No. No way. He wasn't getting away with it again. He had interrupted her twice and he wasn't going to do it a third time. She was going to get what she wanted if she had to kill him to do it, she thought irritably, and then more irritably as that irritability further receded the distinctly good mood she'd been in a moment earlier. For an instant she thought longingly of that languid, liquid heaviness that had been in her — and then got irritable all over again as the wistful memory reminded her of the loss.

"Lois — " Clark said again, obviously working up to something that would probably be long and delay matters intolerably.

"Clark…?" she murmured sweetly.

"Yeah…?" His whisper was a breath of heat against her lips.

"You're talking."

"Well…yeah," he agreed.


"Yeah, but —"

"Stop it."

"Oh." He paused. Then, shaking his head with a new — and terrible — determination coming into his expression, as he dragged himself upright to lean on his elbows either side of her waist, "I mean, no. I can't, Lois. This is important. I really need to tell you some —"



"I said, no. We can discuss the modern manners of sex and this week's hog count later, Clark, okay? But just now — " She slipped her hands up to span his neck and dragged him down atop her again, feeling the hard, muscled chest crushed against her own. " — *this* is the only heart to heart I need," she murmured.

"But, Lois — " he persisted.

A finger pressed firmly to his lips silenced him. Momentarily. But it was a temporary respite, she could tell. He was working up to something and he wasn't going to be happy until he'd spoiled the whole mood, the entire thing, with whatever nonsense he wanted to get off his chest this time.

She slumped back against the sofa's arm and took a few small breaths. She removed the finger. "One more word," she told him, spacing each word evenly and succinctly in dark warning, "just one, and I'm going to get up, get dressed, go hitch a ride to Metropolis and if Perry ever tries to partner you with me again I'll resign and go work for the Star."

Clark tilted his head to view her, his expression sceptical. "Lo-is…"

She sighed. Okay, he was probably right. She probably wouldn't. Quite obviously he wasn't going to be deflected. At least…not without some persuasion. She hid a sly smile. All right…so the stick wasn't working. Neither was being reasonable. So…time to employ some carrot…

"Look, I need to say this now, because —"

Before he could get out another word, she shifted beneath him, a calculating motion of her body brushing a skillful caress against his that brought a suddenly distracted look into her partner's eyes and caused his breath to expel itself in a startled gasp. She watched his thoughts dissolve with a smug smile. That would teach him. She raised a knee, letting her inner thigh slide along his hip, her toes run a teasing path up along his shin, and then hooked her ankle across the top of his thigh.

The maneuver had a quite satisfactory effect. Clark moaned, the sound dredging itself up from the depths of his throat and sending a thrill coursing through her. Continuing her encouraging motions against him, she wound her arms around his neck and kissed him, long and deep, sealing whatever he had been about to embark on irrevocably behind his lips. She hoped.

Of course…she thought breathlessly in another moment…this new position wasn't entirely without its effects on her either. Her restlessness increased as the stroking, teasing fingers skimming across her skin sent shivers running through her like molten fire…



Lois opened her eyes. Above her, shadows chased each other softly across the ceiling, reflecting the sinuous motions of the trees outside as they shifted in the breeze. She stared up at those flickering patterns, feeling the rabbit- hard beat within her breast began to stutter and fall, her skin begin to cool from the heat of their lovemaking. She felt heavy, sated, saturated with pleasure. If she'd had to move in the next few minutes to save her life, she wouldn't have managed it.

Besides, she didn't want to move. There was pleasure in lying there, his weight sprawled against her, still, as she let her mind drift back over the last few moments…


<Is that all you can say, Lane?> something inside her asked caustically.

She felt her lips stretch in a wide smile.

Yup. Wow seemed to cover it rather nicely. After a moment or so, she glanced down at the dark head resting against her. She traced languid fingers through the sweat-dampened tangles of his hair and heard him make a guttural murmur of contentment against her skin. She felt a skitter of something trace a path across her spine in response to the sound. Something less than passion, but no less fierce. Deep affection, the desire to cherish and protect the man laying draped across her. How could she have missed what he was? How could she not have noticed what was right under her nose?

The gods, it seemed, had dropped the kindest, gentlest of men right into her lap and she had been distracted enough by a billowing red cape and a tight spandex suit to almost miss the chance she'd been given. How could she have been so…blinded…not to have recognized what kind of man Clark Kent was long before now?

She wasn't exactly an expert on men. Other than that she'd always believed they were a strange species, impossible to comprehend, intent on conquest and dominion, and were to be avoided at all costs if you wanted your heart to survive. There had not been many men she had taken to her bed, but there had been enough for her to understand the difference between them and the man who had just made love to her.

Made love.

There was the difference. Those two little words, right there. He had made love to her. No…no, they had made love together. He hadn't had sex with her, he hadn't used her as some anonymous, warm body in which to indulge his own lust. It had been something beyond the physical act, more than a joining of bodies. He had been gentle, taking time to ensure she got pleasure out of their lovemaking too. The other men she had slept with had barely let themselves emerge out of their own pleasure long enough to notice she was there. Claude had been a very poor lover — a fact that she had tried to console herself with since he had devastated her life. It didn't work too well, but it was certainly the truth.

Clark…Clark had loved her. They had shared something…profound. She had become a part of him with such intensity, such force, as she'd never experienced before. As though more than their bodies had melded; their hearts and souls too.

<Very fanciful, Lois — you've got to stop reading those bodice- rippers.>

Even the cynical heart of her couldn't prevent her from seeing the truth.

<And the truth is?> that other part of her, irritated with her degeneration into mush, grumbled.

That she loved him.

It was crazy, she acknowledged, before the annoying little beast in her head could speak again. It was probably the most dumb fool thing she'd ever thought. Nevertheless, it was the truth.

She loved Clark Kent.

Maybe she had loved him for longer than she'd known. Certainly, there was a surprising lack of astonishment within her for the idea. As though a part of her had always known she had and had simply been waiting for her to catch up. Get with the program. Smell the coffee. She frowned. She wished it had *told* her then, instead of leaving her to figure it out all on her own.

Clark stirred against her, drawing her attention, and she smiled as he pulled himself to rest on his elbows so that he could kiss her. His lips moved smoothly against her own, lingering, before he shifted, easing them gradually so that he was lying on his side, his back against the sofa. He slipped an arm under her, drawing her into a snuggling embrace, belly to belly, chest to chest. Dragging the crumpled blankets over them, he settled them around her carefully, and then laid his cheek to hers, rubbing a soft path against her skin in a gesture that was so tender that it made her heart skip a beat or two.

Lois closed her eyes, what was welling up in her suddenly almost too much to bear. She buried her head against his shoulder, trying to maintain some kind of decorum. It wouldn't do to let this man know just how much he had affected her, just how much she had realized she cared for him.

He could hurt her.

The ways that he could hurt her, how badly he could, seeded ice in her stomach all at once. There was a part of her that knew that she could trust him utterly, that her heart was safe with him, that he never would. But the distrust that had been bred in her over years and through bitter knowledge of his gender, was hard to let go of, hard to shed, no matter what her heart told her. The strength of emotions that this man resonated in her frightened her a little.

He stroked a hand through her hair, lifting his head, jolting her out of her darkening thoughts.

"Hey," he said quietly, sounding concerned. "You okay?"

She nodded. But she knew that she had grown tense in his embrace and that he must surely feel it. She could hear the beating of his heart against her cheek, solemn and steady. His arms tightened around her. He laid his forehead against her hair. "Don't go," he whispered.

She raised her head to look at him, startled. There had been fear in those words. "Go?" she said, confused.

He shook his head and in his eyes she saw such depth of emotion, such love, such terror, such desperate longing, that it almost broke her heart. "Clark," she said sitting up to view him better. "What's wrong?"

"I can feel you going," he said. He put up a hand to her cheek, his palm warm against her skin, before he slid it deep into her hair. His eyes were somber. "Moving away from me. Leaving me…"

What was in his eyes…

The revelation was so startling, so profound and all- encompassing, so *clear* to her all at once that it seared the breath from her.

She could hurt him, too.

Neither of them had power, one over the other, she suddenly understood. They both had the capacity to hurt, to wound…

Or to love.

It was their choice.

She had power over him, just as reckless, just as dangerous, as that which he held over her.

She felt her throat close up tight, tears gathering. "Oh, Clark…" she said, as she swallowed hard. "Oh, Clark…I'm not going anywhere. I'm staying right here." She put her hands up to frame his face, delighted laughter bubbling up in her all at once as she saw the fear subside, replaced by something akin to hope. She took a deep breath, knowing she was on the brink of something frightening and dangerous and…oh, so wonderful and exciting too. And she wasn't afraid of it at all. She was exhilarated. "Clark, I lo —"

Above her, on the upper landing, came the unmistakable sound of a door lock snicking open and soft footsteps on the carpeted floor, heading in their direction.

Those sounds broke the solemn intensity of the air in the living room — that frisson of secrets ready to be shared and revelations to be confided that had been pulsing like a heat mirage between them — as effectively as though they had been a bomb thrown into their midst.

Given the degree of sudden panic they produced among the occupants of the sofa, they might as well have been.

"Clark?" came the sleepy voice of Martha Kent.


His Mom.

Oh, dear Lord — his *Mom*!

In every man, it is said, there lives a child and the child in Clark Kent became a gibbering wreck as panic set in. Some frantic fumbling ensued before he wrapped a hasty arm around Lois's waist, ignoring her slight squeak of surprise, and tugging her awkwardly onto his lap. He grabbed for his blankets and tossed them over her shoulders, letting their folds drape them both as he pulled their edges tight.

For a moment, he relaxed, crisis over — before his eyes widened. In an instant of fevered mortification, his inner eye showed him the clear image of his Mom reaching towards the light plate in the upper hall. If she switched on that light…looked over the banister…she would have a clear view down into the living room…the sofa…and -

"Mom -no! Don't put on the light!"

There was a moment of charged silence following it, in which his Mom's shocked response was almost palatable on the air. He could almost see the startled jerking back of a hand that had almost reached its goal. A small part of him noted wryly that, even without his powers, he could still at least do the S-voice — with its undertone of command that people still seemed to respond to automatically and obey without question. The light stayed off.

He heard a shift of movement further into the hallway instead. He could sense her peering down into the shadows, trying to find him, make out his shape in the darkness. Despite its covering blanket, he felt his cheeks grow hot and then a flicker of amusement — he felt like a kid again, caught with his hands in the cookie jar.

"Clark?" Martha called again. She sounded alarmed. "Clark, what's wrong? Are you okay?"

He was suddenly ashamed for having scared her. "Sure, Mom, I'm…fine. Just…just don't turn on the light. Okay?" He fumbled for a reason that would head off her next question. "It's just…the light…what with everything…it hurts my eyes. The dark's kind of soothing. A little."

That, at least, was no lie.

"Oh," Martha said. "I heard…I thought I heard noises…and what with you being so sick, I was worried —"

Intent on the conversation and his own frantic thoughts of discovery, it was only Lois's suddenly stifled gasp, muffled against his shoulder, that made him aware that the hand resting against her hip as he cradled her against him had gone on a reflective exploration, all on its own and without his permission. Smoothing its way in a slow, meandering glide across the firm muscle of her leg to caress her knee briefly before reversing course to stroke its way across the satin skin of her inner thigh, as though guided by the memory of the passion they had recently shared.

Their passion.

The thought startled him enough that he blinked.

Theirs. His and Lois's.


He and Lois had -


Maybe this *was* all a dream, after all. He pinched himself. Hard. And promptly decided never to repeat that experiment again. It hurt. Why did people do that to themselves? Were they nuts?


"Uh, oh yeah. Yeah, Mom. It's nothing to…to worry about. Everything's just fine. Really."

Lois buried a soft cry in the hollow of his shoulder, pressing her face deep into the warm skin before she bit hard into the muscle beneath. Clark yelped. That hurt! Worse than pinching did! He was so shocked by the sensation that he almost missed his Mom's anxious whisper.

"Clark? Are you all right?"

"Huh? Oh, oh yeah, Mom. I — I stubbed my toe that's all."

Lois giggled quietly against his ear and he raised his eyes heavenward. The little minx was enjoying his discomfort. She began to kiss her way up the side of his throat. Her palm spread itself against his skin, her fingers cool.

"Oh." Martha sounded a little startled. He couldn't help but smile, distracted for a moment out of his discomfort as he realized that it was probably the first time in so long neither of them could remember that he had told her he had hurt himself.

"I'm okay, Mom," he said. "Really. I was just —"

A puff of warm breath whispered in his left ear. Lois bit down gently on his earlobe.

"…just…" He closed his eyes, stifling the low groan building in his throat as her tongue worked deliciously inside his ear. "…just making some —"


"…chocolate! I was just making some…some chocolate."

Clark closed his eyes and bit down harder to stifle the groan that tried to escape him as Lois's fingers stroked their way across shoulder. Oh…God. If ever there was a time to be Superman…exercise some of that world famous self- control…super-powers or no super-powers…

Nope. Self-control just wasn't doing it for him.

What did do it was the tell-tale and familiar squeak of the step second from the top of the staircase as his Mom stepped on it.


Clark's eyes flew open. "I'm fine!" he blurted and winced as his voice emerged a few octaves higher than he'd intended it to.

"Are you sure? You sound a little…"

"Just breathless."

There was a pause.

"All right. Get some sleep."

"Sure, Mom. Goodnight."

"Goodnight, Clark." Martha paused. Then: "I'm glad everything is okay."

"Couldn't be better, Mom," Clark said softly, unable to keep the grin out of his face now as he gave in to his partner's temptations. He wrapped his arms around the bundle of naked mischief on his lap, lacing his fingers against her hip, and placed his lips against one damp shoulder. Lois burrowed her head against his neck, the low throaty vibrations of her giggles thrumming against his skin.

Clark listened, barely breathing, to the soft sound of his mother's footsteps in retreat. As soon as he was sure she'd gone, he let out a slow and steady breath. Deliberately and with care, he put up his hands and wrapped his fingers around Lois's wrists, tugging them from around his neck. His eyes glittered dangerously as he pushed her back onto the sofa, ignoring her stifled giggles as he moved to cover her, pinning her hands to the sofa cushions either side of her head, his protest at her treachery emerging from him in a low growl.

"You are —"

She didn't try to free herself, didn't struggle and somewhere on the periphery of the moment his heart swelled with the awareness of her complete trust in him, her willingness to lie there, unafraid; naked and vulnerable in his grip…


He held back a low groan of desire with an effort as he became aware of her curves pressed against him as he held her down against the cushions. The thought, the image, the sensations were incredibly, deliciously erotic…but more erotic still was the sudden knowledge that those naked curves were no longer out of bounds.

His eyes shifted downward and then her low giggle brought him back.



"I'm what?" she prompted, tilting her head to view him with coquettish curiosity alight in her eyes.

For a moment he was baffled by the question, having forgotten entirely that he'd spoken. Then, he recalled it. "Oh."

He lowered his weight on her further, trapping her deeper into the sofa's cushions and bent his head to take hold of her bottom lip, tugging it gently between his teeth, before soothing it with his tongue. His exploratory touch moved upwards, following the bow of her upper lip, and then plunged into the warmth of her mouth, before he withdrew, raising his head slightly to look down on her.

"The most infuriating, insufferable, treacherous…"

She reached up and kissed him.

"…incredible woman I have ever known," he whispered after a long moment and after she let him go.

"Clark — " Lois started softly and then paused. Clark froze with her, tensing as he too caught the tell-tale patter of returning steps that stopped on the first step.

"Oh, and…Lois?" his Mom called cheerfully. "Before I forget — I was thinking about going into town tomorrow to stock up on supplies. You're welcome to come along, if you want. But I warn you, I'll be on the road by eight thirty, sharp."

Clark found himself with an armful of partner as Lois promptly collapsed against him in a fit of uncontrollable giggles.


Clark looked at the helplessly convulsing woman in his arms and rolled his eyes. "Uh, yeah, Mom," he answered dryly, since Lois seemed incapable of it. "I think she'd like that."

"Uh-huh. Well, I'll see you both in the morning then."

Clark shook his head as he heard her steps fade and the soft snick of the bedroom door closing behind her. Lois was gasping for breath now. He looked down at her, disgruntled.

"Are you quite finished?"

"Gosh, how…how embarrassing!" Lois clapped a hand across her mouth, her eyes sparkling up on him.

Clark grimaced. His own embarrassment had long since been reduced to weary resignation. Moms always had a sixth sense about their offspring being up to no good. Why had he imagined it would be any different now that he was an adult? If he lived to three hundred, she'd still outsmart him every time. "I'll say. It's taken almost twenty-eight years for my Mom to catch me making out on the sofa with my girl," he noted wryly.

As soon as the words were out of his mouth he cringed, but Lois seemed to be focused not on the time-scale, but the proprietary aspects of what he'd just said.

She took her hand away. "Your girl?"

His grin faded. "Ah, Lois — " he started hastily, aware that, despite what they'd just shared, the memories of which were still flashing shards of light in his head, he was making a gross presumption. "I didn't —"

"I like the sound of that," Lois said, almost shyly, leaning forward to kiss him lightly.

He looked at her for a moment, almost as if he was trying to convince himself that he'd actually heard her say that. Then a slow, sloppy grin spread itself across his face. "You do?"

"Uh-huh." She kissed her way down along his collarbone and onto his chest. Clark closed his eyes, then reached down to take her head in his hands and draw her back. He lowered his head, his grip shifting as it slid into the thickness of her hair, and took lazy possession of her lips, happy to just taste her, explore her, knowing there were days and nights to come when he would know her more intimately than he even knew himself and content to let that pace of days spin out as they willed.

Lois had closed her eyes, her head falling back against the sofa's arm as she whimpered softly and arched up into his mouth. Her hands stroked through his hair and then…her eyes snapped wide, she jolted upwards, dislodging him and causing him to look at her in surprise.

"What?" he asked, startled.

"Twenty-eight *years*?" Lois hissed, staring at him aghast.

Clark flushed. "Ah…um, Lois? There are a couple of things I need to tell you…"


(c) LabRat 2003

Usual disclaimers apply. No intentional infringement of copyright held.