By Kaethel <Kaethel@wanadoo.fr>
Submitted: October 2003
Summary: When Lois's past catches up with her, she is forced to face one of her biggest mistakes. Can the frightening trip down memory lane make her realise that her future could well be with that mild-mannered partner of hers?
First, I need to put blame where blame is deserved. <g> So, in a nutshell, this is all Wendy's fault! ;) She and I share the same taste for angsty songs, and the lyrics sometimes inspire us to write stories: it happened recently with Wendy's "It Only Hurts When I Breathe", and "Seasons out of Time" is my take on another of our favourite songs. :) I had never heard of the singer Delta Goodrem before the week I spent with Wendy last summer, but as soon as my wonderful host played the CD, I knew that "Not Me, Not I" would become my new obsession, and that the song would inspire me to write a little something. So this is dedicated to the hundred times the infamous duo sang this song together (because non content to play it over and over and over and over again, we sing, too <g>).
This story would never have been written if it wasn't for the help and encouragement I got from several women whom I'm very lucky to count as friends. :) So my most heartfelt thanks go to Elena, who saw the beginning of this, was extremely supportive, and brainstormed with me when I wasn't sure where to go with it, to LabRat, whose thorough beta-reading gave me loads of great ideas and extremely helpful encouragement, and to Wendy, who nagged, thwapped, growled, yelled, threatened, disembowelled (ouch), thwapped some more, BRd, brainstormed and even co-wrote the final scene with me. :)
Big thanks also go to the FoLCs who saw the first half of this and gave me more overwhelming encouragement than I ever thought I'd get with this story.
Last, but certainly not least, I'd like to give a very special thank you to my wonderful Archive GE, Tricia Walpole, for her usual support and help in fixing typos. It's always a pleasure working with you, Tricia! :)
Without you all, this story would never have been finished. :) On the other hand, maybe the gentle readers will think that it would have been just as well… ;)
*As a new door opens we close the ones behind
And if you search your soul I know you'll find
You never really knew me*
*If you think love is blind
That I wouldn't see the flaws between the lies
Surprised that I caught you out
On every single time that you lied
Did you think that every time I see you I would cry
No not me, not I*
Not Me, Not I written by Delta Goodrem, Kara DioGuardi, Gary Barlow, Eliot Kennedy and Jarrad Rogers, performed by Delta Goodrem
- (c) Sony Music Entertainment Australia 2003
"That new kid they hired downstairs still has a lot to learn. Would you believe he doesn't know his alphabetical order backwards? *I* had to help him with the research for Harrington's background. He couldn't even find his way through Who's Who. Anyway, I've got pretty much all I need on him now, and it looks like Harrington's past is way too clean." A gulp of coffee was swallowed in great haste before another flood of words hit Clark. "Too clean for a politician anyway. Makes me suspicious right away, and from what I saw the other night I'm sure I'm right. Clean politicians don't take cash from guys with police records as long as Hobb's River. Jimmy!!"
Clark watched, bemused, as Jimmy immediately dropped the stack of files in his arms onto the nearest desk and almost broke into a run towards them.
"Jimmy," Lois said without even waiting for the young gofer to make it to her desk. "I need you to check out Thaddeus Rourke's latest business interests for me. I want to know everything he did over the past few months, from the brand of his laptop computer to the type of orange juice he drinks for breakfast, and I want it as soon as possible, which means in half an hour or less."
Jimmy grabbed the piece of paper that Lois handed to him and rushed to a free cubicle with a muttered "got it" thrown over his shoulder.
"Not gonna let that kid do my research any more," Lois added once Jimmy was out of sight. "Jimmy's much more effective and quick for that sort of thing. So anyway, what have you got?"
She sat back on her chair and grabbed her coffee mug again. The grimace on her face was enough of a clue that the beverage had gone cold, and Clark fought the urge to lower his glasses and heat it.
"I think the best way to approach this story is to figure out what Rourke is up to, and why he needs to corrupt Harrington to get to whatever he's looking for," she continued without waiting for an answer. "Then we can examine how serious it is and whether we need to get the feds onto it. I'm sure Perry will try to talk us into it, so when he does, don't say a word and follow my lead. If the feds get their nose into it before we have enough information, then you can be sure that we'll never…" She trailed off, and her gaze shifted away from his face. She blanched, and the knuckles of the hand that had been holding her mug became white.
Clark turned around to see what she was looking at, just as a young man emerged from the elevator. He seemed older than Lois, if you went by the hint of silver lightening his dark hair near the temples. He wore a friendly smile and made his way down the ramp to the bullpen as if he knew the place. Several reporters raised their heads at his entrance, and Clark saw Ralph rush to the shake the man's hand. The barely hidden disgusted expression on the man's face as he returned the greeting was not anything to be distressed about. There didn't seem to be anything about the guy that could have caused his partner's stricken reaction.
Clark shifted his attention back to Lois. She still looked transfixed, and her eyes didn't leave the stranger as he cheerfully greeted Ferns, Wright and McEllison.
"Lois, are you okay?" Clark murmured as she still didn't move.
Then, just as abruptly as she had snapped into her strange demeanour, and as if his words had had the effect of an electric shock on her, she rose from her chair and made her way to the far end of the newsroom and, no doubt, the ladies room.
Clark frowned as she ran into the corridor and out of sight. Lois had seemed perfectly normal before the stranger had stepped into the newsroom — hyper, eager, and barking orders at everyone in sight, true, but this was normal behaviour for Lois. When she encountered stories as involving as Senator Harrington's corruption, she invested herself fully and without restraint. And it was one of the numerous aspects of her personality that he secretly loved.
The newcomer seemed oblivious to Lois's mad dash. He kept greeting reporters as he made his way to Perry's office. As the door closed behind the man, Clark felt torn between listening in to the conversation and trying to find Lois. Guilt kept him from using his powers for indiscretion; common sense kept him from rushing after Lois, aware as he was that she wouldn't welcome his comfort if she was upset about something.
She had made it very clear that she only put up with him on this story because it was the condition to get the Planet to pay for the Honeymoon Suite at the Lexor Hotel. And even though their first night hadn't been too bad, she was tolerating him, not actually enjoying his company. And she still treated him as a junior reporter, reminding him constantly that she asked the questions and took the lead, and that silence and submission were the most valuable contribution he could make to their investigation.
But this time she was upset. It was, in fact, the first time he had seen her react so strongly to anything. Not that he had known her for a long time, but he was certain that Lois Lane wasn't the type of woman who got the blood drained from her face without a very good reason.
Who was this man? Clark wondered, his gaze returning to the closed door to Perry's office. Who was he, and why had the sight of him upset Lois so much that she had virtually flown from the newsroom?
Was he a reporter from a rival newspaper? It seemed unlikely. Lois had never seemed very concerned about journalists writing for the Metropolis Star or the New Troy Post. She considered that the only reason why they worked for a paper other than the Planet was because they hadn't been good enough for Perry to hire them.
A former Planet employee maybe? Why would an old colleague make Lois so distr — Of course!
The name that came to his mind fitted with the image he had painted for himself after his partner had confessed the misadventure with the man. It was a name that Lois had pronounced in disdain when she had told him about it. A name that was still painful for her to pronounce, for it was associated with a memory that still hurt her. A name for which she had betrayed one of her three rules, a mistake she would never repeat, she had said, making sure he got the message loud and clear.
A name that had and still made incoherent rage boil inside him.
The French lover from the past. A man with no scruples or feelings, a man who hadn't cared, a man who had used sex as a weapon. He had slept with Lois just so he could steal her notes for a story.
And now he was in the Planet newsroom, mere feet away, and Lois hadn't been able to stay and face him.
Clark's fists clenched, and he took a step towards Perry's office, then stopped abruptly. What could he do? March into his boss's office and have a heated and very public argument with the man who had hurt his partner in the past? It would do even more harm than what Lois had gone through with Claude.
What he needed to do was to find her. Resolutely turning on his heel, he took the direction of the restrooms just as Lois came back into the newsroom. Her eyes were suspiciously bright, but he restrained the instinctive need to comfort her. Her face was determined enough to make sure that even he read the signs correctly: approaching her was suicidal when she wore that mask of contempt and anger.
"He's with Perry," he said simply, then flinched as she darted an angry glare at him.
For a moment, he thought that she would lash out at him — he was as handy a scapegoat as any — but she just nodded and turned her attention to the closed door behind which the object of her thoughts was hiding.
"Not now, Clark." Her voice was firm and steady, and the determination didn't vanish from her expression as Claude exited Perry's office. She watched him from where she stood, immobile, though it was impossible to say whether she wanted him to notice her or would rather he left immediately.
The former happened. The man's eyes settled on her, and Clark watched his expression change from feigned surprise to obvious pleasure. Apparently, Claude — for Clark was now certain that it was him — didn't feel ill-at-ease for what he had done to Lois.
He walked towards them and extended his hand towards him first. "I don't think I've had the pleasure to meeting you before."
Clark answered the greeting politely, though he was aching to turn his back on the man. "Indeed. I'm Clark Kent."
"Claude Vincent. I used to work here before I became a correspondent for the French department of the Planet in Paris. It was… a pleasant experience," he said, his eyes lingering on Lois and devouring her hungrily.
Clark nodded curtly, not trusting himself to say more. Claude didn't seem to notice his anger, though; he seemed too absorbed by Lois's challenging face to see anything else around him.
"Lois. It's been so long…"
"Not long enough."
"You haven't changed."
"You look older."
"Maturity is rather becoming on men."
"Is it? Depends on the man, I guess."
"How about some coffee?"
Lois crossed her arms in front of her chest and raised her eyebrows challengingly. "What makes you think I want to share coffee with you?"
"Share?" Claude's tensed smile turned into a smirk. "I'd thought we would each have a mug. The coffee in this newsroom is much better than at Starbuck's if I recall correctly."
"Funny how your selective memory works. Coffee is reserved for people who work here."
"I used to work here."
"But you don't work here any more."
"I see you've missed me."
Lois rolled her eyes and snorted. "In your dreams. In fact I had forgotten your existence."
"Lois…" Claude darted a quick glance towards Clark, betraying his uneasiness.
He felt uncomfortable then. Good. Lois was behaving admirably, considering what Claude had done to her. And obviously, her former lover hadn't expected such aplomb from her.
"I'd like to talk to you."
"Talking to you isn't my top priority right now. In fact it's far down the list. In case you haven't noticed, you're in a newsroom here, and I've got a front page story to write."
"Please." He reached for her hands, seizing them in his.
Clark expected her to snatch them away, and he held his breath, ready to back her up if Claude didn't let her go despite her reluctance. He watched, powerless, as the blank mask of indifference covering her face dropped, unveiling vulnerability. To his dismay, she nodded and let Claude lead her into the conference room.
Lois found herself alone with Claude without truly realising how or why she had followed him. She had managed to stay strong at first, determined as she was not to show him how his presence affected her. She had wanted him to believe that she didn't care, that what had happened between them was buried in the past, that whatever feelings she'd had for him had disappeared.
She had been kidding herself.
Alone in the privacy of the ladies room, it had been easy to talk herself into putting on a brave face. It had been easy to pretend that Claude didn't have any effect on her any more, that she could contemplate her relationship with him as a simple memory.
She had managed to keep her emotions under control. Splashing cold water onto her face and considering the situation in an environment where she could take the time to think, it hadn't been too hard to convince herself not to collapse in front of Claude. Or in front of anyone else, for that matter. Running out on Clark had already been bad enough; her new partner had a tendency to know the way she felt and offer comfort.
She obviously hadn't been discreet enough for him not to put two and two together. He had known that her change of mood was somehow related to Claude's entrance, and he hadn't shown any surprise when Claude had introduced himself to him, as if he had known all along who the stranger was.
Ever since she had confided the dark secret of her relationship with Claude to Clark, she had feared that some circumstance would bring the two of them in a situation where the topic would be thrown back onto the table. But her fear had eased with time as she realised that Clark behaved as if she had never confessed anything to him. He had been admirably discreet on the subject.
And it had felt good, knowing that he was at her side, standing next to her, and showing less friendliness towards Claude than a pit-bull. She had been proud of him. Not just proud, she amended quickly. She had felt reassured, and cared about. Clark cared about her, and he hadn't judged her for sleeping with Claude. He seemed to have chosen to take her side instead, and she was grateful for his support.
But now he wasn't standing next to her any more. He had given her an encouraging look when she had followed Claude into the conference room, and she could still see him through the open blinds. He was sitting at his desk, but he wasn't fooling her: his eyes kept darting back towards her every few seconds. She should feel irritated by his protectiveness, but at the moment it was the only thing that kept her from collapsing in front of Claude.
"Claude." She hissed the name out loud, fuelled by a hatred of the man that she hadn't felt since he had left. Her eyes met his, and her fury increased at his lack of shame. How dare he come back? How dare he act as if nothing had happened? How dare he behave as if he was still welcome in here, as if he still had friends in the newsroom, as if anyone cared about his new career?
Of course he behaved like that. He had every reason to. He was still welcome, he still had friends, and many reporters did care about his career. No-one knew the truth. No-one would ever have believed her side of the story, had she been brave enough to share it with her colleagues. No, not brave, she amended stubbornly. Courage had nothing to do with it. She just wasn't the type of person who liked to share her personal life with a bunch of reporters. She had chosen not to speak because sometimes silence was a better alibi than long and confused explanations.
She hadn't wanted to explain. Claude's version of what had happened obviously distorted the truth in ways she would never have imagined, and any self-respecting friend should have immediately known that it was a pack of lies. None of them had questioned Claude's word. None of them had cared to know what she had to say on the subject. None of them had been a real friend.
And she had been too much of a coward to stand up and tell them. Again today, she had almost taken the cowardly way out, rushing to the ladies' room instead of facing him. And now that she was finally in front of Claude, she felt at a loss. There were so many things she ought to tell him, so many words that she should hit him with while he was here, at her mercy.
She wasn't the junior reporter any more. She wasn't his little protegee.
He smiled at her, and the sight of his handsome face made her want to slap him with the force of her anger.
"It's good to see you again."
"Speak for yourself," she muttered under her breath. She knew she shouldn't let him see how much she hated him. She should show him that he was insignificant, that she had never cared about him, but her emotions were too hard to conceal. No matter how much she had tried to push him out of her mind, she had been in love with him. Enough to make love to him after barely three dates. Enough to believe that his words, softly spoken in her ear as he loved her, came from the heart.
He took a step towards her, and she wanted to move away, but she felt rooted to the spot. He didn't have any effect on her any more, she told herself stubbornly. He didn't have any power over her. He never had, and he never would.
He stood there, mere inches from her, though not touching her. She knew what he was doing. She knew, and she wouldn't fall for it. Never again.
"Lois," he said softly, his angel eyes looking down at her in the way that had made her fall for him not so long ago. "We're not in front of the rest of the newsroom any more. You can quit the pretence."
She tried to blink, but was unable to break eye-contact with him. "Pretence? What pretence?"
"The pretence that you dislike me."
She had to snap out of it. She had to get away from him, put some distance between them, between the memory of what he had been and what he truly was. A swine. A manipulating swine. She stepped away from him and walked to the window at the far end of the conference room. "You're right," she said, more steadily now that she was facing away from him. "I don't dislike you. In fact, the word 'dislike' is way too weak to describe the way I feel about you."
She turned around just in time to catch his expression of annoyance before he wiped it off his face. "You can't blame me for what happened, Lois. You wanted it to happen as much as I did. Probably more."
"God, next thing you're going to tell me I begged you to make love to me. No, hang on." She raised her hand, pre- empting his response. "It wasn't about making love. It was about having sex. Nothing more than that."
"Really? Do you tell all your lovers that you love them?"
Tears pricked her eyes but she stubbornly held them back. She would *not* give him that pleasure. She would *not* cry. She hadn't cried over him for years. She hadn't cared about him for years. She had forgotten his existence… mostly. He had no power over her. He never had. And he never would.
And yet… he was right. She had told him she loved him. He was the only man she had said the scary words to, and he had trampled on her feelings unceremoniously, using them unscrupulously, manipulating her to bring her to his mercy. He had succeeded, too. She had been an idiot where he was concerned. She had believed that he truly cared, that he truly loved her.
"Thought not," Claude said with a smile. He lifted his hand to cup her cheek. His fingers were buried in her hair, and his gaze captured hers again. "You don't have to be ashamed of your feelings, Lois."
"I…" She blinked and pushed his hand off her face. "No. I'm not ashamed of feelings I might have had years ago. Whether they were real or not, they're in the past. They were in the past as soon as I realised what you had done."
"What I had done?"
She maintained a cool facade, ignoring the pain stabbing at her heart. "Maybe it's time I returned that deeply indiscreet question of yours. Do you steal stories from all your lovers?"
"Come on, Lois, I didn't steal that story."
"Oh yeah? What do you call it? Borrowing?"
"You'd never have convinced Perry to put it on the front page as it was. It needed more than the big break you told me about. It was a start, but certainly not enough."
He was delusional. If he truly thought that she was going to fall for his innocent act, he *was* delusional. "And so you thought that whatever you added to make it viable justified a change of byline?"
"I was a senior reporter. It didn't take much for a story I wrote to be accepted for printing. What was I supposed to do, wait until Peter Brown got more drugs out on the street, drugs that would be sold to kids to kill them? By writing that story, I saved them!"
"And what you're telling me is that I'm supposed to be grateful."
He raked a hand through his hair and had the decency to look embarrassed. "I don't expect you to understand the reasons why I took that story and got it printed under my name. Perry trusted me."
"You weren't just satisfied with breaking my trust, were you? You also had to fool Perry in the bargain?"
"I didn't break anyone's trust!"
She shook her head and pointed an accusatory finger at his chest. "How about sleeping with me just to make me talk?"
"I didn't sleep with you to make you talk."
"What did you do that for then?" She could hear the sound of her heartbeat racing in her breast as she waited for his answer. What had prompted her to ask that question? Did she truly want to know why Claude had dumped her? Did she need to know what had let her humiliate herself with a declaration of love he hadn't returned?
He hadn't said he loved her. He had made no promises. He had thought that sleeping with him meant nothing. He had thought that the confession of her feelings could be ignored. And she had been fooled through all of it. She had been young and in love, and she had believed that he had been too embarrassed to say that he loved her, too.
He was right. She had been a willing participant. She had barely taken the time to know him, and if she had, she suspected that she wouldn't have fallen for his smooth act of the romantic lover. She had never been into casual sex; even when love wasn't spoken in words, it had been present in the few relationships she'd had in college. It hadn't occurred to her that Claude would be different.
Or rather, she had hoped he would be different, but only because it was the first time that she had felt certain enough of her feelings to confess them aloud. She had craved his touch, craved his love. She had thought that if he made love with her, it would bind him to her more efficiently than simple words.
How wrong she had been!
"Lois, you're an attractive woman. You wanted me, and the feeling was mutual. What was wrong with that?"
"Mutual? You thought I was the kind of woman who did one night stands?"
"Hey, I didn't know you expected more!" he protested defensively. "We barely knew each other."
"I told you I loved you! Or didn't that mean anything to you?"
"Most people don't mean those words." He shrugged, a gesture that infuriated her more than what he was saying. "They've been spoken so many times that they're empty of meaning these days."
She knew she shouldn't have reminded him of the feelings she had harboured for him at the time. She knew that he wouldn't hesitate to demean them a second time. She looked up at his handsome face, the same handsome face that had haunted her nights for long weeks before he noticed her. The twenty-one-year-old woman had fallen for the image of a mature, experienced lover who had given her the impression that he was so besotted with her that he wouldn't ever leave her.
That night, she had believed that she meant something to him. And in the years that had passed since, she had taken refuge in the belief that maybe he'd had some respect for her love; even that shelter was crumbling right now, blown down by the detachment he displayed when talking about their relationship.
"Lois, I didn't come here to fight."
"Oh yes? What did you come here for then? To gloat? To watch how badly I was doing? Disappointed?"
"Not at all. I knew all along that you had great potential as a reporter, and you proved me right. Did you take that Clark Kent under your wing?"
"Clark Kent doesn't need a wing. Clark Kent is a fine reporter. One who would never use me for career- advancement, not only because he doesn't need that sort of trick to be a talented man, but also because he's caring and honest. One I trust enough to accept him as a partner!"
"Trust… now that's a word I never thought I'd hear you speak."
"It's not a word I expected you to know," she retorted, still amazed at how easy it had been to take Clark's defence. But it was true: she trusted Clark. He was a good reporter, and he had proven over the past few weeks that he was a reliable partner. And he hadn't betrayed her — she had told him what had happened with Claude, and he had never breathed a word to anyone in the newsroom.
"I never intended to betray your trust, Lois. I know that's the way it looks, but if you hadn't flown off the handle we would still be together. I liked you a lot."
"Let me reassure you on something. The feeling is not mutual. So if you came here to tell me that we'd have made a fine couple if I hadn't let myself get angry at your untrustworthiness, you shouldn't waste your breath. I'm perfectly happy with my decision to fly off the handle, as you put it. Now if you'll excuse me, I have work to do. I'm sure you can find your way out."
She started towards the door, but he caught her arm, and once again his touch sent her determination out the window. Every touch reminded her of the night they had shared, of the way she had bared her soul to him as he loved her. Or rather, pretended to love her. If he hadn't made her feel so cherished, it might have been easier to push him out of her mind. If she hadn't felt even more in love with him the morning after, trying to find plausible explanations for his disappearance, it might have been easier to shrug off the sensation overwhelming her every time he touched her.
"I didn't think I would see you," he whispered, his breath grazing the skin near her ear and making her shiver. "I came here to retrieve some administrative papers from Perry, and I knew that there was a chance you might be here. I didn't know whether I wanted to see you again or preferred to sneak in and out while you were away on a story."
"Sneaking in and out without being seen is definitely an art you've mastered."
"I didn't want to wake you."
"In case I challenged your decision to steal my notes?"
She had half-hoped to make him angry, to see a flicker of emotion across his face. But he didn't reply, nor did he seem to acknowledge her pique. "I've been keeping a watch on your career, Lois, and I'm very impressed by what you achieved. You've become the Planet's top reporter in a short time, and you've maintained yourself at the top, too."
"Is this some sick joke I'm supposed to find funny?"
He ignored her interruption again. "But as soon as I saw you, I knew I regretted what happened between us."
"At least we have that in common."
"Lois, if you tried to understand, you would see that it was just a misunderstanding."
She snatched her arm from his grip and faced him. "Probably, but you know what? I don't want to try to understand. I haven't spent the past five years reliving that night and wondering why you ran out on me with my story. I have better things to do with my time."
"Like being with Kent?"
She blinked, taken aback by the abrupt change of subject. "What? What's Clark got to do with this?"
"I've seen the way he looks at you. Come on, Lois, how long do you think you two can keep it a secret?"
What was he talking about? "Keep what a secret? What way?"
Claude laughed and didn't answer her query. "I'd better get going," he said instead. "It was nice to see you again, Lois."
He stopped and turned around, much to her dismay. She didn't know why she had asked him not to go. She should be relieved that the interview was over, that he was about to step out of her life once and for all, but what he had said was intriguing enough to query. It irked her that he dropped hints and left before she could find out more — it was typical of him, of course, but she didn't seem to be able to put it past her.
She noticed that her hand was resting on his arm, and she quickly withdrew it, feeling as if she had been burned by an electric charge. It was too late, though; Claude had noticed her hasty retreat, and he was smirking at her discomfort.
"Lois, if looks could kill, I imagine I would be dead right now."
She didn't answer, unsure whether it was a good thing that her hatred for him was so obvious. By hating him, she was showing him that she had cared, that she still cared, and that the hurt he had inflicted her wasn't forgotten. She was giving him a power over her that he didn't deserve, but she was unable nonetheless to conceal the feeling of disgust that invaded her at his sight and at his touch.
This time when he made for the door, she didn't hold him back.
Clark had been keeping a close watch on the conference room for the ten minutes Lois and Claude stayed in there. He had successfully fought the urge to tune into the conversation, resolute to respect Lois's privacy, but now that Claude was heading out of the newsroom he wanted to be with his partner. He knew that she probably didn't want his comfort; maybe she didn't even need it.
He wanted to wait for her to join him at his desk, but she stayed in the conference room long minutes after Claude's departure. Unable to contain his concern any longer, Clark walked into the conference room and shut the door behind him.
She was sitting at the table and staring into space. She didn't acknowledge his presence, nor did she seem surprised when he laid a hand on her shoulder. "Please, don't say a word."
"Do you want me to leave?"
"No!" She looked up at him, her eyes bright with tears, and he felt his heart break at the sight. "No," she said more calmly. "Stay. Please."
He nodded and pulled her to her feet to wrap his arms around her. She leaned onto his chest, fisting her hands into his jacket and burying her head against the collar of his shirt. She didn't cry. She clung to him, her body stiff with tension, giving no reaction to the brush of his hands on her back.
All he could see was the dark mass of silky hair pressed to his neck. All he could hear was the loud beating of her heart against his chest. All he could feel was the warmth of her body pressed against his.
He sighed against her, and his arms tightened around her. "It's gonna be all right, Lois," he whispered into her hair and was rewarded by a tiny movement of her head.
He needed to stay calm and reassure her. He needed to show her that Claude couldn't hurt her any more. Deep inside, though, he was boiling with pent-up fury, and it took all his willpower not to run after the man and tear him from limb to limb. Sitting at his desk while Lois was locked in the conference room with Claude had been pure torture; watching her distress as she collapsed in his arms was almost worse.
He had known that she had been putting on a brave face in front of her ex-lover. He hadn't been fooled by her aggressive act or the anger animating her face as she spoke. But her voice had been unsteady, her gestures brusque; Claude had managed to destabilise her.
He should feel guilty about listening in to their conversation. He had tried several times to tune out and occupy himself with something, *anything* to take his mind off what was going on a few feet away. But when he had caught Lois sneaking a glance towards him, as if looking for reassurance, he had felt unable to resist the urge to be there with her, if not physically, then at least in one way rendered possible by his powers.
And so he had heard everything. And when Claude had reached for Lois's arm, holding her back before she got out of the no doubt unbearable atmosphere of the room, he had barely noticed the shards of wood showering his desk when the pencil he had been holding splintered in his hand.
No, there was no remorse about listening in to a private and very confidential conversation. There was only remorse about not getting up from his chair and dragging Claude out of the building by the seat of his pants.
Lois straightened in his arms, and he loosened his embrace to look at her face. She was hiding behind the curtain of her hair, and she ducked out of his hold to stand a few feet away, her back on him.
"Clark…" she breathed after a while. "I'd appreciate it if you didn't —-"
He pre-empted her concern. "I won't tell anyone. You don't have to worry about that."
She turned around and gave him a grateful smile.
"But remember this, Lois. He's doesn't deserve to have had someone as terrific as you in his life."
She lowered her eyes and sighed wearily. "I know. He's not worth crying over. I've been telling myself that for five years."
"And bottling it up isn't doing any good either," Clark pointed out. He knew that was what Lois had been doing. She wasn't the kind to publicly wallow in self-pity, and she pushed whatever had hurt her to the far back of her mind until it caught up with her. Like it had today. "There are some things that you need to get out of your system."
She looked at him curiously and opened her mouth as if to say something, but apparently changed her mind. She remained silent.
"You have never talked about this with anyone, have you? Not even Lucy?"
She gave a bitter laugh. "God, Lucy would have a field day, telling me again how I always make the wrong choice where men are concerned. She's just as bad as I am — it's a family thing — but she can't see that of course. And to her, if I'm jumping right in with a guy and it's a disaster, it's because I didn't know him well enough. But if I stand by and wait, she complains that I'm not trying hard enough."
"I don't think anyone can claim they've always made the right choice where relationships are concerned." And it was true of him, too, Clark thought inwardly. His fling with Lana had created havoc with their friendship; they had managed to remain civil to each other afterwards, but it had taken a long time to rebuild the trust that had disappeared when he had found his girlfriend making out with Pete Ross. At least he had known before he got himself too involved with her. Unlike Lois.
"Oh yes, I'm sure everyone has a smudge in their track record. Even you. But I seem to collect smudges."
"Lois, everyone who is still single has a collection of failed relationships behind them. Claude is one of them. Does it mean you should regret your decisions at the time? I don't think so."
"You don't understand! I decided to throw caution to the wind because I was in love. I decided to sleep with him even though I barely knew him! I decided to ignore his reputation as a seducer because I believed it would be different for us!"
"Do you still love him?" She looked up sharply, and he winced. "I'm sorry; it's none of my business —-"
"I don't know."
"—- forget I asked… what?"
"I don't know if I still love him."
She sat at the table again, and he took his place beside her. He was tempted to reach for her hand, to initiate a physical contact that had become natural to him over the few weeks he had known her, but he didn't want his gesture to be misinterpreted. He held back.
"I thought it was over. I have thought about him maybe twice in the space of five years. And always as something I shouldn't have done. And I still believe I shouldn't have been with him at all. But when he reappeared today, part of me saw the man I first fell in love with. Part of me only wanted to remember the way he looked at me, the way he talked to me, the way he loved me that night. I'm sorry. I don't mean to make you uncomfortable with this."
Clark followed the direction of her gaze and noticed with embarrassment that his hands were tightly fisted. He forced himself to relax. "You're not. I'm just… well, I'll be frank. I'm furious."
This time her eyes flashed anger at him. "Well, I didn't ask you to judge me, Kent!"
"No! Lois, it's not you I'm furious with!" Without conscious thought, he covered her hand with his, needing to feel her physical presence for fear that she would run out on a misunderstanding. "I'm furious with *him*. It took everything for me not to barge in here and throw him out. Well, maybe what convinced me is that you'd probably have kicked me out after him if I had."
She gave him a small smile — the first he had seen since Claude had stepped into the newsroom. "Probably. Though I'd have been grateful to you for getting rid of him."
"And the way you feel about seeing him again is natural."
"Do you feel the same way about your ex-girlfriends?"
"No. But she's married to the man with whom she… well, she's married."
There was something about Clark's words that made Lois push her sorrow to the back of her mind and concentrate on her partner. He had never told her much about his past, and somehow she had never thought about potential relationships he had had before he came to Metropolis. To her, Clark had always been single and available. It was one of the immutable truths of this world: just like the sun rose every morning, just like the night fell every evening, Clark Kent was and would always be a sexless friend… boy, had she truly taken him for a eunuch? she wondered in disbelief. She couldn't have failed to notice that her partner was incredibly handsome — certainly other women had noticed, too, and acted upon their appreciation of his fine physique.
But Clark didn't only have a great body, she amended quickly. He was first and foremost a caring and affectionate friend. He had become important to her without her noticing it. Until now. Until he had held her against him and showed her that he cared without judging her. She should feel uncomfortable that he had seen her weak and vulnerable, but she felt strangely at peace with herself. She knew that Clark wouldn't betray her.
And, by the sound of it, he had gone through some tough relationships in the past as well. He was right — pretty much everyone had an experience with failed love before they found the right person, assuming they ever found them.
"I'm not saying I went through the same experience as you did, or that what happened between you and Claude is frequent enough to be dismissed," he said suddenly, and she could feel his agitation. Was he treading on eggshells around her? Did she give him the impression that she could fly off the handle if he strayed one step out of the tight boundaries she imposed on their working relationship? "I can't imagine how I would have reacted if I'd realised too late that Lana wasn't serious about us."
"Lana? Was she your girlfriend?"
"Years ago. Back when I still lived in Kansas. I was young and fancied myself in love, but it could never have worked between us. I know that now." He shrugged. "I can't say I have regrets either. Sure, for a long time after we broke up I wished it had worked, but I now realise that it would have been a mistake."
"Ah." A high school sweetheart, no doubt. More than that, if she went by the way Clark talked about what he had shared with that woman.
And… was it an impression, or was he looking at her more intently than ever? His gaze was resting on her face, his eyes darker and more penetrating than she had ever noticed. She held his gaze, surprised at her own lack of need to squirm uncomfortably. Without conscious thought, she felt herself lean towards him.
/How long do you think you two can keep it a secret?/
She straightened abruptly and felt her cheeks burn. What had she been doing? What had she been about to do? Panic instantly flooded through her veins as she realised that if it hadn't been for Claude's insulting accusation, she would have kissed Clark. Talk about following one big mistake with an even bigger one! Hadn't the experience with Claude been enough of a lesson?
And yet… She forced herself to look up at him, and saw that he was smiling encouragingly at her. He didn't seem angry or frustrated that she hadn't kissed him, yet he must have been blind if he hadn't seen that it was what she had been about to do. But he was still holding her hand, his fingers tightly wrapped around hers and his thumb lightly stroking her palm.
"He was an idiot not to see how lucky he was to have you in his life, Lois. Don't let him make you doubt how attractive you are. You're beautiful, you're brilliant, and whoever you choose to share your life with will be the luckiest man on earth."
She felt more tears threaten to run down her cheeks and scolded herself firmly. She had to get a grip on her emotions; it was a wonder that Clark hadn't run away from her yet. But then, Clark wasn't like Claude. The day she told him she loved him, he wouldn't take it as his cue to dump her.
The day… the day she told him she loved him?! What was she thinking?
Was she truly considering the possibility that her feelings for Clark went beyond friendship? That she… was attracted to him? To her partner? The thought should have been ridiculous enough to send her into fits of laughter, but it didn't. Instead, warmth spread through her as she thought about Clark as a potential… well, as more than a friend, she corrected quickly before she let herself voice the scary word.
Images poured through her mind, each more frighteningly appealing than the previous one: cuddling with him on a couch, watching a video without paying much attention to anything but each other, walking hand in hand with him or feeling the protectiveness of his arm draped over her shoulder, sharing a soft kiss and exchanging whispered promises of love…
And, if she ever did get so far as making love with him — not that she was actually thinking of doing anything of the kind, she told herself immediately, but in a purely hypothetical situation… if she did go to bed with him, somehow she knew that Clark Kent would never leave before morning. He would never see sex as an opportunity to take advantage of her.
He would respect her.
This time, she didn't duck her head before touching her lips to his. The kiss wasn't like anything she had ever experienced. She had expected unrestrained passion, a whirlwind of emotions that made her feel heady and disoriented. She had expected a frightening fall into a bottomless pit where holding onto the edge of her sanity became impossible. She had expected to lose control of her dawning feelings and plunge headfirst, mindless of the consequences. She had expected a repeat performance of the first moments of her relationship with Claude.
Instead, warmth and sweetness wrapped themselves around her as he kissed her back, making her feel safe and content with the soft pressure of Clark's lips against hers. She gradually relaxed in the certainty that he would be different, that this time there would be no pressure, no rush into anything as long as she wasn't ready.
She reluctantly pulled away from him, unable to hold back a satisfied smile when he groaned in protest. She indulged herself with another short kiss, then leaned her forehead against his.
No… please no. Don't let him ruin this moment with a declaration of undying love, she prayed fervently. She was unable to honestly return his feelings yet. She knew there was more than friendship between them — it would be tough to deny after that kiss — but she wasn't ready to acknowledge it yet. One step at a time. One tiny step at a time. She braced herself for the worst. "Yes, Clark?"
"Do you want me to tear him limb from limb?"
She straightened up in her chair, and her eyes widened in surprise. At least it wasn't what she had feared, but the mental image of Clark giving Claude what he deserved had its appeal. She caught the teasing gleam in her partner's eyes. "Would you do it if I said yes?"
"Would you visit me in my lonely jail if I did?"
"Would you kiss me again if I asked you to?"
The smile vanished from his face, and she felt her breath catch in her throat at the loving expression on his face. Clark Kent didn't need declarations of love to show her that he cared. She closed her eyes, her heart racing as she let her fears be swept away by his kiss.
Ending the kiss, she bit her lip as she gazed at him, the expression in his eyes making her both scared and cherished in equal parts. His hand on hers tightened. "Lois."
"Clark?" she said hesitantly, torn between flight and kissing him again.
"I know," he said softly, and squeezed her hand reassuringly.
"You know… what?"
"You're not ready. Are you?"
"Ready?" Stalling, she pretended not to understand. They were on the verge of something new here, and the ground beneath her feet where Clark was concerned, once so stable, was crumbling. She wasn't sure she could take the fall. Unless, of course, Clark was there to hold her.
"Ready to trust again. To… date… someone else you work with," he explained quietly.
Count on Clark to see right through her. Her gaze fixed on his, she shook her head dumbly.
"I know you're not. And… I'm willing to wait until you are. Until then — I'll be your friend. If you'll let me. Until you can trust me the way I trust you."
There was something about the way he said it that assured her that he wouldn't ignore the shift in their relationship either. She had half-expected him to take back what he had just given her and go on with their partnership as if nothing had happened. She had been sure that whatever he said, she would be stuck between discomfort and disappointment until even their friendship fell apart.
She shouldn't have been so unsure, she realised as he spoke. With Clark, it wasn't all or nothing. With Clark, there was no pressure for her to be completely committed to him or not at all. With Clark, she could take her time and get used to the new possibilities opening themselves to their relationship.
Their friendship wasn't going to be supplanted by the uncomfortable insecurities usually brought by love. Instead, it would be strengthened by this new and unexpected turn of events, this new dimension that she hadn't let herself consider before today. At least she could thank Claude for something: he'd opened her eyes at last.
With Claude, neither the time nor the man had been right. And she'd suffered for it; no matter how much she'd tried to pretend to her ex-boyfriend that she couldn't care less about him, he'd hurt her badly.
This time, the man was definitely right. It was just the time that wasn't… quite right.
But one day it would be.
And that day, Clark Kent would be there, waiting for her.
(c) Kaethel@wanadoo.fr — September 2003