By Wendy Richards <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Submitted: May 2004
Summary: After another disastrous date, Lois turns to Clark for support. Will she admit her true feelings and doubts about a relationship with him?
Author's note: This story begins in a somewhat similar manner to Erin Klingler's The Marriage Pact, one of my favourite of her short stories. However, I do diverge from that beginning! Erin's story wasn't the inspiration for this, and I almost didn't write this story as soon as I realised that I was thinking along the same lines as The Marriage Pact — but the two stories are quite different. However, if you like this and you haven't read The Marriage Pact, go do it now!
Thanks go, as always, to my wonderful beta-readers, Kaethel, Yvonne and Pam. This story is much better for your input!
And finally — this story is a birthday present for Annette Ciotola, owner of Annesplace, host of the Lois and Clark Fanfic Message Boards (www.lcficmbs.com) and a terrific friend. Hope you had a wonderful day!
I would also like to thank TriciaW, my GE, for her friendly and speedy work on this, as always.
All rights to the characters of Lois and Clark belong to DC Comics and Warner Bros; no infringement of copyright is intended by their use in this work of original fiction.
"Goodnight, Mrs Brazzini! You take care, now!"
"Night, Clark. Thanks for your help!"
Clark gave his neighbour a final wave and a smile before heading around the corner and to the steps leading up to his apartment. It had only taken him ten minutes to fix the leaky bathroom tap, but he'd been with her a further hour, eating her home- made tiramisu and hearing all the latest news about her family in Naples.
His neighbours were nice people. As he told friends in Smallville any time they started trying to sympathise with him about the anonymity and sterility of life in the big city, it was possible to find and build a community anywhere. All it took was a willingness to smile and say hello and offer to help. His neighbours had welcomed him from the day he'd moved in, and he'd responded to them just as he would have responded to Mrs Staples or Mr Johanssen or Betty-Sue Morgan in Smallville.
A city had streets and houses and people just like any small town did. Even when there were apartment blocks rather than family houses, people still lived there — sure, some of those people had busy jobs and barely saw the inside of their homes other than to sleep (and his partner sprung to mind there), but you could still pass the time of day with them, even if it was just a hurried 'good morning' and a smile every now and then.
Yes, he liked living in the city, and it had taken him very little of the eight months he'd been here so far to feel that Metropolis was his home.
Lost in pleasant thought, he almost didn't notice the figure sitting expectantly on his doorstep. She wasn't prepared not to be noticed, however; she was waving a hand pointedly up at him.
"Clark? Earth to Clark!"
"Lois!" He halted and stared down at her, before extending his hand to help her get to her feet. "What are you doing here? I thought you were out with… whatshisname."
"Yeah. Whatsisname." She stuck her tongue out, and his eyes widened.
"I take it things didn't go so well."
For the first time, he noticed that she wasn't exactly dressed for a date. Under her winter jacket, she wore a MetU sweatshirt, and the outfit was completed with jeans and trainers. Her hair was partly tied back in a scrunchie, and her face was scrubbed clean of makeup.
She looked barely more than a teenager. And, looking at her, he felt like a horny, stammering seventeen-year-old all over again.
"No, they didn't," she grumbled. "Are you going to keep me out on your doorstep all night? In case you hadn't noticed, it's getting cold."
Getting cold? It was still only February, and although it hadn't snowed for a couple of weeks, there was a chill winter breeze in the air. Of course, he hadn't noticed the temperature, but that was no excuse.
"I'm sorry! Come on in." He unlocked the door as he spoke, then stood back to let her enter before him. "It should be warm in here."
"It is." She stood at the bottom of the steps, arms wrapped around herself. "How on earth aren't you frozen, Clark? You don't even have a coat on!"
"Uh… I'm warm-blooded," he ventured, hoping that she'd buy the excuse. "How about some hot chocolate?"
"Ooh, I'd sell you my soul for some hot chocolate!" she exclaimed, turning to give him a longing look.
He'd happily settle for her body, Clark thought as he watched her. Then, with an inward wry smile, he ordered his hormones to settle down. "You don't need to do that," he assured her. "Maybe just make the byline Kent and Lane on our next front-page story, okay?"
He got a mock glare in response. "Don't push it, Kent!" Then, as if she was relenting, she added, "It depends just how good this hot chocolate is."
"Oh, the best!" He headed for the kitchen, and she followed him. "My mom's recipe. Have you had her hot chocolate?"
Lois shook her head. "But now you've set my expectations high, Clark. You sure you can match up?"
Clark paused in the act of collecting ingredients. "Is that a challenge, Ms Lane? I think I'm well able to match up to any challenge you might pose — but are you?"
The words had only escaped his mouth when he wondered just what he was doing. This was getting dangerously like flirting — and if Lois realised that, she'd be out the door quicker than he could blink.
But she raised one eyebrow, very slowly, then said, "Careful, Kent. I might just decide to tell Perry that I prefer working without a partner." The twitch of her lips gave her away. He grinned in response. "You'd miss me."
He was fully prepared for her to deny it, but she surprised him once more. "Yes. I think I would." Her tone suggested that the realisation surprised her too. Her abrupt change of subject wasn't unexpected. "So, where's this hot chocolate you promised me?"
"Coming right up." He set some milk to boil and assembled the other ingredients, real dark chocolate, cinnamon powder and one or two other items, mixing them into the cooking milk when appropriate. The final touches, fresh cream, marshmallows and chocolate sticks, he added once he'd poured the mixture into two large mugs.
"This looks *wonderful*!" Lois exclaimed. "What's this?" She waved the melting chocolate stick at him.
"It's called a Flake. They're made by an English chocolate company, Cadbury's — you can get them over here, though they're hard to find. They're just perfect with hot chocolate." Gesturing for her to precede him, he headed towards the living area. "Come and sit down."
"So, where were you tonight?" Lois asked him once she was sitting on the opposite end of his long, comfortable sofa.
He explained about Mrs Brazzini; Lois seemed mildly impressed that he would go to so much trouble for a neighbour. He just shrugged. "That's the way I grew up, Lois — if a neighbour needed something, we all rallied around. It's not so different here."
"I dunno. The city can be very different sometimes," Lois said, playing idly with the rug thrown over the back of the sofa.
And her comment reminded him… "So, Lois, what are you doing here anyway? I mean, it's only just after ten, and you *were* on a date tonight, but you're not exactly dressed for a date… What happened to whatshisname?"
She rolled her eyes, before dropping her gaze. "Whatshisname is history."
"Well, I guess I figured that much…" He let the sentence trail off, waiting to see if she would elaborate.
"Okay, since you're curious," she said, now sounding almost bitter. "It didn't work out. It wasn't going to work out. So I dumped him."
Whatever had happened, it had upset Lois. Clark extended his free arm across the back of the sofa, letting his hand lie lightly on her shoulder. "I'm sorry you had a lousy time."
In a way, though, he wasn't sorry. That was one of the reasons why he'd been so happy to spend over an hour with Mrs Brazzini; it had been an hour *not* spent alone in his apartment thinking about Lois on her latest date with some GQ-style, ambitious, sharp-suited guy who didn't deserve her — even if another Whatshisname was better than Lex Luthor. Wishing that he was the one with her instead. Trying not to think of her having a great time, enjoying herself, letting the guy kiss her, maybe even letting him do even more with her at the end of the evening.
Yes, he was glad that she'd had a lousy time.
But there was not a snowball's chance in hell that he would tell her that!
"He was an *octopus*, Clark!" she exclaimed. "He just thought he could paw me as much as he wanted!"
Clark's gaze fell on his hand where it rested on her shoulder; with a grimace, he moved it away. Lois's expression changed instantly to apology, and she reached out and grabbed at his hand. "I didn't mean that, Clark! I didn't mean you! I *like* it when you touch me…" she began, then trailed off, blushing.
A warm feeling stole over him. "I like touching you, too, Lois," he murmured softly, replacing his hand on her shoulder and squeezing gently. "Okay, so what did whatshisname do? And do you need me to go and take him apart for you?"
Her eyes widened. "Would you? If I asked you to?"
He shrugged awkwardly. "Well… I'm not really into violence, Lois. But — if you really wanted me to…"
She shook her head. "It's really sweet of you to offer, though. Anyway," she added, "what I meant was that he just wouldn't stop touching me, and it was all inappropriate. Like… you know the way you put your arm around the back of my waist sometimes when we're walking?"
Clark nodded. He did that a lot, he realised, and wondered if she was going to say that she objected.
'Well, he did that — but it was only an excuse to let his hand slide down over my butt!" she exclaimed in disgust. "He did that at least five times, even though the first time he did it I told him I didn't appreciate it. And he kept making excuses to walk past me, or around me, just so he could step a little bit too close and rub up against me. When we were sitting down — I was wearing a short skirt," she explained, "he kept touching my knee and sliding his hand up… And his arm kept brushing my breasts!"
Unable to help himself, Clark's gaze fell briefly to that part of Lois's anatomy. Yup, he could see why the guy would be tempted — but that didn't make it right.
"Yeah, he needs to be taken apart, all right," he growled. "You sure you don't want me to…?"
She was blushing, and he knew why. It had to be embarrassing for her to relate all that, especially to a guy. He hoped she hadn't noticed his surreptitious eyeing of her body — that had been pretty rude of him. She shook her head again. "No. It's okay. I already dealt with him, anyway.'
Curious, he asked, "What did you do?"
She grinned. "Well, we were having dinner. We were sitting at one of those semi-circular tables where he was sort of beside me, not opposite me. And when he leaned forward for about the fourth time just so he could look down my cleavage, I just picked up his plate and tipped its contents on his lap." She smiled triumphantly, as if reliving the moment. "It was beef in red wine. It'll stain horribly."
Clark gave a bark of laughter. "You didn't!"
"You bet I did! Anyway, then I just picked up my purse and walked out — the last I saw, he was desperately trying to mop it all up with his napkin without letting anyone else in the restaurant see what he was doing. But since I pointed at him and yelled, 'You pervert!' just before I left, I don't think he succeeded."
When he was able to speak again, Clark said, "Lois, remind me never to make you really mad at me, okay?"
She grinned, then thumped his arm with her free hand. "I never use the same revenge twice. So be warned!"
She turned her attention to her hot chocolate then; it had obviously cooled down enough for her to drink. Clark watched her face in the flickering shadows illuminated by the low table-lamp, which was the only light in that area of his apartment, enjoying the opportunity to observe her without being observed himself.
He saw her first reaction on sipping her drink: pleasure and relaxation, quickly followed by a sharp raising of her eyebrows. "Clark! This is *delicious*! It's way, *way* better than the hot chocolate at the Daily Java!"
"I should hope so, too!" he retorted, grinning. "I told you — it's my mom's recipe."
"Figures. Your mom's a terrific cook."
"So." He gave her a challenging look. "Kent and Lane, then?"
She turned her head to return his gaze, and gave him a slow smile. "I guess."
Lois snuggled back into the sofa once she'd drained her chocolate, debating with herself whether she could really justify asking Clark to make some more. It was incredibly decadent and no doubt highly calorific — but then, seeing as she'd barely eaten her dinner earlier, she probably deserved something delicious and fattening.
Clark's apartment really was amazingly cosy and homely, she thought, glancing around. It was strange; no interior design magazine would even give it a second glance — unlike hers — but it was such a restful, nice place to be. The shabby old sofa was so comfortable; she could easily curl up and sleep here. In fact, she reminded herself with an amused smile, she already had slept there on one occasion.
The low lighting worked, as well; it created a more restful atmosphere, for one thing. And also a more intimate one.
At that thought, her gaze fell on her partner, sitting at his end of the sofa and sipping his chocolate. He turned his head slightly and smiled at her; her gaze skittered away again.
This was Clark! Her partner — her friend. Definitely not someone to be having thoughts of intimacy with.
Maybe she should suggest that he put on another light. Or maybe she should go home.
But she didn't want to go home. That was why she was here.
For some reason, after abandoning Whatshisname at the restaurant and going home to get changed, she'd felt restless. Disturbed. In need of someone to talk to.
Needing to talk to Clark.
The phone wasn't good enough, she'd decided, and she'd jumped into her car and driven straight over, without any thought as to whether he'd be in or not. Thankfully, she'd only had to sit on his doorstep for a couple of minutes before he'd arrived.
He'd been every bit as understanding as she'd hoped; annoyed on her behalf, but also, she'd seen from the dancing light in his eyes, appreciative of the humour in the situation. That was her partner, all right. And that was why she'd wanted to be with him.
Nobody understood her like Clark did.
She turned to smile at him again. With a touch of relief, she saw that he was just Clark, the same ordinary guy she worked with and liked so much. Just Clark. Nothing extraordinary about him at all. Certainly nothing to engender that strange reaction she'd had a few minutes ago when she'd glanced at him.
"So, I take it you won't be seeing Whatshisname again?" he asked, laughter in his voice.
Lois grinned at him, shifting a little on the sofa. He moved too, sliding his arm from its current position to around her shoulders, in the process tugging her a little closer to him. "Comfortable?" he murmured.
"Sure!" She patted his knee. "You know how to make a girl feel at home, Clark. And no, I won't be seeing him again. Hell would freeze over…"
"So how many disastrous dates is that in the last couple of months?" he enquired, grinning with a level of amusement she thought was far too gleeful.
"Oh, I don't know…" he drawled. "How about dates where you swear blind you will never, ever speak the guy's name again? Where you tell him that he can see you again, but only if you don't see him coming first? When you call me to have breakfast with you the next day only so you can spend half an hour telling me what a slob your date was?"
Clark broke off, grinning widely, as she swatted at him with her free hand. "I do *not* have that many disastrous dates!"
"Enough, though," he said softly.
"Yeah." She grimaced, admitting that irritating fact.
Sitting back again, she relaxed into Clark's loose embrace. It really was just so nice to be here like this, in the undemanding company of the one man she actually liked. He made her laugh, kept her amused, stimulated and challenged her brain. And, best of all, he'd never once tried anything on with her.
It was such a shame that none of the men she dated seemed to possess those same qualities…
"You know," she murmured, snuggling more comfortably against her partner, "It's kind of a pity that you and I aren't attracted to each other, isn't it? I mean, we get along so well… and I can't imagine tipping boeuf bourguignon into your lap."
She was taken aback when he seemed to tense immediately. Then, sounding stunned, he said, "Who says I'm not attracted to you?"
Had he actually said that aloud?
Oh god, he had, hadn't he?
Wishing that he could sink through the floor, or hear a sudden cry for Superman and disappear, Clark shrank back against the sofa, expecting that any second Lois would leap away from him in horror.
She hadn't said anything. Oh god. It had to be at least twenty seconds by now, and she hadn't said a word.
But… uh-oh, she was moving. She was sitting up, pulling herself away from his arm around her shoulders, and she was…
She was turning to look at him. He tensed, waiting for the sarcasm. The cold, angry reminder that she'd warned him long ago not to fall for her. The biting response that she certainly wasn't attracted to him. The announcement that she was going home, followed immediately by the suggestion that he should take a long, cold shower. And the end of their comfortable, easy, *trusting* friendship.
He almost didn't dare to look at her face. But he made himself… and what he saw wasn't what he'd expected.
Instead of anger and rejection, he saw… curiosity. Surprise, yes, but none of the annoyance he'd been sure he'd see.
"You… are?" She sounded… almost flattered. But that couldn't be true. It just couldn't — not the Lois Lane who'd sat opposite him that night at the Planet all those months ago and warned him off her.
"Well… yeah," he confessed.
He hung his head, still unsure about what her reaction meant. "Yeah, I am. I'm sorry, I know you told me not to but… you have to know that you're a beautiful woman, Lois. And any man would be crazy not to be attracted to you."
"That's really sweet of you, Clark!" Lois exclaimed softly, reaching out to touch his arm. Relieved, he looked up again and smiled at her. Of course, being attracted to her wasn't the same as being in love with her, so it probably wasn't so bad from her point of view.
Then she looked at him, arrested. "Wait a minute… I told you not to?"
Ouch. He winced, wondering how he could've been so stupid as to give her that kind of opening. And how he was going to explain it.
"Well…" he began, spinning out the word in the hope that inspiration might strike somewhere between the first and the third syllable.
"Hang on," she began, realisation apparently beginning to dawn. "You mean when I warned you off falling for me? Clark…" She hesitated, beginning to nibble at her lip.
"Uh… yeah, then." Feeling as if he was under an obligation to say something, he acknowledged her statement.
"Oh, Clark!' She reached for him again, this time clasping his hand in her own. "I meant… I didn't mean…" Breaking off in apparent frustration, she head-butted his shoulder.
"What?" he asked, confused.
"It was the way you were looking at me. At least, I think you were," she explained. "I've… seen that look before. I'm not being mean, Clark, but you were all puppy-eyes and rapt admiration. And the last thing I wanted was for the new hire to develop a crush on me. I mean, you didn't even know me!" She grimaced apologetically. "That's why I said it. I guess it must have sounded really horrible," she finished.
"Well…" He shrugged awkwardly. "You were just making it clear that you weren't interested. I can understand that."
"No," she insisted. "I was making it clear to some guy I barely knew and I resented having to work with that he was wasting his time and mine if he got a crush on me. Clark, that was… oh, it feels like another lifetime now!"
"So, what?" he asked, still not understanding, not feeling at all comfortable with this conversation. "If I looked at you like that now, all puppy-eyes and rapt admiration — what?"
Lois caught her breath. Because Clark was looking at her, all puppy- eyes and rapt admiration — or at least something close to it.
And what did she mean? What did she want?
To tell him again, now, that he was wasting his time? That he shouldn't fall for her?
But if she did, she'd hurt him — hurt her best friend. He hadn't said so, and he'd been very careful about what he had said after that confession which she knew had been completely unguarded and which, she sensed, he felt had left him vulnerable.
And she didn't want to hurt Clark.
He was attracted to her. Part of her wondered if she'd known that all along but had somehow, for some reason, suppressed that knowledge. Attraction… that was no big deal, really. People were attracted to each other all the time without it meaning anything at all. She found movie stars attractive. The guy who cleaned the windows at the Planet once a month was a hunk, and she'd drooled over him once or twice when she was sure that no-one was looking. She found Superman attractive — well, he was gorgeous, a Greek god, a perfectly-sculpted specimen of manhood. Who wouldn't find him attractive?
And Clark? Yes. She found him attractive too; always had, really. Despite the unfashionably long hair and oversized suit he'd worn when she'd first met him, despite the geeky glasses he still wore — why on earth didn't he get more fashionable frames? — her first idle thought, when she'd deigned to notice his presence at all, had been that he was a pretty good-looking specimen. But not one she had any particular interest in, beyond — later — ensuring that he couldn't butt into her patch.
So, yeah, she'd been completely wrong in her assumption when she'd told Clark that it was a shame that they weren't attracted to each other. Because he was attracted to her — and she was attracted to him.
Oh, it was very tempting indeed… To answer Clark's question with actions, not words, and kiss him. To discover whether kisses born out of inclination as opposed to ruse would be equally sweet and equally desirable. To enjoy her intelligent, witty partner's company on a date or two over the next few weeks, sharing fun and great conversation with kisses and light romance.
Except that this was Clark, her partner, her best friend. How could she plan a light flirtation with him — a few dates and a little bit of passion — and then call a halt, as she did with all of her casual relationships, as if their friendship and their working relationship could continue undisturbed afterwards?
What if she lost his friendship as a result?
Wasn't it better therefore never to venture beyond the safe confines of their easy friendship?
But she was over-dramatising things, surely. She'd ended relationships before and still managed to keep the men concerned as friends. She still saw them occasionally, exchanged casual conversation with them, swapped snippets of gossip before parting amicably, promising to get in touch, to meet for a drink some day.
Casual conversation. Meaningless promises. Was that what she wanted to have with Clark?
Clark was different. Clark wasn't just a casual friend. He was her best friend — the brother of her soul. How could she possibly treat him in the same way as she treated the other men she'd dated in the past few years, relationships which had meant nothing and the ending of which had caused nothing more than the minor inconvenience of not having an escort to the latest movie?
Clark could never be the kind of guy she'd be happy to discard like yesterday's newspaper once she'd grown tired of him. She cared about him too much for that — *needed* him in her life too much for that.
The men she dated, she admitted suddenly, painfully, were chosen precisely because they could never mean anything to her. She could never care about them.
And so they could never hurt her.
So what if they cared about her? If her lack of feelings for them hurt? It was nothing to her — they were nothing to her.
She wasn't interested in love, or in commitment. In a relationship which meant anything. Not any more. Love meant being vulnerable. Ceding control. Getting hurt.
Ever since… him… she'd only dated men who meant nothing at all to her. To whom she was moderately attracted; whom she could kiss, and enjoy kissing, without feeling anything deeper. Without ever being tempted to want more or to give more.
Her relationships, if they could be called that, usually lasted around three or four dates, spread out over something close to two months. Since… him… she'd probably dated about nine or ten different men, some of whom, as Clark had reminded her, hadn't lasted beyond one date. Actually, that had happened more often since she'd known Clark. She just seemed, more recently, to have met only men who didn't measure up to her standards.
Not that she really needed dates right now — if she wanted an escort to the cinema, or company for pizza, she had Clark.
*Clark* was important to her. And that was why she could never relegate him to the ranks of the Identikit men she dated — the men who meant nothing to her. The men who couldn't hurt her.
Clark meant everything to her. And Clark could hurt her.
Far safer to keep him as her friend. To save any stronger feelings — any thought of that elusive, dangerous emotion called love — for the only man it was safe to have those feelings for: Superman, who was way, way out of her reach and would never return those feelings anyway. And, if she wanted dates, to keep going out with the kind of men who would never matter.
And there was one other reason not to give Clark a different answer this time, she realised as she mentally reviewed the conversation which had led up to Clark's question. He'd made her remember that she'd told him not to fall for her.
Not 'don't be attracted to me', but 'don't fall for me'.
Was it more than just attraction on Clark's part?
Had he actually fallen for her? Was he… in love with her?
Or maybe he just thought he was, she told herself with a sense of relief. He hadn't actually fallen in love with her. It was just a crush after all, wasn't it?
Or was it?
Far safer never to find out. Far safer to hurt his feelings a little again, now, than to give him hope only to dash it painfully at some later date. Far safer to guard her own heart by telling him again that he shouldn't fall for her.
Because Clark, she knew with a sudden shock, was the one real, down-to- earth man she could feel something for, if she let herself. The only man, since… him… who could persuade her to believe that love really existed. And who could really hurt her, far more than *he* ever had.
She swallowed, realising that she had to do this convincingly. She had to be calm, collected, casual, giving no hint of the turmoil she'd felt while coming to her decision. She wouldn't be needlessly cruel, but on the other hand she couldn't be too concerned about hurting Clark's feelings: being cruel to be kind was probably the best…
He was removing his hand from hers. And he was standing up. And, when she looked at him, his expression was withdrawn, his eyes behind the geeky glasses showing no emotion.
She'd waited too long, and he'd drawn his own conclusions.
"Don't worry about it, Lois." His voice was clipped, his tone distant. "I should never have asked the question. Forget it."
And he turned away, picking up their empty mugs and heading towards the kitchen.
What the *hell* had he been thinking?
He'd allowed the illusion of intimacy in their surroundings, the trusting way she'd been curled up against him, their conversation, Lois's confidences and the way she'd been so sweetly apologetic about her earliest reaction to him to persuade him that things really were different. That now she might not be averse to something more than friendship. That his feelings for her could at last be spoken.
What a fool he'd been!
He'd embarrassed her, that was clear. For several minutes after his stupid, pathetic question, she'd just sat there, not even looking at him. She'd been deep in thought, wrestling with difficult decisions, he could tell. Wondering, he'd guessed, just how she was going to break it to him that nothing had changed, that while she might be flattered that he found her attractive she just didn't feel the same way about him. Still didn't feel the same way — and never would.
She had probably been trying to figure out the kindest way to tell him. Well, he'd saved her the trouble, he thought savagely as he turned on the tap, rinsing their mugs with unnecessary vigour.
God, he wished he'd stayed another hour at Mrs Brazzini's. Then she would have given up and gone home before he'd got back.
He wished that she would just go home. That he could turn around once he'd finished his current task and find her gone. Or that he had been less well tutored by his parents in the fine arts of courtesy: then he could simply walk through to the bedroom and take off from his balcony, leaving her to draw her own conclusion — that he didn't want her here.
She was moving. He shut out the sounds, focusing on the splashing of the water. He didn't want to hear her leaving, hear the sounds of the door slamming behind her and her car being started. He didn't want to be aware of the moment she walked out of his apartment. He just wanted her to be gone.
So he shut his mind to all noise, all movement. And so he was totally shocked when he felt her arms come around him from behind, felt her lay her head against his back.
"I'm sorry, Clark. I did it again, didn't I?" she said, an audible choke in her voice. "Don't you know that you're the last person in the world I'd want to hurt? What is it about me that I always turn the relationships that mean anything to me to ashes?"
Unable to help himself, he turned and took her in his arms. It was his fatal weakness that he could never hold himself aloof from her tears. She was right: she had hurt him. But it sounded as if, in doing so, she'd also hurt herself.
He held her tightly, her head buried against his chest; after a few moments, he dipped his head to rest it on top of hers. He would make it all right for her. That was what he always did, after all. Some people might call it being a doormat, but Clark just called it being her friend. Just as she made things right for him sometimes, listening when he needed to talk, teasing him out of his rare bad moods. It was a mutual friendship — that was why it worked.
But to make it all right this time would involve denying his feelings for her, wouldn't it? Pretending that he'd only been kidding about that question he'd asked her. Pretending that his coolness, his distance, when he'd got up and walked away from her had been nothing — a misunderstanding.
She wouldn't buy it. But he had a suspicion that, for the sake of their friendship — which she seemed to need every bit as much as he did — she would pretend to buy it.
Pretence. There was already far too much of that in their relationship.
And suddenly he couldn't bear to have any more of it.
She stirred, and he loosened his hold on her, letting her step back just a little. "Clark?" She stared up at him, a question as well as an apology in her eyes.
"It's okay," he said quietly. "We'll be okay."
"Really?" She sounded cynical. "I wish I could believe that…"
Clark sighed. She wasn't the only one. But maybe… oh, maybe this time they had to get some of the stuff they usually avoided out into the open. Maybe that was the only way they could be okay.
"What have they got that I haven't, Lois?" he asked, more in despair than bitterness. "Those guys you date… I know you're not in love with any of them. If you're in love with anyone, I'd have thought it was Superman, anyway. You don't spend time with them the way you spend time with me. I don't think you even like some of them. What's wrong with me, Lois? What don't I have that you want?"
Oh, why hadn't she followed her first inclination and just left when Clark had gone into the kitchen? It would have been the cowardly way out, she'd told herself. She had to sort this out now, to tell him that she was sorry, that she'd never wanted to hurt him. If she'd left, then she probably wouldn't have slept all night, and at work the following day Clark would have been pleasant, cooperative — but distant. It would have taken them weeks, she knew, to regain their easy, comfortable friendship.
That wasn't what she wanted. And that was why she'd come to him, to try to make amends. But now she was faced with a question she didn't want to answer — because the answer was something she'd only just admitted to herself, and she wasn't ready to share it with anyone. Least of all Clark.
But he deserved the truth. And somehow she had the feeling that, without truth between them now, their friendship was doomed anyway.
She took a deep breath to steady her nerves, then met his hurt gaze.
"Clark, it's not anything they have that you don't. Don't you know? You're worth a hundred of any of them!"
He continued looking at her, his expression telling her that he thought she was patronising him. It wasn't enough. She'd have to tell him more — she'd have to tell him all of it.
"I date them because of what they're not, Clark. Because I don't care about them. Because I don't love them. Because I don't need them in my life so much that if I lost them I'd go crazy. Because… they don't have the power to hurt me. That's why. It's what you have that they don't — that's why it's always them and not you. Why it can't be you…"
As she trailed off, the lump in her throat making it impossible for her to continue, he stared at her with incredulity.
"You… feel all that about me? Lois -" His arms closed around her again, his embrace offering the same security as it always had. Reminding her once again of why she couldn't take the risk of losing him.
Letting her head rest against his chest once more, she mumbled, "So you see why I can't let us be anything more than friends?"
She felt him inhale deeply, and his arms tightened around her. "I think we already are, Lois. Aren't we?"
She froze in his arms. "No. I can't risk…"
Clark's hands moved to her shoulders, and then one hand tipped up her chin. "Risk what, Lois?" His voice gentle, he continued, "Tell me. I want to understand. You care about me, if I'm reading what you said right. So why can't you risk us?"
She shook her head, frustrated because he really didn't understand. "Because that's exactly what it would be, Clark. Risking us."
No, it didn't make sense to him. But that was probably because he was still trying to recover from the shock of what she'd implied about her feelings for him.
Had she really meant that if she lost him she'd go crazy? That she *loved* him?
She loved him as a friend, of course; he knew that… but yet she'd seemed to imply that it was more. That it was because he meant so much to her that she refused to see him as a boyfriend. Yet it was obvious from what she'd said that they were already much more than friends. He loved her — and she didn't think of him just as a friend either, however much she tried to pretend that she did.
He needed her to explain but, as he looked down at her, it was obvious that she wasn't in any state to give him a calm explanation. Tear- streaks still glistened on her face, and she was too pale.
Coming to a decision, he steered her to the kitchen table, pulling out a chair and pushing her gently into it. "I need you to explain that to me, Lois. But let me get you a drink first, okay? How about some more hot chocolate?" he offered cheerfully.
She nodded. "I'd like that."
He busied himself with making their drinks, all the time keeping up a steady stream of undemanding, light conversation. By the time he returned to the table and put the mugs down, Lois looked much more her normal self. "Thanks, Clark," she said, reaching out to touch his hand.
He closed his fingers around hers as he took the seat opposite her. "No problem. Want to tell me just what you meant, Lois? What risk is there for us?"
"Oh, Clark." She gave him a sad smile. "You have to know — I just can't do relationships. They never work out."
"Yeah, but you will keep choosing guys you know you don't want to be with," he pointed out.
"Of course! Because that way I can stay in control."
Clark stroked the back of her hand with his thumb as he reflected on that one. Lois was something of a control-freak; he knew that. So it probably wasn't too surprising that she'd want to have control in relationships too. But still… that didn't really explain her choice of men.
"Love's not a battlefield, Lois," he pointed out softly.
She shrugged. "Sometimes it is. But anyway, I'm not talking about love here."
"I am," he said, catching and holding her gaze. "I love you, Lois. And from what you said, I think you love me too."
He half-expected her to deny it. And, when she shook her head, he was sure that she was about to. Instead, though, she said, "And that's why we can't have a relationship, Clark. That's why I can't take the risk of losing you."
He stroked her hand with his thumb again. Control. Risk. Loss. He still couldn't see the connection between them, nor what it had to do with Lois refusing to take a chance on love with him. "I'm still not following here, Lois. Mind explaining for me? Slowly?"
"I can't make relationships work," she repeated. "Whenever I've tried… it's all gone wrong. I don't know if I do something to make men treat me badly, or if I just can't pick the right ones to begin with, but it's always been a disaster. And, Clark, I don't want that to happen with you!" She shrugged, and he could see a tear shimmering in her eye again. "I date those guys because I don't care if it doesn't work out. If we dated and it went wrong… You're the one man I can't bear to lose, Clark. So I just can't take the risk!"
Her words sank in, and Clark remembered something she'd once told him. About a man, another reporter, whom she'd slept with and who'd stolen her story. In hindsight now, he could see that the other man had also stolen her trust. And probably more — given what he knew of Lois, he was very sure that she didn't give her body lightly. Whatever he'd thought earlier, he was now confident that she never slept with any of her dates.
So the unknown reporter — wait a minute; she'd said his name was Claude — so *Claude* had wormed his way into Lois's confidence, and probably into her heart. He'd claimed to love her, no doubt, and she, believing herself loved, had given him a precious gift — not just her body, but her trust. And he'd used her, rejected her and left her doubting herself. Not trusting her own instincts, her own attractiveness, and believing that men were deceivers.
Over just one man?
But then he remembered her relationship with her father — another betrayal, he thought. And hadn't Lucy Lane once hinted at a man Lois had known in college? Another broken relationship, and which had also left scars — although Lucy hadn't been explicit in her aside to him, he had a feeling that she'd intended that message to get across.
He reached across with his other hand, trapping hers between his two. "Lois, there's nothing about you which makes men treat you badly! Blame them, not yourself. If they were stupid enough not to realise what they had…" He shook his head, then added, "I can't promise that I'll never hurt you. No-one can promise that. No-one knows what's around the next corner. But I can promise you that I'll never deliberately use you, or betray you, or abandon you, or cause you pain."
"You can't promise that," she objected, although he knew he'd seen a momentary flash of hope in her eyes. "Like you said, no-one knows what's around the next corner."
"You think something's going to happen to make me *want* to hurt you?" he challenged her. "I love you, Lois. I could never want to do that. But I can't convince you of that," he pointed out gently. "You have to trust me."
And that was the big stumbling-block — trust. Was it him she couldn't trust, or was it herself and her own judgement?
She was more honest than he'd expected — but that was Lois all over. "I don't trust love. You say you love me now, but how can I be sure you still will in two months' time? Six months' time?"
He gave her a wry smile. "I've loved you for eight months already, Lois. How's that for constancy?"
"But we weren't together," she pointed out. "How do you know that you'll still want to be with me if we start dating?"
"Because I trust my feelings for you." He shrugged. "That's what it comes down to, you know. Trusting how you feel. And I'm not pretending that it's easy, especially if you think you got it wrong before — but, see, I've always believed that making mistakes helps you to be stronger and learn to avoid making the same mistake next time — not to run away."
"I'm not running away!" she protested, but he could tell that she knew he was right.
"Yes, you are, Lois," he said softly, and she nodded.
"Maybe I am. But it's safer that way. And I get to keep you in my life, Clark. I told you," she added, sounding more agitated. "I can't risk losing you."
"So we stay friends?" he queried. At her nod, he continued. "And one day, Lois, I'll meet someone else. Maybe fall in love with her. Maybe marry her. And you'll lose me anyway — at least, you'll lose what we have now."
He was by no means convinced that was true; right now he couldn't imagine himself ever loving anyone but Lois, but he was also honest enough to acknowledge that it could happen. He couldn't wait around for ever, hoping that she'd change her mind — and one of his dreams was, as he'd told his father months earlier, marriage and a family. He loved Lois now, but did love endure in the long term if it wasn't returned? Of that he wasn't sure.
She flinched. "You play dirty, Clark Kent." And her voice was shaking.
"I'm sorry. But you have to know it's true." He squeezed her hand again. "I love you, Lois Lane. I want to say that I'll always love you. I know that I've never loved anyone the way I love you. But I can't settle for best friends forever, and love, if it's not returned… is hard to sustain. And anyway, I want more out of life than being the best friend of the woman I love — I want you, but if you don't want me, or won't have me, then…" Deliberately trailing off, he held her gaze to ensure that she got the message.
"Then you'll find someone who will," she finished for him. "So I have a choice — I either take the risk of losing you now, or I will lose you later.'
"Life's about taking risks," he told her. "You know that. You take risks all the time — every day of the week you scare me rigid thinking that you're going to get yourself killed! And you can't tell me that you're not scared of dying."
"You're right. I do. And -" She shrugged. "When I let myself think about it, yeah, I'm terrified. Even though Superman's somehow managed to get there for me most of the time — and you have a few times too. I've been pretty lucky."
"You have. And, Lois, I'm not kidding — it *terrifies* me when you do things like that! But have I ever seriously tried to stop you?"
"Just try it, Kent!" she challenged.
"I wouldn't. Because that's the way you are," he pointed out, developing his argument. "So why won't you take risks in your personal life?" Then he answered his own question. "Because experience has always shown you that it doesn't work?" At her nod, he added, "Lois, I'm not Claude. You must know that by now. Do you really think that I'd walk away from you?"
"Something about me makes men walk away," she mumbled, so quietly Clark knew he wouldn't have heard it without his special abilities.
"Wouldn't you say I know you pretty well by now? I've worked with you, spent time with you, even shared a honeymoon suite with you — I've seen the worst Lois Lane can offer, and it hasn't scared me away yet." He threw her a smile. "Look, here's another promise — and I mean it. Go out with me. Give it a try. You might even like it. Heck, you could even find that you love it. And if it doesn't work out, we can go back to being friends."
"What, even if we break up because we have a fight?"
"Lois, how many times have we had a fight and still made up afterwards?" he said incredulously.
"I guess so." After a moment, she added, "You've had to put up with a lot from me."
He raised an eyebrow. "I love you. Goes with the territory. Besides, you've put up with a lot from me too. Remember the Godzilla doll?"
That got a grin. "Though I deserved that."
"Yeah, you did." He winked at her. "Come on, Lois — wouldn't you rather go out with me than yet another whatshisname?"
She hesitated again, avoiding his gaze, and suddenly another thought struck him. His heart sank. What if he was wrong? What if what she was saying was that, while she loved him, she loved someone else more?
"Unless…" he said slowly, trying to keep the bitterness from his voice, "you really are in love with Superman."
"What?" At that her head shot up. "Superman? Clark, you must have worked out what that was all about — you seem to have figured out everything else."
He shook his head. "I don't know what you mean."
"Superman. He's safe," she explained. "Of course I can love him — he's never going to love me back! He's never going to buy that house with the white picket fence and ask me to come and live there with him. I don't *have* to take any emotional risks to love him. He's just… there. And, yeah, I do hope that maybe once in a while I can have a few minutes alone with him, and that maybe he'll even kiss me again the way he did once. But I know that's all it ever will be. No risk, Clark. Not like there's a risk with you. Because you do love me back."
Superman was *safe*? Because he didn't love her back?
Clark took a deep breath, then picked up his mug, drinking deeply to give himself some moments' breathing space. He'd won, he was sure of it. She was still afraid of losing him, but he thought he'd done enough to reassure her. If he asked her out now, he thought she'd accept. If he went over to her and kissed her, he mused, remembering their previous kisses, he'd bet she'd kiss him back. And over time he'd show her that she could trust him — and her own feelings for him.
All he had to do was ask her.
But what she'd said about Superman bothered him. Not because he was jealous of her feelings for his own creation — what she'd said had put paid to that. It worried him that she was using Superman as an excuse not to experience real feelings with a real person. He was her crutch, he suspected — her hero on a pedestal whose apparent perfection gave her the opportunity to believe that no ordinary man could ever measure up. Over time, he suspected, unless he managed to get through to her and persuade her that she really could take the risk of letting herself love him, her Superman crush could kill any chance of a lasting relationship between them.
In which case, he needed to put a stop to that — right now.
He set down his mug and caught her gaze again.
"But what if Superman did love you back, Lois? What if he was sitting opposite you right now, holding your hand, telling you that he loves you and asking you to take a risk on love with him?"
Lois stared at him. "That's ridiculous, Clark!"
"Of course it is! Superman's not here — and there's no way he would ever be."
"Are you sure about that, Lois?"
What was Clark talking about? He wasn't making any sense at all.
"What? Clark, are you crazy? Of course he's not here!"
Maybe he was crazy. None of this made any sense. Lois had, she knew, been on the verge of giving in, of admitting that he was right. She was being a coward in refusing to go out with him. That taking the risk of being in love with him, and maybe even being happy as a result, was better, much better, than the certain knowledge that she would lose him eventually otherwise.
And now he was going on about Superman? Claiming that he was here?
But Clark looked at her and smiled; a very odd smile, hinting at something she couldn't begin to imagine. "He's here, Lois. And he loves you back."
"What? Where?" Pretending to humour him, she made exaggerated motions of looking around the apartment. "Clark, he's not —"
And then she broke off abruptly, because her partner was, with his free hand, unbuttoning the shirt he wore… and underneath it she could see some very familiar- looking blue fabric.
And, as Clark opened one more button, she saw a flash of red, and yellow just below it.
Superman really was sitting opposite her, holding her hand. And Superman really had told her that he loved her.
"Lois?" Clark spoke again, still giving her that odd smile. "Do you love me? Will you go out with me?"
He'd released her hand and was getting up from his seat. Then, suddenly, he was crouching in front of her, catching both her hands in his and looking up at her with so much love in his gaze that she couldn't even speak.
"Will you, Lois?" he asked again.
She freed one hand and reached out to touch the blue Spandex revealed beneath his shirt. "If I had a plate of boeuf bourguignon here, you'd be wearing it, Kent!" she told him, her voice shaky.
His laughter in response was rich, warm and entirely Clark. "But you do have half a cup of hot chocolate…" he pointed out.
"That's too good to waste," she objected.
He grinned, then pulled her to her feet and into his arms, lowering his head to hers, his intent unmistakeable. "You said a few minutes ago that you wished I'd kiss you again the way I did once," he murmured, watching her all the time.
He was giving her time to pull away, if that was what she wanted, Lois realised. But, despite all her fears about taking emotional risks, that was the last thing she wanted. Even if Superman was turning out to be every bit as real as Clark, and every bit as much of a risk, she wanted him to kiss her again. No — she wanted *Clark* to kiss her again.
"That was you!" she exclaimed, realising too late that she'd forestalled the kiss she longed for so much.
He drew his head back, to her disappointment. "Yes. And I guess I should confess that I was never affected by the pheromone."
"Then why did you…?"
"Kiss you? Lois, you'd been driving me crazy for the previous twenty- four hours or so! Remember, you were affected, and the object of your desire was… me," he reminded her with a crooked smile which hinted at the conflict he'd clearly suffered over it. "It was torture keeping my hands off you, especially when I loved you so much and so badly wanted to kiss you and hold you. Pretending to be affected as Superman… well, it just gave me the perfect excuse."
She pulled her hands from his, reaching up to cup his face. "Do you need an excuse now?"
A smile on his lips, his mouth claimed hers. Clark's kiss was passionate, demanding, every bit as overwhelming as it had been that day at the airfield, and she clung to him, needing to give as good as she got. Then his lips gentled, seducing her with loving caresses and whispered murmurs against her mouth.
She was lost. She loved him — Clark, Superman, whoever he was. She'd been hovering on the edge all evening, and now he'd finally persuaded her to jump over the precipice. But now she knew that he was there to catch her. He would never let her fall.
Love was dangerous. Love could hurt. But love was also the most blissful thing Lois had ever experienced. Held in Clark's arms, she felt safe. Secure. Protected.
Clark was right. Love didn't have to be a battlefield, and sometimes ceding control was exactly the right thing to do.
He broke the kiss, reaching up to smooth her hair. "I love you, Lois. And do you want to know why you should trust me?"
She shouldn't trust Clark Kent one inch, Lois reflected briefly, smiling sardonically. He'd lied to her for as long as he'd known her about who he was — had lied as Clark and as Superman. Yet why should he have done anything else? Especially considering the way she'd chased around Metropolis after Superman when he'd first appeared — and the tricks she'd used to try to find him. No, it would have been the stupidest thing imaginable for Clark to have told her who Superman really was.
She wasn't mad at him for hiding his disguise from her. After all, if she had to confess to everything she'd kept secret from him, they'd be still talking come dawn!
They'd both stripped away each other's disguises tonight. Lois had finally allowed Clark to see the real woman beneath the brash, confident exterior she showed to the world. She'd bared her insecure, lonely, frightened self to him, and he'd offered her security, love and protection. And he'd trusted her enough in return to show her what really lay underneath Clark Kent's country-boy facade.
No, she wasn't mad. And she did trust him.
Smiling up at him, she stole a quick kiss. "And why's that?"
He shrugged; she felt the movement of his body against hers. Then he took her hand and pressed it against the S on his chest; she could feel his warmth and the steady beat of his heart under her palm. "You do know that no-one other than my parents knows about this? That you're the only person I've told voluntarily — and the only person I've ever wanted to tell? I decided to trust you with this secret, Lois — that should tell you that I have no intention of ever walking out on you."
"That's just as well, Kent," Lois said, and she smiled broadly, knowing that she meant what she was about to say with all her heart. "Because I have no intention of ever letting you."
"Sounds good to me!" He was about to kiss her again, but Lois forestalled him.
"I'm not going to pretend that it's going to be easy, Clark. It might still take me a while to get over all those trust issues. And being afraid that something's going to happen to drive us apart. But I'm going to try. I promise."
"I know that. And remember, I haven't let you fall yet," he pointed out, echoing her own metaphor. Somehow, Lois wasn't surprised; she'd become used, over the past eight months or so, to finding Clark's thoughts amazingly well attuned to her own. It was no wonder they worked together so well.
It was no wonder that they'd fallen in love.
"I love you, Clark Kent," she told him. "And you're worth taking any risk for."
His kiss told her exactly how he felt about that.
(c) Wendy Richards 2004 email@example.com