By Sue S. <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Submitted: June, 2007
For the purposes of this story, Metropolis is located within a day's drive of a very large and rugged range of mountains (more like the Rockies than the Appalachians).
As always, I owe a huge debt of gratitude to the hardy souls willing to beta for me. Many, many thanks to DJ, alcyone and Julia for all the time they volunteer on my behalf.
Clark ducked his head when he saw Lois step out of the elevator. He had told himself this morning that today was the day he was going to take steps to get her to *really* talk to him. Now, seeing her, that resolve was leaving him.
It had been almost a month since he told Lois that they couldn't be together. He spent his nights reassuring himself that he had been absolutely right in breaking things off between them. He spent his days bitterly regretting his words.
He had expected histrionics or the cold shoulder from her. He had expected arguments and that famous Lane temper. In short, he had expected a fight. True, she had tried to talk to him the morning after. Her eyes had been red from crying as she tried to reason with him and it had broken his heart. He had told her, firmly and repeatedly, that they just couldn't be together. The day after that — and every day since — she had behaved as though he were only a casual acquaintance.
She was so polite and courteous that it was as though none of it had ever happened. This new attitude was even worse than her indifference towards him when they first met. He was beginning to wish that she would simply ignore him instead of acting as though she barely knew him. This was not what he had envisioned when he told her they couldn't be together.
Lois walked past his desk on her way to the break area to get her coffee, giving him a vague nod in passing almost as an afterthought.
Behind him he heard Perry open his office door and call Lois over. Clark tensed, fully expecting to hear his name next. He wasn't wrong.
"Clark, in my office," Perry barked out.
Clark allowed himself a small sigh and squared his shoulders. If she was going to be cooly professional, he could do the same. He came into Perry's office and stopped a few feet in front of the desk. Lois was next to him, holding her still-empty coffee mug.
"I realize that my attempt to give you two some time together last month backfired," Perry began, sending an uneasy ripple through both reporters in front of him. Their discomfort was not lost on him. "And I realize that maybe Alice is right and I'm meddling here, but I'm going to try and make it up to you."
"Make it up to us?" Clark repeated slowly, risking a sidelong glance at Lois. She was watching Perry with a new wariness in her posture.
"It just so happens that I have a story that necessitates sending two people."
"What kind of a story?" Lois asked suspiciously.
Perry held out a brochure and Lois cautiously took it from him. Clark looked over her shoulder to read along.
'In a world that's moving at the speed of light we sometimes forget to take time out for those relationships that mean the most. Complete ten days of survival training with Elliot Outfitters in a rugged and pristine wilderness and increase your levels of intimacy and interpersonal communication for years to come. Our sessions focus on topics like trust and conflict resolution as well as expertise with maps, compasses and distance-pacing. Couples will learn all the skills necessary to depend on each other in a life-or-death situation.'
"It's like, well, it's like couple's therapy," Perry explained after both of them looked back up at him without speaking.
"And?" Lois asked pointedly.
"And?" Perry repeated, sounding a little confused.
"Did something happen on one of their training sessions? Has someone died? Was there a misuse of funds? What's the angle for a story?" Lois clarified.
"I need a couple to check this out. And you two are the closest thing I have to a couple. Besides, things seem to be somewhat tense between you two lately. Just because you're there for a story doesn't mean that you can't try and work through whatever it is that's come between you."
"There's nothing between us, Perry. We're not a couple," Lois said bluntly.
Perry waved as if to dismiss her words. "Regardless of what's happened in your personal lives, you *are* still a team. 'Lane and Kent — the team that delivers.' Or are those billboards we spent all that money on false advertising?"
Spots danced in Clark's vision. If Lois had meant to hurt him than she had succeeded. Nothing between them? Not even friendship? He had never said they couldn't be friends. Did she really think he wanted to cut her out of his life entirely?
"Those ads were not our idea," Lois said, her voice detached and calm. "And this story seems more suited for the Lifestyle section of the paper."
It was eerie, Clark thought. Actually, it was downright frightening how casual she appeared. His mind began to race as he considered the possibilities. He would be alone with Lois. This could be a chance to repair the damage he had done. Conflict resolution — that was what the brochure promised. Maybe she would drop the act and acknowledge that he existed and that they were friends. Or, at least, that they had once been friends.
"It's not about the ads," Perry finally said after a moment's pause. "And it's not your job to argue over what stories you do or don't write. This is my idea. Truth be told, I'd like to take Alice on this thing but she's a city girl and she'd never willingly go anywhere without indoor plumbing. So I'm going to send you two. You can come back and tell me if it's a fad or if there's some merit to it. You've both been working very hard lately and I know you won't take time off. Think of it as a working vacation. You're already signed up. I want you to finish up whatever stories you can this afternoon because you'll be leaving early tomorrow morning and you still need to get packed."
A couple of hours later Clark had run through what seemed like hundreds of scenarios on how to approach her. Lois had moved into one of the conference rooms and was slowly leafing through a stack of accounting ledgers. He knocked on the door but she didn't look up. He stepped inside, shutting the door quietly behind him.
"Hi," he said softly.
"Hello," she replied without even a glance in his direction.
The brochure for the camping trip was lying on the corner of the table next to the stack of ledgers. Clark came over and picked it up. "Learn all the skills necessary to depend on each other in a life-or-death situation," he read from the text.
"Yeah, that's never happened to us," she muttered under her breath.
Clark set the brochure back down, feeling the faintest sense of hope that she had actually acknowledged they had a history together. "What are you working on?" he asked.
"I'm going through the past expense accounts for the deputy mayor's office," she said without looking up.
"Why? What are you hoping to find?"
"I just heard that there might be a story there." Lois turned to the next page in the ledger, focusing all her attention on appearing aloof. She had hoped that it would get easier to ignore him with time but, truthfully, it only became more difficult with each passing day. Most days she was torn between giving him a piece of her mind and the need to cry her eyes out in the ladies room. She could see he was hurt by her indifference and that alone made keeping her distance oh-so-satisfying.
"Do you need help? I could go through some of these…" He reached out to take one of the ledgers but her hand moved to cover them protectively.
"No, thanks. I don't need any help."
"It would go a lot faster." Clark tried again.
"No, thanks," she said again.
He watched her for almost a minute, feeling the full brunt of her snub sink in. He was about to turn to leave and then decided to take one last chance. "Lois, will you please talk to me?" he asked softly.
"I'm sorry?" Her forehead furrowed as if she were confused but she still didn't look up from the ledger in front of her.
"You don't talk to me, Lois. You talk at me."
"What did you want me to talk to you about?" She turned another page, noting with dismay that her hands were starting to shake. No crying, she told herself. No crying. Don't give him the satisfaction.
He sat down in the chair next to hers and turned to face her. "You can talk to me about anything. That's not my point. You act like I'm a stranger."
Her head turned and their eyes met. "You are," she said accusingly. "You're not the person I thought you were." For a moment her eyes grew moist and full of pain. They both took a deep breath and she looked away.
Clark reached out and touched her hand. "Let's talk about that."
"No." She blinked and the polite mask she wore fell back in place. "I'm safer this way, Clark, remember? I don't know you. I never did. Excuse me."
She abruptly left the conference room without the ledgers or her notes. Clark gathered them up to return them to her. Then he saw her through the conference room's window as he approached the door. She was sitting at her desk, her fingertips carefully swiping beneath her eyes. The gesture sent a cold stab of guilt through him. How much effort was it costing her to maintain this polite exterior? How deep did the hurt go? He hated himself for being the cause of her pain.
It was better this way, he told himself. Surely it was better to hurt her in a hundred little ways than to have someone else hurt her in a way that could never be healed?
Maybe this assignment that Perry had given them would be a good thing. They could find a way to be friends again — a way to work together as a team. He could still have her in his life. He missed her. He missed their late night phone calls and having her voice be the last thing he heard before sleep. Knowing that he could never truly be with her didn't change the fact that they had been together, however briefly. Didn't she understand that those glorious few weeks would be lost to them forever if they couldn't still be friends now?
Didn't she miss their friendship?
After loading his gear into the back of the Jeep, Clark got in on the passenger side and looked at Lois expectantly. She ignored him, pretending to be consumed with watching the non-existent oncoming traffic. It was just past four in the morning and there were relatively few people on the streets of Metropolis. She pulled out onto the street and began to head out of the city. After nearly ten minutes Clark couldn't take the silence any longer.
"Lois, you're going to have to talk to me on this trip. You do realize that?"
Lois frowned and mentally cursed Perry yet again for meddling. "Just because I have to talk to you doesn't mean that we're friends."
"I never said we couldn't be friends," he told her, thoroughly frustrated now. It was beyond depressing that the person who knew his deepest secret acted as though she barely knew him.
They stopped at a traffic light and she looked over at him with her eyes narrowed. The streetlight above them illuminated her face and he saw a little of the anger and hurt she had been hiding so carefully.
"Friends?" She practically spit the word at him. "Friends is too close for you. Friends could get me hurt. What if someone found out I was Superman's friend? My god, can you imagine?" The words were laced with chilly sarcasm.
"People already know you're friends with Superman." He tried to keep his tone reasonable.
"Then I guess we shouldn't be friends anymore." The light changed and she gunned the engine, grateful to have an outlet for the aggression she was feeling.
"Lois, please." Clark reached over and touched her shoulder, feeling almost desperate to connect with her. "Friends? Okay?"
Her jaw clenched as she fought the urge to say something nasty to him. It was like the floodgates had opened and everything she had held back for the past month was threatening to burst forth. Ten days — she was going to have to spend ten long days with him. The time stretched in front of her like a prison sentence. She wasn't about to give him the satisfaction of thinking that he had that much influence over her. Besides, staying angry with him would take too much energy.
"Friends," she relented. "For the purposes of this story only. But don't expect that I'll treat you any differently than I would any other reporter I was on assignment with. This is strictly platonic."
"Of course," he said softly and withdrew his hand. "Just because we can't date doesn't mean we can't be friends."
She didn't answer him. Her shoulder tingled where he had touched her. Damn him for that. It was grossly unfair that he could have such an effect on her when he obviously could turn his feelings on and off as it pleased him. Damn him for ever making her fall in love with him in the first place. Damn him for Superman and for saving her and for presenting that squeaky clean image to the world when the truth was he was as low and callous as every other man she had known.
It was the height of irony to her that Perry was sending them away to work on building trust. If there was one thing she had learned the hard way it was that Clark Kent couldn't be trusted.
It was nearly three o'clock when they reached the tiny town of Braddock, located high in the Copper Mountains.
"Kent and Lane?" a dark-haired man asked as they got out of the Jeep. "We were starting to think you weren't going to make it," he said pointedly and looked at his watch. He had a scraggly beard that gave him a vaguely unsavory look.
Lois, who had stopped talking to Clark nearly fifty miles back when he first began to point out they were going to be late, now fought the urge to say something sarcastic. She settled for, "We still have ten minutes until we're supposed to depart."
The man looked at his watch again and frowned. "Yes, and there are still waivers for you to sign and your gear to stow. Get your gear on the trailer; we leave at exactly three o'clock."
Lois gave Clark a disbelieving look, one eyebrow raised. "This is the man who's supposed to be teaching us about interpersonal relationships?"
"No, that would be me." Lois turned to see a pudgier and grayer version of the impatient man she had been talking about. He held his hand out to her, "I'm Dave, that guy is my brother Rich. He's the outdoorsman. I'm the therapist."
Dave beamed at them, seemingly delighted that they were there. He cheerfully gestured behind him at the small group of people who were now climbing inside the dark-colored van with 'Elliot Outfitters' emblazoned on the side. Two canoes were secured on top of the van. Three more canoes were strapped to a trailer behind the van.
"Let's not antagonize Rich any more than we have to, even if it is fun. Get your gear on the trailer and we'll make our introductions as we drive."
Everyone else was in the van by the time they had moved their gear on to the trailer and secured it. Lois climbed in first, working her way along the side of the van to the only free seat left in the very back. Clark sat down next to her and she scooted across the bench seat until she was practically hugging the window. It was hot in the van and she wondered if the air conditioning was broken or if it just didn't reach all the way to the back. Unfortunately the window didn't look like it opened. Hopefully they wouldn't be in the van long. Lois wasn't sure why — she had never been claustrophobic before — but she was definitely feeling that way now.
Dave, sitting next to the door on the first bench, slid the door shut. The van made a careful half-circle in the parking lot before pulling out onto the road. Once they were on their way, Dave turned in his seat to address them all.
"Hello!" he chirped and then tilted his head slightly, waiting.
"Hello," they all chorused back with varying degrees of enthusiasm.
"I'm Dave Elliot and this gentleman is my brother Rich," he gestured to Rich, who was sitting in the front passenger seat. "About six years ago we decided to leave the rat race behind and do what we really loved, which is living in the great outdoors and helping people unlock their potential. The idea for these sessions has evolved over time. We started out working with corporations who wanted intensive team-building activities. This summer is the first season we've included couple's therapy. I have to tell you, we've had great success so far this year and I'm certain this group will be no different."
Ahead of them the other couples all gave each other smiles or a little kiss. Lois rolled her eyes. Dave was far too cheerful and positive. He simply had no idea what he was up against. Still, everyone had to learn to live with failure. At least he was a therapist — he'd get over it.
"So let's all introduce ourselves, shall we?" Dave turned to the couple sitting next to him. They appeared to be in their thirties, both of them blond and tanned, and they looked like bookends. They were even dressed alike, Lois noted with disgust. Heaven help them both if she started dressing like Clark.
"Hi, I'm Bob Musgrove," the man said. "And this is my wife, Jenny."
"We've been married for seven years now," Jenny added, looking over her shoulder at the rest of them. "We have a son, Dustin, he's three. He's staying with his grandparents while we're gone."
The couple behind the Musgroves introduced themselves as Jim and Brenda Sinclair. They had been married for twenty-eight years and had three children. Their youngest son had just left for college and they were coming on this trip as a way to reconnect. Both of them looked far younger than their stated ages of fifty-five and fifty-three, respectively.
The next couple were George and Debbie Rawlins. They had been married for two years. George looked like he was rapidly losing his hair. Debbie was slim and small, with auburn hair in a long thick braid.
"We're talking about having a baby," George said. From the strained smile on Debbie's face, Clark got the impression that George was the only one talking about it.
"And what about you two?" Dave asked after neither Lois nor Clark volunteered any information about themselves. "Married?"
"I'm Clark Kent and this is Lois Lane." He hesitated for a moment before adding, "We're engaged." They were supposed to be a couple on this outing, after all. He hated to force her hand on this one, but it seemed necessary.
Lois choked on a sudden cough and flashed Clark a sweet smile that promised retribution later. Then she turned her attention to the van's window, looking for a latch or a way to open it and get some air.
"Wonderful!" Dave turned further around in his seat to grin at them. "Do you have a date set for the wedding?"
"No," Clark admitted. "We're, uh, we're still kinda sorting through our options."
"How did you two meet?" Dave asked.
"We work together," Lois said before Clark could invent another outrageous lie. "It's a bad idea, isn't it? Dating your co-worker?"
Dave laughed. "Not necessarily. There are a lot of factors. How closely do you work together? How flexible are you willing to be? I think you can make just about any relationship work if you're willing to be flexible."
"Only if you can respect each other's judgment and share big decisions," Lois said pointedly.
"Well, of course." Dave cast a curious look at Clark.
"But don't you also have to be tolerant and realize that sometimes the greater good has to come first?" Clark asked lightly.
Dave tapped a finger against his lips and nodded sagely. "Tolerance and understanding are the cornerstones of any relationship."
"Yes, and honesty and respect are the other two." Lois gave up on opening the window and lifted the collar of her t-shirt and vented it in an effort to cool down. "I can't trust anyone who can't be honest with me or respect my opinions."
"I respect your opinions," Clark told her. Seeing Dave still watching them, he shrugged and said to him, "I guess you can see why we decided to give counseling a shot."
Dave gave him a smile. "I think it's wonderful that you can be so direct with each other. The fact that you're both here is proof that you want things to work."
Clark didn't have the heart to tell him that their only other choice was unemployment.
Lois was becoming worried. They had driven through a long canyon and now the van was on a narrow, winding road that was climbing higher and higher above the canyon floor. It was a breathtakingly beautiful view, but the van's driver seemed a little too nonchalant about where the edge of the road was. It was okay, she told herself. If, heaven forbid, they went over the edge, Clark would figure out a way to save them.
She looked away from the window, feeling more than a little dizzy now. Just as she was certain they were never going to stop, the van pulled into a muddy turnout and the driver turned off the engine.
"Today will be a crash course in using a map and compass to arrive at a specific site. We've marked the trail we'll be following on your maps, just in case we become separated. If you think you're lost, sit down at the side of the trail and wait. We'll come find you. Understood? Good. Now everyone pick out a canoe and bring it along. It's only a little over a mile to the river. From there we'll head downstream about seven miles to the lake. We'll cross the lake and set up our base camp."
"Base camp?" Debbie repeated, looking almost as overwhelmed as Lois felt. "We can rest when we get there, right?"
"I know," Rich said reassuringly, "it sounds like a lot. But we have a good five hours of daylight left so just go at your own pace. Although I should warn you, the last couple to arrive will be assigned tonight's camp chores. Part of your training out here is learning to work as a team. I believe that competition only motivates when there's a clear goal or reward to win."
Lois smirked, feeling a little more magnanimous towards Clark suddenly. Between her competitive streak and his natural talent there was simply no way in hell they could lose.
"So, this base camp, we'll be staying there for the rest of the time? We're not going to have to haul everything to a new location every day, are we?" Debbie still looked a little nervous.
"We have a couple of long hikes and lots of other activities planned but we'll spend the next seven nights at base camp. The last two days will be spent navigating down the river to pull out." Rich clapped his hands together and then gestured towards the canoes. "Get your stuff and a canoe and let's get going. You'll find a map and a compass taped to one of the seats in your canoe."
The group moved to the canoes. Jim and Brenda loaded their gear into a canoe and lifted it above their heads, moving off down the trail immediately behind Dave and Rich. Lois opened her backpack, taking out a floppy hat and a pair of sunglasses and put them on.
The van pulled away, giving them a friendly honk before it disappeared around a corner.
Debbie and George put their packs on and lifted their canoe above their heads, moving off down the trail. Bob and Jenny had loaded their gear into their canoe and were now experimenting with how best to carry it. They finally decided to hold it near their waists. They disappeared over a rise in the trail and Lois turned to Clark.
"Okay, here's what we should do — you fly the canoe and our stuff to the lake and then come back for me."
"What?" Clark shook his head. "No way."
"I'm sorry?" The smile she had plastered on her face began to fade away.
"I said, 'no way'. I'm not going to cheat, Lois. We're here to work as a team. And if that means carrying a canoe for a mile, then we're going to carry a canoe for a mile. Besides, it's not worth the risk of getting caught."
"A mile? Are you kidding?" Lois dumped her backpack into the canoe in frustrated dismay. "You're really going to make me haul this canoe in the hot sun for a mile?"
"Look at this way, you'll have shade." Clark bent to pick up the back end of the canoe. "Let's portage."
After only fifty yards Lois was ready to scream. They had stopped three times already, still trying to find a way to work together. They had started with their packs and gear loaded in the canoe, only to lose it all when her grip slipped and she dropped the front end of the canoe. After that they had put on their backpacks after lashing their sleeping bags to the bottom. Clark had tied the bag with their tent to his pack as well. They stopped again when her sleeping bag fell off her pack. Clark fastened it to one of the crossbeams on the canoe. On the final stop they had turned the canoe upside down to give both of them a better grip.
Irritated by the canoe follies and spoiling for a fight, Lois didn't try to hide the scorn in her voice as she asked, "Engaged, huh?"
"I figured that way you'd have to talk to me. It's supposed to be couple's therapy, you know."
"I just hope you realize that sharing a tent with you isn't going to give you any kind of conjugal rights."
Clark could feel the blush creeping up the back of his neck. He didn't answer her, certain that no matter what he said it would be the wrong thing.
After a few minutes of silence Lois decided to try another conversation so she wouldn't have to pay attention to the way her arms were beginning to ache. "So what are we? Seriously? If we're supposed to be working towards an improved relationship while we're here, that is. What do you see as the likely outcome?"
This time he knew exactly what to say. "I want us to be friends again."
"Friends can mean a lot of different things. Casual friends? Friends who once dated? Friends who hang out together? Or just a friend from work that you only see during daylight hours? What kind of friend do you want me to be?"
Clark sighed and shifted the canoe slightly. Ahead of him Lois stumbled at the added weight. "Sorry," he told her, pulling up on the canoe to take more of the burden which only made her grab frantically for it when it lifted away.
"Clark! Make up your mind! Are you helping or hindering?"
"Sorry," he said again, eyeing the taut line of her arms as she re-established control of the front end of the canoe. She had wrapped those arms around his neck so many times in an embrace. A month had not muted his sense of loss at the fact that she never would hold him like that again.
"We're dead last, you know," she grumbled. "Dead last and probably lost to boot."
"We're not lost," he told her.
"Lois, do you know what the number one way not to get lost is?"
"Always know which way is north?" she ventured.
"Never leave the trail."
"Why would I leave the trail? Do you see how you undermine me? You're implying that you think I'm going to get lost out here, aren't you?"
"No, of course not." Clark shook his head — how could she twist his words so completely? Had she ever truly understood him or was this new denseness on her part just her latest way to punish him?
"I suppose you never get lost, do you?" she snarked.
"Not really, no."
"Is that because you never leave the trail?"
"No," he grinned. "It's because I always know which way is north."
"Smartass," she muttered under her breath, knowing full well he could hear her.
Lois entered their tent, zipped the flap closed and then crawled to her sleeping bag. She flopped face first onto it and rested her head on her tired arms.
"I was starting to wonder if the mosquitoes had carried you off," Clark said without looking up from the book he was reading.
She didn't reply. It had been the longest day of her life. She had driven for hours, carried a canoe for over a mile, paddled until her arms were sore and then helped to pitch a tent that had a mind of its own. After that she had to help gather firewood, start a fire and haul three buckets of water from the lake to use for cleaning up after dinner.
Dinner. Her lips curled in disgust at the memory. Obviously Perry loved his wife more than his employees because "food" was the wrong word to describe their dinner. It was ostensibly spaghetti, but it had been freeze-dried and then reconstituted. She had picked at it glumly. In the end she only finished her portion because she knew that a hunger strike wasn't going to fix anything.
It was all too much, really, and having to pee in the woods was just the final straw. Not that she was going to give Clark the satisfaction of knowing just how much she loathed being in the mountains. Especially with him. Their first assignment, given to them as they had all huddled around the fire after dinner was to look back on the day and compare their individual communication styles after they got back to their tents. Clark had actually taken the assignment seriously but she had been in no mood to talk to him, opting instead to put her boots back on, grab a flashlight, and wander around outside.
By daylight their base camp had seemed ruggedly beautiful. They were camped on the edge of an alpine meadow boarded by a thick forest of spruce that gave way to a massive cliff wall that rose nearly a thousand feet high. They had set up camp roughly a hundred yards from the lake. The sense of isolation had been thrilling — until the sun went down. In the dark that isolation and the eerie quiet of the mountains now felt creepy and ominous to her. When her teeth began to chatter from the rapidly increasing cold she had finally scurried back to their tent and its relative warmth and safety.
Lois sat up now, determined to put on more layers than just the flannel pajama bottoms and long-sleeved t-shirt that she was currently wearing. She pulled her boots off and tossed them towards the tent's entrance. Her left boot bounced off of Clark's shin and she kind of wished that could have hurt him, just a little bit. She allowed herself a grim little smile — how did he like her style of communication now?
"Hey, campers! Mind if I come in?" Rich asked from outside their tent.
"Um, no, come on in." Even as she said the words she wondered where exactly Rich planned to sit. Between them and their backpacks there was precious little room left in the tent. It supposed to be a two-man tent but she thought the manufacturer was being overly optimistic. She reached into her backpack and pulled out the sweatshirt she had packed and put it on.
Rich settled for unzipping the flap and sticking his head in. "I'm just checking up on everyone." He paused and his smile suddenly looked more genuine. "You know, it gets pretty cold here at night. You'd be better off to zip your bags together and spoon. Good night!" With a growl of the tent's zipper he was gone.
"Don't even think about it," Lois warned, yanking a pair of socks out of her backpack to put on over the ones she was already wearing.
"Hey, I'm not the one who gets cold." Clark fought the urge to smile and tried to concentrate on his book. It was hard to do since Rich's comment about spooning had now captured his imagination.
"You're also not the one whose arms hurt. Why couldn't you have just paddled a little harder? We should have been the first ones here!"
"Lois, we lost time carrying the canoe." He didn't look up from his book, which just irritated her even more.
"That's exactly my point! You could have carried it alone. I can't believe you made me help."
"This from the woman who complained that I couldn't be just an ordinary guy?" The words on the pages in front of him made absolutely no sense to him anymore, but he didn't put the book down.
"That was entirely different," she countered.
"So maybe this time I'm doing it for me and not you."
"You don't care that I'm sore and tired?" She scowled at him, willing him to put the book aside and talk to her. She'd have plenty to "share" tomorrow morning when Dave asked about their communication styles. And, unlike Clark, she wasn't about to sugar-coat it or outright lie to everyone about the true nature of their relationship.
"Of course I care. But part of the point of being here is to work as a team. Out here we're completely equal. You have to do your part." He tried to keep the words mild, but he could feel an anger equal to hers begin to bubble up inside him. She had ignored him for the past month and now his purpose in life was to accommodate her whims?
"You just never run out of ways to punish me, do you?" She found another pair of socks and put them on her hands as makeshift mittens.
"Why would I want to punish you?" Clark looked over his book at her, bemused to see her unsuccessfully trying to zip closed her backpack. He thought about suggesting she take the socks off her hands to do it but knew that would just be pouring gasoline on the fire.
"For turning you down. I sometimes think you broke my heart just to get even." She gave the zipper another ineffectual tug. She knew that he was watching and it only made her feel even more inept.
"Lois, I never meant to hurt you. I should never have called things off with you like that."
"Oh ho," she said, latching onto his choice of words. "It's not that you're sorry you broke up with me, is it? You're just sorry you did it *like that*!"
He sighed and didn't answer. Instead he put the book aside and propped himself up on one elbow to face her as she continued to vent.
"In all this time, Clark, you've never even once tried to see things from my perspective, have you? Whereas I, well, I actually tried to look at it from your point of view. And do you know what? It still doesn't make any sense! If you don't want me, that's fine. But don't expect me to be all friendly and happy about it," she said flatly and pushed her backpack away, giving up on getting it closed.
"Lois," he said softly, "it was never because I didn't want you. It was because you're safer…"
"That is such utter and complete crap that I don't even know where to start. What about your parents? Are you no longer seeing them for their protection?"
"That's different. My parents aren't in Metropolis all the time. And they aren't constantly putting themselves in danger."
"My god, you are the densest person alive! Did Bob Fences lure me there on some pretext because he knew about you? No! He didn't! He had no clue! Do you realize how stupid your logic is on that one?"
"I'm done talking to you. Please just leave me alone." She climbed inside her sleeping bag and wished she were somewhere — anywhere — else. She went to zip the bag closed but had to pull off a sock to do it, letting out a frustrated growl in the process.
Clark turned off the lantern. It seemed safer to let the subject drop. If he left the light on they'd only continue to argue. Lois sighed, tossing and turning so that her feet kicked against his legs as she moved. He knew she was trying to get warm and comfortable but it was still irritating. He wasn't about to remind her of Rich's advice. The thought of spooning with her now was singularly unattractive. Finally he couldn't take her pointed sighs and restlessness any longer. It was as though she was blaming him for the cold outside.
"You know," his voice broke the darkness, "there is some sense in what Rich said about zipping the bags…"
"No. I'd say when hell freezes over but I'm already in hell and it's freezing and there's still no chance of that happening. What part of 'I'm very upset with you' are you not getting?"
She could hear him turn away as he said the words. She shivered further down into the sleeping bag and promised herself that she would find a way to make Perry pay for this. A few minutes of quiet went by as she plotted and then—
"You could put a hat on," he said.
"The majority of your body heat is lost through the top of your head. You could put a hat on."
"A hat?" she snapped. "The only hat I brought was for shade. I didn't realize we were going to be exposed to freezing temperatures."
Clark decided not to point out that 'near-freezing nighttime temps' was specifically mentioned as a factor on the list of required equipment. "Pull the bag over your head."
"And then I'll suffocate!"
"Never mind then."
She let out one more irritated sigh, an obvious indictment of his failures in general, and then she ceased to be restless. He didn't dare ask if it was because she was feeling warm at last.
The pristine silence of the early morning was shattered by the loud and insistent ringing of a cow bell. Clark sat upright, blinking away the sleep from his eyes. He glanced at Lois or, more accurately, at the writhing bump buried deep inside her sleeping bag that had begun to groan.
"What in the heck is that?" she mumbled. Her sleep-tousled head appeared out the top of the bag and she frowned accusingly at him. "It wasn't just a bad dream. We're really here."
"Good morning to you, too," he said lightly.
Lois squinted at the top of their tent before crossing her arms over her eyes to block the light that was filtering in through the pale blue nylon fabric.
"I should have brought a pillow," she sighed. "I had no idea I would miss my pillow this much."
"You could just wad up some clothes," he suggested.
The sound of the cow bell was coming closer and Rich was beginning to sing out, "Rise and shine! We're burning daylight here!"
"I don't think I like Rich," Lois stated. "I've given it a lot of thought and I'm pretty sure I'm going to have to kill him. Would you help me hide the body or are you going to make me lug it around by myself in the interests of equality?"
"Good morning, Sunshine! Up and at 'em!" Rich called out from just outside their tent, ringing the bell to punctuate each word. "Anyone alive in there?"
"We're awake!" Clark yelled back.
Rich moved on, still ringing the bell.
"What time is it?" Lois asked, unwilling to move her arms from over her eyes.
"It's almost six-thirty," Clark said after checking his watch.
"Really? It seems so much earlier than that."
Outside the bell stopped ringing. They both let out relieved sighs.
"Can you keep your eyes closed for a few more seconds?" Clark asked. "I'll just hurry and get dressed and leave the tent so you can get dressed."
"Sure. Fine. Take all the time you want, I'm not moving from this spot until Rich actually comes in here and drags me out."
She had barely finished speaking when she heard the zipper on the tent's flap opening. She moved her arms, propping herself up on her elbows to watch him leave. "Tell Rich I'm sick or something, won't you?"
"Ha," he said, grinning at her. "Don't be too long or I'll borrow that bell."
She laid there for a couple of minutes but the air was too cold to entice her to leave the warmth of her sleeping bag. Then the smell of coffee reached her and she weighed her options. In the end, the aroma was too delicious to ignore so she dressed as quickly as she could, pulled on her boots and went in search of some caffeine.
"They're actually not that bad," Bob was telling Jenny as Lois took a seat between her and Clark on the oversized log they were using as a bench. "Give them a try."
They were dressed alike again. Both Bob and Jenny were wearing khaki pants paired with long-sleeved red shirts. Jenny was picking at a plate of scrambled eggs and she looked like her night had been every bit as miserable as the one Lois had just endured. Lois wondered if they had zipped their sleeping bags together and spooned.
"But they're powdered eggs," Jenny said and wrinkled her nose. "I don't think I can eat powdered eggs."
"There's ketchup," Clark said helpfully. "If you put enough ketchup on them they're not bad."
"You put ketchup on your eggs?" Lois gave an involuntary shudder as she eyed the sea of red on the plate Clark was holding. Had she actually kissed this man? With tongue? It was a darn good thing she was never going to have to kiss him again.
"I know what you mean. Debbie puts ketchup on everything," George said. "It's really kind of disgusting."
"This from a man who eats Oreos with salsa?" Debbie shot back. "That's more disgusting."
Everyone looked at George. He shrugged and said, "Hey, don't knock it til you've tried it."
"I have tried it," Debbie said. "It was revolting."
"Good morning, Lois!" Rich came over and held out a plate to her.
"Oh, um, I usually just have coffee in the mornings," she demurred. Like Jenny, she wasn't sure she could eat powdered eggs.
"Not out here you don't." Rich didn't look the least bit offended. "Out here it's imperative that you keep up your strength."
She took the plate grudgingly and looked over at Jenny. "You know," Lois told her, "when they said 'life or death situations' I didn't think it would come to this."
"How did everyone sleep?" Dave asked cheerfully. "Today we're going to start thinking about the ways we communicate with others, especially our partners. I asked you to think about and compare your communication styles last night. Today, with that in mind, we're going to lay down some ground rules to work from for the rest of our time out here, okay?"
When they all nodded or murmured assent, Dave continued. "Conflicts can't be avoided. Differing opinions are just a fact of life. But you can actually strengthen a relationship if you know how to effectively communicate with each other. Think of these as the ground rules. Four little principles that are the tools you'll need to remain neutral and work towards a positive outcome."
Lois sipped her coffee. It was instant coffee and she was beginning to feel like a food snob. At least the coffee was better than the eggs had been.
"The first rule is that only one person speaks at a time. And the second rule is that we make a sincere commitment to listen and actually try to understand the other person's point of view before we respond."
Lois cleared her throat softly, risking a sideways look at Clark. He was watching Dave and his expression was carefully neutral.
"Third rule; anything we discuss is kept in confidence unless there is an explicit agreement otherwise."
In the corner of his eye Clark saw Jenny elbow Bob and shoot him a look. For some reason he felt a little better. Apparently he and Lois weren't the only couple here with issues.
"Fourth rule," Dave continued, "we support dissent. We attack the issues, but not the person with whom we disagree."
Dave looked around at the group. Jim and Brenda had been nodding pleasantly at each rule he had explained. Everyone else looked either a little chagrined or outright bored. He decided to let them off easy.
"So as we go through today I would like everyone to keep those rules in mind as we speak with one another. Observe how you interact with your partner, especially if there's a conflict. Usually a conflict has very little to do with our opinions so much as our fears. We all have core needs, something about us that is inviolate, and we react strongly when we feel those needs are being threatened. Pay attention today and try to discover what your core needs are. If you have a disagreement, try to pay attention to what you're *really* arguing about and if there are alternatives that would meet both of your core needs."
"Core needs?" Debbie asked. "Are you talking about the need to be loved and accepted or something more tangible?"
"Love and acceptance are core needs for everyone. They count, yes, but I'm also talking about the things that define a marriage, like trust and mutual respect. I'm talking about the experiences that color our perceptions and make us who we are. Do you share chores or does your husband consider laundry something only a woman does?"
George snorted out a laugh. "I'd be messing with my sex if I said that."
All the men snickered but Jenny furrowed her brow. "Messing with your sex?" she repeated in bafflement.
"Yeah," George said. "When I told Debbie that I didn't like her new dress I was messing with my sex. It was days before I got any again."
Debbie frowned at him. "Feel free to share, okay? Besides, you're the one who said I looked good in red."
"And you do," Geroge said smoothly. "Just not in that dress. It's too… I don't know, busy or something."
"Excellent!" Dave beamed at them. "George has managed to address the issue without attacking Debbie."
"And we've established that sex is a core need for George," Bob quipped.
"Not necessarily," Dave said with a grin. "Sex as a physical act is a temporary need. The trust and intimacy that can be expressed through sex are core needs. If the goal is merely the physical act then I doubt a core need is being fulfilled. Which brings me to the last point I wanted you all to consider as we go through the day. Chances are if you wanted to start an argument with your partner, you'd know exactly which buttons to push to get the ball rolling, yes?"
There were a few grins and nods.
"Today I want you to think about what *your* hot buttons are. Are you even aware of them? What behavior in yourself or your partner causes you to react in a negative way? How do you respond when those buttons are pushed? How would you like to respond?"
"Has anyone here been orienteering before?"
Nobody's hand went up. Rich grinned and rubbed his hands in delight. He seemed in a much better mood this morning than he had yesterday. Lois wondered if the thin mountain air had suppressed the grumpy part of Rich's brain. Or maybe it was the powdered eggs.
"Great! Okay, how many of you have used a map before?"
Everyone raised their hand.
"See, this is going to be easy!" Rich held up a map that was made up of squiggly lines on a background of green, white and blue. "Who here has worked with a topographical map? Or maybe you call it a contour map or a topo map? Anyone?"
Clark, Jim and Debbie all raised their hands.
"All right! Let me explain how they work, just for everyone else. Topo maps conventionally show topography, or land contours, by means of contour lines. Contour lines are these curves that connect contiguous points of the same altitude." He ran his finger along a line on the map to illustrate. "In other words, every point on this marked line is at 2500 meters elevation above sea level. That's about 8200 feet above sea level. This next line is 2510 meters elevation, and 2520, and so on. These maps usually show not only the contours, but also any significant streams or other bodies of water. This blue line is a river, this blue area is a lake. Still with me?"
They all nodded.
"Green areas are forest, white areas are generally rocky. The spacing of these contours is like a one-dimensional picture. The closer the contours are, the steeper the terrain. When you see lines merge into one another it's a sure bet you're looking at a cliff. Take this cliff behind us, for example. This is it on the map here, see this series of tightly packed lines? Notice the ridge over here where the lines are still close, but no longer touching? And then this area here where the lines are widely spaced is the meadow we're standing in."
"Oh, I get it," Brenda said. "That's actually rather clever, isn't it?"
"Now let me explain the basics of orienteering and what we'll be doing today. Orienteering is a sport in which either individuals or teams use a map and compass to work through a pre-designed course. On your maps you find five circles, these are your controls points. At each control point you'll find a small flag. Each team will have a color. Find and collect all your flags and return to the end point. A triangle marks the start and there's a double circle for the end point. Each team will have a whistle. If you become lost, start whistling. We'll be doing a staggered start in twenty minute intervals."
Rich gave each team a map, a compass and a whistle.
"Today we'll be using a short-course of only about six miles, if you don't become lost moving between control points. Jim and Brenda, you'll be the yellow team and we'll have you start first. George and Debbie will be the green team, they'll go second. Bob and Jenny, you're wearing red, you can be team red and go third. Clark and Lois, you'll be blue and the last team to depart."
"We're starting last?" Lois frowned.
"We're going off of successful completion of the course and the shortest time. Each team is individually timed. So, even if you arrived last, if your time is the best, you'll still win," Rich said reassuringly.
"What do we win?" Lois asked.
"No chores this evening."
"Wow, is she competitive about everything?" Bob asked.
"Pretty much," Clark admitted. He watched as Lois stalked back towards their tent and mentally prepared himself for the coming challenge. A six-mile hike with Lois was one thing. But a six-mile hike with Lois when she had something to prove?
Heaven help them both.
"Here's your chance, Clark. You can make up for yesterday." Her words were breathy. Rich had told her that, in competition, orienteering was done as a cross-country run and Lois had decided that they could run the course. After little more than a mile, though, it felt like her lungs were on fire. She told herself it was only the thinner air at a higher elevation and not because she was out of shape. Beside her Clark was maintaining the same even jog and she felt a surge of irritation towards him. It wasn't fair that he hadn't even broken a sweat yet.
"Lois, I'm not going to cheat." His speaking voice was unaffected by their fast pace, a fact that only irritated her more.
"Someday I'd really like you to explain the 'Rules According to Clark Kent' to me."
"If I were competing against you, would you want me to cheat?"
She didn't answer. She did, however, slow to a walk since they had reached a boulder field and she had no desire to break her ankle. Then again, if she broke her leg, maybe she'd get to go home early?
"So why would it be okay if I cheated against everyone else?" Clark persisted.
"Congratulations then, Clark," she huffed sarcastically. "Once again you're right and I'm wrong. And, if you must know, that's a hot button for me. You always think you're right and my opinion doesn't matter."
"Are you attacking me or the issue?"
She paused, leaning back against a large boulder and reaching for her canteen. "*You* are the issue."
"No, the issue is that you feel like I don't respect your opinions. You know that I do. There's just one time, one instance, where I insisted that we do things my way."
"Wrong! You make it sound like a little thing. It wasn't! It was a very big thing. Callously informing me that we're over without giving me a chance to say anything was wrong. You were wrong, Clark! Just admit it!"
"Wrong about what? How is wanting to keep you safe wrong?"
"It's wrong when you invent the lamest reason in the world to cover your fear of commitment! And to bolster your argument you said what if — and I'm quoting here, Clark — what if I was abducted by aliens and slipped and told them you were Superman? Then suddenly, in your delusional mind, bad guys would just pour out of the woodwork to torture me. So, gee, let's not get married. In fact, let's not even date. Oh, wait, I hear someone calling, bye now!"
She felt a little twinge of triumph when she saw he was now breathing just as hard as she was as they glared at each other.
"You're twisting my words." Hot button, he thought. That's a hot button for me. She deliberately misunderstands me.
"No, I'm not! I'm a reporter, Clark. I routinely memorize what people say. Trust me, on this one I took every little word to heart."
"Okay, I could have handled it better," he relented. "But I know I'm right on this one, Lois."
She didn't answer him. Dave had mentioned knowing exactly which buttons to push to start an argument. Lois knew very well that ignoring Clark was a very hot button to push.
Lois was laying face down when Clark came into the tent. Through sheer dint of her will, they had finished with the best overall time. He had thought she'd be happier about winning but, released from having to do chores, she had gone back to the tent and hadn't emerged.
"You did good today," Clark said and hesitantly patted her ankle.
"Don't patronize me," she grumbled.
"I'm not. I wouldn't."
"Hmph." She knew she should have felt better about winning, but the truth was she had used every last bit of her energy running the course. Now, lying here and thinking about the day, she wasn't certain if she had done it to prove something to herself or to Clark.
"Your boots are muddy."
"I don't care," she mumbled.
Clark thought about pointing out that he did care, especially since she was lying on his sleeping bag. Instead he softly said, "Here," and lifted her foot to untie its laces and take her boot off.
Lois let out a little sigh — she felt so much lighter with the boot gone. He picked up her other foot, loosening the laces and removing that boot as well. He began to gently knead the pad of her foot with his thumbs.
"Mmm," Lois moaned. "I'll give you about twenty minutes to stop doing that."
Clark smiled, trying to ignore the deeper tug that her husky words had on him. He concentrated instead on her foot.
Lois relaxed into his sure touch. For the first time in weeks she felt the tension between them dissipating. She hadn't realized until just now how much she missed having him touch her. If only he'd apologize. She realized it wasn't just the physical exertion that was making her so tired. It was the effort required to stay angry with him. Just say you were wrong, Clark, she thought. Say you were wrong and let's talk about it.
Outside the cow bell began to ring.
"That's dinner," he told her, releasing her foot with one last little squeeze.
Lois rolled onto her back and sighed. "I wonder what culinary delight awaits us now?"
After a dinner of beef stew, which even Lois and Jenny ate ravenously, the group sat around the campfire comparing stories about their adventures that day. At a lull in the conversation, Brenda turned to Lois and said, "So you said last night that you two are investigative reporters?"
"That's right," Lois confirmed with a nod.
"Wow. Have you ever gone undercover for a story?"
"Together?" Brenda asked.
"Yes," Lois said again.
"I guess maybe you've already learned how to depend on each other in dangerous situations then."
"I, uh…" Lois said, suddenly at a loss for words.
"Lois has saved my life," Clark said. "I wouldn't be here if it weren't for her. And not just me; she risked her life to save my parents a couple of months ago. She's the bravest person I know."
Everyone's head turned to look at her. Lois flushed and stared at her feet. "You've saved me, too." Her eyes closed and she felt a little dizzy as she realized just how indebted she was to Clark. No wonder he had such an overweening sense of responsibility for her safety. And yet how did all of that translate into their relationship being hazardous to her health?
"Is that part of the attraction?" George asked. "That she's willing to put herself on the line for you?"
Clark smiled and shook his head. "No. I admire her courage but most of the time she drives me nuts with her single-minded recklessness."
Lois frowned at her shoes. Single-minded recklessness? Did he honestly think that was a compliment?
"Reckless," Lois repeated slowly, unable to get past that word. She looked directly at Clark, but couldn't really make out his expression in the half-light from the campfire. "You think I'm reckless?"
"I'm in awe of your willingness to put everything on the line in pursuit of a story or the truth."
"Flattery is not going to get you anywhere," she sniffed.
"Ah, but a foot rub might," he teased in an effort to lighten the conversation.
"It might," she allowed, standing up to go to the tent. "But only if I was feeling reckless."
Lois was only half-asleep when she startled awake to an eerie silence. For a moment she laid perfectly still, trying to figure out what was wrong. It was so dark, so quiet. Then she realized that was the problem. It was too quiet. She couldn't hear Clark breathing. She reached over and her hand found only empty space. Clark wasn't there. What cry for help could he possibly have heard from way out here?
This is what it would have been like, she thought, being married to Superman. She would wake up in the middle of the night to find him gone, probably on a nightly basis. Maybe even several times a night.
She felt around for her flashlight but the first thing her hand found was his glasses. Where had he gone without his glasses? Then she berated herself for being silly — it wasn't like he actually needed them to see. Her hand closed over her flashlight and she turned it on, directing it around the tent to confirm that, indeed, all his stuff was still here. It was only Clark who was missing.
Lois sat up and reached over to feel the inside of his sleeping bag. It was still warm — he hadn't been gone very long. She concentrated on listening, but there was no sound of footfalls or twigs cracking or anything to indicate that he was right outside the tent.
Perplexed, she simply sat there and watched the dust motes dance in the flashlight's glare. She knew, just knew somehow, that he wasn't anywhere nearby. Lois put her hand over the light, watching her backlit fingers become red and pink. At the sudden rasp of the tent's zipper she swung the flashlight's beam, aiming it almost directly into his eyes.
"Where have you been?" It came out much angrier than she actually felt.
"Home," he said, squinting against the light and then holding up a pillow to block it.
"You flew home to get a pillow?" Again, that sounded much harsher than she had meant for it to sound.
He held it out to her. "Not for me, it's for you. Your place was locked, so I brought one of mine."
Lois took the pillow from him. It was cold to the touch — from flying she realized. "You brought me your pillow?" she asked in confusion.
Clark closed the tent's flap and crawled to the top of his sleeping bag to get in. "I just… I thought you said you wanted one this morning."
"I did, uh, I do. I'm just… surprised, that's all."
As he climbed into his sleeping bag Lois switched off her flashlight and lay down on the pillow. It felt cool against her cheek and it smelled just like him. Or, rather, it smelled like he normally did. Right now he had more of campfire aroma to him. She propped herself up on her elbow and impulsively scooted a little closer to him.
"Thank you," she whispered and awkwardly patted his arm. She had meant to kiss his cheek but found she didn't quite dare. Suddenly flustered, Lois quickly moved away from him.
"You're welcome," he whispered. "Good night, Lois."
The soft way he said her name and the smell of his pillow combined to send a wave of longing through her. She snuggled deeper into the pillow, saddened by the realization that she couldn't kiss his cheek anymore. "Discover your core needs…," Dave had told them.
She just needed Clark back. She needed him to apologize for being so obtuse. She needed to find a way to tell him that she was willing to forgive him for being so obtuse. She wanted things to be the way they were before his idiotic decision. In the end, the only words she could find were, "Good night, Clark. Thanks again."
"Anytime," he whispered back. "If there's anything else you need, I can make another trip."
For a moment she let herself make a list. Chocolate, a thick pad instead of the thin foam mat beneath her sleeping bag, her winter coat, and a pizza. She had this sudden mental image of Clark shuttling back and forth between here and Metropolis, bearing gifts like an out-of-season Santa Claus and she rolled her eyes at the idea. Those weren't the kinds of personal needs that Dave had been talking about. She should be thinking about her long-term core needs, not temporary indulgences. Did Clark honestly think he could buy her forgiveness with a pillow? That somehow that little gesture could make up for breaking her heart so ruthlessly? Resentment, sudden and thick, shot through her.
She didn't just want an apology. She wanted him to feel bad. She wanted him to be as miserable as she was. That was why she had spent the past month ignoring him. And that had been relatively easy, since she only had to maintain her indifference during the day. Now, stuck with him full-time, she knew she wouldn't be able to do it. Maybe it was time to let a little of the hurt show through — time to truly show him what he had done.
"It doesn't fix anything, you know, bringing me a pillow or giving me a foot massage. It doesn't fix it, Clark."
He winced at the coldness of her tone. "I know."
"You were the last person I ever believed would hurt me. I *trusted* you."
His heart sank at her used of the past tense. "You don't think you can trust me again?"
"With my life? Absolutely. I'll trust you with everything but my heart."
"Lois, I'm sorry…"
"So am I. It's not enough."
The vehemence of her words stung. "What would be?"
His question made her realize that she had no idea. There was no way to fix this, was there? Even if he apologized; it would always be there between them.
"I don't know," she said sadly. "I honestly don't know."
For a long time they both lay there, staring into the darkness and acutely aware of each other's every breath and movement. Lois fell asleep first but Clark lay awake long after her breathing had evened out. She didn't trust him anymore. That knowledge hurt even more than breaking up with her had. She didn't trust him — maybe she never would again. His thumb stroked over the small box he had brought back along with the pillow.
Clark sat up and looked at the box in his hand for a moment. Soft blue light from the moon was dappled across the roof of the tent. What would it look like in this light? Unable to resist the temptation, he opened it and his breath caught in his throat as the ring inside sparkled faintly. He had meant to have her wear the ring to lend credence to the ruse of their engagement. But once he got back to the tent he had realized that he couldn't ask her to do it. That ring was a symbol of something that was meant to be permanent, not a temporary lie. It was all or nothing.
He snapped the box shut and pulled a clean pair of socks from his backpack, wadding them up with the box inside.
How could he explain to her the fear that had immobilized him when she had been hurt? Flying with her unconscious in his arms had shaken him to his soul. Nothing in his life had ever had been as frightening as that trip to the hospital. It had felt so potentially final. She could have died. It wasn't an acceptable loss. One little slip and the entire house of cards he had built would come crashing down — on her. He could face anything but losing her. Couldn't she understand that he loved her enough to let her go — to give her a chance for a real life?
Clark shifted onto his elbow and watched her sleep. Her face was relaxed, making her look so young and vulnerable. His entire body ached with the need to protect her.
Tomorrow, he silently vowed to her. Tomorrow he would find a way to explain his actions. She was right; he should have found a better way to explain that her safety — her life — were more important to him than anything else. He realized now that they might have salvaged their friendship much sooner and more easily if he had let her be part of that decision.
Tomorrow he would find a way to fix it. He would show her that he only wanted the best for her. He would find a way for her to trust him again. He bent over and brushed a kiss across her forehead.
"Tomorrow," he promised her in a whisper.
George was sitting next to Lois the next morning at breakfast. "I'd like to ask you a question, but you should feel free to tell me to mind my own business."
"Okay," she said cautiously.
"You're from Metropolis, right? And you're a reporter. Have you ever met Superman?"
It took all her willpower not to glance at Clark. "Yes," she said, giving George a smile. "I've met him."
"Wait a minute," Jenny said slowly. "Are you *that* Lois Lane? From the Daily Planet? Are you the reporter who had the first interview with Superman?"
"Yes," Lois said, feeling somehow embarrassed by the admission.
"So do you both know him?" Jenny asked, looking back and forth between Clark and Lois.
"Yes." This time it was Clark who answered.
"Oooh! Really? What's he like?" Debbie asked. "Is he really that nice or is he only like that when there are cameras around?"
"He's… nice." Lois shrugged. "I don't really see him outside of interviewing him, but he's always been very, uh, courteous."
"I'm sorry," Jenny said, sounding a little perplexed. "I had the impression that you were friendly with him. I mean, wasn't there a picture of you kissing him in a magazine or something?"
"Oh," Lois said softly. "That." For the first time it sank in for her that it was *Clark* she had kissed before the Nightfall asteroid.
"That was just a kiss for luck," Clark said quickly. "It wasn't like the tabloids made it out to be."
He was right about that, Lois thought. Neither she nor the tabloids had known she was kissing her best friend. And it hadn't just been for luck. It had been for good-bye, though she never would have admitted that to anyone. And now, with the world safe and whole, she was never going to get to kiss him again. Not even good-bye. When was the last time she had kissed him? She couldn't remember. She hadn't even paid attention, she realized. She had stupidly believed that she'd always have another chance, another kiss.
"You're a lucky man. I doubt Debbie would have chosen me over Superman," George said.
Lois shook her head to clear her thoughts. "Superman? Well, it wouldn't work, would it? He told me himself that he could never become involved with anyone. He's afraid people would use his friends to get to him."
"What a lonely way to live," Brenda mused and both Jenny and Debbie nodded, their expressions turning thoughtful.
"His choice," Lois said lightly. "Besides I have Clark," she added and smiled at the irony.
"Well, of course," Debbie said, giving Clark an apologetic smile. "I didn't mean to imply, you know…"
Clark gave a distracted nod, his eyes fixed on Lois. "I know what you meant," he said softly.
After breakfast Rich and Dave gathered together several lengths of rope and an equipment bag that made a muted clanking sound as it shifted. They led everyone on a trail through the trees behind the camp that wound back and forth as it climbed a ridge. After about twenty minutes of climbing they came out of the trees onto a wide ledge that looked down on their camp. Everyone paused for a rest, taking in the elevated view of their temporary home. Then Rich led them along the ledge until they came to a clearing with a large rock outcropping on its edge. He crossed the clearing and stopped in front of the outcropping, setting the equipment bag and rope on the ground beside him.
"Today we're going to work on trust building," he told them.
Beside him Clark heard Lois let out a sound that was half-laugh, half-sigh.
"Have any of you played the childhood game of 'I trust you'? You know, the one where someone stands behind you and you trust them to catch you when you fall backwards? We're not going to do that. Today we'll be learning the basics of rock climbing. You'll take turns belaying your partner. A word of caution here, people, when you belay you literally hold your partner's life in your hands, so do it right every time. Never lose your focus."
For the next hour Dave and Rich showed them the climbing equipment and ropes, explaining how the gear worked and how to make the required knots. As Dave put on the climbing harness, Rich walked them through a quick recap of their instructions.
"First, check that the climber is in their harness properly. That means both legs and their waist are tied in. Check your knots. Check the rope where it passes through the grigri. Make sure the climber side is going to the climber. The hand side is the only side that you should touch or pull on. Use your dominant hand to pull and your other hand to guide, but keep both your hands on the hand side of the rope. Now, I pull the slack from the rope and when Dave feels it become tight he says—"
"On belay?" asked Dave.
"Dave, on belay. Climb away."
"Climbing!" Dave sang out and began to work his way up the rock. He climbed quickly and within a couple of minutes had almost reached halfway.
As Dave climbed Rich continued to explain, "Be sure and use both hands to keep the rope taut. Don't make it tight, but especially don't let it become slack. When your climber is in position to repel back down you'll get in your descending position." His stance widened and he slowly lowered Dave back to the ground. "We can have two climbers at a time, so you can decide for yourselves who goes first, but everyone is going to have a chance."
When it was their turn Clark volunteered to climb first.
After he was in the harness, Lois pulled on the rope until it became taut.
"On belay," Clark said, grinning at her over his shoulder.
"Clark, on belay. Climb away." She found herself grinning back at him, mostly because it seemed beyond silly to actually have to worry about him falling. He didn't need a helmet. He didn't need the rope. And she was going to have the easiest job of belaying someone ever.
"You'd better not think you can slack off," he said, still grinning. "I might fall just to see if you'd catch me."
"Yeah? Good luck with that." She rolled her eyes at him. "Go on, then, Spiderman, climb that wall."
"So there's not going to be a competition today to get out of chores tonight?" Lois asked after they had returned to camp.
Rich grinned. "I hadn't planned one, no. We need water, why don't you race to the lake and back? First one back here with water doesn't have to do any other chores tonight."
Lois picked up a bucket and took off at a run. She got to the lake shore at the same time as Clark and George. Debbie arrived just as Lois had filled her bucket and was beginning to lug it back. George, ahead of her, tripped, spilling all of his water. He swore colorfully as she passed him with a laugh. She arrived back at the fire just ahead of Clark.
"Ha!" she said triumphantly to him. "I win! I beat you."
George straggled in behind Clark, his bucket still empty. "She's insufferable," he told Clark.
"Only sometimes," Clark said, giving her an affectionate smile.
Feeling magnanimous, she went over to him and put her arms around his neck in a quick hug so that she could whisper in his ear, "The sad part is that only I know that I just kicked Superman's butt."
When she stepped away Clark shook his head in mock irritation. Then he turned to George and said, "It's not pretty when she loses. That's why I let her win most of the time."
"*Let* me win?" Lois repeated archly, putting her hands on her hips. "You *let* me win?"
He sat down on the log in front of the fire and tilted his head back to smirk up at her. "What do you think?" he asked lightly.
Her mouth opened and closed but no words came out.
"Clark, you're messing with your sex now. You're not going to get any tonight, buddy," George laughed.
"He wasn't going to get any anyway," Lois clarified. Irked by the continued twinkle in Clark's eyes she impulsively picked up the bucket of water he had brought from the lake and dumped it over his head. For a shocked moment nobody moved.
After a moment of surprise Clark let out a growl and stood up. Lois dropped the bucket with a clatter and took three quick steps back with a nervous laugh.
"You could let me win again right now, couldn't you?" she said hopefully. Then she took another step back, holding one hand up to caution him when he began to advance towards her.
"That wasn't nice," he said in a low voice.
Lois turned to run but had only taken about four steps before he caught up to her and hoisted her over his shoulder.
"Clark!" she squealed. "Please! I'm sorry! Put me down!"
He didn't answer, just kept walking. Lois looked pleadingly at the others, but they were all smiling or laughing as he carried her further away.
"Come on, Clark!" She was laughing, too, but beginning to get nervous when she realized that he was taking her towards the lake. Lois beat her fists on his back, laughing and wheedling at the same time. "No! Uncle! I give up! You win!"
Clark didn't stop until he had reached the shore of the lake. He brought her off his shoulder and she wrapped her arms tightly around his neck to try and delay the inevitable.
"Don't do it!" she laughed. "Please don't do it." She held her breath, waiting for the icy water.
Clark set her down and took a step back, his hands pulling her arms from around his neck. "Maybe I should wait and get even with you later, when you're not expecting it." He squeezed her hands and then let them go.
She shook her head in astonishment. "You know what your problem is, Clark? You're too nice. Mercy is for the weak." On the last word she pushed him backwards into the lake. Caught off guard he fell in and she turned and ran towards camp as if her life depended on it. She wedged herself between Rich and Bob and tried to look properly chagrined as Clark, now completely soaked, came back through camp. Without a word he went past the fire and into their tent to change.
"You might want to sleep with one eye open tonight," Rich teased.
A couple of minutes later Clark came out of their tent and put his wet clothes over a tree branch. He came back over by the fire and sat down next to Brenda. Lois watched him carefully, almost certain that she could see the corners of his mouth fighting a smile.
What was it her mother always used to say? Something about revenge being a dish best served cold? Rich was wrong — she wouldn't be sleeping with one eye open tonight. She just wouldn't sleep.
Lois tipped her head back to watch the stars as everyone else headed towards their tents. Everyone but Clark, who was sitting across the now-extinguished fire from her. After a few minutes of silence he stood up to go to their tent then stopped and turned around when he realized she hadn't moved.
"Aren't you coming?" he asked.
"I think I'm missing out on the charm of sleeping beneath the stars."
"You think I'm going to get even with you, don't you?"
"Are you?" She looked over at him, not quite able to read his expression in the moonlight.
"Not tonight," he said softly.
"Never?" She shook her head in disbelief. "Oh, come on."
"I don't want to get even with you, Lois. I just want to be friends again. So you tell me when it's enough and I'm forgiven. Until then, I won't get even. I promise."
Clark turned and went to their tent. Lois tipped her head back again, but the stars had become blurry to her. She knew he meant it — he wasn't going to get even. Her heart ached to be able to trust him again. She missed him. She missed his teasing. She missed hearing his laugh. She missed his friendship. Most of all she missed the quiet assurance of having him in her life.
She had told him last night that she didn't know what would be "enough" to fix their friendship. Was this enough, then? His refusal to fight and his insistence that they could still be friends? Was it, at least, enough to start forward from?
Lois knew he was right — he had let her win the race to the lake and back. And he had literally let her push him around this afternoon. Was that only because he didn't want to use his powers in front of everyone else? Or was he genuinely trying to make amends?
Trust him, her heart told her. Just this once — just for tonight. Trust him and see what happens.
After she crawled into her sleeping bag she turned to face him and softly asked, "Clark?"
She took a deep breath. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have dumped that water on you. Or pushed you in the lake. That was mean."
"It was pretty funny, actually."
She smiled into the dark, reliving the shocked look on his face when he had hit the water. "It was. But I'm still sorry."
"It's okay, Lois. I'm not angry."
"You say that now, but what happens when those jeans are still wet tomorrow morning?"
"Heat vision," he murmured.
"Oh, right. I guess you can fix just about anything."
"Not what matters most," he whispered. "I'd trade all my powers to fix what I broke."
She had no answer for him. Even his powers couldn't fix what had been broken. She listened to his breathing and wondered how odd it was going to feel to sleep alone after she was home again.
"Good night," he whispered.
"Good night," she replied and turned away from him. "Thanks for not tossing me in the lake."
"That doesn't mean I won't dream about it."
She could hear the smile in his voice and her head lifted from the pillow slightly. "So you do dream about me sometimes?"
"Good night, Lois," he said firmly, unwilling to be drawn into that conversation.
After a few seconds of silence she giggled. "You tell me and I'll tell you."
"Tell me what?" he asked.
"What I dream about when I dream about you," she said as if the answer was obvious.
He shook his head. "Uh-uh, I'm not falling for that one. I'll tell you something personal and you'll tell me that you dream about me borrowing your stapler or something innocuous."
"Borrowing my stapler? Have you been reading my journal?"
He didn't answer and she found that she was positively consumed with curiosity. Did he ever dream about her? And, if so, what did he dream about? Nothing ventured, nothing gained. She decided to prod him a little more.
"I wouldn't write down the kind of dreams I have about you," she teased.
He still didn't answer.
"Oh, come on, just one," she coaxed.
"No way," he muttered.
"The best one I ever had was before I even knew about Superman. It was after our first date. Only in my dream I didn't slam the door in your face."
He still didn't speak, but his interest was definitely piqued.
Now that she had started, she found she couldn't stop herself from telling him. "I asked you inside, even though it was really late. I wanted to feed you ice cream."
He bit the inside of his lip to keep from asking. Ice cream?
"So, there we were, me feeding you ice cream… is it weird that I don't remember how that got started? You know how you're doing stuff in a dream but you don't remember how you got there? I just remember feeding you a spoonful of ice cream and then I kissed you. It was so real I could taste the chocolate."
Clark swallowed hard, his mind filling in the details of a chocolate ice cream kiss with Lois.
"And then…" she continued in a husky whisper that made her clear her throat. "And then we were on my bed and you were feeding me ice cream and…" Her voice trailed off and her cheeks grew warm.
"And?" he prompted.
"And… that's all I'm going to tell you." She mentally cursed herself for sharing too much. "Oh my gosh, I can't believe I just told you that."
"Told me what?" He fought his disappointment. "All you said was that you once dreamed about feeding me ice cream. I don't think Freud would have a field day with that one."
Lois covered her face with her hands, muffling her next words. "It's not Freud I'm worried about."
Clark lay on his back, taking deep breaths as he argued with himself to just let the subject drop. Common sense lost and he softly said, "Sometimes I dream that I come home and you're there."
"In your apartment?" she clarified.
"What am I wearing?"
He blushed at the implication but answered her honestly. "Clothes. Nothing special, nothing overtly sexy."
"What am I doing?"
He sighed and suddenly wished that he had picked a different dream to tell her about. "Just… stuff."
"Stuff? What kind of stuff?"
"Sometimes you're sitting on the couch reading or you're asleep on my bed. Sometimes you're cooking."
"Cooking? Do I fold laundry? Sweep the floor?"
"Lois, you can't make dreams be politically correct. Sometimes I dream that you're cooking." He decided to leave out that in one unforgettable dream she had been in his shower when he came home.
"Okay, so you come home to find me in some sort of domestic occupation. Then what?"
"You smile at me. And you hold out your hand."
She rolled her eyes. "Please tell me this is going to get better soon."
"You don't know what your smile does for me. Trust me, it's very sexy."
"I have a sexy smile?" She smiled and wondered if he could see her.
"Yeah," he sighed. "You do."
"And then what? I start polishing the furniture?"
"Now there's a euphemism."
She blushed furiously. "Oh."
Torn between curiosity and embarrassment, she gave in to her baser instincts and rolled to face him. "How far do things go in this dream?"
"Far enough," he muttered. He should never have said anything. He should have just let the subject drop.
"Really? The worst part about my ice cream dream is that I always wake up just as things are getting really interesting."
Clark grinned and asked. "At what point do things become 'interesting'?"
She giggled. "I guess when the clothes start coming off."
"Um, both of us." She waited for a few seconds but he didn't offer any more information. "What about you?" she asked, feeling emboldened by the cover of darkness. "Do we get naked in your dream?"
Clark closed his eyes for a moment, flashing to the dream where he found her in his shower. "Maybe," he allowed.
"When was the last time you had that dream?" she asked softly.
"What was I doing when you came home?"
"You were sitting on my window seat."
Lois waited for him to elaborate. When he didn't she asked, "Did I hold out my hand and smile?"
"Yes," he whispered.
A few more seconds ticked by and she gave an exasperated sigh. "So then what happened?"
His mind replayed the memory of how he had carried her to his bed. "We, uh, we kissed."
"Is that all?"
"No, things got interesting from there."
"How interesting?" She propped herself up on her elbow but in the faint moonlight she couldn't see his face clearly.
"Very," he sighed. "Good night, Lois." He rolled onto his side, facing away from her.
"Do you think you'll dream about me tonight?"
He sincerely hoped not. "No," he whispered.
"Wait a minute!" She poked his back, just now realizing what he had admitted. "You dreamed about me last week?"
"So?" Why had he been honest? He should never have told her that.
"So you still dream about me, um, like that. Doesn't that tell you something?"
"People don't have control over their dreams, Lois."
"But aren't our dreams just our subconscious coming to the surface? You still want me — admit it."
"It was never that I didn't want you. It was what might happen to you if we became involved."
"That's such a load of bullsh…"
"Good night, Lois," he said firmly.
She laid back down and fell silent for a few minutes. Then she cleared her throat hesitantly. "I kind of dreamed about you last week. Actually, I've had this dream a lot lately. I'm on top of a tall building, looking over the edge, and I'm scared to death that I'm going to fall. And it's like I can hear your voice in my head and you promise me that you'll catch me, that I'll be okay."
Clark grimaced, already afraid of where the dream was going to end.
"And then this gust of wind comes up or something happens and suddenly I'm falling. I scream for you — sometimes it's Superman, but usually it's your name. I scream until I'm hoarse and I always wake up with a jolt just as I'm hitting the ground. You never catch me. You're not there and I don't know where you went or why."
"Lois, it's just a dream. You know I would never let anyone hurt you."
"Except you. You hurt me, Clark. It still hurts. I look at you and I see everything I have ever wanted but can never have."
"I feel the same way," he said.
"Then why are you keeping us apart? This situation is entirely your doing."
"Lois." He had to stop and take a deep breath before continuing. "When you got hurt — when I had to fly you to the hospital — I've never been that scared in all my life. It was a combination of everything from those few days all coming together, all at once. I wasn't able to protect you from being abducted. And then I wasn't able to protect you when the transmitter exploded. Until that moment I thought I could always move fast enough. When I saw you lying there unconscious, I…" He swallowed hard at the memory. "I thought I had lost you. And if I lost you because of me, I couldn't live with that."
"But you can live with breaking my heart?"
He let out a sigh. "No," he said quietly. "I can't really live with that either."
"What if you're wrong, Clark? What if no one ever tries to use me to get to you?"
"And what if they do?" he countered.
"Okay, so let's say that someone did use me to get to you. Will you feel better about your decision then? Will you say to yourself, well at least we weren't really involved? This could have been so much worse. Is that what you'll say? Because people already know that I'm friends with Superman. Jenny made that connection this morning. You can't put that genie back in the bottle."
He was silent and she wondered if he was planning a new argument or if he was making a sincere effort to think about what she had said.
"I'm sorry," he finally said softly. "I'm sorry that I hurt you. I'm sorry that I'm still hurting you. But is it worth the risk, Lois?"
She sighed and turned away from him. "You're the one who thinks it's not worth the risk, Clark. Since it's my life at risk, I would think my opinion should matter."
"Your opinion does matter," he said patiently.
"Not enough, though. My opinion doesn't matter enough to change your mind."
He shook his head at the futility of making her understand him. "So you would be with me, even if you knew that might lead to horrible consequences for you?"
"No, I would be with you because I love you. No one knows what's going to happen or how it's going to end. If it came right down to it, and I knew for certain that someone would use me to get to you, I'd still pick you. I'd rather have those few days or weeks or however long we get that are real, and happy, than to have an entire lifetime of lonely safety without you."
Clark closed his eyes. "I can't ask you to make that decision."
"You can't make it for me either, Clark."
He reminded himself of his promise not to argue with her anymore. "I'm sorry," he whispered.
"Me, too," she admitted and wrapped her arms around his pillow in a fierce hug. "Me, too."
Clark was absolutely wrong. He had been wrong for nearly two hours now and Lois was enjoying every minute of it. The only downside was that she was never going to be able to say 'I told you so' since she had never said a word when he first led them in the wrong direction. Somehow it was enough just for her to know he was wrong. Nearly five miles worth of wrong by now. Five miles in the wrong direction — it was a small price to pay. Lois fought a grin as she doggedly followed him. It couldn't possibly be much further now before he was going to have to—
Clark stopped, looking up at the high walls of the narrow canyon they had hiked into. He had been fighting the need to recheck the map for a while now — not wanting to look hesitant in front of Lois. Now, it was becoming more and more apparent that they needed to check their position. He opened the map, holding it so that Lois could look at it with him.
"I think…" He looked at their surroundings and then back at the map. "I think we took a wrong turn."
Lois didn't say anything. She shrugged at him and then bent to retie the laces on her boot.
Clark looked at the map, putting his finger on the box canyon he now realized they were actually in. It was right next to the canyon they were supposed to have gone through. He looked up, judging immediately that it was too steep for Lois to climb unaided. He toyed with the thought of just flying them over the ridge. If they didn't have to backtrack they might actually still win this competition. Except flying them would be cheating. After his insistence that they play above-board, he could hardly suggest it.
"We need to turn around," he said glumly, "and go back the way we came."
Lois straightened back up and nodded pleasantly. "If you say so."
Clark narrowed his eyes at her. She seemed almost… gleeful. They had been the first team to leave that morning and he had attributed her high spirits to her confidence that they were sure to win this orienteering session. Now, miles off-track and destined for last place, she still seemed happy about it.
"Why are you being so agreeable?" he asked suspiciously.
Lois blinked at him. "You're seriously going to argue with me because I'm being nice?"
Clark frowned at her. "*Why* are you being nice?"
She gave him a wide grin. "I'm *always* nice to you."
He shook his head. "No, not always."
"Maybe I'm turning over a new leaf. If you can turn the other cheek, I can be nice."
"It's kind of creepy," he told her and started walking back the way they had come.
"Creepy?" she asked as she came alongside him.
"It feels wrong somehow," he tried to explain. It was wrong. She had to be up to something.
"Maybe it's just your guilty conscience?" she suggested.
"*My* guilty conscience? What do I have to feel guilty about?" Clark shook his head, beginning to sense exactly what she was implying.
"Absolutely nothing," she said breezily. "You're always right. It must be amazing being you."
"I get it, Lois. You're laying it on a little thick, don't you think?"
"Laying what on a little thick?" she asked innocently.
He stopped and took hold of her arm, turning her to face him. "How long have you known?"
"Known what?" She looked up at him in manufactured bafflement.
"That we were going in the wrong direction," he clarified. "How long have you known that?"
"Oh." She bit her lip, trying to decide just how honest she should be. Eh, to hell with him. She'd tell him the truth. "I knew it as soon as you suggested this little 'short-cut'."
"So why didn't you say anything?" He stared at her in astonishment.
"Why should I?" she asked with a shrug. "You're the one who always knows which way is north. Why would I ever question your decisions?"
He let out an exasperated sigh. "Is this about my not respecting your opinion?"
She folded her arms and tipped her head back to look at him. "I don't know — is it?"
"I can't believe you'd hike all this way just to prove me wrong," he muttered and then turned to continue walking.
She caught up to him, but didn't look over at him as she lightly said, "Clark, we haven't even scratched the surface of what I'll do to prove you wrong."
"We're going to lose," he needled, hoping to upset her.
"Yep," she agreed happily. "I think we are."
They were the last team to arrive back at camp. Lois sat down on the log by the fire with a weary sigh. She was tired, but it was the good kind of tired. It had been worth every extra step to illustrate his fallibility. Clark, who had become increasingly sullen during the long hike back to camp, walked past the fire to where Jim and George stood on the fringes of the meadow.
Lois frowned at his retreating back. Was he really going to stay upset just because she had called him on being wrong? She shook her head in disgust. She was the only person in the world — with the possible exception of his parents — who knew that Superman was sometimes a petulant, stubborn know-it-all.
"How are you doing?" Rich asked, taking a seat next to her.
"I think I'm about one hike away from getting blisters," she answered.
"Thicker socks," Rich suggested. "You need thicker socks. Or you could double up and use two thin pairs."
Lois considered it for a few moments and then gave Rich a distracted nod. "Okay," she said. "I'll try that."
She walked back to their tent, sitting just inside the unzipped flap and reached for her backpack. On impulse, she decided to borrow a pair of Clark's socks instead. His were thicker — maybe they would work better? She rummaged through his backpack before figuring out that he had all his socks stuffed way down at the bottom. One pair seemed heavier than the others and she pulled them free of the pack. Was there was something inside them? Curious to see what Clark would hide in his socks she unrolled them. A small black velvet box dropped into her lap.
For several seconds she simply stared at it, not quite believing what she had just found. Her chest tightened and her throat ached as she finally picked the box up. Even though she knew what was inside she had to open it. The box opened with a soft 'snap' and she stared at the ring. Her heart began to hammer painfully inside her chest as she raced through a gamut of emotions before settling on confused. Why had he brought it? Was he planning to propose again? That couldn't be it — he was the one who was so emphatic that they couldn't be together.
So why had he brought the ring?
Lois glanced guiltily over her shoulder, half-expecting that Clark would have heard the box open. The tent's flap fluttered in the breeze and she saw that he was still talking to Jim and George. She looked back at the ring, taking the opportunity to finally get a good look at it.
It was beautiful as it sparkled in the sunlight. For a moment she wanted to take it out of the box and try it on. She glanced outside again — he was still engrossed in conversation. She decided it wasn't worth the risk. Her numb fingers closed the box and carefully replaced it in his socks before wedging them as far down in his backpack as she could manage. For a few more seconds she sat and stared at his pack in confused wonderment.
Why had he brought the ring?
She left the tent and looked across the clearing to where Clark stood talking to the others. He must have sensed her gaze because he looked over. She gave him half a smile before turning away and moving quickly up the trail behind their tent. With each footstep her mind raced trying to solve the puzzle. Why had he brought the ring?
Now that she was moving, she found she couldn't stop. She took the trail higher and higher until she was at the vantage spot high above the camp. Through the trees she could see the distant figures of everyone in camp. Clark was stacking cords of wood along with Jim. Jenny and Brenda were coming back from the lake with pots of water to boil. Her chore, Lois realized. She was supposed to have helped with the water and fire tonight.
She heard a sound behind her and looked over her shoulder to see Dave emerge from the trees.
"Oh, Lois, I'm sorry. I didn't know anyone was up here. Am I intruding on your personal time?"
"No, it's fine. I'm leaving now. I'm supposed to be helping with the chores down there."
Dave sat down next to her, letting out a long, contented sigh. "By the time you get back there won't be much left to do. Stay for a while, we'll tell them I was critiquing your woodcraft skills."
"I don't have any woodcraft skills," she said ruefully.
"Then let's talk about Clark."
"Clark?" Her eyes found him, now kneeling and helping to start the fire.
"What's the story there? If you're engaged, where's the ring?"
Lois let out a nervous laugh. The ring? The ring was in Clark's backpack and there was no making any sense of that one. Why? Why? Why? That question was the only thing her dazed mind could focus on.
"I turned him down," she admitted. "When Clark first asked me to marry him, I turned him down. It felt like everything was going so fast. I didn't say no, really, so much as I told him I needed time to think."
"That sounds reasonable."
"It hurt him, though. And then he got it into his head that…" For a moment her mind stuttered. She couldn't tell Dave the truth. She opted for the closest lie. "That our jobs were so risky that it would be better not to get involved. I was literally about to say 'yes' when he broke up with me. But there was no discussion, no chance to tell him he was being paranoid. We were over, just like that. He thinks we can still be friends and I…" She trailed off and took a deep breath, willing herself not to cry.
"I can't be friends with him. Every time I see him it's like my heart breaks all over again. I hate that I still care about him. I can't be his friend. Not now, anyway."
"So how did you two end up here?"
"Our boss sent us. He doesn't know that we broke up. He thinks we're just going through a rough patch." Lois nudged a pebble with her toe until it pitched over the edge into the trees below them. "He brought the ring with him."
"Clark. He brought the ring. I found it by accident in his backpack. Why would he bring the ring when he's absolutely written off the possibility of being with me?"
"Introducing you as his fiancee doesn't sound like he's written off the possibility, does it?"
Lois hugged her knees to her chest. "Maybe he was just afraid someone would break into his apartment while he was gone and steal it?"
"Lois, people can waste an entire lifetime nursing grudges and hurting each other. Do you love him?"
She watched the far-away figure of Clark below her, seeing him tip his head back and laugh along with Jim. What were they laughing about? Her melancholy deepened — how long had it been since she had seen Clark laugh like that? She missed his laugh. She missed him. Did she love him? She didn't even need to ask — she knew that she did. Her life would be so much simpler if she could just stop loving him.
Dave was watching her, his eyes sympathetic as he waited for her to answer.
"Yes," she whispered and nodded. "Yes, I love him."
"Then tell him that. Clark certainly appears to be trying to work towards an improved relationship with you, or am I mistaken in that impression? And he's brought the engagement ring. That would seem to indicate that he's working up his courage to ask again. Are the problems between you so immense that you could never work through them?"
"I don't know." Lois shook her head. "I don't know what to think anymore. I don't know what he wants from me. He told me that we could only be friends because he doesn't want me to get hurt. How does breaking my heart protect me?"
"Have you ever considered what the core reason is behind Clark's need to protect you?"
"He's a control freak?" Lois ventured.
"Or perhaps Clark is projecting his fears onto you? It would seem that his greatest fear is losing you."
"So why push me away?"
"It may not make much sense to us, but I'll bet that Clark has convinced himself that giving you up is the best way to love you. If he didn't care about your relationship at all, he wouldn't be trying to make amends now."
Lois looked away, back down towards camp in time to see Clark disappear into the trees near their tent. He had brought the ring — she just couldn't shake that fact. Why? Why had he done it? Had he planned to propose to her again? What other reason could there be?
"How do I know that he won't break my heart again? How do I know that I can trust him?" she asked softly.
Dave spread his hands and gave her a small smile. "That's a question only you can answer."
"He didn't get even with me last night after I pushed him in the lake, you know. When I asked him why he said he just wanted me to trust him again."
"It's a small thing, I grant you, but do you trust him to keep his word about that?"
Lois fell silent and considered what Dave had said. Did she trust Clark not to get even with her? Yes. But there was a huge difference between that and trusting him with her heart again. "Yes," she finally whispered, "I can trust him that much."
"Good," Dave said. "That's a good start."
Lois stood up to leave and then paused. "Dave, is it true that you lose most of your body heat through the top of your head?"
Dave nodded. "Yes."
"What about zipping your sleeping bags together to keep warm?"
"If you really want to stay warm you should strip naked first."
She blushed deeply and turned to go.
She looked over her shoulder. "Yes?"
Dave winked at her. "Make sure he gives you the ring before you go stripping."
All through dinner she was dying to ask him. There was no good way to bring up subject. Especially not in front of everyone else. As they were climbing into their sleeping bags — and were finally alone — she found her voice curiously gone. After the way she had given him an object lesson in being wrong there was simply no way to ask him. Not without sounding needy or desperate, anyway.
"Lois?" Clark asked softly after several minutes of silence had gone by. "Are you still awake?"
"Yes." Her heart began to pound just as painfully as when she had found the ring.
"Did you really hike all that way just to prove me wrong?"
"Yes," she admitted quietly.
"There's a difference, you know, between being wrong about something on a map and being wrong about, well, other stuff."
"I know," she answered. "But there's also a difference between being concerned and overreacting."
He sighed softly but didn't answer. She lay there, debating with herself over whether to ask or not. She just *had* to know.
"Clark? I was going to borrow a pair of your socks earlier…"
His breath caught in his throat and suddenly he was afraid of her next words. "Okay," he said, fighting to keep the word casual-sounding.
An uneasy silence lay between them as they both waited for the other to speak. When the silence began to feel heavy she quietly asked, "Why did you bring the ring?"
Clark's mind swam. He should have taken it back to Metropolis as soon as he realized that he couldn't see her wearing it as a lie.
"I just… it was a spur of the moment thing. The night I brought you the pillow, I brought it back with me. I was thinking that since we were supposed to be engaged maybe you ought to have a ring."
For a moment she was almost relieved. Here was an explanation she hadn't considered. "So why didn't you give it to me to wear?" she asked.
"I, well, I just couldn't," he temporized. How could explain his feelings to her?
He couldn't? Couldn't what? Suddenly her throat ached. He didn't want to see her wearing that ring at all. Was that because it was too painful a memory or because he had changed his mind completely?
"So you weren't going to propose to me again?" she managed to whisper.
"No," he said softly. "I wasn't."
Lois took in a breath, held it and then let it go. "Okay. Well… good. At least we have that cleared up." She prided herself on being able to say the words normally when it felt as though her heart had just been stomped on.
As the minutes ticked by she found herself shaking, though she wasn't quite sure if it was from anger, hurt or embarrassment. Unable to lie there any longer, she sat up decisively and pulled on her boots. She grabbed a flashlight and left the tent. For a moment she stood in front of the tent, uncertain where she wanted to go. It didn't matter, she decided. It didn't matter as long as it wasn't here.
She made her way over the uneven terrain to the lake. She sat down on the shore, staring blindly at the moon's reflection on the water. Then she covered her face with her hands and quit fighting the tears. She tried to cry as quietly as she could manage, hoping the entire time that he wasn't listening.
When she ran out of tears she simply sat there, her forehead on her knees, and listened to the soft slap of water against the shore. She felt utterly drained; unable even to work up the energy to go back to the tent. The cold seemed to have settled inside her and she shivered, tightening her arms around her legs to keep warm. A long, shuddering sigh that ended in his name escaped from her. Could he hear her? Was he listening? She took another breath and whispered it again. "Clark?"
The words she had been holding back since he had told her they couldn't be together now tumbled from her lips. "I miss you," she confessed, torn between hope and fear that he was listening. "I miss you so much. And I can't do this anymore. I'm tired of being angry with you. I'm tired of hiding from you. I'm tired of all of it. I'm just tired." She let out a choked sputter that was half-laugh, half-sob. "I'm even too tired to walk back to the tent."
She closed her eyes and hugged her knees closer to her chest, shivering to keep warm. Her teeth were beginning to chatter as she continued her one-sided conversation with him. "I feel like I've been living a lie for the past month, pretending not to care about you. How did you manage to live a double life for so long? Weren't you tired? Didn't you just want to scream from frustration sometimes?"
"All the time," he said softly as he sat down next to her. "I hated hiding from you. I always wanted to tell you the truth."
Lois didn't startle at his sudden appearance. From the moment she had whispered his name she had been certain he would come to her.
"I'm cold." She turned towards him, leaning gratefully against the warmth of his shoulder.
His arm went around her and then he pulled her onto his lap, cradling her in his arms like a sleepy child. His hand smoothed over her back to warm her. He felt utterly lost now. The sound of her soft sobs had torn at his conscience. Until tonight he had not fully comprehended the damage he had done. Was there any way in the world to fix it? He knew she wanted him to admit he had been wrong — but that wasn't going to change anything, not really.
"Thanks," she murmured into his neck. She closed her eyes and smiled at the rasp of his stubble against her forehead. He smelled like a campfire and she wondered if he would taste smoky. "You're so warm."
"And you're a popsicle. Let's get you back to the tent." He rose with her in his arms and started walking back to their tent.
"Okay," she said docilely. "Let's warm me up. What if we zipped the bags together? Would that be okay?" She buried her face in his neck, closing her eyes as she was lulled closer to sleep by the rock and sway of being in his arms as he walked.
"Sure," he answered. He rested his chin on her shoulder, tilting his head so that his cheek was touching hers. He held her a little closer and moved at super-speed to get her back to the tent sooner. Outside the tent he lifted his chin and softly asked, "Lois?"
"We're here. Can you stand for just a few seconds while I get the bags zipped together?"
He set her down and she swayed sleepily but remained standing. It only took a couple of seconds to put the bags together and then he knelt in the entrance to the tent and took her hand.
"Come here." He helped guide her into the tent, pulling back one side of the bag so that she could lie down. He took her boots off and pulled the bag over her, zipping it up until only the top few inches of her head were visible.
She sleepily murmured his name and something inside him, something he had fiercely fought to maintain for weeks, melted completely. He had felt the first few trickles of the coming meltdown as he had listened to her crying by the lake. Now, he realized, it was too late. He was a drowning man and she was all he had left. He slid in next to her and she snuggled closer to him, her hand fisting in his t-shirt as her leg slid between his, twining her body with his.
"Are you warmer now?" he asked.
"Mmmhmm." She sighed softly and then she whispered, "Clark?"
"What if you're wrong? About us? Have you even considered that? What if you're wrong? Don't you miss me at all?"
"I do miss you," he whispered into her hair. "I love you." He swallowed, trying to get rid of the lump that had suddenly blocked his throat. "I never stopped. Lois, I never will. I love you." He stroked her hair, soothing both of them with the repetitive motion. "I just, god, I just can't lose you." His voice broke on the last word and he squeezed his eyes shut tightly. "I can't lose you, not like that. I'd rather you spent the rest of your life hating me than to see you hurt."
"I tried," she murmured. "I really tried to hate you."
"Lois." His voice had become thick with emotion. "What if I gave up being Superman? I just won't do it anymore. If there's no Superman, there's no reason for anyone to hurt you."
Lois lifted her head, shocked into wakefulness at the idea.
"No," she said slowly. "No, that's not fair to you. Or to me. Or to anyone you might save in the future. I can't do that, Clark. I can't be the reason you stop helping people. It would kill you. Eventually it would kill us. Superman isn't just a cape and tights. He's hope and a reason for people to believe that good is possible. I can't do it. I love you, Clark. But I also love Superman — the idea of him. I can't be the reason that Superman disappears."
"Then what do we do?" he asked.
"No more fighting," she said. "Let's just *be* for a couple of days and see what happens. If we're friends, if we're more than friends, if we just can't make it work — I'm tired of having to fake everything. Can't we just be ourselves? No pressure from work. No villains. No Superman running off to save someone. Just you and me." She let out a soft laugh. "You and me and thousands of acres of wilderness."
"I can do that."
She felt instantly lighter and she snuggled closer against him. "Let's just be like this. This is all I ever wanted — to have you hold me at the end of the day."
"This is all I ever wanted, too, just to be able to hold you at the end of the day."
"S'nice," she murmured and patted his shoulder.
"Yes, it is." That was an understatement, he thought. This was perfect. He realized he was in so much trouble now. He was never going to be able to let her go. There had to be a way to make this work. He had meant it — he was willing to give up being Superman. He had only been Superman for a few years. It wasn't the first time he had considered giving up the superhero role. How many times had he quit, if only in his mind?
"It was the rule of V's."
"The rule of V's. Rich told me about the rule of V's on a contour map. Because of erosion the further a stream travels, the wider it becomes so the V will always point upstream. The stream you had us following didn't make a V. That's how I knew that we were heading into a dead end."
"Are we heading into a dead end now?"
She snuggled closer against him. "No."
He smiled at the authoritative way she spoke the word. "How can you be so sure?"
"Because…" She had to pause and clear her throat. "Because I trust in us."
He tipped his head, letting his cheek rest against the top of her head. "Us," he repeated and closed his eyes.
Clark couldn't decide whether he was dreaming or not. He would doze off, only to be brought back instantly to wakefulness by the twitch of her fingers against his chest or a slurred dreaming murmur from her lips. He was astonished each time to find that she was real. It was better than any fantasy of finding her in his apartment. And yet, it had to be a dream. It was simply too wonderful to be reality.
'Us,' she had told him. She trusted in 'us'. Trusted in 'us' enough to slumber in his arms as though she had spent every night of her life in them. Trusted in 'us' enough to believe that they really could go forward in the morning and find a way to be together.
Until now it had seemed too complicated, too frightening, too fraught with danger to give in to his fantasies of a life with her. Somehow holding her had changed everything. His mind raced, weighing the odds and finding nothing but flaws in his attempt to protect her by keeping his distance.
This was all he had ever wanted — simply to hold her. It would be worth giving up Superman to have this. It would be worth any price he had to pay. Wouldn't she be safer if he kept her close? Wouldn't he be better able to keep her protected if he was always nearby?
She had said that she didn't care what happened in the future or what hypothetical fate might be waiting for her. Being with him was a risk she was willing to take.
Could he take that risk? She had a point — if anything did happen it was going to be very cold comfort that he had never let her close. What if he was wrong — as she had quite literally gone out of her way to illustrate? What if he wasted both their lives in regret? What if this was all he was left with? The memory of having once held her while she slept?
It wasn't enough.
Gradually, as he drifted further and further in sleep, reality became tangled with his dreams until he no longer knew which was which.
They were flying — floating, really — high above Metropolis. Lois was wrapped in his cape, her body pressed warmly against Clark's as they kissed soft and slow. Feeling dizzy, she nuzzled his neck to give herself a moment to catch her breath. Now her lips were against the warm skin of his throat and she could feel his pulse beating.
"Clark," she whispered and felt the answering rumble of his moan against her mouth. She murmured his name again as a caress and his arms tightened around her.
Lois opened her eyes and then blinked in confusion. Instead of a vast canopy of stars there was only the soft blue arch of the tent. It was early morning she realized. The only parts of the dream that were real were the feel of his skin against her lips and the fact that she was in his arms. She propped herself onto her elbow to watch him sleep. His face was relaxed in sleep and dark with stubble. His lips were parted slightly and she leaned closer.
She never did get to kiss him one last time she realized. There had been no goodbye kiss when he broke up with her. He owed her that much, didn't he? She bit her lip and weighed her options. One little kiss. That wouldn't hurt anybody. She leaned closer, close enough now to feel the whisper of his breath against her mouth. One little kiss, that was all. She bent and gently kissed his bottom lip.
She was lifting her head away when he moaned softly and his hand moved to the back of her head to hold her there. The big faker! He had been awake the whole time. She was going to give him a piece of her mind — as soon as she finished kissing him.
Only she found that she couldn't stop. How had she managed to forget what kissing him was like? She kissed him slowly and he seemed content just to let her. She wondered at this new, more submissive, side of Clark.
"Lois?" he whispered against her lips.
"Hmm?" she replied, kissing him again.
"Oh god," he moaned when she drew back to take a breath. "Am I dreaming?"
"Yes," she teased him with a soft laugh, "it's all just a dream."
At that his lethargy disappeared. His mouth turned hungrier and he rolled them, his body covering hers as his hand slid beneath the hem of her shirt. She giggled at his touch on her belly, then gasped when his hand moved decisively higher.
"Clark!" She stiffened in surprise. "Oh, I…" she gasped.
As quickly as he had started, his hand was gone.
"I'm not dreaming," he said, horrified. "Oh god, I'm sorry, Lois. I didn't mean…"
He scrambled out of the sleeping bag and she let out a frustrated sigh and pushed herself into a sitting position. "When you asked if it was a dream I thought that was a rhetorical question."
Clark had turned his back to her and was running his hand nervously through his hair.
"Is that what you dream about?" she asked, consumed with curiosity.
Clark was frozen in embarrassment. "No, I, geez, Lois, I didn't…" He grabbed his backpack and began pulling out clothes at random. He wanted to run from the tent — no, make that fly from the tent — and just not come back.
Across the meadow the bell began to clang and Rich started to sing his annoyingly cheerful litany of cliches.
Clark unzipped the tent's flap and crawled out. "I, uh, I'll see you at breakfast."
Lois emerged from the tent a few minutes later. She felt almost disoriented. Had that really happened? Was it embarrassment or horror that had driven Clark out of the tent? Or was it simply the sight of her? She had been shocked when she looked at herself in the small mirror she had brought. Her eyes were still puffy from her crying jag the night before and her hair was beyond any help.
As she approached the fire, she saw that everyone was beginning to look a little worse for the wear. Four nights of sleeping on the ground seemed to be taking their toll on all of them.
Jenny was hunched over a steaming mug of coffee. Her blonde hair was pulled back in a ponytail. Once again she and Bob were dressed in matching green sweatshirts. Lois took a seat next to Jenny and looked over at Clark. He was standing near the fire, his hands shoved deep into his pockets. She tried to catch his eye but he was resolutely watching the flames.
"How did you sleep?" Jenny asked.
Lois felt the blush creeping across her cheeks. How had she slept? Honestly she had never slept better. She couldn't decide if it was sheer exhaustion or the comfort of Clark's arms that had made the difference.
"I slept okay," she answered.
"It was a lot colder last night, wasn't it?" Jenny continued.
Lois couldn't decide if Jenny was merely being conversational or not. She shrugged and mumbled, "I was warm enough."
Jenny gave her a knowing smile. "I'm sure you were."
Lois took a self-conscious swipe at her hair. Just how tousled did she look this morning?
From the other side of the fire Brenda said wistfully. "I wish I could take a shower."
"I would kill for a shower," Lois agreed with a sigh. "And something to eat that wasn't freeze dried and then reconstituted."
"Amen to that," Debbie muttered as she sat down on the other side of Lois. "I'm not sure I was cut out to be a camper."
"We used to go camping all the time," Brenda mused, "before the kids. We even went when Scott was a baby, but it was just too much hassle. I used to love it. Maybe I'm getting too old to rough it."
"Age has nothing to do with it," Debbie said. "People just weren't meant to live like this."
"Our ancestors lived far rougher than this," Rich retorted with a mocking grin. "We're already to day five. We're halfway there, ladies! Surely you don't want to quit now?"
Debbie muttered, "Is quitting an option?"
Brenda shot Lois an amused glance and they both bit their lips not to laugh when Rich shot them a disgusted look before he picked up a bucket and walked towards the lake.
"He reminds me so much of George," Debbie told them. "He just makes everything a dare, you know? Everything's a challenge." She lowered her voice in an imitation of George. "C'mon, sweetie, it's only ten days. You can do ten days, can't you?"
Clark glanced across the camp, but George had yet to emerge from his tent.
Jenny nodded and took a sip of her coffee. "You know what's worse? When you insist that total strangers share your views on rule-breaking."
"Oh, here we go," Bob said from across the campfire.
Jenny glared at him and then turned to Lois. "Have you ever known anyone who thinks that his world view is the only thing saving us from anarchy?"
"I think you're overstating it," Bob said and poked the fire, sending up a shower of sparks. "Rules exist for a reason. If people go around breaking them at will, the world would fall into anarchy."
"There's a huge difference between a law and a suggestion, Bob," Jenny said pointedly.
Clark cleared his throat and looked over at Dave's tent. Where was their counselor this morning?
"Do you know what he does?" Jenny asked the group. Even though no one answered she continued talking. "You know those express checkout lines at the supermarket? Ten items or less? Bob will actually stand there and start counting when someone with more than ten items is in line in front of him."
"I just want them to realize that they're breaking the rules," Bob put in.
"It's rude!" Jenny said, standing up and spilling her coffee in the process. "It's just so rude, Bob! Your job is not to police how many cans of corn someone can buy!" Jenny turned and stalked away.
Bob poked at the fire again and sighed. "It's just as rude to blatantly break the rules and expect people to indulge you." He tipped his head back and seemed to consider his options for a moment. "Excuse me," he told them. "I'd better go after her."
George stepped out of the way to let Bob pass. He looked at the shell-shocked expressions around the campfire and asked, "Wow — what did I miss? Did something happen with the Bobsey Twins?"
The spat between Bob and Jenny that morning started a chain reaction. By lunchtime nearly everyone was short-tempered. Lois found herself becoming irritated with Clark over things she knew were irrational. It wasn't his fault the rope had become tangled while he climbed. Truthfully, it was her fault. She was the one who had lost focus. When he had finally come back to the ground he had shot her an annoyed look. Was he angry because she was playing fast and loose with his special abilities? Or was he still mortified about this morning?
After lunch — which no one really seemed to eat — Dave stood up and cleared his throat.
"You know, we all spend so much energy thinking about the things we wish we could change about one another. What is it about your partner that you would never change? This afternoon I want you to remember what drew you to your partner. Take a walk together, find a neutral place and do an honest exploration of what you see in each other. Take some time and reconnect." Dave gave them all a beatific smile.
"Reconnect?" Lois muttered as they walked away. "Did he just tell everyone to go have sex?"
"What?" Clark laughed. "As an assignment? I know how competitive you are, but I hope you won't mind if we don't finish first."
She stopped and tilted her head back to look at him. "Is that what you were dreaming about this morning?"
"Lois, I, uh," he stammered and then decided to change the subject. "Come on. We need to stop at the tent first."
"Soap," he said, as if the answer was obvious.
She frowned at him, certain that he was mocking her somehow. "Soap?"
"Didn't you say this morning that you wanted a shower? I know where you could get one."
Lois grabbed his arm in excitement. "Oh my gosh — you're going to fly me into town?"
He grinned at her. "Nope. Something even better."
They had been hiking for nearly twenty minutes and Lois was fighting the urge to ask him how much further they had to go. She briefly wondered if he was getting even with her for having let them wander aimlessly the day before. Well, she wasn't about to give him the satisfaction of her asking, so she clutched the towel she was carrying tighter and thought about how amazing it would feel to be clean again.
"Okay," Clark said and stopped in front of her. "It's not much further now. Just keep going up the trail and I'll meet you there."
"Where are you going?" she asked suspiciously.
"I need to grab something, really fast. Just stop when you get to the waterfall."
"Waterfall?" she asked in disappointment and moved past him. "When I said 'shower' I meant with hot water."
There was a sudden gust of wind and she turned around to find him gone. Lois kicked at one of the pebbles on the trail. It was so unfair that he could leave anytime he wanted. He'd already been back to Metropolis. True, he'd brought her back a pillow, but it was still unfair. She went back to trudging up the trail. After a couple of minutes she began to hear the falling water up ahead. She came out of the trees into a small sunlit grotto. The waterfall wasn't very large — maybe a foot wide with a drop of about seven feet into a shallow pool. There was absolutely no sign of Clark.
Lois walked over and sat down on one of the boulders by the water's edge. She shaded her eyes and looked up, but she couldn't see him. Where had he gone? Surely he could have made it to their tent and back by now?
A minute passed, then another, and she found herself being lulled into somnolence by the sunshine and the soothing sound of the water. Her feet felt hot in her boots so she took them off and slid off the rock to dip her toes in the cold water of the waterfall's pool.
"I believe you ordered something not reconstituted?" Clark asked from behind her. Lois swiveled to find him holding out a pizza box. "One large with everything." He lifted the box lid enticingly.
Her face split into a grin. "You brought me a pizza? From where?"
"Oh my gosh!" she squealed and stood up, wincing when her bare feet found the sharp edge of a rock.
"Just stay there," he cautioned. "I'll bring it to you."
As they were eating she looked at the stubble on his face. Impulsively, she reached out and touched his cheek, smiling at the scratchiness beneath her curious fingers. "It's a good thing you're not flying around rescuing people this week. There'd be a bunch of stories about why Superman is growing a beard."
"Yeah, I guess so." His entire body had come alive at her touch.
"I kind of like it," she mused, drawing her thumb along his jaw, then across his lower lip, contrasting the softness of his lip with the scratchiness of his stubble. "It makes you look kind of… disreputable."
"Disreputable?" Thank goodness she didn't know where his thoughts were. Disreputable didn't even begin to describe them.
"Have you ever tried growing a beard?" Something in his eyes made her pulse race and she dropped her hand and looked away. He didn't just look disreputable, he looked downright dangerous. The memory of this morning suddenly made her touching him seem less than innocent.
"Yes, when I was in college. I was trying to look older."
"It didn't come in well?" she asked.
"No, it did."
"And did you look older?"
"Not really. My friends just teased me."
"Poor Clark," she laughed. "I guess you can't grow one now, not unless you want to make the similarities between you and Superman even more conspicuous." She clasped her hands together, fighting the urge to touch him again.
"Yeah, I guess so," he murmured.
Their eyes met and he quickly looked away. He missed her touch. He missed touching her. He shook his head to clear his thoughts and lifted the empty pizza box up. He lowered his glasses and zapped it, leaving only a few ashes that drifted lazily to the ground.
"How about that shower?" he asked.
Lois tilted her head in curiosity. "Did you bring hot water with you, too?"
He took off his glasses and tucked them in the pocket of his flannel shirt. "It will be hot." He stood up and moved to hold one hand beneath the water. He looked up, concentrating on the water tumbling off the ledge. Soon the water had become warm. "Try that."
Lois rose and passed her hand through the water. It was perfect. For a moment she stood, absolutely speechless, as she tried to decide what to do next. "I'm not going to get naked, if that's what you were hoping," she told him.
"I hadn't even thought of that," he said, fighting the urge to glance over at her. His hand flexed, shaping out from memory the way she had fit in his palm.
Lois bit her lip as she wavered. A shower. It was an honest-to-goodness shower. With hot water. He was too busy looking up to be able to watch her. She could just strip down to her underwear, couldn't she? That would be safe. In the end, the lure of warm water won out over modesty and she pulled off her shirt and shorts and stepped beneath the water. She let out a soft sigh and tipped her head back to let the water run over her face. It was perfect — except for the water in the pool, which was swirling cold and warm around her ankles.
She stepped out of the pool for a moment to retrieve the soap and shampoo and then went beneath the water again. She lathered up her hair and then rinsed it with a long contented sigh. Each time she glanced at Clark he was still looking up, concentrating on the water pouring down on her. She flushed; it was somehow incredibly intimate to be bathed in water he had heated.
"How long can you do that?" she asked as she ran the bar of soap along one arm.
"As long as you need."
She turned her back to him, blushing furiously at the thoughts that had started to race through her head. What else could he do as long as she needed? She knew he hadn't meant it in a dirty way, but her mind went there anyway.
She hurried through the rest of her ablutions and stepped out of the water. "Okay, I'm done," she said softly. She ran her fingers through her hair and wished she had thought to bring a comb.
He smiled at her, careful to keep his eyes fixed on her face. "Feel better?"
"Much." She grinned at him and wished he would let his gaze drift. Come on, Clark, she thought. Just see what you're missing.
Clark held his hand out and she furrowed her eyebrows, not understanding what he wanted.
"The soap?" he prompted.
"Oh, right." She handed it to him and their fingers brushed against each other's. Only his quick reflexes saved the soap from falling. His gaze dropped and then he looked away, obviously flustered. She glanced down and saw that her light-colored underwear had become translucent. She crossed her arms, blushing furiously. She hadn't quite meant for him to see *everything* he was missing.
"I, uh, I guess I'll get dried off now." She half-stumbled backwards towards the towel she had brought.
"Do you want me to dry you off?"
"No!" she blurted out, then softened it by adding, "I meant no, thank you. I'm fine. I, uh, I brought a towel, you know."
Clark turned away and took his shirt off, then his pants. He stood under the waterfall in his underwear and soaped up.
Lois wrapped the towel around her and then looked over at him. Her eyes widened, fascinated by the water sheeting over his back and the flex of his muscles. His dark-colored briefs clung to him, leaving even less to the imagination than the Suit.
It was different, she reassured herself. Her watching him bathe was entirely different than if he had watched her. She was only looking at his back — and she had seen that before. Why hadn't he watched her? Why could he touch but not look?
She faced away from him, toweling herself a little roughly as penance for her wandering mind. Even though her underwear wasn't entirely dry she pulled her clothes back on hurriedly. She turned back around in time to see Clark emerging from the waterfall. She wordlessly held out the towel to him, trying to keep her eyes from straying any lower than his shoulders.
"Thank you," she said quietly.
"Anytime," he answered softly. "If there's anything else I can bring you…"
Clark waited, half-hoping that she would ask him to do something, anything. Let her ask him to fly her somewhere — it would feel so good to fly with her in his arms again. Anything, Lois, he thought. Ask me anything and it's yours.
Instead she looked away, a blush beginning to darken her cheeks. "I, uh, thanks. I'll keep that in mind."
Lois was walking ahead of him on the trail back to camp. Her mind was racing as she tried to process just how much credence to give his offer to fulfill her every whim. She should have taken him up on the offer, she chided herself. She should have asked him to do something. But what? She was clean and her stomach was full. She supposed she could wait until tonight and then ask him to fly her home so she could sleep in her own bed.
Just as quickly, she discarded the idea. It wasn't worth the risk of discovery. And it would mean sleeping alone. What did he think about this morning? It was the one thing she wanted to ask him — and the one question she didn't dare to broach. Was he blaming himself for this morning? Surely he knew that she didn't blame him?
"You know," she told him, "I never did tell you one of the things I would never change about you. Do you want to hear it?"
She stopped and turned to face him. "I've always felt safe with you, Clark. Even before I knew about Superman, I always felt safe just being around you."
"Safe," he repeated softly. 'Safe' was the last thing in the world he had expected her to say. Her safety was the reason he had broken up with her. He shook his head ruefully. 'Safe' was all he had ever wanted for her. "Remember how I said I thought you were sometimes reckless?"
"Yes." Her stomach clenched, fearing his next words.
"I would never change that. I meant it when I said I admire that in you. Your fearlessness, your drive, just… you, really. That take-no-prisoners way you pursue anything that interests you. It's… sexy."
"Sexy?" For a moment she was certain that her heart had stopped beating. "Was I being reckless in your dream this morning?"
"No," he whispered and shook his head. "And, obviously, I wasn't very safe to be around."
"I was safe," she whispered back. "I was just surprised."
"I'm still sorry." He ducked his head. "If I had been more awake, I never would have…"
"I know that." She wanted to reach out and touch his hand, but she didn't dare. Touching him now would be reckless — too reckless even for her. She hesitated for a moment longer and then reluctantly turned and continued walking down the trail back to camp.
Only Dave was in camp when they returned. He broke into a grin as they emerged from the trees. "Looks like you two found the waterfall."
Lois put a hand to her still partially wet hair and gave him an embarrassed smile. "Yeah."
Dave looked at the towel she had bundled in her hands and asked, "With soap and everything?"
Lois nodded happily.
Dave stood up and leaned in conspiratorially towards them. "If I were you, when Rich asks, the answer is 'no soap'. Unless you want to see him freak out about the environment."
"Oh," Lois said with an understanding nod, "thanks."
"So how did you manage to find the waterfall?"
"That was me," Clark said. "I took a walk two nights ago and saw it."
"A walk?" Dave furrowed his eyebrows. "You must be a great walker, Clark, to have wandered that far away. And in the dark, no less."
"He's always out walking. Half the time I'm not even sure where he is," Lois put in quickly.
"Uh huh." Dave looked at both of them curiously. Then he clapped Clark on the shoulder. "Try not to wander too far afield on those walks of yours, okay? At least not while you're on my watch. If we lose a camper I'll have to find a real job."
Lois could barely keep her eyes open. The fire was warm on her face and she was seated between Clark and Dave on the log. She had long since lost track of the conversation the others were having. Her head nodded, then drooped, and then came to rest against Clark's left shoulder. For a moment she was tempted to give in and fall asleep right there. Then she blinked a few times and sat up straight again. "Sorry. I guess I'll, uh, turn in now."
"Okay. I'll be there in a few minutes," Clark told her.
Lois stood up and said good-night to everyone and then made her way to their tent. She was grateful for Clark's decision to stay at the fire. Faced with the prospect of bedtime she was suddenly wide awake and nervous. Last night had been different. She had been half-asleep when she asked Clark to zip their bags together. She had been tired, miserable, and vulnerable — a thousand things that she wasn't tonight. Tonight it seemed much more deliberate, more sensual somehow, to crawl into that sleeping bag knowing — expecting even — that he was going to join her.
She could unzip the bags and Clark probably wouldn't say a word. But then she would miss out on the solid warmth of him. She had slept better snuggled up against him in a tent than she ever had in any bed. She owed it to herself to see if that was a fluke. Besides, in just a few more days they'd be leaving and she'd probably never get to sleep next to him again. And that would be a shame, especially considering what she had seen at the waterfall that afternoon.
She changed into her flannel pajama bottoms and a long-sleeved t-shirt and then climbed into their bed. She stared at the flashlight's bright circular glow on the tent's roof. If she turned the light off, he'd know she was finished and had gone to bed. How long would he stay at the fire? Would he give her time enough to fall asleep first?
Lois closed her eyes and took a few deep breaths as she thought about what had happened between them this morning. What if she hadn't tried to be funny and had just told him the truth when he asked if he was dreaming? Would he have stopped kissing her then and there? She should never have kissed him. How could they possibly work through all their issues if she kept complicating the situation?
If only it hadn't felt so… right. If only he hadn't kissed her back like that. If only he hadn't touched her like that. She bit her lip and wished that it had gone on for just a little longer. Just long enough for her to have fully comprehended what was happening. Long enough for her to have memorized what his hand on her bare skin felt like.
Lois rolled onto her side and punched the pillow a couple of times; ostensibly to fluff it up, but in reality it was more out of frustration. What on earth had possessed her to kiss him in the first place? She should have just given him a quick little kiss and left it at that. He hadn't kissed her back, not at first. That should have been a screaming clue to her that he wasn't really cognizant of what was going on. She should have stopped there. She shouldn't have been so… reckless.
<"…That take-no-prisoners way you pursue anything that interests you. It's… sexy.">
Lois smiled to herself. What if *he* was the one being pursued? What if kissing him hadn't complicated their situation? What if she had actually simplified it?
He still wanted her. He still loved her — he had said so last night. He had gone so far as to offer to give up being Superman for her. While that option was unacceptable; it did show that he hadn't written off the possibility entirely. The way he had kissed her back with authority and touched her as if he had every right to do so was proof enough that Clark had not yet given up the idea of being with her. She just had to find a way to show him that there wasn't some vast global conspiracy waiting for Superman to fall in love so they could exploit her.
Lois turned off the flashlight and wondered how long it would take him to come to bed.
Less than a minute passed before she heard the slide of the tent's zipper. She kept her eyes closed and fought a smile even though it was probably too dark in the tent for him to see her. She listened to the soft sounds of his clothes rustling as he changed into the sweat bottoms and t-shirt he was wearing as pajamas.
You are in so much trouble, Clark Kent, she thought. Because I will be taking prisoners tonight.
Clark eased into their bed behind her, trying very hard not to disturb her. He crossed his arms in front of him, trying to take up as little space as possible in the bag. Lois shifted restlessly, turning onto her back and sighing into the darkness. There was precious little room left in the bag now and the thought crossed his mind that she was deliberately invading his space. Just as quickly, he discarded the idea. He decided to wait until she was asleep and then move her to her side of the bag.
Then she rolled onto her side again, edging even closer to him in the process. Was she cold? If she was, why didn't she just ask him to hold her? He grimaced as he realized why she wouldn't ask him. She had trusted him last him and he had violated that trust. She shifted again and her rear end brushed against his groin. This was going to be uncomfortable for both of them if she didn't stop soon. He decided to forgo his own happiness at having her sleep so close to him in favor of their mutual peace of mind.
"Lois, you're squishing me," he whispered.
"I am not," she shot back. "I'm pretty sure you can't be squished. Besides, there's a rock under this tent."
He blinked in surprise. She was nowhere near being asleep and she sounded far too self-satisfied at his discomfort. "There's no rock under this tent," he told her. "I checked very carefully before we put it up here."
"What? You did some kind of sonar reading on the ground to pick the only rock-free place to pitch a tent?"
He grinned into the dark, suddenly comprehending her motives. She was doing this *on purpose*. Two could play at that game. "We could trade places," he suggested.
"Too much effort," she sighed.
"Okay, then," he said, touching her shoulder. "Lift up for a second."
"What?" Lois was confused by the request but did as he asked. "Why?"
Clark slipped one arm under and the other arm over her and pulled her firmly against him. "Like this."
"Oh," she whispered. This had seemed like such a good idea but now she felt off-kilter. "But there's still a rock…" Her words ended in a gasp as she felt the ground disappear from beneath her. She grabbed his wrist and asked, "What are you doing? Are we floating?"
"We're only about an inch off the ground. Are you more comfortable?"
The answer was yes and no. The hard ground was gone. But the solid body behind hers was more than a little distracting. She put her hand down and found that his estimation of an inch was being generous. They were barely above the ground. How in the world could he do that? She could understand *him* hovering, but how could he make her do it, too?
"Do you do this a lot?" she asked. "Float while you sleep?"
"I can't really sleep and float. It's more like a waking nap," he said.
"Don't you get tired? Don't you need to sleep?"
"Of course I get tired. And I do need to sleep. Just like you."
"So how can you get me to float, too?"
"Must be my magnetic personality."
She rolled her eyes but couldn't think of anything to say back. She wasn't sure how to flirt with him now. It was impossible to even form a cohesive thought when he was suspending them like this. Not to mention the fact that, by his own admission, he wasn't going to get any sleep this way.
"Clark?" she asked hesitantly.
"Are you tired? Tonight, I mean. Are you tired?"
"A little," he admitted.
"We don't have to float," she told him.
"It's okay." He let his cheek rest against her hair. Even though she had sat by the fire, he could smell the shampoo she had used that afternoon. He let out a breath slowly as he remembered the unintentional eyeful she had given him at the waterfall. She would have been better off to have stripped naked for that shower. Naked was naked — it was just a fact of life. Lois in wet transparent lingerie that clung to her every curve was an image that was going to haunt him forever.
His body seemed so tense and Lois felt terrible. Obviously the effort to keep them airborne was going to rob him of sleep. "Clark? I really am okay. Sometimes I like to complain just to complain."
Clark kept them hovering, clenching his right hand to stop himself from remembering the silky feel of her bare skin beneath his fingers. What must she think of him? Did it mean anything that she fit so perfectly in his hand? Was that some kind of cosmic serendipity or merely his own wishful thinking?
"Clark, please. I want you to be able to sleep. I'm okay. Really, I am."
He wavered and then asked, "Are you sure?"
"Yes." She stopped short of telling him the truth — there was no rock under the tent. She wasn't about to admit that all she had wanted was for him to hold her. Well, okay, so she had wanted to tease him a little, too. That seemed like such a stupid idea now. She was kidding herself to think she could simply seduce Clark into making up with her.
She felt the press of the ground against her hip and almost sighed in relief. "I'm sorry," she whispered. "I know you were only doing that to be nice. It's not that I didn't appreciate it, honest. I'm just not sure I can sleep on air."
He suddenly felt ashamed of using his powers to one-up her. Then again, it wasn't as though Lois always fought fair. Remember that she pushed you in the lake, he reminded himself. She's not always this nice. She can be petty and she'll hike miles out of her way to hold a grudge.
And yet, she had forgiven him for his knee-jerk overreaction. She was willing to trust him with her heart again — something he knew had to go against every instinct she possessed. Not for anything would he ruin that trust or his chances at being able to hold her like this every night for the rest of their lives.
If she could trust him; he would be trustworthy.
Clark awoke to the muted clank of the cow bell from across the meadow. He realized that Rich was about to wake them all up. He wondered if it would be better to wake Lois gently, rather than having the cow bell jar her into consciousness.
"Lois." He softly squeezed her shoulder. "Lois, it's time to wake up."
"Mmm." She patted his wrist and mumbled, "Five more minutes."
He smiled and tried again. "I can hear Rich, he's about to come around with the bell."
"Rich?" she asked sleepily. "Rich who?" Outside she heard the cow bell begin to clang furiously. "Oh, that Rich."
Clark's arms disappeared from around her as he slid out of the sleeping bag. She immediately missed him but even she couldn't make herself believe it was because the air was cold. Lois sighed and flopped onto her back with one arm thrown across her eyes.
"Remember when I said that I didn't want you to fulfill my every little whim?"
"Yeah." Clark glanced over at her, debating whether he should get changed or not. She had her arm over her eyes so he hurriedly pulled off his shirt.
"I didn't mean it," Lois told him. "So if that bell suddenly goes missing, I promise I won't say a word."
"Rise and shine!" Rich's shadow passed over their tent. "Up and at 'em!" The clanging continued past their tent.
Clark finished dressing quickly and reached over to pat her foot. "Come on, Lois. Rise and shine."
"Mmphhff," was her reply.
As they were finishing up breakfast, Rich rose and rubbed his hands together in anticipation. "Today we all need to dress in layers. Lots of layers. We're going to be hiking to the summit and it tends to be very windy up there. I think you'll find the view is worth the hike."
"How far of a hike is it?" Jim asked.
"Not far. It's only about thirteen, maybe fourteen, miles roundtrip," Rich said with a dismissive wave.
Debbie leaned closer to Lois to whisper, "Is it just me, or does Rich look even more deranged than usual today?"
Lois fought a laugh. Rich always looked just a little too gleeful about their wilderness treks for her taste. This morning he looked positively giddy. That could only mean that a very long day lay in store for them.
"I don't think 'deranged' even begins to cover his brand of madness," Lois whispered back. "Since when is a fourteen mile hike 'not far'?"
"Are you kidding me?" Clark asked from the other side of her. "This from a woman who hiked at least ten miles out of her way to prove me wrong?"
Lois turned her head to glare at him. "Ten miles? That's an exaggeration! And that was different."
"No." Clark shook his head slightly and grinned at her. "That was deranged."
It wasn't until the final mile that Lois began to question the wisdom of the hike. They had started by paddling their canoes to the trail on the other side of the lake. For the first few miles the trail had wound its way through the woods. The trees had gradually given way to steeper terrain until they were high above the tree line. They worked their way along a steep ravine and then the trail became steeper. The wind Rich had promised had yet to materialize and they had all stripped down to their first layer of clothes, tying their shirts and jackets around their waists. Their progress was hampered by the need to rest about every half mile or so for most of the group to catch their breath.
"You've done this before, haven't you, Clark?" Rich asked during a break.
"What makes you say that?" Clark asked.
"For one thing, you're the only one who doesn't seem to be affected by the altitude." Rich gestured at the puffing and panting group around them. "You're from Metropolis, which sits at sea level, so you must do a fair amount of hiking to be able to adapt so easily."
"Clark's a big walker," Dave said, giving Clark a wink. "Lois says he never stays put."
Rich laughed. "I can understand that impulse." He turned to address the rest of the group. "You should all put on your layers again. We're just about a hundred yards away from the saddle and I promise you it's going to be windy when we get there. There won't be much room to maneuver on the trail, so I'd rather you got dressed here."
True to his word, the wind was materialized as they came into the saddle of the peak. The sun hat Lois had been wearing was blown off, sailing away from her before she could make a grab for it. She shot Clark a disgusted look and he shrugged. What did she want him to do? Fly after it?
The trail was now nothing more than a narrow track worn through a steep shale slope. On the right side of the trail the slope continued for only about thirty feet in length before it disappeared in a sheer drop that Dave informed them was at least a few hundred feet. Rich assured them it was perfectly safe — as long as they didn't leave the trail.
They worked their way carefully along the trail as the slope on their left side became smaller and smaller until they were standing on a long, flat stretch of bare rock that was eight feet across at its widest point. An outcropping of rock was hunched against the wind on the far side of the summit.
Lois stood in awe of the view. In every direction there was only pristine wilderness. Small amethyst lakes glinted in the sun between the rolling patches of dark green. The most distant mountains were a dark gray that was almost purple. Clear blue skies arched overhead, seeming incongruous with the chill of the wind.
The wind was blowing hard enough that their clothes were whipped against their bodies. Jim and Brenda and Debbie and George headed straight over to the outcropping to find a little relief from the wind. Lois moved behind Clark, using him as a wind break. On impulse, she slipped her hands in his jacket pockets to keep them warm. Clark put his hands on top of hers, lacing his fingers with hers.
Lois leaned against the solid span of his back and closed her eyes. She sighed and tightened her arms around him. He squeezed her hands gently and then pulled them free of his jacket before he turned to face her.
"Are you cold?" He touched her cheek, using the slightest pressure from his thumb to tilt her head back so he could see her eyes.
"Maybe a little," she admitted.
Clark wrapped his arms around her, pulling her inside his jacket to warm her. "We could go over by the others."
"No." She shook her head and slid her arms around his waist beneath the jacket. "I like the view from here."
He let out a low chuckle that she felt more than heard. "How you can see anything with your face buried in my jacket?"
"I have eyes in the back of my head, don't you know?"
Clark grinned and put one hand over the back of her head. "How can you see anything with my hand over your eyes?"
She giggled. "It's x-ray vision."
"Yeah? And where did you get that?"
Lois dropped her voice to a whisper. "I don't know whether I should admit this or not, but I've been sleeping with Superman."
His fingers tightened in her hair and he leaned close enough so that she could hear him murmur, "Really?"
She tipped her head back and gave him a mischievous smile. "Don't worry. He's not nearly as exciting as you might think. He never finishes anything he starts."
For a moment his eyes widened in amused surprise. Then his smile turned knowing and he whispered in her ear, "Maybe that's because Superman's such a safe guy?"
Lois let out a little gasp. 'Safe' had never sounded so dangerously sexy before. "What about you?" she asked.
"You could take a chance — be reckless, for once. Start something you won't finish."
He leaned down and kissed her lightly. "How's that?" he asked.
She rolled her eyes. "I'm sure you could do better than that."
"Probably," he admitted. "But not right here."
After a cold and windy lunch, they started back down the trail towards camp. Clark was hiking at the end of the group. Suddenly Debbie let out a loud squeal that ended in a scream as she stumbled on a rock and then staggered off of the trail. After a couple of rolls she landed on her rear end but continued sliding further down the slope. Debbie dug her heels into the loose rocks on instinct and managed to stop herself just a few feet from the edge. Above her everyone froze, not quite believing what had just happened.
"Debbie, don't move!" Rich yelled, tossing his pack off and opening it in search of a rope.
Debbie shrieked, "Help me! Oh god, somebody, please!" The only thing that seemed to be holding her in place was the debris that had accumulated at her crotch when she had slid.
Lois looked at Clark and saw his face had become grim, his eyes racing between Debbie, the edge of the cliff and Rich. Their eyes met for a moment and then he gave her the briefest of nods. In the next moment he had started working his way down the slope towards Debbie.
"Clark!" Dave yelled. "Come back up here."
"No, it's okay!" Lois tried to keep her voice even. "He's done this kind of thing before."
Rich looked up from his pack, a length of rope in his hand. "Oh my god," he said as he caught sight of Clark picking his way down the slope towards Debbie. With each sideways step Clark took shale and loose stones rattled away in an unstable shower that tumbled off the edge of the cliff.
"Clark, catch the end of the rope," Rich called out. When Clark looked up, Rich tossed the end of the rope to him and Clark took hold of it.
Debbie slid a couple of inches more, letting out a high pitched wail of terror.
Lois was absolutely terrified. Only months earlier she would have been afraid for both of them — Clark and Debbie. Now, however, she was frightened only for Clark. What if Debbie slipped further? Lois knew Clark would catch her. Debbie, even if she didn't realize it, was going to be fine. But Clark — god, all it would take would be one little slip and Clark's secret would be out in the open.
"I'm almost there," Clark said to her soothingly. "Just don't move, Debbie. I'm almost to you. It's going to be okay, I promise."
Clark moved closer and closer as fast as he dared until he was only a few feet behind and to the left of Debbie. He braced himself against the slope and reached out to catch hold of the waist of Debbie's pants.
"Okay, Debbie. I've got you. Scoot backwards towards me. Slowly," he instructed her.
Debbie did as he asked, even though her arms and legs were trembling almost uncontrollably. She whimpered softly as she moved incrementally further up the slope until Clark was able to loop one arm across her chest and pull her even with him. Lois and everyone else exhaled in quiet relief when Clark tied the rope around her waist.
"Can you walk up the slope?" he asked her. "Just hang on to the rope and Rich will pull you up."
Debbie shook her head. "I don, don, don't think I can m-m-move," she said through chattering teeth.
"That's okay," Clark said soothingly and sat against the slope next to her, keeping one arm around her for reassurance. "We can take a rest until you're ready."
"I jus- just want to get out of here," she quavered.
"I know. But we're going to have to climb back to the trail to get out of here." He looked up to see everyone's worried faces watching them. His eyes met with Lois' and he saw her apprehension clearly.
"Come on, Debbie," George called to her. "You can do it, honey."
Debbie took a deep breath and let it out in a long shuddering sigh. "Okay," she said quietly.
Clark looked up at Rich and nodded. "She's ready to go."
He watched as Dave and Rich pulled Debbie back up the slope. A couple of times her legs shook and almost buckled, but she soldiered on. When she reached the trail she clung to George as Rich loosened the rope from her waist. He tossed the rope back to Clark and they "helped" him come back up the slope.
Lois wrapped her arms around Clark and shivered. "You scared me," she whispered into his shirt. "You really scared me."
The hike back to camp had been somber. By the time they reached their tents everyone was frazzled and exhausted. Dave had suggested they all take some down time before dinner.
Lois sat cross-legged across from Clark on their sleeping bags as he shuffled the deck of cards he had brought. All the way back to camp her mind had been replaying his rescue of Debbie; thinking of everything that could have gone wrong. She realized that she had never really worried much about Clark, even before she knew about his powers. There had only been a few occasions when she had felt fear on his behalf. She shuddered at the memory of the night she had believed him shot and killed in front of her. That had been the longest night of her life.
What about the time he had been weak on the floor of Arianna's apartment as she removed that Kryptonite bullet from his shoulder? She hadn't known it was Clark she was saving that day — how much more terrified she would have been if she had known the truth? Was that how he felt? Did he get that same sick feeling each and every time he heard her call out to him for help? For the first time she began to appreciate the toll her recklessness must take on him. She could almost understand his impulse to try and remove a factor or two from the scenario.
"What if you'd had to fly to catch her?" Lois whispered.
"Then I would have had to fly to catch her," Clark answered quietly.
"I never realized what a balancing act this must be for you."
He didn't answer but he set the deck of cards aside and stared at his hands.
Lois silently willed him to meet her eyes. "What if they had all figured it out? What would you do then?"
"Debbie's life was more important." He took his glasses off and pinched the bridge of his nose.
"I know that. But we're talking about your life, too. One little slip and, poof, no one will think of you as just Clark anymore."
He looked up and met her gaze. "They wouldn't think of you as just Lois anymore either."
"Yes," she said softly. "I know."
She reached over and took his glasses from him. It was suddenly astonishing to her that he would risk his entire life on nothing more than a thin metal frame to disguise him. Her hand began to shake and she set his glasses on his backpack. "That's what you're so freaked out about, isn't it? It could all change so fast?"
He nodded, his eyes not moving from hers. "Yes."
"I'm sorry," she told him softly. "I never realized until today just how scary it is to see someone you love taking a risk like that."
"I'm sorry if I scared you today. You were the one person I thought wouldn't be worried when I went after Debbie."
"What would you do? If someone found out, someone you couldn't trust to keep it a secret?"
"That's exactly the problem. I could live somewhere remote or become Superman full-time or change my name and, I don't know, grow a beard and live somewhere else. I don't care about what happens to me. Unless they have Kryptonite, no one can really do anything to me. It's what would happen to my parents and to you that keeps me awake at night."
"So we'd all change our names and dye our hair," she said, feeling the flippancy of the words.
He sighed. "And that would make you happy? Living the rest of your life in hiding?"
Lois shook her head in disbelief. "What is wrong with you? How can you sit there and think of all these terrible things that *might* happen to me or your parents? That's just morbid, Clark. It's… it's deranged." In spite of herself, she smiled at the word and her tone became softer. "Do you want to spend the rest of your life worrying? What do you really want?"
"I want you," he said simply, feeling as if a huge burden had slipped from his shoulders. "These past couple of days I've realized that all I want is to be with you." He reached out to take her hands in his. "Being with you, being able to hold you, has made me realize that I was wrong. I want it to work, Lois. I want to be with you. If you're willing to take that risk, then so will I."
Lois felt as if her breath had caught in her throat. For a moment she was almost convinced she was dreaming their entire conversation. "What?" she managed to whisper.
Clark moved closer to her, raising one hand to cup her cheek. "I'm sorry I hurt you. I'm sorry for the whole mess. It was entirely my fault. I overreacted. Can you forgive me? Will you trust me again?"
Her eyes filled with tears and she nodded. "I do trust you, Clark. I, I love you."
She saw a flash of his relieved smile and then he was kissing her. He seemed almost hesitant, as if he, too, sensed the fragility of what they had just achieved. She met his hesitancy with eagerness, coaxing his mouth into opening for her so that she could kiss him deeply. When the kiss ended they were both breathless.
"Didn't you want me to start something I couldn't finish?" he asked as he left a kiss just in front of her ear.
She smiled and smoothed her fingers over the stubble on his cheek. "Kiss me again," she said softly.
Clark obeyed, taking her by the waist to push her back gently against their sleeping bag. His body settled against hers and she moaned her pleasure into his mouth. They shared several long, slow, delicious open kisses as the rest of the world melted away until there was only the sensation of now. Clark slipped his arm low around her waist, drawing her closer against him. His lips played against hers in a teasing rhythm before they pressed hungrily to hers again.
Lois threaded her fingers through his hair in encouragement as she freely released the confines of her mouth to him. The fear of the day and the sorrow of the past month all seemed to disappear to the deep pull of lust inside her. God, he felt good. Every shift of his body against hers had increased her need to have him closer until she was certain she couldn't get him close enough. Her leg hooked over the back of his in invitation.
Clark groaned and broke the kiss, leaving both of them panting for breath. The inevitability of where their kisses were leading pounded in his head and through his veins. He stared at her mouth, fascinated by the way her lips were swollen from their kisses. At that moment he was absolutely certain that if she kissed him again he would not be able to pull away.
He brushed his fingers over her cheek before tracing the lush fullness of her lower lip. "If you want me to share a sleeping bag with you tonight, we have to stop."
"Or what?" she teased. Her fingers combed through his hair, sending a shiver down his spine. "What happens if we don't stop?"
Clark let out a shaky laugh. "Do you really need me to explain it to you?"
"You could show me." Lois trailed one hand down his back, sending another shiver through him. She smiled at the thought of Clark ravishing her while everyone else sat around the campfire. It was a darn good thing their tent was at least thirty feet away from anyone else's.
His eyes slipped closed for a moment as he fought for a vestige of control. "I'm serious, Lois. We have to stop."
"Or what? You'll unzip the bags?" she teased dreamily. Was thirty feet enough distance? Or would they have to be quiet? She giggled at the thought.
Outside the cow bell began to clang.
"That's dinner," she told him with a disappointed sigh as he pulled away from her. "Looks like you've been saved by the bell."
Clark didn't want to linger around the fire after dinner. He leaned closer to Lois to quietly ask if she wanted to go for a walk. She nodded and he stood, holding his hand out to help her up. They walked towards the lake as the sun began to sink below the peak they had climbed that day.
"You okay?" she asked him once they were far enough away from the group not to be overheard.
Clark nodded. "I just had to get away."
"You really don't like the recognition, do you?" she asked with a sidelong glance at him.
"They're acting like I did something extraordinary. It wasn't. That wasn't bravery — that was just something I could do to help. In a way it's a lot less personal to be Superman."
"You know what?" she said. "I'd be willing to bet that, even without superpowers, you still would have helped Debbie."
"You're that kind of guy, Clark. You're the nicest person I know. And you're nice just to be nice. You don't have an ulterior motive. That used to drive me crazy, when we first met. I was sure you were only being nice because you were up to something."
"I thought you thought I was a naive hick," he said lightly.
"Oh, I did. A naive hick who was up to something."
He grinned at her. "When did you finally decide that I wasn't?"
"What? Up to something? Or a naive hick?"
"Both, I guess."
"I don't know." They had reached the shore of the lake and Lois stopped. Instead of admiring the sunset she looked up at him in assessment. "I guess at some point I must have stopped thinking you were a hick. Probably when you schmoozed Toni Taylor so effectively."
"I schmoozed Toni Taylor?"
"Didn't you? She was no blushing schoolgirl and yet you had her wrapped around your little finger."
"But you still think I'm naive?"
"Sweet-tempered," she corrected. "There's a difference. Once I realized that was your personality, I stopped thinking you were naive and started considering you sweet-tempered."
"Did you deduce that from Toni, too?"
She laughed and shook her head. "Do you remember that awful Barbara Trevino? When she was out to get me? And you insisted on being my bodyguard?"
"I remember you told me not to take it personally that I wouldn't be your first choice of bodyguards. And you accused me of trying to kill you."
She gave him a dismissive wave. "Yeah, anyway. Trevino had called me at home and threatened me and the first place — the only place — I wanted to go was to stay with you. Remember? You let me sleep on your couch?"
"I remember." He smiled at the memory. He hadn't dared to fall asleep that night, afraid that she might stumble into his bedroom and see him with his glasses off.
"That was when I realized that being with you made me feel just as safe and secure as being with Superman." She rolled her eyes at her own ignorance. "Not that I was about to admit that to you at the time."
Clark stepped behind her and put his arms around her, resting his cheek against hers to watch the water of the lake turn a molten red and orange.
"Are you glad you came?" he asked quietly.
"Are you kidding?" She patted his elbow. "I might even break down and thank Perry for sending us when we get back. What about you?"
"I'm glad we're here." Clark closed his eyes, letting his chin drop to rest on her shoulder. All the sounds around him — the quiet murmur of conversation around the fire, the chirping of insects, the soft lap of water against the shore — they were all subsumed by the soft cadence of her heartbeat. He swayed on his feet a little, rocking her in his arms. She relaxed against him, letting him support both of them, and he let out a soft sigh. "I'm so glad we're here."
Lois stroked her hand along his arm. She knew he didn't just mean here on the shore of this lake. He meant here, full circle in their relationship.
"I wish we could just stay like this," she said softly. "I wish we didn't have to go back in a few more days. I mean, I miss my apartment and going to work, but there's just something about being separate from the rest of the world here that I really like."
"Mmm," he hummed in agreement without opening his eyes. He turned his head slightly and kissed her neck, working his way slowly towards her mouth. Her head tipped back against his shoulder to give him access and her hand moved to the back of his head.
"I've missed kissing you," she told him as his lips brushed along her jaw. "Yesterday morning, when I kissed you, it was only because I never got to kiss you goodbye."
"That was the only reason?" he teased, kissing the corner of her mouth.
"That's what I thought," she hedged.
"Why else?" He opened his eyes and saw that she had closed hers. Her lips were parted and waiting for his kiss. He dipped his head to let his lips drift tantalizingly close to hers.
"Hmm?" Lois had completely lost track of the conversation. "Why else what?"
"Why else did you kiss me yesterday morning?"
"It seemed like such a good idea." She caught his lower lip between hers and ran her tongue over it. His hand came up to cradle her cheek, holding her to the kiss.
"It was a good idea," he breathed. "And it was one heck of a good dream there for a few seconds."
She tilted her face away from his. "A dream you still won't tell me about." Her eyes had a mischievous glint to them now.
Clark blushed. "I don't, I, uh…"
She laughed. "Don't tell me. It's more fun to make it up in my head than to hear the truth."
"Look, Lois, about, uh…"
She decided to spare him the embarrassment. Now that they weren't locked in a clinch she was a little nervous herself by the possibilities that lay ahead. "I thought I told you on the first day here that sharing a tent with me wasn't going to give you conjugal rights."
When he smiled at her she wanted to take the words back.
It felt like the most natural thing in the world to climb in beside her at bedtime. Lois had moved the pillow to his side of the bag and he asked her if she no longer wanted it.
"I have you now," she said and laid her head against his chest.
Clark closed his arms around her and grinned into the darkness. "Wouldn't holding you while you sleep be considered a conjugal right?" he teased.
"That's not what I meant by conjugal rights," she retorted and he could hear the smile in her voice.
He was tempted to ask her to elaborate but decided it wasn't worth the risk. Lois sighed and stroked her hand along his arm.
"I love you, Clark," she whispered.
"I love you, too," he answered, tightening his arms around her in a brief hug.
A couple of minutes went by as he listened to the now familiar nighttime sounds of the trees rustling in the breeze and her breathing. How in the world was he ever going to sleep alone after this?
"Clark? Have you thought about what we're going to write about this trip?"
"No, not really. What are you thinking we should write? Have you decided what the angle for the story should be?"
"How about finding intimacy through near-death experiences? Although, somehow, I don't think Rich would like that one."
"No." Clark laughed with her. "I don't think he would."
"Besides, we've had lots of near-death experiences and they never brought us together like this," Lois said with a sigh that created a bloom of warmth on his skin.
"Maybe we should point out that it's a world apart? That people can come up here and lose all their everyday distractions and worries and just concentrate on what matters most to them?" Clark kissed the top of her head. "The first couple of days I actually felt guilty, wondering what I was missing back in Metropolis — if there was anyone who needed my help."
"You don't wonder that now? She lifted her head in curiosity, barely able to make out his features in the dim moonlight.
"Not really," he admitted. "It's not that helping others isn't important to me. It's just that helping others isn't the most important thing to me."
"I am?" she whispered.
Her cheek came to rest against him again and then she let out a soft giggle. "That was really good, Clark. Not bad for a hick."
"A sweet-tempered hick," he reminded her.
She giggled again. "My sweet-tempered hick."
The next morning the sky was gray. Rich and Dave had a brief conference where they argued over whether to attempt a hike or not. Dave told him it should be a group decision.
"Can't we just have a day off?" Bob asked. "Especially after yesterday, uh," his gaze darted between Debbie and Clark, "I think we all just want a rest."
There were murmurs of agreement from the rest of the group and Rich acquiesced, allowing that it was a good day to relax and concentrate on their interpersonal relationships.
"We've been working on conflict resolution and I'm sure you all remember that one of our rules of conversation was to take a listening stance," Dave started out. "Today let's work on preparing ourselves to listen. Let's all take a deep, cleansing breath and relax."
Lois did so, although she still felt a little silly participating in the group sessions.
"That's the first step," Dave continued. "Whenever you have anything important to discuss, you should try to take a deep breath first. It's calming — and calm is always the best way to discuss things. Look around you before you begin your conversation and try to remove as many distractions as you can. You can't really listen if you're driving in the car, or the TV is on, or the phone is ringing. Get rid of all those distractions first so that the channels of communication can be clear."
Rich let out a long sigh and stood up, leaving the group abruptly. Dave continued as if nothing had happened.
"You should sit or face the other person and have an open body posture. Don't cross your arms or look around the room while you're listening. Focus on listening, and not on what you're going to say in response. Encourage your partner to share their issues as fully as possible. Don't interrupt, but be sure to ask for clarification if you need it. When you answer, restate what they have told you to make sure that you're understanding them. And always, always validate the other person's concerns, even if you find them trivial."
There was deep boom and the ground shook beneath them. Everyone looked up, startled, as the first fat drops of rain began to fall.
"Okay, that's it for now," Dave said and stood up. "The day is yours."
Everyone made a dash to take shelter in their tents.
Lois looked at the cards in her hand and sighed. She was losing, she just knew it. Clark had that smug little smile on his face that he always got when he was winning. The rain outside was showing no sign of letting up and she was starting to regret wearing shorts that morning since the temperature outside was continuing to drop. She set her cards face down and reached for her backpack.
"It's your turn," Clark told her.
"I know," she said. "Just give me a second." She pulled her sweat pants out of her backpack and frowned at them. They were filthy. She had worn them for two days in a row and she wasn't sure she wanted to put them on again. Irritated, she pushed them back inside her pack and flung it to the side.
"Try not to touch the sides of the tent," Clark cautioned her. "It breaks the surface tension and will create a leak."
She fought the urge to say something snide; he wasn't to blame for the rain. She picked her cards up and pulled two out to discard. The two new cards she drew were just as useless. Clark picked up one of her cards and she mentally chastised herself for helping him out.
"So, Clark, if you could be anywhere in the world right now, where would you want to be?" she asked as she contemplated her cards.
Clark laughed. "Honestly? Right here."
"I'm serious!" She put another card down and drew. Finally, something she could use.
"So am I." Clark drew another card and then smiled at her.
"Stuck in a tent during a thunderstorm?"
"With you," he prompted. "As long as it's with you." His smile widened and he set down his cards. "Gin. The fact that you're losing to me just sweetens the moment."
Lois tossed her cards at him. Outside there was a brilliant flash of light accompanied by a simultaneous boom of thunder.
"Geez!" she squealed in surprise as she flinched. "Please tell me you're faster than lightning."
"If I have to be." Clark gave her a wink.
"Then I probably should stop being a sore loser, huh?"
"I'd save you regardless."
"So what about you?" he asked as he gathered the cards together again. "Where would you rather be right now?"
"Do you remember when you took me up in the clouds?"
"I don't think you'd want to be up in the clouds today."
"Probably not. I didn't mean the clouds, necessarily. I meant flying with you, like that." She looked away, suddenly feeling shy. "That night was maybe the happiest I've ever been. There was something so free and wonderful about just floating above everything in your arms."
"When we get back to Metropolis, I'll take you flying."
She took the cards from him and set them behind her before taking one his hands in hers. "I'd like that very much." She smoothed her fingers over the back of his hand, marveling at the strength she knew it held. She lifted his hand, brushing a kiss along the base of his thumb. Then she held his hand to her cheek.
When she looked up at him his eyes had gone dark and she let out a small gasp at the flash of heat that shot through her.
Clark leaned forward and kissed her, slow and deep, his mouth moving with deliberate skill on hers. Lois clung to him, holding him to the kiss as she lay back and brought him with her. His tongue and teeth lingered and memorized her until Lois felt nearly drunk on the sensation. Dizzy and drowning in need, she broke their kiss to catch her breath. When her eyes opened all she could see was the way his hair was tousled and his lips were wet from their kisses.
"You look good in the Suit and all, but you look even better right now." She smoothed her hand over the t-shirt he was wearing.
"Yeah? Why's that?" he asked with a lazy grin.
"You know how to fill out a t-shirt. It's distracting really." When he laughed softly her forehead furrowed in thought. "Do I ever wear anything that distracts you?"
"Everything you wear distracts me." He nipped at her earlobe, delighting in the small moan she made.
"I'm serious!" She smacked his shoulder to try and bring his attention back to their conversation.
"So am I." He covered her mouth with his for a quick kiss and then he pulled his head back slightly. "There is one dress, in particular, that I remember. But you didn't wear it for me."
"What was it? How do you know I wasn't wearing it for you?"
"You were on a date with Luthor. It was the night we were held hostage at the Planet. That black dress you wore. That dress should be illegal."
"That dress? Really?" Lois grinned at him. "Illegal? Why?"
"Do you have any idea how good you looked in that dress?"
"I still have it. I'll wear it for you sometime."
Clark let out a shaky sigh. "You'd better not."
"Lois, every time you turned sideways I could see half your breast. A few more millimeters and nothing would have been left to the imagination. It would be absolute torture to see you wear it again."
"You were looking at my breasts?"
"Every man there took at least a peek. God, I just wanted to shoot Lex myself. Somewhere much lower than where Fuentes shot him."
"Why did you want to shoot Lex? It's not like he bought me the dress."
"He was so smug, so arrogant, so… lucky."
She giggled and leaned down for another kiss, wanting more of his kisses. It dawned on her that this might be a risky idea. There was no one to stop them this time. Everyone else was waiting out the storm in their tents. Rich wasn't going to wander through the storm and ring the cow bell.
When the kiss ended he saw that her chin was looking pink. "I think we'd better stop." His thumb stroked over her chin. "I'm hurting you."
"Or you could shave," she giggled.
He sat up and took a small mirror from his backpack. "I don't think you've ever seen this," he told her. He took his glasses off and held the mirror out, his eyes narrowing at his reflection. She watched in fascination as the stubble disappeared from his face. When he set the mirror aside she reached over to touch his face.
"Soft," she told him and kissed his cheek. "Mmm. That's nice. Do you do legs?"
He laughed and kissed her. "What if I burned you?"
"Just do a test patch on my ankle or something."
"Lois…" He wavered, intrigued by the idea of an uninterrupted, fully sanctioned ogling of her legs.
"Come on, Superman, show me what you can do." She nudged him with her knee, suddenly very glad that she had worn shorts.
Clark moved to kneel next to her feet. "You'll tell me if it feels like it's too warm, won't you?"
"Sure." Lois put her arms behind her head, feeling woozy and yet alert at the same time.
His hand closed over her foot, pulling her sock off and then lifting her ankle free of the sleeping bag. "Are you ready?"
She saw him swallow and then her ankle felt pleasantly warm, but not hot. She giggled, flexing her toes and the sensation stopped.
"Am I hurting you?"
"No." She shook her head emphatically. "Not at all. Is it working?"
His fingers brushed over her ankle and they both let out a little sigh. "Yes," he said huskily.
"Then keep going."
He lifted her leg a little higher and the warmth moved to the back of her leg. She watched him, the thought crossing her mind that she was literally feeling the heat of his gaze. All at once it was too intense to watch so she closed her eyes, concentrating only on the sensation as it slowly traveled up and around her leg. His fingers stroked over her skin to check his work and then he set her leg back down with a lingering caress. Seconds later he lifted her other foot and took off her sock.
She relaxed into his touch, happily giving herself over completely to this simple intimacy. It was amazing, what he was doing to her. The muscles in her limbs seemed to have turned to mud, not to mention the alarmingly advanced condition between her thighs. Did he have any idea what he was *really* doing to her right now?
Clark slid the back of his fingers over her shin, finding it smooth and sleek. "How's that?" he asked softly.
She sat up and rubbed her leg before giving him a delighted grin. "That's so much better than shaving. You never cease to amaze me, Clark."
"Don't I?" He couldn't help but reach out and run his fingers over her knee. She was a constant source of wonder to him, it was only fair that he could surprise her now and again.
"Aren't we supposed to be listening to each other?" she asked. "Why don't you tell me about that dream of yours?"
"I thought you didn't want to know. That it was better left to the imagination." He didn't want to stop touching her so his fingers circled her knee again.
"I changed my mind." Lois shrugged.
"What made you change your mind?" he asked.
Clark let out a laughing sigh. "You're just not going to let this one drop, are you?"
"Giving up was never in my nature."
"No, it's not," he agreed.
Lois took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "See, I'm ready. I've taken a deep breath, I couldn't possibly be more relaxed and I'm obviously facing you in a very open listening position."
"What about distractions?" he asked.
"No distractions. All I'm thinking about is you." She scooted back a little, taking her knee away from him. She smiled at him and held her hand out. "Isn't this how your dream starts, Clark? You come home and I hold my hand out to you and smile?"
Clark had to take a deep breath of his own. "Yes," he whispered.
"Then what happens? See, I'm going to ask for lots of clarification — just so you know that I'm listening intently."
"Then I kiss you." He still couldn't quite make his voice obey him as he took the hand she was holding out.
"Show me." She tugged him closer to her and he came readily enough, kneeling next to her on the sleeping bag.
"Is this show or tell?" he asked softly.
"Both." Her smile widened. "First you tell me; then you show me."
He cupped her face in his hand as he told her, "I think we kiss for a really long time."
"You think?" she teased. "You don't know for sure?"
"Time is weird in dreams." He kissed her as his mind raced, wondering just how much of the dream he dared to show her.
"So, in this dream of yours, where am I at in your apartment when you come home?" Lois asked, stroking her fingers over his cheek as she reveled in the softness of his freshly-shaven face. She had liked the stubble, but it was reassuringly familiar to have him look like himself again.
"It varies." Clark tilted his head to kiss the underside of her chin.
"Okay, then, where was I yesterday morning in your dream?" Lois tipped her head back, her hands moving to his shoulders to keep herself from falling over.
"Kitchen," he mumbled against the base of her throat. "You were in my kitchen, just holding a cup of coffee or something."
"So you kissed me in your kitchen." Lois sighed, picturing Clark coming into his kitchen and decisively walking over to kiss her. "What are you wearing?"
"Are you coming home as Superman?"
"I… don't…" Clark shifted closer to her. "I never really paid attention to what I'm wearing. No, I'm wearing my regular clothes, not the Suit."
"Do I ask you about where you've been?"
He laughed softly, his breath tickling her neck. "We don't really talk much in my dream."
"Then what happens?"
"Then I carry you to my bed," he whispered.
"We're already on our bed," she answered.
*Our bed* The words went over him like a palpable touch. "I lay you on the bed," he continued, easing her down so that her head was on the pillow, "and I kiss you some more."
Lois moaned her approval, wrapping her arms around him as he kissed her deeply. His body settled partially atop hers. His fingers stroked over her cheek and down her neck, stopping at the banded collar of her t-shirt.
"What?" she asked as she sensed his hesitation.
"It's just, uh, in my dream you were wearing a shirt with buttons."
She sucked in a breath at the thought of Clark unbuttoning her shirt. "I have one in my backpack. Do you want me to put it on?"
He shook his head. It was time to put a stop to this — while he still could. "No, that's okay. We've gone far enough."
A stab of disappointment shot through her. "We have?"
"This is about where I woke up yesterday." His weight shifted, moving away from her.
"No, it's not." She caught his arm to stop him from leaving. "You were touching me, Clark. I remember that part pretty well. I'm surprised you've forgotten."
"I haven't forgotten." His hand flexed against her shoulder, remembering all too clearly how it had felt to touch her.
Her grin told him she knew he hadn't forgotten. "Was my shirt on or off in your dream?" she asked.
He had to swallow to answer. "Off."
Lois rose up briefly and pulled her shirt off, then lay back down with her arms extended above her head on the pillow. "Like this?"
His mouth opened and closed but no words came out. Clark nodded slowly. "Yes," he finally managed to croak out. "Just like this."
He touched her shoulder, then traced his fingertips over the delicate line of her collarbone, his eyes fixed on the lush half-moon of skin and flesh not covered by her bra.
"It opens in the front," she whispered.
He swallowed and nodded his understanding. His fingers felt too large and clumsy for the task as he fumbled with the clasp. It made a soft click and he felt as though his entire universe had narrowed to the woman beneath him as he slowly moved the fabric aside. He thought he had seen her clearly at the waterfall but he realized now that he was wrong. This close he could see how fine her skin was. He could see the faint quiver as she breathed, could feel the warmth and softness of her body against his. Lois bit her lip, feeling a little self-conscious from the way he was staring.
"What about your shirt?" she asked with a teasing smile.
"In my dream you take it off."
Her hands fluttered over the solid sweep and hard curving muscles of his back to the hem of his shirt to pull it off. He helped her, lifting away from her just long enough to get rid of his shirt.
"Do I touch you?" she asked and smoothed her hand across the heavy muscles of his chest.
"Yes." He could barely speak.
"How?" She smiled. "Where?"
"Anywhere you want," he said with a sigh.
"Anywhere?" she asked, lifting one eyebrow. "Really?" Her fingers trailed down his chest until they were at the waistband of his jeans.
"Oh god," he said softly with a shiver. This wasn't a dream. This was real. This was real and it was thrilling and it was fraught with the possibility that they could ruin everything by going too far. "You, this, Lois, this is better than any dream." Not a dream, his brain screamed.
"This is real," he said, with a rough edge to his half-voice.
"Hmm…?" she murmured.
"Lois, please, listen to me," he said beseechingly, holding her shoulders and pulling his head back. The normally soft brown of his eyes had been drenched into deeper hues by the pull of his arousal. "I need you to make a decision for us."
"A decision?" she repeated in disbelief. "Why am I making a decision for us?"
"Because, of the two of us, I think you're thinking much more clearly."
"I'm not thinking clearly," she said with a laugh. "I haven't been thinking clearly for days."
He briefly closed his eyes and fought the urge to skip past this discussion. "Honestly, right now all I can think about it what I want to do to you."
"That sounds good." She pulled his head down to kiss him. "Tell me about that."
Clark turned his head to stall her. "No, please. We need to think this through."
Lois stared at him and tried to mentally shift gears. It was almost impossible. She couldn't believe he wanted her to stop and think in some kind of rational manner while they were both topless and her thigh was taking a perfect reading of his pulse through his jeans.
"Okay…what?" she asked.
"I need you to think very carefully and tell me if this is what you really want."
"Are you kidding me?" She laughed. "You can't tell what I want?"
He gave her an embarrassed grin. "Trust me, I know what we both want. I'm just worried we might be going too fast."
"I don't think I want you to leave this all to me," she said as it dawned on her that he might be right. What if they were moving ahead too quickly?
"We've established that my decision making skills aren't the best where we're concerned. I want you to decide for us."
Still dazed from his kisses, she tried to think. What was there to decide? Hadn't she made her decision ages ago? Hadn't she already given her soul to him? Hadn't she already told him that her choice was made?
"You," she told him. "I choose you. Isn't this worth any risk, Clark?"
In answer he kissed her. It was enough. He had almost lost her once by thinking too much — he wasn't about to do that again. His long arms pulled her closer, tightening around her waist to draw her even deeper into his embrace simply to feel her pressed against him. Their kisses became a delicious dance of soft skin and heated tongues — tasting, stroking, drawing them into a feverish embrace that would break and pause only to draw them even closer in the cool air. Clark found his hunger for her only increased as he fed on her sweetness — drawing it from her with his mouth, his devotion, his need.
Lois sighed into their kiss, mesmerized by the low musky scent of him and the sure tender strength of his mouth. "What happens next?" she asked.
"This is where I woke up," he admitted hoarsely.
"What if you hadn't woken up? What would have happened?"
He placed several soft kisses on her nose, cheeks and eyelids. "I'd touch you…"
"Everywhere," he told her as he angled for another kiss of her mouth.
"Would you really do anything for me?" she asked breathlessly.
"Anything," he answered.
"What if I asked you to fly me home? We could take a shower and make love on my bed."
Clark went absolutely still, not certain he had heard her right. "Are you asking me to do that?"
She looked into his eyes, dark with need. No matter how fast he flew it would take too long to get there. "No," she finally said. "I just wondered if you would."
"Anything you want, just ask."
Reality seemed to crash around him as he heard the rasp of someone's tent being unzipped. After a few seconds another tent opened. He brushed the hair back from her forehead and then kissed the ridge of her eyebrow.
"It's stopped raining," he said softly.
His desire had quickly turned to disappointment. There was no way in the world they could keep going, not with most of the group beginning to gather outside.
Her hand smoothed over his cheek. "Clark," she said, her voice much thicker than normal. "What's wrong?"
"It's stopped raining," he told her again. "Everyone is coming out of their tents."
"Oh. I guess, uh, I guess we should get dressed," Lois said and sat up. Her hands were shaking as she pulled the front of her bra closed and for a moment she despaired being able to close the snap. She felt suddenly embarrassed but she couldn't pinpoint the cause of her discomfort.
Clark put his shirt back on and then pulled on a flannel shirt. Lois watched him dress, feeling shy as she struggled to get her shirt turned right-side out.
Clark exhaled slowly, feeling the awkwardness as he searched for something to say. "I, uh, I'll see you out there," he said softly.
When she came out of the tent, Clark was nowhere to be seen. She looked around camp curiously — where could he have gone?
"I think he went for a walk," Dave said to her and pointed at the trees. "I saw him head that way."
Clark hadn't meant to leave camp. He had waved to the others and then taken the trail behind their tent that led to the overlook. The further he traveled from camp, however, the dizzier he felt.
Lois had said she was willing to take this step. But if they did there was no going back. He would never be able to pretend that it hadn't happened, that it didn't mean everything. This was all or nothing, did she understand that?
His heart skipped as he realized that she did understand that. She had meant it. She hadn't just said 'yes' to making love, she had said 'yes' to him. To them. To 'us'. She believed in 'us'. She was willing to risk everything for 'us'.
He gradually picked up speed until he was running as a blur and then he shot into the sky. It was likely everyone would hear the boom, but no one except Lois would give it a second thought. He flew higher and higher until the mountains were far below him, then he headed for the peak they had hiked the day before. He settled onto it, searching for and finding their camp far below on the other side of the lake. She was down there — the woman he was going to spend the rest of his life with.
He had known this since almost the moment they first met. It had been a long and uncertain road to get to this point, but they were here now.
"Us," he said out loud. "Lois, I believe in us."
His head tipped back and he laughed, feeling lighter than he had in weeks.
There really was an 'us'.
Lois turned and caught sight of him as he came out of the trees. Clark wondered if she had a sixth sense for him now, if she could feel his presence as surely as he felt hers. Their eyes met and he saw a faint smile play at her lips as he approached. She moved over a little and he took a seat next to her on the log.
"Hey," she said softly. "I was afraid you had left me."
"That will never happen," he said, feeling the words like a promise.
Lois took his hand between hers, lacing her fingers with his. She couldn't seem to take her eyes away from him. It wasn't just the shave — he looked completely different to her now. This man had touched her and had shared a side of him that, until now, she could only have imagined. He was a different person to her now. She could understand his hesitation earlier — becoming intimate with him was changing everything.
"Where did you go?" she asked softly.
He leaned close enough that his words caressed her ear. "I'll tell you later."
When Lois came into the tent that night her hat was sitting on the pillow. She let out a delighted laugh and wondered just how far away the wind had carried it.
"You found my hat." She leaned forward and kissed him.
"Yes." Clark raised his hand to hold her head for another, longer kiss.
"Thank you." She reached out and picked up the hat. Then she gasped. Beneath it was a black velvet box. "Oh," she said, caught off guard.
Clark cleared his throat nervously. "Doesn't that belong to you, too?"
"I thought I'd lost this forever," Lois whispered. She felt confused, elated and terrified all in the same instant. The hat dropped from her grasp and she took hold of the box with shaky fingers. Her mind swam, trying to make sense of what was happening. Was he proposing? Did she want him to propose?
"You didn't lose it," he corrected her. "I did. *I* almost lost it forever."
"What…" her voice trailed away and she realized she didn't know what to say. She opened the box and they both caught their breath. She looked at him, but the glare off his glasses from the lantern hid his eyes from her. "I don't understand. Are you proposing to me again now?"
"I already have," he told her, "and you said you needed time to think about it. I'm not trying to rush you. I just hope that you're still thinking about it."
Her mind didn't seem able to hold a thought longer than a second or two. Clark, kneeling in the rain and proposing to her. Seeing him spin into Superman for the first time. Seeing Superman that first time on the shuttle. The look on his face when she said she needed time to think after he proposed. Clark telling her they couldn't be together. Clark, kneeling in the rain…
Lois reached out with her other hand and pulled his glasses off. His eyes were just as warily hopeful as they had been the first time he had offered himself to her.
"You don't have to answer right now," he said softly. "With everything that's happened, I know you must still need time."
"So why…?" Again, her voice failed her.
"It's yours." Clark felt foolish. He had rushed into this. It had been stupid to think that just because she had let him undress her meant they could pick up where they left off. "It always was yours and it always will be. You keep it, please. It's yours."
She shook her head and held the box out to him. "Clark, I…"
"Please?" His eyes were serious, his expression almost pained. "Please, just keep it while you think about it?"
"All right," she said quietly. The box made a soft 'snap' as it closed.
Lois couldn't sleep. Behind her Clark's breathing was deep and even and his arms had long since become slack around her body. How would she ever be able to sleep alone again after this? For that matter, how would she ever be able to look at him again and not remember what he had done to her that afternoon? Her heart beat faster just thinking about the way he had touched her — where he had touched her.
*<"We just can't be together anymore… I'm sorry…">*
No matter how much time had passed, those words still had the power to paralyze her. She had been ready to say 'yes' to him that night. She had spent the past month in a fog, uncertain of herself and her own judgment. And now, somehow, they were back where they had started. No, she corrected herself. They were well past where they had started. A month of silence and aching hurt had somehow turned to this — her sleeping in his arms and him thinking they could just pick up where they had left off.
So why hadn't she thrown her arms around him as soon as he gave her the ring? Wasn't that what she had wanted? Wasn't this what she had secretly hoped for and dreamt about since the night he broke her heart? It was — but part of her still wanted to see him pay for it. She was horrified to realize that she was petty enough to still want him to hurt as much as she had.
*<"Lois, people can waste an entire lifetime nursing grudges and hurting each other. Do you love him?">*
Dave was right. Did she really want to waste the rest of her life nursing that grudge and hurting him back?
Part of her did. But the rest of her realized just how much of an effort Clark had made on this trip. He had refused to get even with her when she pushed him in the lake. He had carried her back to the tent and kept her warm instead. He had brought her a pizza and a hot shower simply because she wished for them. He had held her in his arms and… Her cheeks grew warm at the memory of what he had done for her earlier.
*<"I need you to make a decision for us. We've established that my decision making skills aren't the best where we're concerned. I want you to decide for us.">*
Lois took a deep breath, startled by the enormity of what he had done in that moment. He had given up his control to her. Clark — the man who could bend the world to his will if he really wished to — had given her the final say.
*<"So you would be with me, even if you knew that might lead to horrible consequences for you? I can't ask you to make that decision.">*
*<"You can't make it for me either, Clark.">*
It wasn't right that she should make his decisions for him either. How could he put it all on her like that?
*<"It's yours. It always was yours and it always will be. You keep it, please. It's yours.">*
Lois realized his decision was already made. He had chosen her. He had just been stupid for a while and now he was trying to fix it.
*<"I do miss you. I love you. I never stopped. Lois, I never will. I love you.">*
She thought about how it had felt to see him rescue Debbie — how frightened she had been for him. Fear could make you do stupid things. How many times had fear driven her? That recklessness that Clark so admired in her was often nothing more than panic masquerading as courage.
*<"I just, god, I just can't lose you. I can't lose you, not like that. I'd rather you spent the rest of your life hating me than to see you hurt.">*
Clark loved her. She knew that without a doubt. Clark loved her and he still wanted her. Somehow that knowledge was just as frightening as it was reassuring.
*<"You. I choose you. Isn't this worth any risk, Clark?">*
Was it was worth any risk? Was it worth the risk that he might break her heart again? That he might make some unilateral decision that would shatter everything? She had asked Dave that same question — how did she know that she could trust Clark again?
A light wind rustled through the trees outside, causing the top of the tent to flap and ripple. Lois nestled back closer to Clark, deeply grateful for the simple warmth of him. Even asleep he seemed to sense her needs and his arms tightened gently around her. He murmured something unintelligible and the soft rumble of his voice caught at her heart.
*<"I've always felt safe with you, Clark. Even before I knew about Superman, I always felt safe just being around you.">*
She could trust him because he was Clark.
The next morning, as they all ravenously ate pancakes, Rich broke the "bad news" to them. Because of the rain the previous day, the day's long hike was canceled, just in case the trails were still slick. He gave each of them a map with a different quadrant marked on it. Their task for the day was to hike that quadrant and ensure that no traces of the group were being left behind.
Dave stood up next and smiled at all of them fondly. "We've spent the past week working on our listening skills, today I'd like you to concentrate on communicating clearly. Do you all remember our first day here when I asked you to try and observe your style of communication?"
Lois ducked her head to hide a smile. 'Passive-aggressive' was probably the best way to describe the way she had communicated with Clark a week ago. She risked a sidelong glance at him just as he turned his head to look at her. He gave her a small smile as his hand reached out to take hold of hers. She squeezed his fingers and returned the smile.
Dave was beginning to warm to his topic. "Pay attention to how you communicate. Do you state your concerns clearly and specifically? Or are you allowing your communications to fall into habitual patterns? Do you respect the opinions and issues raised by your partner? Or are you merely listening to placate them? Sometimes we use listening as a weapon. We listen too closely to try and trap the speaker or to twist their words. Sometimes we're so deeply entrenched in our own position that we refused to genuinely hear what the other is saying. We make a power play by coming to an impasse. I asked you to think about your needs — your core needs. Keep those in mind today and remember to state your needs clearly and specifically."
Lois looked at the map Rich had given them. She followed the narrow brown line that indicated a trail and then grinned to herself. She looked up in time to see Dave watching her. She tipped her head slightly, wondering if Dave had had anything to do with their assignment. As if he sensed her thoughts, Dave gave her a wink before turning away.
"I need to grab something really fast," Lois told Clark as they were about to start down the trail to check their assigned quadrant. He waited outside the tent, half-listening as she searched through her backpack. Was she bringing the ring along? He fought the temptation to look. "Okay," she chirped with a grin as she came back out of the tent and stood up. "Let's go."
They were nearly done working their way slowly up the trail as they each scanned a side for litter, when Lois abruptly changed the subject away from small talk. "So tell me the truth. Did you refuse to use your powers on that first day here just to be obstinate?"
"What?" Clark looked over at her but she was resolutely watching the border of the trail and not him.
"You know what I mean. I was being a jerk to you," she admitted. "Were you doing the same thing back to me?"
"Was I being a jerk?" he repeated in disbelief. "Are you serious?"
Lois stopped walking and turned to face him. From now on her communication style with him was going to be nothing but open and honest. He could pay her the same courtesy. "Of course I'm serious! Why did you make me carry that canoe?"
"Because," he spluttered, feeling at a loss for words. "Because it would have been unfair for me to do all the work!"
Lois let out a derisive laugh. "Unfair? Unfair to who? Would one little canoe really take that much out of you?"
"It would be unfair to everyone else!" Clark gestured behind him towards camp. "Debbie and Brenda and Jenny all carried their canoes and none of them are whining and complaining." That came out a little harsher than he meant — mostly because he was beginning to wonder if she was right. Had he been a jerk on purpose?
She narrowed her eyes at him — he didn't have to be *that* honest. "You really do have rules for everything, don't you?"
"Of course I do!" he said, thoroughly exasperated with her now. "I *have* to have rules. If I don't, I could end up hurting people or even killing someone."
That made perfect sense, but it also smacked of condescension. "So your control issues are really there for everyone else's benefit and not your convenience?"
"Lois, I have no idea why you're picking a fight with me." Clark shook his head and watched her warily. "Is this about *your* control issues?"
"You think I have control issues?" She put her hands on her hips and looked up at him, positively daring him to admit that he did.
"Don't you?" he asked carefully.
"I was just trying to settle a few questions. That's all."
"If it's against the rules to cheat on the canoe, how was it within the rules to bring me a pizza? Rich said that eating out here was a matter of life or death. Wasn't that cheating?"
"That was just… being nice," he said, feeling the lameness of the words.
"And carrying the canoe wouldn't have been nice?"
He sighed. "Okay, you win. I was being a jerk."
"Why?" she asked. Her voice had dropped to a whisper.
"You hurt me." His low tone matched hers.
"You hurt me first." Lois barely managed to get the words out. The words felt childish, but at least she was being honest.
Clark closed his eyes and swayed on his feet, feeling almost sick. "I know. I'm so sorry. Lois, I don't know how to make that up to you."
"I don't want you to make it up to me," she said slowly. "I just want to know that you're never going to do that again."
"I won't," he said solemnly. "Remember when you asked me to explain the 'Rules According to Clark Kent'?" When she nodded, he continued. "There's a new rule, an inviolate rule. No making big decisions without discussing them with you first."
She considered him for a few long seconds and then nodded to herself. "I guess that was clear and specific enough."
He reached out and caught her hand, his eyes seeking hers. "I promise. I will never do that again."
"I believe you," she told him softly. She moved closer to him, going up on tiptoe to kiss his cheek. She stepped back quickly and started up the trail again. Her heart was hammering with anticipation. They were almost to the fork in the trail and she was starting to feel nervous about her earlier plan. When they came to the fork in the trail that marked the boundary of the area they were supposed to search, Lois took a deep breath and pushed the hair back from her eyes.
"We should take a break," Lois said, trying to keep her voice even. She tilted her head to indicate the left fork of the trail. "Come on, Clark."
Clark fought a smile. He had given in to temptation a few minutes earlier and checked her jacket pocket. She didn't have the ring with her — she had a bar of soap.
He hadn't said a word and she was feeling twitchy and agitated. He had to have heard the waterfall long before she did and yet he hadn't spoken a word. Every attempt to make conversation with him died before she could even get her mouth open. His silence wasn't oppressive, it was just… silent. It was a knowing silence and the fact that he wasn't protesting only drove her pulse and her imagination faster.
They came into the mossy grotto and she sat on a boulder, ostensibly to rest. Clark stopped beside her and gave her a teasing grin. "Did you want another pizza?"
Feeling bold, she shook her head. "No." She returned his grin. "I want you to go first."
Clark's grin widened and he removed his glasses, holding them out to her for safekeeping. Then he stepped back and took hold of the shoulders of his t-shirt, pulling it swiftly over his head. He folded the t-shirt and set it down next to her on the rock. He toed off his shoes, then peeled off his socks, putting each of them into a shoe. He unfastened his belt, then his jeans, watching her watch him the entire time. He folded his jeans, setting them on top of his shoes.
Then he turned and walked over to the waterfall as she gaped openly at him. Her eyes raked over his wide shoulders, down the muscles of his back to his narrow hips. Her breath caught in her lungs and she thought about the ring tucked away in her backpack. Was it shallow that she had just now decided to put it on as soon they got back to camp?
Lois watched the ripple of his muscles as he bathed and envied the water's path over his body. Her eyes kept returning to the same area. He might still be wearing his briefs but they did nothing to disguise the fact that a cold shower had little effect on him. She hastily moved her gaze to his face when he stepped out of the waterfall. He shook his head and then ran his hand through his hair, giving her a lopsided grin.
"Your turn," he told her and came back to the rock, holding the soap out to her.
Lois took off her boots and socks as he approached. She ignored the soap he was holding out and pulled her shirt off next, draping it over his glasses on the boulder. Her heart was racing and her hands were beginning to shake but she got her pants off without feeling too foolish. Then she stopped and looked up at him, wondering just how far she dared to go. He was still holding the soap out, but his gaze had dropped to her chest. His Adam's apple bobbed in a swallow and she risked a glance lower on his body.
She definitely had his interest.
That knowledge spurred her on and she unfastened her bra, watching his eyes widen as she slipped it from her shoulders. His lips parted but he didn't utter a sound. Lois slid her panties off and then straightened up, reaching out to take the soap from him.
"Don't I get hot water for this?" she teased and he blushed, turning reluctantly away from her to walk back to the waterfall.
At his nod, she stepped beneath the hot water, letting out a long sigh of satisfaction. This time the feeling of the water running over her skin was even more acute than before. Lois washed herself in a daze, feeling the heat caressing her skin as surely as if it were his hands. Every time she looked over at him he was resolutely concentrating on the water pouring over the ledge but she knew he was just as aware of her as she was of him.
*<"How long can you do that?">*
*<"As long as you need.">*
Lois shivered at the possibilities those words could have. After the way he had touched her the day before, those words no longer conjured a casual, hazy image to mind. She tipped her head back, letting the water run over her face and remembered the heat of his mouth on her body. She ran the soap over herself, wishing that his hands were doing the touching and not her own. In a fog of desire, she rinsed the suds away and then stepped out of the water.
She softly cleared her throat. "I'm done."
Clark's head turned slowly to look at her. She stood before him, her arms at her sides, as her dark eyes watched him with a curious hunger. He hardly dared to blink, let alone breathe. He had never seen anything like her. Had never known anyone like her. Her shoulders straightened a little in silent invitation and he let his eyes travel over her body.
His gaze swept over her shoulders and then down to the indentation of her navel — all that smooth skin that begged to be kissed and tasted. He visually traced the inward curve of her waist and the outward swell of her hip. It was almost an insult to hide that body beneath those prim suits she wore at work. He followed the slim line of her legs as they tapered to slender ankles. He took a few deep breaths and then concentrated the heat of his thoughts into drying her as his gaze drifted back up her body.
He stopped at her shoulders and raised his eyes to look into hers. She was wide-eyed but murmured a quiet, "Thanks."
He nodded to her, still unable to move as he watched her begin to carefully pick her way back over to her clothes. Lois took in a sharp breath as she stepped on an unforgiving pebble. No sooner had she lifted her foot then she felt his hand on her waist.
"Are you okay?" he asked in a husky voice.
She could feel the heat of his bare skin so close to hers, ratcheting her desire even higher. Her body brushed against his as she turned to face him. "Maybe you could help me?" she managed to say.
Clark let out a short breath and nodded. "Okay," he said, still in that same hoarse voice. He bent and scooped her up in his arms. Naked! His entire body came alive at the thought that she was absolutely naked in his arms.
*<"What if I asked you to fly me home? We could… make love on my bed.">*
Ask me, Lois, he thought. Please ask me. But she didn't so he carried her over to where their clothes were and gently set her back down.
"We should get dressed," he whispered, hoping she would disagree. Instead she nodded and turned back to her clothes.
They dressed in silence and then she held out his glasses to him. He took them, putting them on as a matter of habit. She tilted her head to look up at him and she looked as woozy as he felt. Their eyes met for the briefest of seconds and then something flared inside him and he couldn't stop himself from reaching for her. He felt bolder now that they were dressed again and he didn't hold back the hunger that he felt as he kissed her. Lois responded with equal passion, opening her mouth to his while her hands combed through his still-damp hair. He moaned into her mouth, his arms closing around her and pulling her tight against his body.
Lois broke the kiss with a gasp and nipped at his earlobe. "Take me back to camp," she whispered to him.
Camp?" he repeated, not sure he'd heard her right.
Camp," she affirmed. "Take me back to camp. You won't regret it."
She was absolutely right. Camp — their tent — was the only place in the world he wanted to be right now. They could stretch out on the relative comfort of the sleeping bags and neck until it was time for dinner.
Clark lifted her into his arms and moved swiftly down the trail. The memory of her naked at the waterfall made it difficult to concentrate and more than once he had to veer at the last second to avoid a tree. Just before the trail emerged from the forest into camp he set her down, giving her one last lingering kiss before he pulled away and took her hand in his.
Lois looked around, seeing no one in the camp. "Is anyone here?" she asked breathlessly.
Clark paused in unzipping their tent to listen for a moment. "George and Debbie. And Jim and Brenda. I don't hear Jenny and Bob or Dave and Rich." He crawled inside the tent and started unlacing his boots.
"What are they doing?"
"Yes, doing. Are they talking? Are they sleeping?"
His face colored a little. "Well, Jim and Brenda are reading or something. And George and Debbie…" His face colored a little more. "They're, uh, they're busy."
"So none of them would be listening to us?" She pushed him back against the pillow.
"Lois, we can't really…"
A few kisses later he could no longer remember why he was supposed to object to this. He rolled them, tucking her body beneath his. She made a little encouraging moan and he shifted slightly, rocking his body against hers. The friction only increased the sweet pressure building inside him. "Feels so good," he mumbled and kissed the pulse beating frantically in her throat.
"Are we being reckless?" she whispered.
"I don't care," he mumbled.
"Me neither." She captured his mouth again, easily coaxing him into a deep kiss.
"What do you want, Lois?" he whispered in her ear. "Tell me. Clearly and specifically."
"I want you to touch me." She pulled at the hem of her shirt and he helped her to take it off.
Her hand slid down his back and over his hip. He groaned and she arched up, easily guiding him into rolling onto his back for her. She straddled his legs and pulled the hem of his shirt up his chest. "This," she gasped. "Take this off."
He complied, tossing the shirt away, then rested his hands on her knees, his eyes fixed on her bra. She traced the heavy muscles of his chest, her fingers moving slowly, confidently, lower and lower to draw a circle around his navel.
Lois realized she wanted to drive him to utter distraction. "You wanna do something reckless, Clark?" She unfastened the top of his jeans.
Oh," he breathed. "We shouldn't… You don't have to…" Clark let out a groan, tipping his head back and raising his hips to increase the pressure of her hand.
"Please…" he whispered. "Lois, please."
"You know how you think that I have control issues?" she asked.
He let out another groan. "Oh god, Lois, please…"
"Please what? Tell me. Be clear and specific."
"Please don't stop… what you're doing… it's…" The rest of his words were lost in a moan and he shuddered beneath her. His eyes closed and his face creased as though he were in pain.
"Do you ever dream about this?" she whispered.
Clark's head tossed restlessly and she couldn't tell if he was nodding or shaking his head.
Clark's hands dropped from her knees. He could no longer maintain even that little effort — his strength was failing in the face of what she was doing to him. All that he could manage were the low hungry moans that came from deep in his chest.
"Lois," he said hoarsely and he wasn't sure anymore if he was begging or warning her.
He was suddenly caught and held in a screaming pause that lasted for just the brilliant edge of forever. His strength returned all at once and he clenched his hands, his last rational thought that he couldn't hurt her; must not touch her.
Clark couldn't open his eyes. He couldn't even move. His hands, which had been balled tightly into fists, numbly fell open. His entire body seemed to have shut down, leaving him shaky and weak.
"Lois," he finally managed to say. His eyes blinked open and found hers. "I love your control issues."
As they ate dinner Lois went through a mental list, trying to find the word that best described her current state. Besotted — that came close. But it didn't quite capture the urgency that she felt, sitting next to Clark with his leg pressed close against hers. Just the heat of his thigh next to hers was liquifying her insides. The dreamy haze of desire she had felt for him since that afternoon was becoming a long-term condition. She couldn't concentrate on anything else. There was a conversation going on around the fire, a lively one from the sounds of it, but she couldn't follow a single word.
Clark leaned forward, intent in whatever it was he was telling the group and she took advantage of his new position to run her hand over his back. She started at his waist and worked her way up his spine, her fingers numbering each of his vertebrae along the way. When she got to his neck she brushed her fingertips over the bare patch of skin above his collar.
His head turned and their eyes met. The look he gave her sent a flare through her stomach and up her spine. Her lips parted in a silent gasp and she saw his eyes follow the movement. Her fingers slid into the short hair above his collar and his eyelids fluttered briefly before he looked into her eyes again.
"Soon," he said, so softly that she read his lips more than she heard him speak it.
"Hey, Clark," Rich said, "you're on water tonight. Can you bring back a couple of buckets so we can get dinner cleaned up?"
Clark gave Lois a regretful smile, his hand squeezing her knee, before he stood up to complete his chores. Lois watched him walk away, admiring the easy grace of his gait. Her cheeks flushed as she remembered their session in the tent that afternoon. She stood up, muttering an excuse to the others to return to the tent.
As Clark came back from the lake he saw her shadow cast against the side of their tent by the lantern inside. She was sitting there, unmoving. He set down the buckets of water he was carrying and walked over to their tent. He cleared his throat softly and asked, "Is it okay to come in?"
"Yes." Her shadow didn't move.
He unzipped the tent's flap and looked inside. She was sitting cross-legged on the sleeping bags, the ring box held loosely in her hands. His chest tightened in nervous anticipation.
She looked up at him as he came inside, a smile tugging at the corners of her mouth. "Did you know that Dave told me not to strip for you until you gave me the ring?"
Clark settled opposite her, unconsciously mirroring her position. "What? When was this?"
"A few days ago." Her forehead furrowed for a moment. "It seems like a lifetime ago. You want to know the sad part about that advice?"
"Uh… sure." He didn't really want to know, but it seemed impolite to say so.
"I didn't exactly follow it, did I? I mean, I let you get me naked before you gave me the ring."
He broke into a grin. "Lois, I didn't give you the ring because I got you naked. Or to try and get you naked."
She shrugged and looked a little embarrassed. "I know that. And, at the time, I wasn't exactly doing much forward thinking. Even if you thought I was capable of making a decision."
His heart lurched in his chest. "Are you sorry that it happened?"
Her eyes turned liquid and she looked as pained as he felt. "No! No, Clark, I will *never* be sorry for what's happened between us the past couple of days. That's not what I was saying at all. What I meant was…" She raised one hand and nervously pushed back her bangs.
He took a slow, deep breath and waited for her to continue.
Lois turned the box over and over slowly as she spoke. "I didn't sleep much last night. I couldn't. I just kept thinking about you and me and everything we've gone through to get here. And then, today, at the waterfall, I, uh, I made my decision. I mean, I already knew my answer; I just finally accepted that it was my answer." She shook her head somewhat ruefully before holding the box out to him. The slight tremor in her hand as she did so sent a cold stab of fear through him.
He hesitated for a moment and then took the box from her with a heavy heart and a small nod. "I understand," he told her. He cursed himself silently — he had pushed her too hard. He had blown it.
Her dark eyes sought his out. "Ask me."
For a second or two he didn't move, his mind racing to comprehend that he hadn't understood her gesture at all. She was looking steadily at him, her eyes expectant. Hope bloomed in him and he glanced down, opening the box so that the diamond inside sparkled in the light from the lantern.
"Lois." He had to swallow to find his voice as he pulled the ring free of the box and looked into her eyes. "Will you marry me?"
For a heart-stopping moment she didn't move. Then her face split in a grin and she nodded. "Yes," she whispered.
Clark exhaled and his hands shook a little as he lifted her hand to slide the ring on. This was real — he could scarcely comprehend it. Lois Lane was going to marry him. He raised one hand to the back of her head, leaning forward to kiss her softly. Then he ran his thumb slowly over her lower lip as if to seal the kiss there. There was a roaring sound in his head and it took him a few seconds to realize that it was everyone around the campfire, clapping and hooting at them.
Lois giggled and kissed him again. "I think they can see our shadows. We could leave the light on and give them a real eyeful."
Clark switched off the light. "And risk having Rich lecture us for indecent exposure? I don't think so."
"The floor show is over," Clark heard Rich say. "Let's all hit the hay. We've got a big day tomorrow."
They changed into their pajamas in the dark and then nestled together in the bag. Clark held her against him, her left hand in his, her head tucked beneath his chin. Lois worried at the unfamiliar weight of the ring on her hand. It was loose on her — she'd have to get it sized when they got back. Over and over again she let it slip almost to the joint of her finger before she slid it back with her thumb.
"I'm going to miss this place," Clark said with a sigh.
"Me, too," she answered. "I'm going to miss having you all to myself."
"Lois, even if you have to share Superman, you'll always have me to yourself."
"I know," she said softly.
"But that's not what you meant, is it?" he asked. "The offer still stands — if you want me to give up Superman to be with you, I'll do it."
"And my answer still stands. I can't ask you to do that. I would never want you to do that. Not because of me."
He closed his eyes and his arms tightened a little around her. "It has been nice, letting the world get by without Superman. Do you worry that we'll never have a moment to ourselves?"
She sighed and shook her head. "I don't know if you've noticed this yet, Clark, but I'm pretty independent. I don't need someone to be there every minute of the day for me. When I told you that having you hold me at night was all I wanted, well, that was pretty close to the truth."
"What was the whole truth?"
Her cheeks grew warm. "Maybe I should amend how I wanted you to hold me."
"How?" he asked and kissed the edge of her ear.
"A lot like you did yesterday," she admitted with a soft laugh.
"I can definitely do that," he told her with another kiss just below her ear, "and not just at night."
He had hit a ticklish spot and she raised her shoulder to redirect him. "Isn't it night now?"
"Yes." Clark shifted, urging her onto her back so that he could kiss her better. "It's definitely night now."
Her hands went to the back of his head as she opened her mouth to him. Their kisses grew in length and intensity until they were both breathless. Both of them became restless, their hands stroking under each other's shirts in exploration. Lois tugged at the hem of his shirt and he lifted from her just long enough to remove it.
"Oh, mine, too," she gasped, pushing on his shoulder so that he would raise up long enough for her to get her shirt off. He helped pull it free of her arms and then let out a soft groan as his bare skin made contact with hers.
"I, this, I think this must be what it feels like to be drunk," he murmured as his arms went back around her, savoring the feel of her flesh against his.
"Why's that?" She hooked her leg over his to draw him as close to her as possible.
"Remember when I told you that being with you sometimes made me feel in danger? Maybe I should amend that to 'out of control' instead. You wouldn't feel nearly as safe with me if you knew what I was thinking." He shifted, letting out a soft groan as he brushed against her pelvic bone. The sensation was sweet torture. "Do you have any idea what you do to me?"
"Oh," she whispered as the weight of his actions and his words hit her senses at the same moment. "This is really going to happen, isn't it?" Her voice shook with anticipation and just the slightest bit of apprehension.
"It doesn't have to." Clark lifted fractionally from her, afraid that he was rushing her.
"Oh yes, it does. I want this. I want you." Lois pulled him back, twining her arms around his neck to keep him where he was.
"What about a bed?" He couldn't stop touching her. He was awestruck by how small and soft and sweet she was.
"Hmm?" Lois sighed at his touch. She would know those gentle hands anywhere, under any circumstances. How many times had he touched her since they first met? How many times had he reached out to casually draw her attention to something? How many times had he soothed her and comforted her? He had touched her to tease her, to save her and — she was certain — sometimes he had touched her simply to touch her. Even now, touching her as a lover, his hands had the same unmistakable honesty that had colored every touch he had ever given her. He had been making love to her for years — she just hadn't recognized it.
"We can wait until we have a bed," he offered. Please, he thought. Don't want to wait. Be reckless.
"Wait two more days?" she asked incredulously. Was he serious? "No. Besides, everyone does this in a bed. We have the rest of our lives to do this in a bed."
"I like this. It's more… elemental."
Clark wished he could see her clearly; that there was some way to read her eyes and not just her body. "There's no going back from this, Lois."
She froze for a moment, caught by the depth of emotion in his voice. "Why would we go back? What would we go back to?" she asked shakily.
"If we do this, I will never be able to pretend like it didn't happen. I can't be platonic with you, Lois. This isn't just sex to me. This means *something*. This means everything."
Lois tried for levity, suddenly nervous by the depth of her own feelings and the realization that he was right. They could never go back to being just friends. "Is this one of your rules, Clark? What about the other girls you've slept with?"
"I've never slept with anyone."
"Oh." Lois closed her eyes, dizzy even though she was lying down. Her left thumb worried at the ring on her finger again. "I had no idea. Clark, I…"
He brought his mouth to hers and swallowed the rest of her words in a kiss. "I don't care, Lois. I don't care about anything that happened before we met." He kissed her again and the kiss became hungrier than the one before. "Look at it this way — at least one of us will know what they're doing."
She hummed contentedly and cupped his jaw before combing his hair back from his forehead with her fingers. "I'm pretty sure you already have a good idea of how this works."
Lois sat up, struggling against the sleeping bag to get one side unzipped and turned down. Then she stretched out along the length of him and slid one of her legs suggestively between his. "When we get home," she told him as she kissed the corner of his mouth. "We're going straight to your apartment. Well, I am. You can hang around outside for a minute."
"Yes. You can give me just enough time to get in there and start doing something domestic. Maybe I'll clean out your fridge or something." She shifted closer to entice him. "Anyway, I'll be doing that and you'll come home and find me there."
"What are you wearing?" Clark shaped out the taut muscles of her arms as she balanced herself above him.
"What do you want me to be wearing?" she teased.
"Ideally? Nothing." He caught her mouth, snatching a quick kiss from her before she lifted her head away.
"I thought you said I was dressed in your dream?"
Clark's hand went to the back of her head to drag her down for another kiss. "Is this my dream? I thought you were telling me about yours."
"In mine you're sitting on my bed and feeding me ice cream." Lois let out a little hum of happiness at the memory of that dream.
"That's right." Clark sighed. "I could go get us some ice cream."
Lois straddled him, bracing her hands on his chest as she shifted her body deliberately against his. "You're not going anywhere, mister. Not tonight."
"I love it when you're bossy." His hands went to her hips, pulling her forward just a little — yes, there. That was perfect. "So go on, you're naked and cleaning out my fridge when I come home. What happens next?"
"I, uh…" He felt so good beneath her that she had lost her train of thought. She shook her head to clear it before asking, "What are you wearing?"
"Me?" For a moment Clark pictured the scene perfectly in his head, seeing her turn to face him without a stitch of clothing on, like she had at the waterfall. "I'm wearing the Suit."
"Oh my god," she whispered. Even though it had been a few months since she had figured out his secret there were still times when the fact that Clark was Superman caught her unawares.
"Yeah, I thought you'd like that." His hips rose slightly to remind her of what she had been doing. "I tell you that I know you said you just wanted to be friends but I can't stop thinking about you. I don't want to be platonic, Lois. I want you."
"Superman? You're saying that to me as Superman?" Lois couldn't shake that image from her mind — Superman striding towards her and propositioning her. He's Clark, she reminded herself. Even if he's in the Suit, he's Clark. But the fantasy was so close to the fevered daydreams she'd had before she'd given up her crush on Superman that she was caught in its thrall.
"And then I pull you into my arms…" His hands rose to cup her shoulder blades and bring her down to his chest so he could kiss her. "…And I carry you to my bed."
"You're in the Suit?" She felt like a broken record, but she was still stuck on the image of Superman seducing her. Superman carrying her to Clark's bed…
"I'll wear the Suit until you tell me to take it off." Clark rolled them, skating his hand under the waist her pajama bottoms. "I'll do anything you ask, Lois."
"Superman…" she said in a choked whisper.
Clark pitched his voice lower, using Superman's authoritative tone. "Maybe we should get you out of these clothes."
"Yes, good idea." They worked them off together and then she gasped, "And you need to take these off." She tugged at the waist of his sweatpants. "I choose you, Clark. No matter what you're wearing." She kissed him softly. "But especially if you're wearing the Suit. Don't you ever give up being Superman."
He laughed against her lips. "I promise."
"No going back," she told him. "This is your last chance."
"You," he whispered. "I choose you."
Clark had gathered her close against him, his hands stroking over her shoulders, her back, her hip, as he held her.
Lois smiled and snuggled against him. "So much for platonic."
"That wasn't platonic? Are you sure?" he teased.
"Oh, you're talking about the Earth definition, aren't you? On Krypton 'platonic' means 'with great passion'."
Lois laughed. "You're making that up."
"Well, it could have meant that. I guess we'll never know." Clark tried to sound appropriately grave but failed miserably.
"They had someone named Plato on Krypton?" she asked dryly.
Clark laughed — she had him there. "Of course. Plato was our god of love."
"No wonder your eyes are brown. It's because you're full of…"
He cut her off with a kiss. "Don't go disparaging my planet's religion."
"No. Of course not. I would never want to make Plato angry."
He nudged her knee with his. "If you're up to it, I could show you a few of the rites."
She giggled. "Oh, so you remember them now?"
"It all came back to me earlier. After the virgin sacrifice."
At that her giggles turned into laughter. "Virgin sacrifice?"
"Yep. After the sacrifice it was traditional to take the high priestess and… well, it would probably be easier to show you." He leaned down to kiss her. "I hope you didn't need to be somewhere, because this might take a while…"
Clark woke up slowly, his senses gradually filtering his surroundings. There was an occasional rustle of a breeze through the trees outside. Sunlight had begun to dapple on the roof of the tent. Lois' body was gently pressed alongside his. Her breathing was deep and even. He hardly dared to move in case he woke her.
He focused on the woman in his arms as he tried to memorize this moment. Her hair was tousled, the shorter hair style she had adopted recently looked anything but professional at this moment. Her face was relaxed in sleep and he was filled with wonder by her. He took in the arch of her eyebrows and the dark crescents of her eyelashes. He could see the faintest sprinkling of freckles on her nose and it made his heart beat faster. Free of makeup for over a week she was now at her most elemental — and beautiful, though he doubted she would believe him if he told her so.
He placed a light kiss on the crown of her head, his arms tightening just the tiniest bit about her. Memories of the night before sent a rush of heat straight to his groin.
"Hey," Lois murmured thickly and snuggled closer against him. "You awake?" The words were half-mumbled and he smiled at the sleepy sound of them.
"I think so," he whispered.
She tilted her head back to kiss the underside of his jaw. "You need to shave."
"Mmm, do I?" He stroked one hand down her back until it rested low on her spine.
"I want to watch when you shave." The breathy tone of her words sent another rush of blood south for him. His condition became even more urgent when she nipped at his chin, her teeth rasping across his stubble.
"And what do I get to watch you do in return?" he managed to ask.
"Nothing," she teased. "You promised me anything I wanted last night, didn't you?" Lois propped herself against him as she spoke. The press of her bare skin against his chest was intoxicating. She was right — he'd give her anything she wanted.
"I'm not sure that I should be held accountable for anything I might have promised you in the throes of passion." Clark brushed a strand of hair from before her eyes.
Lois shifted on top of him. "Too bad. It's my only advantage — using sex to make you weak. You can hardly expect me to give that up."
Clark rolled them to show her that she wasn't nearly as in control as she thought she was. "You make me something, but it's not necessarily weak."
"What is it then?" she asked as she kissed his neck. "What do I make you?"
"Religious," he answered with a laugh. He bent to kiss her. "I'm suddenly feeling religious." He lifted his head as the faint clank of Rich's cowbell penetrated his consciousness.
"What's wrong?" Lois asked.
Before he could answer the first peal of the bell had started.
"I told you to get rid of that thing," she said with a laugh. "Maybe next time you'll listen to me."
"I think I'm actually going to miss these eggs," Bob said as he coaxed some ketchup free from the nearly-empty bottle.
"I'm not," Jenny told him. "I might miss the scenery but I simply can't wait to get home."
"You miss Dustin," Bob clarified gently.
"Yes," Jenny said with a sigh. "But at least I'll see him again tomorrow night."
Brenda sat down next to Jenny and gave her a sympathetic smile. "It's tough, isn't it? Leaving your little one behind? You don't realize how much of your well-being is wrapped up in your children until they're not around."
"I can't wait to have children," Clark said wistfully.
"You what?" Lois looked at him in horrified wonder. "Like now? You want children now?"
Clark blinked in surprise. "Not right now, no. But I would like to have a family someday."
Lois didn't reply. They had never really discussed what their goals in life were. All this time she had assumed that Clark wanted essentially the same things she did. A Pulitzer. Making editor in chief. Writing a best-selling novel. She had never really pictured herself as a mother. Even as a little girl she had been more interested in what was happening in the world around her then fretting over the dolls her mother had doggedly continue to buy for her.
Something quailed at the back of her mind and her body tensed when Clark's knee accidentally brushed against hers. What had she been thinking? She had been so focused on getting Clark to see the implications of them being apart that she had failed to think about what would happen once they were together.
How well did she really know him? Sure, all those superpowers were exciting, but when it came right down to it she was marrying Clark — not Superman. And Clark sometimes drove her crazy. Suddenly "safe" was the last thing in the world he made her feel. What had he said to her that night on Spencer Spencer's island? That being with her made him feel safe, but also in danger? She understood him now. This was danger of the highest caliber. Okay, so he was nothing like her father. She couldn't honestly believe that Clark would ever cheat on her. But surely her mom had felt the same way about her dad when they were first married? No one ever went into a relationship thinking that horrible things were going to happen.
Could she trust him? Really trust him? He had broken her heart once already. What if she unknowingly violated some Rule According to Clark? What if something else happened to freak him out? He had been so stone-faced to her tears, hadn't he? So completely unyielding. So… unemotional. Sure, he was all love and romance now — but what was going to happen the next time things weren't going so smoothly?
He was always so… in control. He never acted irrationally like she did. Even their breakup had been done calmly. He could rein in his reactions, unlike her. Suddenly that seemed like less of a good quality. It seemed more like an inevitable land mine. A land mine that couldn't hurt Clark but would devastate her. She could tease him about making him weak with sex all she wanted but the truth of the matter was simple.
Clark was a force she couldn't control.
By noon their camp had been packed up, cleaned up, and they were all standing on the bank of the lake to listen to some final instructions from Rich before they set off.
"The most important thing to remember," Rich told them, "is to keep to the left side of the river when we hit the rapids. And paddle. Paddle like your life depends on it. Because, well, it actually does. So make sure your life vests are on properly and let's get going."
For the first few miles the river was placid. Lois was in the front of their canoe, while Clark sat at the back. All of the gear was stowed between them with the exception of Clark's pillow which Lois was using as a seat cushion.
It wasn't helping — she was still uncomfortable. But it had less to do with the seat of the canoe than with the man sitting a few feet behind her. She had been preoccupied all morning, trying to think of a single time Clark had acted irrationally. She couldn't think of anything and it was really beginning to irritate her. He was an even bigger control freak than she was — he just hid it behind a guileless smile and that easy-going facade that he projected. Seriously — there couldn't be a clearer indication of someone's micromanagement tendencies than to go to the trouble of creating an alter ego in tights and a cape just so he could fix the world's problems.
She was pulled from her seething when Rich waved his paddle in the air and used it to gesture at the left side of the river. He and Dave backpaddled to keep their canoe in place as everyone caught up to them.
"Okay, it's just around the bend up here. These are mainly class II rapids, but there is one little stretch of river where it becomes a class III. Just paddle deep and hard and you'll get through it fine. Don't let yourselves get sucked into the back flow. If you end up in the river keep your feet pointed downstream through the rapids. We'll fish you out at the end of the run."
As their canoe came out of the first rapid, Lois looked over her shoulder at Clark. He gave her a delighted smile, looking like a kid on a roller coaster. She turned her attention back to paddling, smiling that he could take such obvious joy in such a simple thing.
Where was the fun in it for him? For everyone but him part of the excitement lay in the inherent danger — what did Clark get out of it? As they went into the second set of rapids that question bothered her more and more. He never took a risk, not really. He certainly didn't need her to paddle, that was for sure.
Lois found that her paddle strokes were becoming less and less effective. She glanced back at him again as they came clear of the second rapids. He gave her another infectious grin and she turned away, suddenly irritated with him.
As they went into the next set of rapids it became obvious that these were the bigger ones that Rich had warned them about. After a couple of half-hearted swipes with her paddle, Lois gave up and merely kept her paddle in the water as they bounced and bobbled through the churning water.
"Lois!" Clark yelled in exasperation as their canoe began to rotate in an eddy. She didn't seem to have heard him. Only his quick reflexes and a circumvention of gravity saved them from being capsized. "Lois! You need to paddle!"
Could she not hear him above the water? Clark watched as she paddled, but the effort looked less than enthusiastic. Was she tired? Was that the problem? He dug in with his paddle, getting them free of the trouble spot. He watched her shoulders but this time she didn't turn around to check on him after the river turned calm.
Her behavior had him puzzled. Since Brenda and Jim were traveling alongside them, it didn't seem like a good time to bring up the subject. It wasn't until they were almost finished setting up their tent that he finally decided to ask her about it.
"Lois, is it my imagination or did you deliberately stop paddling in the middle of that rapid earlier?"
"Like you really needed my help." She tried to say it flippantly but failed.
Clark hit the stake he was pounding too hard, driving it flush with the ground at one stroke. He frowned in irritation and tried to keep his tone light as he replied, "I thought we were supposed to be working as a team."
"Okay, so maybe I was just testing you." This time she did sound flippant.
His head snapped up to look at her. "Testing me?"
"Can't you ever just let something happen, Clark? Do you have to be in control of everything?"
"I don't control everything." Clark was taken aback, both by her words and her angry tone. "I don't even try."
"Really?" This was spoken with unmistakable sarcasm.
"I can't control you, that's for sure," he muttered.
"News flash, Kent, I don't want you to control me." Control her? Hadn't their breakup — at his hands no less — shown him that he was the only one in control of this relationship?
"That's not what I meant." Clark sighed, pushing the next tent stake into the ground with his finger, forgetting for a moment that he should be using a rock to do that task.
"That's not what I meant either," she admitted.
"What did you mean?"
"Just once, Clark, let something go. If it's not life or death, just let it happen. Or be reckless."
"Yes. Just once do something reckless. Otherwise I'll feel like I'm the only unstable one in this relationship."
"So you would rather I had let the canoe flip over and we'd be in wet sleeping bags tonight?"
She shrugged. "Maybe not that. I didn't really do it on purpose. But something, anything, just once to show me that you're not always such a…, a…, a Boy Scout."
"Boy Scout?" His eyebrows raised in surprise.
"Yeah, you know. Squeaky-clean Clark. He never does anything wrong. And don't even get me started on," her voice dropped and she finished in a whisper, "Superman."
"What do you want me to do, Lois? Rob a bank?" He didn't try to hide the irritation in his voice.
"I didn't say illegal, Clark. Just something unexpected. Is that too much to ask?"
Clark looked around to see where the others were before he leaned closer to her and sarcastically said, "So surprising you with a shower and a pizza wasn't your idea of 'unexpected'?"
She glared at him. "That's not what I meant."
"Then what did you mean?"
She shrugged, hating the way she was suddenly the bad guy. The unstable one. "Just once, let something go. Don't try to fix it. Don't make it better. Just be reckless. Surprise me. Do something… different." She spread her hands and shrugged. "That's all I'm asking."
They ate dinner without speaking to one another. Lois didn't know what to say to him anyway and she felt alternately irritated and horrified by it. Clark was stretched out on their bedding, one hand behind his head as he read the paperback book he had brought. She was ostensibly playing solitaire but in reality she was moodily watching him. She had no doubt that he knew she was watching, but he was steadfastly refusing to look over at her.
Lois sighed loudly to try and break the silence. She knew it was wrong for her to feel so trapped by the easy intimacy of the past few days. The way he had made love to her was everything she had ever wanted. Clark would do anything for her — she knew that. Would she do anything for him? Was she just getting cold feet over the whole commitment thing? Was that her problem?
She couldn't take his silence anymore so she asked, "Do you really think that I put myself in danger to test you, Clark?"
He looked up, somewhat startled, from his book. "Test me? You don't think I'd rescue you?"
She sighed loudly. "Rescue me? That's not what I meant at all," she said in exasperation. "I'll be right back." She unzipped the tent's flap to beat a hasty retreat.
"Stay out of the river," he mocked as she left.
"Stay out of the river," she mimicked in a sing-song tone as she walked away. What kind of an idiot did he think she was? She nodded a greeting to Bob and George and then headed straight for the river.
Lois stood on the bank on the river, her arms crossed in an attempt to keep warm. Now that the sun was starting to set it was getting cold in a hurry. She swatted away a mosquito and watched the water. It was hard to believe this placid stretch of water belonged to the same river as those rapids.
She was just about to turn and head back to camp when the movement of one of the canoes caught her eye. It was coming loose from the shore. She walked over and took hold of the front of it, pulling on it but was unable to get it to move. She frowned. Maybe if she pushed it from behind?
<"Stay out of the river.">
Well, that sealed it. She'd go in the river. She was only going to get wet to her knees. Heaven help him if he decided to lecture her on it. She pulled off her shoes and rolled her pant legs up to her knees. She carefully put one foot in the river, feeling for a smooth rock to step on. The water was so cold she sucked in a quick breath and thought about scrapping the plan. She could go back and tell Clark and he'd have the canoe pulled back on shore in no time.
Her lip curled at the thought. That was all he needed — one more example of how she couldn't do anything without him. Besides, it would be satisfying to show back up in camp with her pants rolled up as evidence that she had, in fact, gone into the river. She found she was half-hoping he would say something about it. She was just spoiling for another fight.
She worked her way over the slippery rocks to the back of the canoe and pushed. It took a few tries but she succeeded in getting it moved back to shore. Lois took a step backwards to get around the canoe and head back to shore when her foot found an especially mossy rock. Her arms windmilled wildly but it was no use. She slipped backwards, landing with a loud splash. Icy water closed over her face and she came up sputtering. Irritated, she waded out of the water and jammed her feet halfway into her shoes. She set off for camp, her footsteps clomping loudly and wondered how she could possibly sneak past Clark without him noticing she was soaking wet. Lois muttered a few choice explicatives to herself as she walked — how many fish had to be in a river to make it smell like fish?
Clark was standing at the fire talking to Dave when she appeared back in camp. He froze, his expression disbelieving when he caught sight of her.
"I'm fine," she snapped as she went past him.
"What happened?" Clark followed her towards their tent.
"I, uh, I slipped."
"You went in the river?" he asked, enunciating the words slowly in his disbelief. "Why?"
"It wasn't supposed to happen like it did," she admitted glumly. "Besides, I thought you loved my recklessness."
"So you did this on purpose?" He was aghast. "Is this what you meant when you said you were testing me?"
"Are you actually going to tell me what I can or can't do?"
"No! I was being sarcastic, Lois!"
"It didn't sound like sarcasm," she lied. "It sounded like…" She frowned, unable to find the right word.
"Like what?" His eyes narrowed, daring her to finish that thought.
Lois shrugged and crawled into the tent. Clark followed behind her, zipping the flap shut before asking, "Why didn't you call me for help?"
"I just slipped in the water, Clark. Believe it or not, I had it all under control."
Clark gestured at her wet clothes. "Right. You sure look like it was all under control."
The set of his jaw was a warning but Lois chose to ignore it in her anger. "I know you're going to find this hard to believe, but my first thought when something bad happens is not to wonder where you are and how long it will take before you show up to save me! I actually can take care of myself, Clark!"
"Just like in the rapids today? Was it that kind of 'under control', Lois? How did you manage to live long enough to meet me? Have you always been this foolhardy or are you like this because you know I'm around?"
Her jaw dropped in amazement. "I can't believe you just said that."
"I can't believe you deliberately went in the river to test me."
"I went in the river because a canoe was coming loose! Should I have called you to come and fix that? Doesn't that seem like a waste of talent for you?"
"No job is too small," he shot back.
"Can you please leave? I need to get changed."
He frowned at her, wanting to finish this argument but not entirely sure what had started it. "Fine," he finally bit out and picked up his flashlight. "Maybe I'll just go check on the canoes. I'd hate for you to have to go back later just to prove you have it all under control."
"My hero," she said sarcastically.
Clark hurried down to the shore and pulled each canoe a little further up the bank, just in case. Then he exhaled yet another angry sigh, unsure what he should do now. Should he sit at the fire with the others? It was getting dark so he couldn't really go for a walk. Mostly he wanted to fly — fly somewhere else and get away from here. What was Lois' problem? He couldn't figure her out. He would never understand her — he never really had. Had they gotten too close? Was this her way of establishing some distance between them? If she didn't really want to marry him she should just say so, for crying out loud.
The beam of a flashlight was bouncing closer to the river and he squinted, trying to make out who it was but the rapidly advancing darkness made the figure a dark outline. It was a female, but not Lois.
"Hey, Clark," came a voice from behind the light.
"Hi, Debbie," he replied. "How are you doing?" Debbie had seemed so quiet and withdrawn since her tumble off the trail and he had started to wonder if she was having some kind of post-traumatic reaction.
"Me? I'm okay." Debbie sat down on a boulder a few feet away from him. "I guess I've seemed a little preoccupied the past couple of days, huh?"
"It's understandable," Clark said. "It's a scary thing to face your own mortality like that."
"I guess." She turned her flashlight off and hugged her knees to her chest.
"Is everything okay?" Clark asked her.
"What?" She sounded surprised. "Yeah, everything is great. Better than great. I'm sorry, I didn't mean to seem like I was bummed out or anything."
Clark sat down on the front of the nearest canoe. "So what's the first thing you're going to do when you get home tomorrow?"
"Take the world's longest, hottest shower," she laughed. "Then I'm going to order some Chinese food and pig out. What about you?"
"I think that sounds perfect."
An easy silence fell between them before she spoke again, her voice softer. "There are so many things I still want to do, to experience. And maybe it was almost dying or something, but I see things differently now. What if we don't get a later? You know?" Debbie shrugged and sighed. "I heard somewhere that life is what happens while you're making other plans. I just hate to think that I'm going to get to the end of my life and realize that I put everything off and never really lived."
"It's nice to get a second chance," Clark mused softly.
"What would you do if you knew that today was the last day of your life?" Debbie asked. "What would you change?"
"I… don't know." Clark shrugged and turned the flashlight in his hands over and over. He had never really considered his own mortality. It was human nature to avoid the subject, but he, especially, always figured that death and disaster were lurking for the other guy and not for him. Sure, he'd had a few brushes with Kryptonite but it wasn't like the entire world was walking around with the stuff in their pockets.
Truthfully what he had learned from Kryptonite was that being "normal" was no fun at all. Pain actually hurt. A lot. How did people get used to that? How did they manage to get through the day when there were paper cuts and stubbed toes and car accidents lying in wait for them everywhere? How could Lois be so reckless when it was a surety that she was going to be hurt? Where did she find the courage?
"Sorry," Debbie said ruefully. "I'm being maudlin, huh?"
"No," Clark assured her. "I think I take a lot for granted myself. It's good to have the reminder."
"I hope I'm not butting in here, but after what just happened back at camp — sorry, it was hard not to overhear you both — I actually came down here to tell you that Lois isn't pushing you away. I know it must seem like it, but she's not."
"Then what is she doing?"
"You should know that I would normally keep my nose out of this but, well, I owe you. So I'm going to tell you one of the secrets about women. She's just testing you, Clark."
He let out a frustrated chuckle. "That's what Lois said but I haven't got the faintest clue what she meant by it. Testing me for what?"
"To see if you love her no matter what. It's a scary thing, getting married. Having children. Giving up your independence for someone else. I was the same way with George. I still am sometimes."
"I don't want her to give up her independence. Lois being Lois is why I love her."
"But that's scary, too. When I fell for George I was constantly worried that I had somehow lost my edge or gone soft. I've avoided the subject of having kids for years just to try and keep things on an even keel."
"And now?" he asked.
"Now…" Debbie sighed. "Now I think I'm ready to talk about it. Just give her time, Clark. She'll get there." Debbie turned on her flashlight and stood up. "It's a scary thing, letting someone mess up your perfectly ordered life. The trick is to tell her that you love her even when she's being unlovable."
Clark had come to bed almost an hour ago. He hadn't said a word about the new sleeping arrangements. Once she had dressed in dry clothes again, Lois had unzipped their sleeping bags from each other's. She didn't care how cold it got that night — it was only one more night and she'd suffer through it without any sleep if she had to. Now, however, the fact that he had just crawled into his bag and turned off his flashlight was unnerving.
Lois felt absolutely miserable. She worried at the ring on her finger and wondered what was going to happen when they got back to Metropolis. She knew she should talk to him, knew he was still awake, but she couldn't find a good opening gambit. Lois fought against the urge to squirm — the last thing she wanted him to think right now was that she was restless. Let him believe she was lying there with a clear conscience.
"What?" she whispered back.
"Do you remember when we were doing that story about the WestCorp scandal? And that guy pushed you? You went down those stairs?" he asked softly.
Lois grimaced at the memory. Geez, she had felt so stupid when that happened. "Yeah," she said cautiously.
"Did it hurt?"
"Did what hurt?" She rolled onto her back, turning her head towards him as she tried to puzzle out what he was trying to accomplish by bringing the subject up.
"Falling down the stairs like that. Did it hurt?"
"Of course it hurt. I had bruises all over me for days afterwards."
"I remember your hand was bleeding," he said quietly.
"Well, yeah. I scraped it when I landed at the bottom."
"But you got up and went charging up the stairs again."
Lois let out an exasperated sigh. "Of course I did. Why wouldn't I?"
He was quiet for few seconds. Lois wondered if he'd had a point or if he just wanted to subtly remind her of how graceless and idiotic she could be sometimes. She started to turn away from him but his hand came to rest on her shoulder to stop her.
"You amaze me," he said softly. "You're not afraid of anything."
"Neither are you," she said, feeling utterly confused.
"Yes, I am," he answered. "You're right, I'm a control freak. But how can I just stand by and watch when I could be helping people?"
"You can't. I wouldn't want you to. Clark, I…"
"Do you know what scares me the most?"
"You. Losing you. Or seeing you hurt…"
"Oh my god, do I know that!" she hissed the words as she cut him off. "Trust me, I'm very aware of your issues with my well being."
Clark fell silent, more than a little stung by her reaction. "I guess I just don't understand sometimes how you can do it," he offered.
"Do what?" she asked irritably.
"Run back up the stairs when you know you might get hurt again."
"What other choice do I have, Clark? I could lie at the bottom in a heap but that's not going to fix anything."
His hand moved from her shoulder to lightly brush the backs of his fingers over her cheek. "I love you, Lois."
She gasped and blinked, caught off guard by both the gesture and his words, spoken so softly but with such emotion.
"I know we have a lot of things to talk about before we get married," he continued. "I know I'm not going to pass every little test you set out for me. But I do love you. Promise me you'll always remember that." His hand left her and she found she was aching for him simply to touch her again.
"Clark…" She had found her voice at last. "I wasn't intentionally testing you. I'm not reckless on purpose."
"I know. But you were right, about my needing to be in charge."
Her cheeks flushed at the unexpected direction her mind took at those words. "Do you know what amazes me the most about you, Clark?"
"If I could fly and bend steel with my bare hands and everybody was always being deferential to me… Well, I think I'd be a monster. You aren't." She reached out blindly in the darkness and her hand found his arm. She closed her fingers over his bicep and squeezed it reassuringly. "I love you, Clark. I'm not testing you. I'm just scared of… I don't know. Not you — I'm not scared of you. It's… I don't know. I guess it's a little scary to suddenly get everything you ever wanted. Maybe I'm just worried that something might happen to screw it up."
"Something did happen to screw it up," he said quietly. "Me. I happened. I messed it all up, Lois. I guess we're each allowed a turn at that."
"Are you saying I messed up today?" she asked defensively, pulling her hand away from him.
"No." He caught her wrist and sat up, putting her hand to his chest so she could feel his heart hammering nervously inside him. "I'm telling you that I'm grateful you gave me a second chance. Please give me a third chance, Lois. And a fourth. And a fifth. Or however many chances that it takes. I'll do whatever you want. I'll be reckless or whatever it is that you need. Just don't push me away, Lois. Talk to me about whatever it is and we'll find a way to work it out, okay?"
"Okay," she whispered as her throat tightened and tears came to her eyes. She should apologize. She should say something, anything, instead of lying here in silence.
In the end he spoke again first. "Lois? Can I ask you another question?"
"Did you go in the river on purpose?"
She was quiet for a few seconds as she thought about the answer. Finally she whispered, "Yes."
Conflicting emotions raced through him. Anger, fear, amusement, irritation and frustration all warred for prominence. She was never going to back down, he realized. She was always going to be Lois. Maybe, in another twenty years, he'd have her figured out. Then again, maybe the attraction lay in the mystery? He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "You really do amaze me," he said softly.
Lois frowned. Did he really think flattery was going to fix this? "In a good way, I hope."
"Not always," he admitted. "But most of the time."
She pulled her hand from his chest. "I didn't go in the river to worry you. Or because I wanted you to rescue me. I'm grateful for the times that you have, don't get me wrong, but I find it insulting that you think I couldn't survive two minutes without you."
"That's not what I meant." Clark tamped down his frustration. How in the world had she misunderstood him so completely?
"Good night, Clark." She rolled over, facing away from him, and snuggled down deeper into her sleeping bag.
"Good night," he answered after a few seconds. "Sweet dreams."
Lois was falling. She screamed, but the rush of wind as she dropped stole the sound from her lips. The ground was coming faster and faster and she flinched, shocked into waking at the moment when it seemed she had hit the pavement.
"Clark!" she gasped.
She was alone in the tent. Clark's sleeping bag had been neatly rolled up and was sitting next to his backpack. She winced, feeling the dull ache of a knot between her shoulders. No wonder people weren't supposed to go to bed angry. Her heart was still racing from the dream and she flopped backwards, staring without comprehension at the tent's roof above her.
Outside she could hear the murmur of voices in conversation. Had she slept through the cow bell? Was Rich letting them all sleep in this morning? She glanced at her watch and saw that it was almost six-thirty. Rich wasn't letting them sleep longer — she had woken up early.
But not as early as Clark. Where was he? None of the nearby voices sounded like him. Lois lay there for a couple of minutes but going back to sleep seemed both impossible and futile. She worked her way out of the sleeping bag and hurriedly dressed in the chilly morning air.
Outside the tent the voices revealed themselves to be Dave, Rich and Jim. All three men gave her a smile or a wave in greeting.
"Coffee's on." Jim gestured at the pot in invitation.
"Thanks." Lois poured herself a cup, looking around furtively for Clark.
"He went for a walk," Dave told her.
"Sorry?" Lois asked, even though she knew who Dave meant.
"Clark," Dave clarified. "He came through here about twenty minutes ago. He really is an enthusiastic hiker, isn't he?"
"Mmm," Lois offered and then blew on her coffee to cool it.
"How are you this morning?" Dave asked softly as Rich and Jim walked away.
Lois shrugged and took a sip of coffee. "I think sleeping on the ground has lost its charm for me."
"In four days I'll be sleeping on the ground again," Dave said with a laugh.
"If you don't enjoy it, why do you keep doing it?" Lois asked.
Dave's grin widened. "Did I say that I didn't enjoy it?"
Lois rolled her eyes. "I guess you got me there."
"Are you glad you came?" Dave asked.
"Well," Lois said after thinking about it for several seconds, "I think Clark and I still have some issues to iron out, but we're a lot closer than we were ten days ago."
"That's great," Dave said as his eyes crinkled in amusement. "Lois, if you're lucky you'll always have issues to work on. Nothing keeps a relationship alive better than when you're actively working to improve it. It's when we become complacent that the real problems turn up."
Lois gave him a rueful smile. "I can't imagine Clark being complacent about anything."
"How long have you two known each other?"
"Almost three years now," she answered. "I mean, we've worked together for that long. We've been dating for about six months now." When Dave didn't reply she kept talking. "I know, that's really fast, isn't it? Dating to engaged in just six months?"
"Some people know each other after just a few months, others can spend a lifetime together and still feel like they're strangers."
"I think I know Clark better than anyone," Lois said, more to herself than Dave.
"And how well do you think Clark knows you?" Dave asked gently.
Lois flushed. "Too well. I'm starting to worry that maybe he knows me too well."
"The last time we talked one-on-one you were wondering if you could trust him again. Have you answered that question yet?"
"I trust him." Lois stared at the toes of her shoes. There were so many things that Clark had done on this trip to prove that he would never hurt her again. He had done more than just hold back from tossing her in the lake. He had given her control of their relationship and had asked her to make decisions for them both. She had chided him for constantly being so in control when the truth was that he had given up control to her. It dawned on her that he had done more than just prove she could trust him — he had proven that he trusted her. He might have called her 'reckless' but he trusted her anyway. "I think I'm more worried that I might lose his trust," she added softly.
"Has he mistrusted you in the past?"
"No." She shook her head. "Maybe he could have trusted me more, sooner, but I don't think he ever mistrusted me." Lois sighed. "After yesterday I wouldn't be surprised if he wanted to take a break from me for a while."
"Is that what you want?" Dave asked.
"No," she whispered. "It's the last thing I want."
Lois heard a twig snap and looked over to see Clark emerge from the trees. The tilt of his head told her he had heard every word.
The Jeep was dusty from sitting idle. The air inside was hot and stale. Lois rolled down the passenger window, not caring that the wind was playing havoc with her hair. It was nearly seven o'clock at night and they were still several hours away from being home.
"You know, we'll never make it back to Metropolis tonight unless you cheat," she said.
Clark gave her a look. "Do you want me to cheat?"
"I would never ask you to do anything that reckless." She had meant for it to sound teasing but, even to her own ears, it sounded like she was baiting him.
He ignored the implicit challenge and turned on the radio.
Lois held her hand out the window, letting it lift and fall on the current of the wind. Clark was obviously in no hurry to get back to Metropolis, that was for certain. How could a man who flew at supersonic speed be happy to roll along on the highway at exactly fifty-five miles per hour?
"You know, you could drive a few miles over the limit and no one would care." She cringed — that definitely sounded like she was criticizing instead of commenting.
"That would be illegal," Clark pointed out smoothly.
"No, that would be driving like everyone else. Cars have been passing us. Did you know it's also illegal to impede the flow of traffic?"
Clark turned up the radio slightly, whistling softly along with the song. Irritation flowed through Lois. He was doing this on purpose. The chorus of the song was playing and the words, 'I remember we were driving, driving in your car. The speed so fast I felt like I was drunk…' seemed to mock her. Clark had to recognize the irony but he was blithely playing dumb.
"Maybe I should drive for a while?" she offered.
"Nope. I'm fine," he said pleasantly.
Lois gritted her teeth. He was doing this just to annoy her. Not that she probably didn't deserve it after yesterday, but she hadn't thought Clark would hold a grudge for this long.
"What if today was your last day?" Clark suddenly asked. "Would you spend it fighting with me?"
"Do you know something I don't?" she asked to cover her surprise at the question. He shook his head in disgust. Realizing that he was making an overture, but a little too peeved to back down now, she just kept talking. "What if it were your last day, Clark? What would you do with it? Would you drive home just as slow?"
Clark swerved into a pullout on the side of the road. He braked so quickly that he reflexively threw his arm in front of Lois to keep her from lurching forward.
"What are you doing?" she gasped in surprise.
He didn't answer. Instead he pulled the keys from the ignition and got out of the Jeep, slamming the door shut behind him. He came around the front of the car to open her door.
"Out," he commanded in a clipped tone.
"Why?" Lois crossed her arms over her chest and glared at him.
He reached inside and unfastened her seat belt. "Either you get out on your own or I pull you out, but you're getting out here."
"You're going to leave me by the side of the road?" she asked, utterly aghast. What had gotten into him?
"Get out, Lois," he said stonily.
For a few seconds she thought about refusing, but he looked grimly determined and there was no way she could stand up to him if he was going to use brute physical force. She narrowed her eyes at him, a warning that he'd better not ditch her here. No sooner had her feet touched the ground than he took hold of her elbow and said, "Let's go."
He propelled her alongside him into the trees at the side of the road.
"Seriously, Clark, where are we going?"
"Home," he told her, sounding mildly annoyed. "I can tell you're not up for the drive, so I'm going to cheat and take you home." They were out of sight of the road now and he held up one hand to caution her. "Wait right here."
He streaked away, only to return a few seconds later in the Suit. Lois gaped at him, flustered to see him so unexpectedly Superman. It wasn't that she had forgotten what he looked like in the Suit; it was just that she had a new familiarity with what lay beneath all that blue spandex. And the red briefs.
"Are you ready?" he asked, reaching out as if to pick her up.
"What about the Jeep?" Lois stepped back, suddenly inexplicably nervous about flying.
"I'll fly you home and come back for it."
"You're going to fly the Jeep back to Metropolis?" Was she was missing the point or was he? Wouldn't it be faster to have him fly both her and the Jeep at the same time?
"No," he said, his voice tinged with impatience as if he were talking to a small child. "I'm going to drive the Jeep home. I just don't want to listen to you complain all the way there. Come on." He took another step towards her and she sidestepped him again.
Clark furrowed his eyebrows. "What's the problem?"
"Why are you really doing this? You want a break from me, don't you?" She gave him a suspicious glare.
"I was just trying to be nice," he said as if it should have been patently clear to her.
"You didn't answer the question. You do want a break from me, don't you?" She felt the pinpricks of tears at the backs of her eyelids and she blinked a couple of times to hold them off.
"No, I don't want a break from you."
"Then what do you want, Clark?"
"I thought this was about what you wanted." He sounded as exasperated as she felt.
"Me?" she repeated incredulously.
"Yes, you. You want me to be more spontaneous. So here I am, spontaneously offering you the chance to get home sooner and not spend hours on the road. That should give you two things you wanted at the same time — it's a two-fer." He crossed his arms and watched her warily.
"This isn't what I wanted," Lois said scornfully. "It's not a two-fer. It's you trying to make me look irrational while you get to be the good guy."
Clark spread his hands wide in a gesture of frustration. "Then what, Lois? What do you want? Just tell me what you want from me and I'll do it! I can't read your mind!"
For a moment she simply stared at him. It was odd, she thought. Here was a dream come true; Superman was standing in front of her and offering to do whatever she wanted. They had shared so many dreams with each other over the course of this trip, but this was one she never would have voiced out loud. The truth was she didn't want him to feel like he had to acquiesce to her every whim.
Dave was right — it was the work required to build a relationship with Clark that she wanted. She wanted to carry her half of the canoe and be equal partners with him. If she was honest with herself she had to admit that from the very beginning she had secretly enjoyed the way Clark never backed down around her. Everyone else might tiptoe around her opinions but he had never wavered. They were both strong and reckless and cautious and control freaks — just never at the same time.
He was still waiting for an answer. His dark eyes were watching her cautiously and she realized what a minefield she had created by picking a fight with him the day before.
"I'm sorry," she whispered. His eyes widened a little in surprise. "I'm sorry about yesterday. I should have helped you in the rapids. I just got scared. I'm not good at relationships, Clark."
"Me neither," he said softly. "I can understand why you'd have a hard time trusting me again."
"But I do trust you!" She stepped forward and took his hands in hers. "I do, Clark, honest. I just want you, Clark. Just you. That's all. I'd rather drive slowly all the way back to Metropolis with you than have to wait hours to see you again."
His face relaxed at that and Lois realized another quality that she loved about Clark — he didn't hold grudges the way she did.
"Do you know what the only good thing about a fight is?" she asked him, putting her hands possessively on the 'S'. He shook his head and she continued. "Making up afterwards." Lois went on tiptoe to kiss him softly.
Clark wrapped his arms around her, pulling her closer against him as he deepened the kiss. He was in so much trouble, he realized. He was never going to be able to let her go. Not even long enough to drive her home.
"I deserved it," Clark murmured when the kiss broke. "When I broke up with you, I was irrational and you were the good guy. It did hurt me. Actually, it nearly killed me. You acted like I was a stranger and I was utterly miserable. I promise I will never break up with for your own good again."
Lois kissed the underside of his chin. "Take me home, Clark," she whispered. "The old-fashioned way."
Her lips were swollen from their kiss and it drove his pulse faster. Did she honestly think he could last another six hours until they got back to Metropolis? He reluctantly stepped back from her. "I, uh, I need to change first."
She grinned at the Suit and a faint blush stained her cheeks. "Yeah, I guess so. I'll see you at the car."
Lois had only taken a few steps when she heard the sonic boom and the wind rushed past her. She turned around and Clark was gone. She furrowed her eyebrows and then realized that they had passed a sign stating that the town of Cooper Springs was only a few miles away. Clark must have heard a call for help.
She got in the Jeep, flipping down the visor to check her reflection. It was beyond horrifying and she quickly looked away. He must really love her. She smiled to herself — he *did* love her. It was worth giving up the chance to get home faster to be able to extend this trip. What was getting clean compared to having Clark all to herself for a few hours longer? Then again, he was already back in action as Superman. She sighed — it had been wonderful to have his undivided attention while it lasted. She glanced at the trees — where was he? She should have told him to leave the keys. No, there he was, back in the grungy clothes he was wearing when they first stopped at the side of the road.
"Was there an emergency?" she asked as he started the engine.
"Yes," he told her. "A big one."
When they reached Cooper Springs, Clark pulled into the parking lot of the Paradise Motel.
"Bathroom break?" Lois asked.
"I got us a room," he told her, his eyes sparkling mischievously.
She stared at him for a few seconds before understanding dawned on her. "That was your emergency?"
He held up the key to the room. "You'd rather keep driving?"
Her eyes darkened and he knew he had her.
"I can have a shower," she said as she got out of the car. "Not that I didn't love your showers, but this will be, well, more normal."
"I can shower with you," he added with a wink.
"And a bed," she continued, her mind racing to catalog all the modern wonders that a motel room contained. "I can sleep on a real bed."
"We both can."
"They probably don't have room service, but I bet they have a vending machine in the lobby. Did you see if they had any candy bars? Or those crackers and fake cheese that I wouldn't normally buy but that would probably taste like heaven right now? Or I could just send you out to get us something. That's not cheating, is it?"
"I'll get you anything you want."
"I just want these clothes off." She flapped the hem of her t-shirt and silently vowed to herself that she was going to burn it once she got back to Metropolis.
"Then we both want the same thing." He gave her a meaningful grin.
Lois was almost humming with happiness. "I'm going to shower and then I'm going to lie on the bed and just watch television until my eyes glaze over. Can you think of anything better in the whole world?"
"I can think of lots of things better than that," he teased. Clark opened the door to the room and she stepped inside.
"Oh my gosh, carpet!" she exclaimed. "Look, Clark, there's carpet!"
"I had no idea carpet turned you on."
"It's not the carpet, it's civilization. I've missed civilization so much. I'm never going anywhere that doesn't have indoor plumbing ever again."
"Oh," he said, trying to look askance. "I guess I forgot to mention that this motel doesn't have indoor plumbing."
"Liar." Lois pushed past him and headed across the room. "The bathroom is back here. I bet they have a tub, not just a shower. And tile. I hope they have tile in there. I could cry if I saw tile right now."
Lois pushed open the bathroom door and turned on the light. "A toilet," she exclaimed in the same breathless and worshipful tone that she once reserved for the phrase, 'Thanks, Superman.'
"And look at this!" Lois indicated the toiletries on the wide vanity like she was hosting a game show. "Shampoo. Conditioner. Lotion. Two cute little bars of soap. And this, it's a…" She held up a small paper-like cloth. "You can use it to clean your shoes," she read from the cloth. "Do you want your shoes cleaned? Isn't it great?"
Clark grinned at her as he leaned against the door's frame. She honestly had no clue he was trying to seduce her; he would have to step up his efforts. "Remember when you asked what you're wearing in my dreams?"
She looked at him curiously. "You said I was wearing clothes."
"Usually you are. But there was one dream where you weren't."
"I was naked?" His eyes were dark with desire and it dawned on her that he wasn't here for the free shampoo.
Clark nodded and reached out to play with the collar of her t-shirt. The light brush of his fingers against her skin sent a pleasant shiver through her.
"I was cleaning your apartment naked?" Where was he going with this? Was he going to tell her another dream now? Her heart beat faster at the thought.
"You were in my shower. Is this shirt one of your favorites?"
"What? No. I wouldn't wear it camping if I cared about it."
Clark took hold of the collar of her shirt with both hands and split it open easily. Just as quickly he had the front clasp on her bra unfastened. Lois made a small, stifled murmur in the back of her throat. Something in that little tentative sound inflamed him beyond rational thought. His last bit of control slid away into all-consuming lust and he shut the bathroom door so he could press her back against it. "You know the way you feel about that bathtub? I feel the same way about you."
"Oh," she whispered. His breath was hot against her skin as his mouth moved against her throat. Lois moaned, turning her head sideways to see her own dazed expression in the large mirror above the vanity.
His hands traveled down, unfastening the button on her jeans. Lois toed off her shoes as she slipped her hands beneath Clark's shirt. He wasn't wearing the Suit and she was about to ask him where he had left it when he moved back a little to pull her jeans and panties down her legs.
"You're right," she acknowledged. "This might be more fun than watching television."
He straightened up to kiss her and she lifted the hem of his shirt. He smiled into their kiss and ripped his shirt away, tossing it aside to join the pile of her clothes.
"Now we're even. Sorry about your shirt," he murmured in her ear as he slid what was left of it from her shoulders along with her bra.
"I never liked that shirt," she gasped. "Let's talk about your clothes. Shouldn't you get rid of more than just your shirt?"
"Mmm. Soon," he promised breathlessly. "Let me tell you about this dream first. In my dream I asked you what you wanted. What do you want, Lois?"
"You," she said simply. "I want you."
"I thought you said you wanted a shower," he teased.
"Can't I have both?"
"Absolutely," he whispered. "I did say 'anything you want.'"
Her apartment was stuffy when she got home. Lois dumped her mail on the kitchen counter and opened the windows to air the place out. She went back into the kitchen and started to sort through her mail. There was a sudden breeze that made her look up with the beginnings of a smile on her lips. The curtain fluttered but Clark wasn't there. Disappointed, she looked over at the phone and fought the urge to call him.
Give him a break, she told herself. He just spent ten days with you. You can give him an hour or two of peace and quiet…
She furrowed her eyebrows and tilted her head in the direction of her bedroom. She could have sworn she had just heard Clark clear his throat. She paused, listening intently, but her apartment was quiet. She was imagining it.
No — she wasn't. She definitely heard him cough just now. Lois dropped the mail and walked to her bedroom door. Clark was sitting cross-legged in the middle of her bed wearing nothing but a clean, well-worn pair of jeans and a smile. He lifted a pint of chocolate ice cream in invitation and held a spoon out to her.
"So, tell me about this dream of yours…"
Finished! Finally! I'm so sorry it took this long — it was never my intention. I started this story back in October 2006 and I thought I was well on my way to having it completed. I *did* have it mostly completed when a series of unfortunate events occurred that made it nearly impossible for me to read, let alone work on, this story. I want to thank everyone who encouraged me while I was stalled.
I must repeatedly thank my betas on this story — DJ, alcyone and Julia for their patience and help over the course of the writing the story. Especially DJ, who knows that I scrapped the last part, completely rewrote it and then scrapped it again and went back to the original version. She patiently eased me along to get this finished.