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Description: Lois's mother thinks her daughters need a helping hand to find suitable boyfriends. Where can Lois find someone willing to help her evade Ellen Lane's scheming?

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I began this story with the intention that it should be short and light-hearted. As readers will see, I achieved neither of these aims. g However, I offer it up nevertheless.

Very grateful thanks to Yvonne, Helene and Irene, much-valued beta-readers and friends. You laughed at my (weak) jokes, caught (most of) my typos and sighed appropriately in the right places. You also returned my copy well within deadline! You're very much appreciated. And thank you, Dom, for the presents. g

Thanks also to the denizens of Zoomway's Message Boards, who again were the test audience for this piece of work. Your comments and enthusiasm helped maintain my motivation to finish this piece; you also made me laugh. A lot. :)

All rights to recognisable characters in this story belong to Warner Bros, DC Comics, and/or ABC. No profit is being made out of their unauthorised use in this story.

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Story Title: Just Another Undercover Assignment
By: Wendy Richards wendy@kingsmeadowcr.freeserve.co.uk
Rated: PG-13
Submitted: September 2000
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Just Another Undercover Assignment

by Wendy Richards


****************

"Hold the elevator!!"

The grey-suited man who was just stepping aboard turned to see who was yelling; his alarmed expression on seeing the single-minded woman rushing towards him appeared to suggest that he would be happier to pretend he hadn't heard. But this was Lois Lane; one did not pretend that one had not heard Mad Dog Lane. One just hoped that one did not become the latest target for her fury... and failing to hold the elevator for her would be sufficient to unleash her annoyance.

Lois was late for work, not an occurrence she would be overly troubled about under normal circumstances. But today she had a very important story to get back to; her source had promised to send her some highly sensitive documents overnight, and she was keen to ensure that she - well, okay, the Planet - scooped all the competition. Again.

She just hoped Kent hadn't intercepted the package. Okay, they were partners, but this was *her* scoop. Just because Perry had officially teamed them up as formal partners a little under two months ago didn't mean that Kent had to be in on every story she wrote. She was the more experienced reporter, after all. She was the one with the three Kerth awards. He was the... the hack from nowheresville, the inexperienced greenhorn with a taste for sappy prose who had somehow managed to persuade Perry that he was employable.

That's not fair, Lois the irritating voice of her conscience pointed out. It probably wasn't really. Clark might have been inexperienced, but he was a quick learner. He was good on the sort of detail she tended to overlook. And he was able to turn on the charm, which did help when they were interviewing or under cover. For some reason, some women just seemed to fall for that faux-naive look of his, that country-boy shy smile. She couldn't quite see the appeal herself....

Liar! her conscience objected; Lois scowled, which caused the other occupant of the elevator to look even more alarmed. She *wasn't* lying. Clark was simply not her type. Okay, when she'd been affected by that horrible pheromone a couple of weeks earlier she'd for some *completely incomprehensible* reason focused her attention on Clark - but that had to have been a fluke. A flaw in the formula, perhaps - after all, hadn't Perry fallen for Rajalia, the cleaner? What could be more ludicrous than that?

No, Clark Kent was not her type. Her type was... well, someone a little more ambitious. More outgoing. More... metropolitan in outlook...

Like Lex Luthor?

But she rejected that instantly. Yes, Lex was all of those things, but she barely knew him and her only real interest in him was that exclusive interview he kept half-promising but never delivering. Oh, she was well aware of his interest in her, but she suspected that he saw her as something of a trophy or a conquest; she had no interest in being just another notch on the bedpost of the third richest man in the world. Even if he was suave, charming and sophisticated, as well as good-looking.

No; her ideal man was... Superman. There was just no question about it at all; he was handsome, perfectly muscled, intelligent, with beautiful eyes and a gorgeous smile, and he was a sublime kisser. And best of all, he could really sweep a girl off her feet - literally. Oh, what she wouldn't give for a date with Superman...!

And yet, instead, she thought as she exited the elevator on the newsroom floor, what she was getting was a weekend trip away in the company of her mother. Oh, and Lucy, and possibly her father as well, assuming he could drag himself away from his 'clients.' This was *not* Lois's idea of a fun weekend! But Ellen Lane had insisted, when she'd called just as Lois was on her way out the door; it would be her fiftieth birthday in a few days, and she had decided that this was how she wanted to celebrate it. A family weekend, just the way things used to be.

Wake up, Mother! Lois had wanted to scream down the phone line. Things were *never* like that! Even before Dad started having affairs and you started drinking, we were never a normal family But she had restrained herself, knowing that if she said the things she really wanted to say it would lead to a lengthy argument, and tears and recriminations from her mother, and she would be even later getting to work.

So in a few days' time she would be trapped in a cottage up in the mountains, playing happy families with the most dysfunctional family in Metropolis. Just great!


****************

Something prickled faintly at the back of Clark's neck, and he turned his head slightly just to confirm his automatic suspicion. Lois had arrived - late by her standards - and, to his intense disappointment, he sensed that she was in a mood he hadn't seen for several weeks. Mad Dog Lane was back.

This saddened him on a number of levels. He and Lois had gone through several stages in their working - and personal - relationship, from her point of view shifting from bare acquaintances to unwanted colleagues to reluctant partners to - *he* hoped - friends. She now seemed to respect him as a reporter, and sometimes even treated him as an equal. He'd always responded to her put-downs with instant quips and smart-ass rejoinders, which, if nothing else, had made her realise that he wasn't intimidated by her. Over just the last few days he'd begun to feel that she was accepting him as a friend; although they'd bickered during their undercover stay at the Lexor, they had worked together effectively as a team and, he thought, had enjoyed a few conversations in which they'd learned quite a bit about each other. She'd even called him when she'd gone back to the hotel on her own, nothing to do with work, but just seeming to want to chat to him as a friend.

So he'd been looking forward to seeing her again. He'd had the day off yesterday while she'd been working, so this was their first meeting since that phone call. He had been hoping that it might have indicated that she saw him as a friend, as well. But here she was, with an expression on her face as sour as when she'd first been told she would have to work with him.

Still, perhaps it had nothing to do with him, he told himself, getting out of his seat and heading for the coffee-machine. He knew Lois's tastes by now, and if a cup of coffee with low-fat milk and sugar substitute and a chocolate donut would help to improve her mood, he was going to try it.

A couple of minutes later he approached her desk, goodwill offerings in hand. "Good morning, Lois!"

She turned her head just enough to glare at him. "What's good about it?"

"Aw, come on, Lois, what's the matter? Forget to have your morning injection of caffeine before leaving home?" he teased, deliberately keeping his voice light.

She scowled at him, but as he placed the coffee and donut on her desk her expression changed. "Thanks, Clark." She sighed briefly. "My mom called and made me late, that's all."

That was probably enough, Clark reflected, going by what little Lois had told him about her mother. A needy woman who seemed to want to be involved in every aspect of her daughters' lives, and who treated advice as something which was her right to dish out, and her daughters' duty to obey. Yep, he could certainly understand that an unexpected phone call from her mother would have upset Lois.

Deciding that it was probably diplomatic not to say too much, he simply smiled lightly. "Never mind, you're here now and if I know you, you'll have made up for lost time in minutes." He lounged against the edge of her desk. "So, partner, what are we working on today?"

"Well, you've still got the Harrington follow-up to do, don't you?" she pointed out. "So if you get on with that, send it to me later and we'll talk about it."

That was a sign Clark knew well; Lois was working on a story of her own and didn't want him to know about it. He sighed inwardly as he returned to his own desk; she still didn't fully accept him as a partner, let alone a friend. He couldn't really understand it, either: while he knew Lois was extremely competitive, it wasn't as if *he* was competing with her. He was content to be her partner, to learn from her - and perhaps to teach her some things as well - and to work as a great team. The best team on the Planet's staff.

Still, it was early days; they'd only been working for the same newspaper for six months. Perhaps after six years she would be more willing to accept that he wasn't a threat to her. And in maybe another six years after that she'd even consider going out with him. On the other hand, he mused with a silent sigh as he glanced back at her, bent over her desk, her posture radiating pure concentration... pigs might fly.

He smiled wryly and got to work.


****************

Engrossed in putting together her article about corruption among some of the city's councillors, Lois scowled in annoyance later that morning when her phone rang.

Tucking the receiver firmly under her chin and continuing to type, she grunted, "Lois Lane."

"Hey sis!" her sister's cheerful voice came down the phone-line to her. First her mother, now Lucy... why was everyone in her family choosing today to call her?

"Luce..." Lois tried to keep her impatience from showing in her voice. "Lucy, I did ask you not to call me at work..."

"I know, Lois, but this is important!" Lucy insisted.

It always was, Lois thought. "So what is it this time? How much do you need?"

"Lois!" Lucy's voice came shrieking into her ear. "Are you saying I only call you when I want to borrow money? I'm actually trying to do you a favour here, you know! For all the thanks I get - "

"Okay, Lucy, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to imply that you do," Lois interrupted her, knowing she would get no peace until she apologised and showed willingness to talk. "So... what's going on?"

"Has Mother called you yet?"

"About her birthday weekend? Yeah," Lois groaned.

"Ah. So - who are you bringing?"

"Bringing?" Lois couldn't figure what Lucy meant - why would she be bringing anyone with her?

"Yeah. Bringing - as in a man! Who are you bringing with you?"

"No-one, of course! Why would I want to bring someone?"

"Aahhh!" This time, Lucy's exclamation was several beats long. "See, I knew I'd be doing you a favour if I called! Mother's planning on inviting a couple of guys - sons of friends of hers, I think - to meet us. Well, just you, now - I told her I was bringing a date. So I think she's cancelled Neil now. But as far as I know Roland's still coming."

"Whoa! Back up there a minute!" Lois exclaimed. "Just what is going on here - and who are Neil and Roland? Should I know them?"

"My guess is you don't want to," Lucy replied dryly. "Okay, if you need me to spell it out... Mother's trying to matchmake again. More for you than for me - after all, you're twenty-seven and still not married. She thinks that makes you almost on the shelf. She thinks the job you do means that you never get to meet the right kind of guy. So she came up with the idea of this weekend, and she's inviting along someone 'suitable' for you to meet."

"Roland?" Lois queried, her heart sinking. This weekend had just gone from bad to worse.

"Roland," Lucy confirmed. "He's the son of one of Mother's bridge friends - she says he's *very* successful, but he also knows how to look after his money."

"Stingy, in other words," Lois translated. "Successful at what?" she added suspiciously.

"He's a lawyer," Lucy answered in sepulchral tones.

Lois stifled a scream. Not only was her mother attempting to pair her off with the no-doubt stupendously boring and evidently tight-fisted son of one of her friends, but the guy was a *lawyer*! Did her mother know *anything* at all about her daughters' taste in men? Although, on second thoughts, Lois concluded, her mother probably did know, and didn't approve.

So, if she turned up this weekend, she would have the company of a lawyer called Roland to look forward to. Great.

She mentally went through half-a-dozen different medical complaints in an attempt to come up with one which would sound convincing and would get her out of the weekend; she could call her mother up on Friday morning and make her excuses, very regretfully, of course. A cold wouldn't be serious enough. The flu would - but on the other hand, she realised immediately, claiming that she had the flu or anything equally debilitating would result in Ellen Lane appearing at her apartment door within the hour, ready to fuss and 'take care of' her sick daughter. Snoop and interfere, Lois thought uncharitably.

So claiming that she was sick probably wouldn't work. And it was too late to plead another engagement. She would have to go.

But, Lois thought, she'd be damned if she'd allow her mother to set her up with this Roland. Absolutely not! She was more than capable of finding her own dates, *assuming* she wanted to, that was. And at the moment, she had no interest in dating anyone. Well... except for one person, and he didn't seem to be interested.

"Lucy, can't you talk her out of it?" she demanded. "Tell her it's a crazy idea. Warn her that if I arrive to find that lawyer person there, I'll just turn around and go home again!"

She heard her sister sigh. "Lois, I tried! I told her it wasn't a good idea and that you'd hate it. But you know what she's like! She insists that she knows best. You need a man - someone to give you an interest in something other than that paper, she said."

"I can find my own men, if I want them, that is!" Lois growled in a low tone.

"Well, do that, then!" Lucy advised. "Look, it's the only way you're going to avoid being set up with Roland. Bring a guy with you. Are you seeing anyone at the moment?"

She wasn't... well, not really. There was Lex Luthor; but the last time she'd had dinner with him he'd behaved very oddly: lecherously in fact, which was extremely unusual for him. And anyway, Lex wasn't someone she would want to expose to her mother, for all sorts of reasons. To begin with, it would give Lex entirely the wrong idea about their relationship, and second, she could well imagine the way her mother would react to seeing her daughter apparently dating the third-richest man in the world. She shuddered; that was something she definitely didn't want. Ellen would be planning the wedding by their first evening there.

So, not Lex. She wasn't seeing anyone else. But... did it have to be someone she was dating? All she needed was someone who was willing to come with her for the weekend and play the part of her current boyfriend. So it needed to be a man she was comfortable with, and who she could trust to play the part, but not get any ideas. And someone who'd be willing to help out as a favour to her.

But who...?

Realising that Lucy was still on the other end of the line, Lois thanked her sister for the tip-off and assured her that she would be bringing a 'date.' As she replaced the receiver, she sat back in her chair and mentally considered the men she knew. Was there anyone she could bear to ask...?

Superman.... The image of the Super-hero drifted into her mind instantly, without any conscious effort on her part. Oh, if only she could claim Superman as her date... though she would prefer it not to be a pretence, of course. But there was no chance at all of that happening, she knew. Apart from the fact that he'd have to fly off all the time to rescue people - which might lead her mother to invite Roland in any case - she knew he wouldn't agree. Other than that one occasion, when he'd been affected by the pheromone and kissed her, he had never given her any indication that he thought of her as more than someone he liked as a friend.

No, Superman was out of the question - a wonderful fantasy, but with zero possibility of happening.

Her head tilted almost unconsciously to the right, and she leaned her chin on her hand as she focused on eliminating possibilities. Then her gaze fell on...

...Clark Kent.

Clark? She couldn't. It was impossible.

But was it? She focused her gaze on him as he sat working at his computer, making herself consider the pros and cons. Clark was presentable, the kind of all-American guy most mothers would approve of. Okay, *her* mother would probably consider him not sufficiently ambitious, since he was only a reporter at the Planet and he earned less than Lois herself. But he had potential; she could stress that. He was good-looking, she had to admit - if you liked that kind of clean-cut appearance and the glasses. He was polite, considerate, and kind to little old ladies. She could certainly trust him to conduct himself properly in front of her parents.

And, she recognised, she could trust him to behave where she was concerned. After all, they had just come back from spending a few days undercover as newly-weds, staying in a suite at the Lexor together. Sharing a suite with Clark had turned out to be easier than she'd anticipated; he'd actually been pretty good company. She wouldn't be bored if she had to be stuck with entertaining him for a weekend.

But could he play the part of a besotted boyfriend? She continued to study him, mentally considering that question.

Clark was attracted to her - she'd known that from his first week at the Planet. It shouldn't be too difficult for him to act like he was in love with her. And she felt comfortable enough around him to cope with holding his hand a little, maybe even giving him a brief peck on the lips, just for appearances' sake if her parents were around.

Yes, Clark was probably the best option she had at such short notice. And even if he wouldn't be her first choice for a decoy 'date,' they should be able to pull it off.

Think of this as just another undercover assignment, Lois, she told herself. That's all. No problem.


***************

Clark had been busy for most of the morning researching and writing the follow-up article on Harrington, but he hadn't been unaware of Lois's activities. He knew she was working on something she didn't want him to know about, but although he could have used his Super-powers surreptitiously and found out, he had decided not to. He really wanted Lois to tell him herself; it would demonstrate some degree of trust in him, he thought.

He'd noticed when she answered her phone a few minutes ago; that precise note of extreme irritation in her voice was trademark Lane, and his Super-hearing had kicked in as she'd spoken. He'd been half-tempted to listen - even without Super-hearing - in case it was anything to do with this hot story of hers, but he'd already decided not to when he'd heard Lois say her sister's name. A personal call, then. He'd got back to proof-reading his article; too bad the newsroom was busy today, or he'd do it at Super-speed. Sometimes normal human speed got really boring, especially on a story which, he had to be honest, really wasn't doing a lot to interest him. Proving Harrington was guilty had been a challenge, one he'd enjoyed for its own sake as much for the fact that he'd been working with Lois. But now that their front-page story was yesterday's news, she'd left him with the follow-ups which would get buried somewhere in the middle of the paper.

Suddenly he had the strangest sensation that he was being watched. A careful glance told him that Lois was staring at him, with a very odd expression on her face. She seemed to be thinking about something, and if he was right, it was something which concerned him. Maybe she was deciding to let him in on this scoop of hers after all?

Looking away before she could see that he'd noticed her, he got back to work. But a moment or too later he spotted a movement out of the corner of his eye. Lois was now advancing towards him, a purposeful expression on her face. She definitely wanted something from him, that much was evident. The question was... what? And was he going to oblige?

Well, normally he would, of course; Clark generally did tend to help other people out when he could. He was known in the newsroom as an obliging kind of guy. But Lois had been holding out on him, so perhaps she deserved to be made to ask him nicely.

He sat back and watched her approach; he was going to enjoy this.

She stopped beside his desk, and at once he noticed her advanced heart-rate. She was nervous! That wasn't like Lois, the hotshot reporter who rarely considered that anyone else might not be willing to go along with her requests.

He smiled welcomingly up at her. "Can I do something for you, Lois?"

She seemed to be searching for the right words; after a moment, she asked abruptly, "You busy this weekend?"

Ah - now he could guess what she wanted. "You want me to switch off-duty with you?"

She shook her head, seeming surprised. "We both have the weekend off - didn't Perry say it was because of the overtime we put in on the Harrington expose?"

Oh, that was right, Clark remembered. So... if she also had the weekend off, why was she interested in his plans? He shrugged. "I'm not doing anything special - catching up on a few chores, probably." The fact that they were chores on his parents' farm wasn't any of Lois's business.

"Oh, good, nothing you can't cancel," she announced. "I need to ask you something."

"Ask away," he invited expansively.

"Not here!" She seemed anxious; her gaze flitted around the newsroom as if, for some reason, she was concerned that they might be overheard. "The conference room - now." Abruptly she turned and walked off in that direction.

Inside the conference room, Clark closed the door and turned to face Lois, wondering whether this really was to do with her scoop after all, or something else. "So, what's up?" he asked mildly.

"My mother, that's what!" she expostulated, her expression frustrated. "It's her birthday this weekend - her fiftieth - and she wants the whole family to go away together. She's got a cottage in the mountains all booked, though she only deigned to give me a few days' notice."

Clark was aware that Lois didn't particularly get along with her parents; he'd met Sam Lane and understood Lois's problem where he was concerned. Ellen Lane he only knew by reputation. But this didn't sound too unbearable... "Lois, it's only a weekend. I can see you wouldn't be looking forward to it..."

"It's not that." She waved her hand dismissively. "Yeah, I'd prefer not to go, but in the circumstances.... But there's something else. My mother is trying to matchmake for me - she's planning on inviting some guy I've never met and definitely don't want to meet. So I've got to stop her doing that."

That put a different complexion on things, certainly. But Clark still didn't really understand where he came in. "Can't you just tell your mom that you won't go if she does invite this guy? Or just go and be polite to him?"

Her expression told him that she didn't consider either choice to be a realistic option. He shrugged again. "So where do I come into this?"

"If I bring someone with me, Mother will have to back off. So - will you come?"

Finally, the penny dropped. She wanted him to... A slow smile crept involuntarily across his features and he lowered his head, not wanting her to see his amusement. Lois Lane was asking him to pretend to be her romantic interest? He was going to enjoy this...

"You want me to go with you?" he asked, deliberately pretending that he was slow to get her meaning.

"Yes! If I have someone - a guy - with me, Mother will realise that she's wasting her time trying to set me up with someone."

"Ah," he replied slowly. He paused, bit his lip momentarily, then frowned slightly at her. "So... you want me to pretend to be your boyfriend, is that it?"

Lois didn't seem to like that description; she frowned in return and corrected him. "My *date,* that's all."

Clark gave her an almost condescending smile; he was *definitely* enjoying this now. "No, Lois, your boyfriend. Think about it - this isn't just any old date. You're inviting a man to come away for a weekend with your family. Why would you invite along a casual date?"

She stared at him, clearly digesting his words; after a few moments, she nodded reluctantly. "I guess you're right. You'll have to be my boyfriend."

Clark could hear the distaste in her voice, and he almost told her there and then that he wouldn't do it. Why should he put himself out for her when she was making it clear that spending a weekend with him for any reason other than work was so totally abhorrent to her? He was on the point of making a comment to that effect when she forestalled him.

"Clark - I would really appreciate it if you would come with me. I... this is hard for me to admit, but I just can't face going on my own. Not if Mother's invited this Roland to be there."

His intention of playing hard to get melted under this brand of persuasion; he could never resist Lois when she pleaded. Not that she did it at all frequently, which was probably why he was susceptible to it. Mentally reminding himself to call his parents and explain that he wouldn't be there this weekend, he nodded. "Okay. I'll do it."

Her desperate expression vanished. Nodding, she said briskly, "Good. I'll pick you up on Friday at about seven, okay?"

"Wait," he instructed as she was about to leave the room. "Lois, if this is going to work, we have to make it convincing."

She threw him a suspicious look. "What do you mean by that?"

"Lois!" Impatience made him speak more tersely than he would have otherwise. "Think about it! We've got to get our stories straight, for a start. And then we have to make sure that we're comfortable around each other. Not as colleagues, but as two people in love."

She didn't look at all happy about that; grimacing, she replied, "What do you suggest?"

"How about we get together tonight to plan our strategy?"

"I suppose we better," she agreed, again sounding reluctant. Clark supposed that this was as good as he was going to get from her, for now; suggesting that she come over to his place at about eight, he exited the conference room.


***************

"Right, I think the best way to handle this is to treat it like any other undercover assignment," Lois informed Clark later that evening a few minutes after arriving at his apartment. "We need to get our cover story straight, so there'll be no possibility of anyone guessing the truth."

"So how long have we been dating, then?" Clark asked as he made coffee. He was looking very casual tonight: the contrast between his faded blue jeans and black T-shirt and the formal suits and ties he wore for work couldn't have been greater. He carried out his appointed task with economy of movement, but even with very slight movements the rippling of his muscles was visible under his T-shirt. She made herself concentrate on the conversation; she wasn't here to admire her partner's admittedly good physique.

Lois frowned; of course he was right, they needed to be prepared for that kind of question. "Oh, I don't know! What sounds reasonable - a couple of months?"

Clark turned to watch her, his expression thoughtful. "Don't forget I met your father just under two months ago. You just introduced me as your partner."

That was true - she'd forgotten that encounter, which had taken place when she and Clark had been investigating the prize-fighters. But it wasn't a big problem, was it? "Clark, you know I don't really get along with my father. There's no reason why I would have told him that I was seeing someone."

"I'd still prefer it if we said a month - or six weeks, maybe," Clark insisted.

Lois's lips tightened and she turned away from him. On the surface, this seemed to be a trivial issue, but she sensed that it was really a struggle for control of the situation. If Clark got his way, did that mean he would insist on doing things his way until the horrible weekend was over?

But that would have to mean that Clark was manipulative, and that was one thing she was fairly certain her partner was not. True, he had manipulated her out of Toni Taylor's nightclub by blowing her cover, but she had finally accepted his explanation that it had been the only thing he could think of to save their story. His behaviour since had been nothing but professional... well, as long as she discounted that very strange night when he'd turned up in the newsroom in the small hours, packed his personal items in a cardboard box and told her he was going back to Smallville. That had been very weird, especially as everyone had been rushing around trying to prove that Superman was innocent of causing the heatwave. Yet Kent had just walked out - not professional behaviour at all. But he'd returned the following day; as Perry had said, the heat had made everyone do some pretty strange things.

She moved to a position from where she could study Clark. He was pouring coffee into two mugs, adding milk to his; he turned away from the counter briefly to get the low-fat variety he bought just for her, and his gaze met hers. The dark-framed glasses obscured her view of his eyes, but his expression, and the quick smile he gave her, told her that either he was completely without guile, or he was a complete expert at hiding it. All her prior experience with men led her to suspect the latter... but Clark did seem to be different.

She shrugged. "Six weeks, then," she conceded as he handed her a mug. "Got any sugar?" she challenged him.

He smiled slowly, moving over to sit at the kitchen table. "You don't take sugar, Lois. You take low-cal sweetener, which is exactly what I put in there, and in your coffee every morning. Now - you tell me how well you know *my* taste in coffee!"

"Of course I do!" Lois exclaimed indignantly as she joined him at the table. "I get you coffee sometimes, don't I?"

He didn't answer, merely watched her with an irritating smile.

She thought quickly. "Well... you take real milk, a lot of it, and - " she hesitated, "one sugar?"

"Two," he corrected her, with a superior grin.

"One, two, what's it matter?" she threw at him defensively.

"It matters if we're trying to convince your parents - and Lucy? - that we're dating." he pointed out softly.

"Not Lucy - she knows I'm not seeing anyone. I'll tell her the truth," Lois answered, knowing that Lucy at least could be trusted. It seemed that her sister's date wouldn't exactly be anyone she was seeing seriously either, so Lucy would have to keep Lois's secret if she knew what was good for her.

"Okay, but your mom and dad won't be convinced if we don't seem to know each other all that well," Clark objected.

Lois glowered at him across the table. "Is this supposed to be my cue to confess all to you about my lousy childhood and my disastrous former relationships and how I really blame my parents for everything that's wrong with my life?!" She should have guessed; this wasn't the first time Clark had tried to get her to spill her guts to him about things she'd no wish to discuss, with him or with anyone. Why couldn't he just mind his own business?

But Clark blinked, then frowned at her. "Lois, why would you think I want that? Trust me, I *don't* want to know about your past relationships - though I guess I should at least know the names of the most recent men in your life."

Men? How many did he think there'd been? What exactly had he heard about her at the Planet? She guessed he probably knew about Claude, and more than she'd told him herself; the Planet's gossip network could be very effective at times, and Lois had always thought that men were far worse gossips than women in the right circumstances. And she had suspected for some time that one staffer had taken revenge for her rejection of him by spreading around stories that she was easy.

She flushed and looked away. "There hasn't been anyone serious for a while," she muttered. "I was sort of seeing someone six months ago, but... well, Lucy said I wasn't really dating, I was conducting interviews... and she was right. So I stopped seeing Mitchell."

Why had she told Clark that? She hadn't intended to tell him anything personal - well, nothing which wasn't an absolutely essential item of information about herself. And yet she'd just found herself telling him something she'd barely admitted to herself! Well, it was his turn now....

"Okay, so how about you?" she demanded, enjoying turning the tables on him.

He blinked again. "Me?"

"Yes, you. Your last girlfriends. I don't mean Cat - a one-night stand doesn't count," Lois added distastefully.

"Cat?" Clark made an equally distasteful face. "Lois, I never - I know what she made everyone think, but nothing happened. Nothing ever *would* happen - she's just not my type. Not in a million years!"

Really? thought Lois, though she immediately quelled the strange surge of delight which arose within her at the knowledge that her partner had never swung from the chandeliers, or anything else, with Cat Grant. "Okay, so Cat made it up - why does that not surprise me? But a guy like you's got to have had girlfriends."

"What do you mean, a guy like me?" he countered, draining his coffee and throwing her a challenging look.

He'd caught her there - if he thought she was going to fall over herself telling him what a great body he had or how good-looking he was, he could think again. She had no intention of flattering his ego. Instead, she surveyed him slowly - well, as much as she could see of him from his seated position - before pronouncing, "Clark, you're single, you're in your late twenties, you have a well-paid job and you're in reasonably good shape. You're also pretty intelligent for a guy, you don't have anything even your best friend wouldn't tell you about, and you know how to behave without embarrassing other people. So yeah, a guy like you has had to have girlfriends."

"Umm... thanks for the compliments, I think," he replied drolly. "Okay. You know about Rachel Harris - I took her to my senior prom in high school. You didn't meet Lana Lang when you were in Smallville, but I guess she counts as my only serious relationship to date. We were together in high school, but we broke up in our first year at college after I told her I wanted to go travelling for the summer vacation."

Lois stared at him, very surprised at this information. His only serious relationship had been in high school? What had he been doing since? What was wrong with him? "You didn't want her to go with you?"

He shook his head. "I'd have been happy to take her, but she didn't want to go on the kind of trip I wanted to take." He shrugged. "Anyway, she's happily married to another guy now, so I guess it worked out the way it was meant to."

"And... there's been no-one since then?!" Her tone reflected her amazement.

But Clark shrugged lightly. "Lois, from when I left college till when I started at the Planet, I've never stayed in the same place for longer than three or four months. That's not really the ideal circumstance in which to date seriously. I dated a little, yeah, but I couldn't really make any kind of commitment to anyone."

"Oh yeah, your wanderlust thing." She frowned suddenly, remembering something. "So when you said you'd never lived with someone *full-time,* you meant...?"

He smiled wryly. "I've never lived with anyone. Period. Other than my folks, of course."

That was quite enough information about her partner, Lois decided. Assuming a matter-of-fact tone, she changed the subject. "I think we're about set, don't you, Clark? We should be able to wing this, no problem - what are you doing?!" she yelped then, as he came to stand behind her and his hands landed on her shoulders.

She tried to pull away from him, turning her head to glare at him.

He refused to release her. "Is this how you're going to react when I touch you over the weekend?"

"What?"

"Lois, we're supposed to be *dating.* If we never get closer than two feet from each other, how's that going to look?"

He had a point, she conceded reluctantly. If he really was her boyfriend, they'd be touching naturally all the time - holding hands, hugging, making the most of opportunities to brush against each other. She wouldn't be doing her best to avoid all contact. She'd known that, so why was she being so contrary about it? "Okay," she muttered, relaxing in her seat again.

"You think that's enough?" he asked, incredulously. "Lois, you're supposed to *want* me to touch you. You're supposed to want to touch me, not act like you can't bear to be near me!" He sighed and stepped away from her. "Lois, this just isn't going to work. You're going to have to find someone else, or just tell this Roland that you're not interested."

He was pulling out on her? She jumped to her feet and stared incredulously at him. "Clark, you can't do this to me! I need you to come with me this weekend!"

He sighed, then dipped his head and stared at the floor, hands in his pockets as he dragged the toe of one shoe against the kitchen floor. After a few moments, he looked her way again and gave her a half-smile. "I don't want to let you down, Lois, but right now we'd be about as convincing at pretending to be two people dating as... as Jimmy and Cat!"

"Clark, we can do this!" she insisted. "Come on, only last week we were pretending to be newlyweds - this should be a piece of cake!"

"Yeah, but we only got away with that because no-one saw what happened when we were alone in that suite," he pointed out. "This weekend we'd be with your parents, on view, for just about all our waking hours. You really think you can keep up the pretence that you're crazy about me for that long?"

Did he really think she couldn't do it? Was she so hostile to him as a rule that it was so impossible for him to conceive of her behaving nicely towards him?

Lois swallowed, then reached out to touch Clark's arm. "Am I really that horrible to you, Clark?"

Surprise lit up his face, to her relief. "Lois... of course you're not. We... we have a kind of turbulent relationship sometimes, but we get along pretty well most of the time. I consider you a friend as well as a colleague, you know that."

She smiled wryly at him. "Yeah, me too. And... I can do this. Clark, I need you to help me here! I can't go alone if Mother's inviting along this person she wants to set me up with, and if I know my mother, he'll be someone who thinks 'I'm not interested' just means I'm playing hard to get."

She was watching him, and the reluctance was evident in his expression. "Clark, please! You know me - I wouldn't plead unless there's a good reason..."

"Lois, I'm not trying to make you beg here," he interrupted her, his voice soft. "I'm just concerned about whether we can pull this off... and I have to admit that the thought of lying to your parents does bother me a little."

"But it's only a little white lie," Lois argued, "and it'd be far worse if we didn't do it. Do you really want me to call you to come bail me out from a police precinct on Saturday because I've killed my mother?!"

That made him laugh lightly. "Come on, it's not that bad!"

She frowned darkly at him. "You've never met my mother!" But she'd noticed his change of mood, and was quick to capitalise on it. "So, you'll do it, then?"

He hesitated, then sighed. "Yeah. I'll do it."

Relieved, she took the few steps required to bring her closer to him. "Thanks, Clark. And you're right, we do need to be physically comfortable around each other. So..." She trailed off and slid her arms around his waist, inviting a hug. After an infinitesimal pause, he reciprocated.

She'd hugged Clark before, but in different contexts: when she'd been pleased to see him alive after that crazy Bureau 39 guy had tried to kill both of them by throwing them out of an aeroplane, and some weeks later when that same man had almost killed Clark in Smallville. This was different, though; she didn't have the same sense of relief and of heightened emotions. This was just herself, voluntarily hugging her partner.

He felt reassuringly solid: his chest was hard and muscular, and his arms were strong as they enfolded her. She experienced an unfamiliar longing to lay her head against his shoulder and stay in his arms for a very long time....

But this was *Clark,* the guy she worked with, and they were only going to pretend to be romantically involved, she reminded herself seriously. She couldn't let herself think of him in any other way - apart from anything else, she was in love with Superman, so why would she even consider it?

About to step back from Clark, she noticed that his head was inclined downwards and that he was watching her; she could almost have imagined that he was getting ready to kiss her. While part of her was simultaneously intrigued by and resistant to the possibility, another tiny voice suggested that in fact she *did* need to kiss him....

"Clark..." she began tentatively.

"Yeah?" He didn't release her fully, although his hold loosened.

"We really should practice kissing," she suggested.

His shock was visible. "What?"

"Come on, Clark - you were the one who said we weren't convincing! If we were dating, we'd kiss from time to time, and if we don't.... Anyway, we need to practice, at least until we don't feel self-conscious about it."

Strangely, while he hadn't been reluctant to touch her, this seemed to be a step too far for Clark. As he withdrew his arms from around her and stepped back, she tried to figure out why he seemed so unwilling to co-operate here. After all, she was very sure that he was attracted to her - she'd seen the way he looked at her sometimes. And that time he'd left the Planet he'd kissed her lips to say goodbye, rather than shaking her hand or hugging - or even kissing her cheek. He was attracted to her - so why wasn't he trying to take advantage of the situation, imagining that he could persuade her that she enjoyed kissing him?

"Clark, it's not as if we haven't kissed to throw other people off the scent before now," she reminded him. "And we've both initiated it. So what's the problem now?"

"There's no problem," he responded apparently lightly, but his body language still signalled that he was closing himself off from her. "Like you say, we've done it before and it's been convincing enough. I don't think we need to rehearse any more."

He *didn't* want to kiss her? Lois was confused: could she have been wrong about Clark's attraction to her? Or maybe it had just been a fleeting thing, she considered: perhaps it hadn't lasted beyond her blunt warning and a couple of days' exposure to her sharp temper? Perhaps once he'd got to know the real Lois Lane, he'd realised that there was really nothing attractive there beyond superficial looks.

But he'd kissed her at the hotel less than a week ago, she reminded herself as she watched him collect their used mugs and take them to the sink, the question of whether they should have kissed just now apparently not bothering him at all. She hadn't even realised why he'd kissed her in their suite at first: all of a sudden, when they'd been checking their surveillance equipment, he'd grabbed her and tumbled her to the bed, throwing himself on top of her, and begun to kiss her passionately. The way he'd cradled her face between his hands, the sensation of his body against hers, the way his lips had moved sensuously over hers... her initial protests had soon given way to sheer enjoyment. She'd never known Clark Kent could kiss like that - had the power to move her like that. For him, the kiss had so obviously been just a ruse; she sincerely hoped he simply hadn't realised the effect it had had on her. Although she could have sworn at the time that he wasn't entirely unaffected by it....

She muttered an excuse and fled to his bathroom, hurriedly splashing cold water on her flushed cheeks. The memory of that kiss was affecting her in a very strange and unexpected way. And she found herself actually feeling disappointed that Clark hadn't taken advantage of the opportunity to do it again.

What are you saying, Lois? she asked herself incredulously. That you *want* him to kiss you?

But that was crazy, she insisted. Clark was a nice guy, she had to admit that. And he was sort of okay-looking, though it would be fun to see what he looked like without his glasses - perhaps she'd get the opportunity to find out over the weekend. She suspected that he could be a good and loyal friend, if she wanted a friend. He probably considered her to be a friend as well as a colleague, and... well, it was good to have someone she could talk to, especially after Lucy moved away from Metropolis.

A friend; maybe. A potential romantic partner - no way! For all sorts of reasons, she told herself. She'd made a decision never again to get involved with anyone she worked with: the situation held too much potential for disaster. Clark might not steal her stories - she thought he really had learned his lesson after the Metro gang incident - but if they had a relationship, what would happen after it went sour? Then there would be someone else at the Planet who would badmouth her, or - since she conceded that Clark didn't seem to be the type - more evidence for people like Ralph to call her the 'ball-breaker' or similarly nasty names. And, no doubt, Perry would assign her another partner, when she'd only just managed to get this one house-trained.

No, it would be a very bad idea to complicate her relationship with Clark. And anyway, she was in love with Superman, so why would she want to?

She emerged from the bathroom feeling a little more composed. Clark was leaning against the counter, looking perfectly relaxed, as if none of this had bothered him in the slightest. He raised an eyebrow in greeting as she emerged into the kitchen.

"You want another coffee?" he offered.

"No... um, I really should be going," she said. "We've discussed what we need to discuss, and we're ready to go, yeah? Friday night, I'll pick you up from here about seven-thirty, is that okay?"

He shrugged lightly. "That's fine by me."

"Thanks - and let's make it convincing, okay?" she asked, without really knowing why she'd added the rider. After all, Clark was the one who seemed to be a better actor in this situation... still, perhaps they both needed the reminder. This *was* simply pretence. And they had to make it look good.


***************

Closing the door of his apartment behind Lois, Clark sighed in relief. He had been very glad that she'd refused the offer of more coffee, because he wasn't sure how much more torture he could stand in one evening. This weekend was a bad idea, he knew. He should have said no immediately, but he hadn't been able to resist the combination of Lois's pleading and his own initial thought that this could actually be fun. In his brief spell of self-delusion, he'd actually thought that being Lois's boyfriend for a weekend, even if it was only pretence, would be enjoyable.

Who was he kidding?

That moment when Lois, recognising the truth of his taunts about needing to be physically comfortable with each other, had marched up to him and demanded a hug had been very painful. Holding her in his arms, knowing that she was only doing it as a 'rehearsal' for the time when they'd be play-acting as a couple in front of her parents, had been sheer agony. Playing newly-weds at the Lexor had been nothing compared to this.

And then, when she'd pulled away a little to look up at him and then suggested that they needed to practice kissing... he just hadn't been able to take any more. It was just as well she'd gone to the bathroom shortly afterwards, since he'd been on the edge of losing his composure.

She just hadn't the faintest idea of what all this was costing him!

In a burst of Super-speed, he spun into the Suit and flew to his balcony, taking off into the night sky. He needed the solace - and solitariness - of flying far above the city. This was his favourite way of relaxing, the activity he always indulged in when he needed to think something through or just get away from people or places.

How on earth was he going to survive this weekend without giving away how he felt about Lois?

For a brief moment, as he'd held her in his arms in the kitchen and even before she'd suggested it herself, he had been tempted to kiss her. To kiss her *again* - the memory of their kiss in the bedroom at the Lexor was still imprinted on his memory. It had started simply as a means of disguising their equipment, hiding their real purpose in being in the honeymoon suite, but very quickly things had threatened to spiral out of control... at least, as far as *he* was concerned. Lois's protests, and the intrusion of the chambermaid, had recalled him to reality before he'd made a complete fool of himself.

But even still, just before he'd ended the kiss he could have sworn that Lois had begun to kiss him back. And no amount of telling himself that this just wasn't possible would rid his mind of that conviction. It was the elusive half-recollection of her tentative response then which had made him come close to kissing her just now, in the kitchen of his apartment. If he kissed her as he really wanted to, with all he felt for her, his impulsive self had argued with the rational side of his brain, then surely she would have realised that he was more than just a convenient partner and fall-guy?

But reality, and common sense, had quickly intruded. Lois wasn't interested in him, in Clark Kent, and he hadn't even needed the brutal reminder that they were pretending, in the form of her suggestion that they practice kissing, to recall him to the reality of the situation. She was still swept away by her Superman fantasy - in fact, he thought bitterly, it was surprising that she hadn't asked Superman to accompany her as her boyfriend. Though even Lois had to realise that Superman would be too busy to do something like that.

Which did remind him of another dilemma, something he'd completely forgotten when he'd been so eager to agree to help Lois out. What was he going to do if - no, *when* - Superman was needed over the weekend?

He sighed. He'd just have to cope, just as he did whenever an emergency arose when he was at work or out socially with friends. He'd have to make an excuse and disappear, hoping that the emergency didn't take so long as to make his absence too noticeable. So what if Lois's family thought he had a very weak bladder or something? He could live with that. And he'd be alone at night, of course, so he could simply fly out his bedroom window and go patrolling for a couple of hours.

So dealing with Superman wouldn't be too much of a problem. The real problem would be trying to hide his real feelings from Lois, while at the same time ensuring that her parents had no doubts about the seriousness of their relationship. Even though they were only supposed to have been dating for a few weeks, he realised that if Ellen Lane had any reason to suspect that the relationship wouldn't last, she'd get right back to her matchmaking activities. So he had to pretend to be in love with Lois, while she pretended to be in love with him... and all the time he would have to remind himself that it was just a game.

He wasn't allowed to love Lois for real; not as Clark, anyway.


***************

By Friday afternoon Lois had managed to convince herself that whatever reservations she'd started to have about this plan weren't important. Clark was a colleague, someone she got on well with; that was all. She had simply imagined those feelings she'd sort of experienced when he'd hugged her, nothing more. After all, it wasn't as if she was attracted to him. It wasn't as if he was even her type.

Running into Superman on Friday morning had helped: she'd been out acquiring her weekend supply of Double Fudge Crunch bars when she'd noticed a bank robbery in process across the street; sure enough, shortly afterwards Superman had arrived and apprehended the suspects. She'd even managed to get a couple of minutes alone with him, under the guise of interviewing him for the Planet, and to her relief and delight she'd come away with the same fluttery, walking-on-air sensation she always experienced when she'd been with Superman. Her feelings for him hadn't changed.

Not that he saw her as anything other than a friend, of course, although the knowledge that, somewhere within him, he was attracted to her made her feel warm inside. She supposed she could understand his reluctance to do anything about it: after all, Superman himself was invulnerable. No villain had so far found any means of harming him. But were it to become known that there was someone he cared about - a girlfriend, for instance - anyone wanting to control Superman in some way would have a very easy route. So he would have to avoid showing any preference for anyone, even someone he cared for.

She had his friendship, and the knowledge that she was special to him; that would have to suffice.

And in the meantime there were other compensations. That scoop she'd been working on earlier in the week had turned out to be a really big story; Perry had been delighted and had not only put it on the front page; he'd also bought extra advertising and praised her in front of the entire newsroom. Though that had made her feel guilty when she'd seen the initial expression of hurt on Clark's face, though he'd quickly covered it up and congratulated her along with the rest of the staff. She'd told herself that it was only Clark feeling chagrined that she'd cut him out, but she somehow couldn't rid herself of the notion that his reaction had nothing to do with envy and everything to do with feeling hurt that she hadn't even told him, her partner, about what was going on.

But that was his problem; he would simply have to recognise that this was business. There was nothing personal about it. The world of newspaper reporting was dog-eat-dog, and if he wanted to succeed he would just have to get tougher. And start getting some scoops of his own, although naturally she wouldn't be too pleased if he tried to cut her out...

Double standards, Lane! she told herself as she cleared her desk preparatory to heading home to pack for the weekend. But so what if it was? Nobody said the rules had to be fair. Clark would learn that himself in time.


***************

Seven-thirty, she'd said, so he'd better hurry up. Clark had only arrived back at his apartment at seven twenty-five, thanks to a multiple-car pile-up on the northern turnpike. A burst of Super-speed got him into the shower; another, two minutes later, got him dressed, and a final one helped him throw a few items into an overnight bag. Right on time, he was opening the door of his apartment as Lois's Jeep drew up outside.

Before going down the steps to join her, Clark inhaled deeply; he'd need all the willpower and strength of mind he possessed to help him get through this weekend. Pretending to be Lois's boyfriend, when in fact he would like nothing more than for the relationship to exist in reality, was going to be *hard.* But the hours he'd spent mulling over the situation had helped him to come up with a coping strategy. After all, he worked closely with Lois every day, and sometimes late into the evenings if they were on an undercover investigation. He'd coped with that by hiding his feelings for her under a facade of humour: light-hearted bantering and teasing kept their relationship on a manageable level. A similar attitude should be acceptable from a 'pretend-boyfriend,' he thought.

Before Lois could say anything, he called to her, "Want me to drive?"

She stared at him. "What for?"

He shrugged. "Just thought it might reinforce our supposed relationship, Lois," he drawled, leaning a hand lightly on top of the car, above the driver's door. "You know, when a man and woman are an established couple the man usually assumes it's his right to drive whenever they're in a car."

"Yeah, even when it's the woman's car," Lois muttered, much to Clark's amusement. "Okay, you drive," she added grudgingly, sliding over to the passenger seat.

Her expression told him that she thought he got some sort of macho kick out of being the one in control of their transport, but nothing could have been further from the truth, although he'd certainly enjoyed getting the upper hand just now. Wryly, he wondered how she would react if he told her that he found driving cars of any sort an extremely boring and frustrating activity: after all, he could get to his destination far faster and more enjoyably running at Super-speed or flying. Still, he knew himself to be a good driver, and certainly less of a hazard to other road-users than Lois. There had been several occasions on which he'd been a passenger when she'd almost caused an accident by cutting up another driver or barely waiting for the signals to change in her favour before hitting the accelerator. He'd even come up with ways of using his Super-powers surreptitiously so that he could avert an accident, should it be necessary.

On the journey up, it occurred to Clark that he really should know a little more about Lois's family and her upbringing; if they'd been dating for about six weeks and good friends for a month or two before that, as the story they'd agreed on suggested, he would be fairly familiar with such details of her life. But he was unprepared for the reaction he got.

He could almost feel her tension, and he didn't need Super-powers to be aware that she'd caught her breath. After a seeming interminable moment, she gritted out, "Just because you're doing me a favour here does not mean that I have to tell you all the intimate details of my childhood!"

Bad move, Kent... He'd suspected a couple of times that Lois's childhood hadn't been especially happy, and she'd confirmed his guess up to a point when she'd commented on her father's impossibly high standards and his frequent absences when she was growing up. He was also, of course, aware that her relationship with Sam Lane was difficult, to say the least, although there had been something of a rapprochement while they'd been investigating the prize-fighter story. Of course, he realised now, he had no idea whether Lois had subsequently made any further contact with her father.

He tried to placate her. "Lois, I'm not looking for 'True Confessions' here, trust me. I just think it would be sort of expected that I should know something..." He trailed off as her body language became even more hostile.

"Trust *me,* Clark, no-one will expect you to know anything. In fact, they'll probably be relieved that you don't!"

He didn't comment, merely raising an eyebrow as he concentrated on the road ahead. Traffic leaving Metropolis was still fairly heavy, despite it now being almost eight pm; apparently a lot of people had left it until later to get away from the city for the weekend. Right now he was happy to be driving: he knew he had far more patience in traffic jams than Lois did, which meant the journey would be less fraught, and it gave him an excuse not to continue the conversation.

About twenty minutes later he finally drove up the ramp of the interstate on the edge of the city, giving the accelerator a sharp increase in pressure resulting in a burst of speed as they hit the route up to the mountains. Simultaneously Lois, who had been sitting next to him in silence since her outburst, sighed loudly.

"Clark, I... I'm sorry I yelled at you," she said in a small voice. "I... well, let's just say that my family is nothing like yours. I've seen you with your parents. I've seen the photos of you growing up, and it's very obvious how much they loved you - how much they still love you." She hesitated, shuddered; Clark avoided looking at her in case she lost the courage she'd clearly needed to tell him this much. "I really envied you your family... Lucy and I didn't have anything like that."

Her words, quietly spoken as they were, made his heart wrench. He risked a glance in her direction; she was sitting stiffly, looking straight ahead, her hands clenching and unclenching. Swiftly he removed one hand from the steering-wheel and covered hers with it, giving her a warm squeeze before returning his hand to the wheel.

"I'm sorry, Lois. I wouldn't have asked you if I'd suspected," he told her gently. She didn't respond, but as he glanced in her direction again he thought he saw her relax a little. "So, that's why you were dreading this weekend even before you knew about your mother's little scheme?"

"Yeah."

"Well, remember that I'm with you - if it all gets too much, just kick me or something and I'll make an excuse to take you for a walk or whatever. I'm sure I can even come up with a reason why we have to go back to the city if things really get bad," he teased lightly.

That got a smile, he noticed out of the corner of his eye. "You never know, I might take you up on that. Especially the kicking bit," she added with a wicked grin.

"Should have brought my shin-pads, I guess...." he retorted, grinning in turn. "So - what did you tell your mother about me coming?"

"I called her the day after and just said that Lucy had told me she was bringing her boyfriend, so I assumed she wouldn't object if I brought mine."

"You told her who this 'boyfriend' is?" Clark asked.

"Yeah - she knows you're my partner at the Planet. She wanted to know why I hadn't mentioned that we were dating before, but I said I hadn't wanted an interrogation."

Clark raised an eyebrow. "That was a bit rough."

"Yeah, but it got her off the subject of our supposed relationship. My mother's hurt feelings is something I'm used to." Lois's voice sounded so cynical; Clark longed to take her in his arms and assure her that he could offer her the love and warmth which seemed to be so lacking in her family relationships. But he wasn't what she wanted; or, at least, Clark Kent wasn't. He hadn't missed the way she'd looked at him earlier that day, when she'd stopped him for an interview after he'd apprehended the bank robbers. She'd still had the same starry-eyed expression she'd worn the day he'd flown her back to the Planet after they'd prevented the explosion on the Prometheus's passenger shuttle.

Would he have invented Superman if he'd known beforehand that Lois would fall head over heels for his alter ego? He'd asked himself that question a few times since Superman's first appearance, but on each occasion the answer had been - sometimes reluctantly - yes. While in many ways Superman had complicated his life immeasurably, being the Super-hero was also an amazingly liberating experience. His existence allowed Clark to live a more or less normal life, and also allowed him to indulge in his favourite pastime, flying, without having to worry about being seen. And he rarely, these days, had to stand by and see people in trouble, knowing he could help and not being able to do anything about it.

Even now.... He frowned as he caught sight of something ahead on the other side of the highway. A truck had jack-knifed and was blocking all three lanes, and... he pulled his glasses down a little way. Yes, traffic was headed at full speed in the direction of the hazard, all unknowing that disaster lay ahead. The winter darkness made visibility even worse, of course.

Lois's voice interrupted his frantic calculations. "Clark - do you see that?!"

"Yeah," he grunted. "Look, I need to pull over, okay? There's a restroom just ahead."

"What?" She stared at him. "There's a pile-up just about to happen, and you're thinking about your bladder?"

"So what else am I supposed to do?" he threw at her, pulling into the rest area. "You have your cellphone - call the police while I'm gone!"

Ignoring her incredulous look, he ran from the Jeep and headed straight for the restrooms; to his relief, the men's room was empty, and in under a second he was flying out of the window at the back and swooping over to the stranded truck. Several cars had already crashed, and others were still heading for the hazard.

Hoping that by now the police were aware of what was happening and had closed the interstate - they must have, as he could see that there was far less approaching traffic than had been the case, he landed in front of the vehicles at the front of the pile-up. Quick glances using his X-ray vision showed him that most of the occupants weren't suffering from life-threatening injuries, but he was more concerned about the leaking petrol from a couple of the cars. The truck, too - it was carrying flammable materials, he'd seen as he flew over.

He inhaled deeply; freezing breath took care of the fire risk, and he was then free to check on the truck driver. The man was slumped over the wheel; he was breathing, but his heart-rate was erratic. A heart attack, probably, Clark realised; he was about to lift the man out and fly him to the nearest hospital when he heard the emergency sirens. The police and ambulance service were here.

After discussion with the senior representatives of the emergency services present, Clark lent his aid in freeing some of the victims from their vehicles before deciding that the rescuers could now cope on their own. Pausing to explain that he needed to leave, he caught sight of a slim brunette, notebook in hand, standing near the ambulances and illuminated by the lights which the police were erecting. He shook his head in disbelief: did she ever consider herself *off duty*? Still, if she was over here, she wasn't sitting in the Jeep wondering why Clark was taking so long.

Deciding that this time Superman would leave without speaking to her, he took off and in under a second was spinning back into his Clark clothes behind the restrooms. When he returned to the Jeep Lois was still not back, which gave him a few minutes to reflect on what had just happened. He'd already been considering what to do should he be needed as Superman over the weekend, since he was aware that making his getaway wouldn't always be easy. Still, he'd managed pretty well this time, he thought, avoiding any suspicion at all on Lois's part.

A few minutes later she came running up to the car, hair wind-blown and the notebook still clutched in her hand. "I got the story! Superman flew away before I could talk to him - Clark, why weren't you over there too? You could have stopped Superman! I was busy with one of the drivers when he left..."

Clark leaned back against the Jeep with an exaggerated sigh. "Lois! We're *off duty* - haven't you heard of the concept?"

She threw him a disparaging glance. "Easy to see your name won't be on any Kerth nominations in the near future! A *serious* reporter is never 'off duty'."

He allowed himself a private smile of amusement while getting back into the Jeep. Nor was Superman, if only she knew.


****************

About an hour later, Clark drew the Jeep to a halt in front of the cabin. Lights shone in the lower-floor windows; judging by the three cars already parked outside, the rest of the family was already there. So her parents had travelled separately, Lois mused. She'd thought her father was intending to make an effort, since this was her mother's fiftieth birthday; she wondered cynically whether they'd had another argument, or whether Sam Lane simply hadn't been able to drag himself away from his work early enough.

She looked over at Clark at the same moment as he cut the engine; in the dim light, she thought he seemed to be smiling reassuringly at her. "Well, this is it, I guess," she said, attempting a bright tone.

"I guess," he agreed, inhaling deeply, leading her to suspect that he was going to find this as stressful as she would. Reaching across, he covered her hand briefly with his. "Remember, it's just another undercover assignment - that's what we said, yeah? You're great undercover, Lois - it'll be just fine. And anyway, why should your mother suspect anything?"

Yes, why should she, Lois reminded herself. "Thanks, Clark. And... I know I haven't really shown it, but I am grateful to you for coming."

"That's okay - friends do each other favours," he answered casually. Maybe he wasn't so concerned about it as she'd thought? "I think we better get inside - unless you want to give them something to think about?"

Did he mean what she thought he meant? She stared at him. "But it's dark - no-one would see anyway..."

But he smiled knowingly. "They'll have heard the car arriving. I'd bet someone's either looking out the window or on the way to open the door by now."

His expression was challenging her: did he think she didn't have the nerve to go through with it? She leaned towards him. "Okay, Kent, you're on."

"Not here," he replied quickly. "Come on, out of the Jeep."

She'd barely closed her door when she looked up to find him looming over her. Keeping his body between her and the door of the cabin, he placed his hands on the roof of the Jeep to either side of her, his head bent towards her. In the light streaming from the cabin windows, she fancied she could see a glittering in his eyes, behind the glasses...

Until his head lowered further, blotting out all light.

She caught her breath. Clark was really going to kiss her, and to her amazement she found she *wanted* that kiss. All thought of pretending for her parents flew from her mind as she parted her lips, awaiting his touch.

His mouth seemed to hover a bare inch away for endless seconds. Then his hand moved to her cheek, and he moved back slightly; simultaneously, his thumb stroked roughly over her lips.

Stepping back, he gave an embarrassed laugh. "I guess we better get inside, honey - your parents are watching us! Umm... sorry, I guess I messed up your lipstick..." He stood aside, and Lois saw that the door to the cabin was open and her parents and Lucy stood on the doorstep, a strange man - who had to be Lucy's 'date'- behind them. Clark's words, she realised suddenly, might have been spoken in an intimate tone, but it had been a tone designed to carry. And his words had definitely been intended for her parents, not for her - and now she knew why he'd touched her mouth with his thumb.

He was clearly a far better actor than she was, she thought dazedly as he busied himself getting their bags from the back of the Jeep. She recalled herself to her surroundings and went to help him, at the same time asking herself why he hadn't just kissed her instead of staging that elaborate charade. Perhaps he just didn't want to?

"Lois! You're here, at last! We were wondering what was keeping you..." She turned to see her mother advancing on her, hands fluttering agitatedly. She leaned across and carefully placed a kiss on her mother's immaculately made-up face.

"I told you we wouldn't be leaving Metropolis until after seven-thirty, Mother," she began to explain, but Ellen Lane didn't allow her to finish.

"Well, I do think you could have made an *effort,* Lois. You could have left that job of yours a couple of hours early just for once, couldn't you? I really don't see why not - "

"Mrs Lane?" Clark's deep voice cut across Ellen's protests. "We haven't met - I'm Clark Kent." He extended his free hand, and Lois watched her mother clasp it limply.

"Ah - yes, Lois has mentioned you, Clark. I understand you also work for the Planet? I really wish you'd use your influence with my daughter to get her to work shorter hours, to get out and socialise a little more. She'll never get to meet anyone if she hides herself away in that newsroom all the time!"

"Ah..." Clark drawled, and - having reclaimed his free hand - slid his arm around Lois's waist. "I'm not really sure I want her to meet anyone *else,* you know!" He drew her closer to him, and she smiled gratefully up at him, welcoming the reassuring contact as a bolster against her mother's nit-picking. The smile which greeted her in return took her breath away; all too soon, though, Clark had returned his attention to her mother. He certainly did seem to be finding this pretence very easy, she reflected again; he was really acting as if touching her in a lover-like manner was something he did all the time.

"It's very kind of you to allow me to come with Lois. I know she really wanted to be here with you this weekend, but we'd been really looking forward to this weekend off together..." He gave a self-deprecating smile. "So it's great that we can still be together after all."

"Lois, aren't you going to say hi to your father?" Sam Lane distracted her before she could marvel at Clark's continued effective playing of his role. She greeted her father, slightly stilted, before beckoning Clark over.

"You remember Clark, Daddy?"

"I remember," Sam agreed, extending his hand. "But I wasn't aware that you two were any more than work partners."

"We weren't, then," Lois answered quickly, acknowledging silently that Clark had been right.

The little group moved inside the cabin then, and Lucy greeted the new arrivals while at the same time introducing them to her companion, a muscular young man called Rocky. Ellen's voice rose shrilly above the general conversation. "Lucy, take Lois and... Clark, isn't it? - upstairs and show them their room. Lois, come straight back down, you hear?"

Lois almost froze where she stood: had her mother just said 'their *room,*' singular? She risked a quick glance at Clark and noticed that he looked equally tense. He looked away almost immediately, however, gripping their bags again and indicating in the direction of the stairs.

"After you, Lucy!"

Rocky declined to accompany them, heading instead - as far as Lois could see - in the direction of the kitchen. As soon as they were on the upper landing, Lois hissed at Lucy, "What's going on? You mean I'm really expected to share a room with Clark?"

Lucy shrugged. "Come on, Lois, you're dating! Of course Mother put you in the same room!"

Clark silently went past the two women into the bedroom Lucy was indicating; as Lois followed him in, she saw him deposit their bags on the floor. He glanced briefly in their direction, muttering, "The bathroom - back in a minute."

Lois shut the door firmly behind him. "Lucy, what is going on? You could have told Mother I didn't want to share a room!"

"Come on, Lois, don't be so straight!" Lucy exclaimed. "You know, I think Clark's a really hunky guy - okay, he's not my type, but you can't stand there and tell me you've never noticed what a great body he's got! I know you two are supposed to be pretending, but you're crazy if you don't see this as an opportunity!"

"An... opportunity?" Lois repeated weakly.

"Yeah! Come on - there's that big bed over there..." Lois looked. It was big; easily a five-footer, and very comfortable. "Can't you imagine waking up in the morning and finding you've rolled together in the night, and just... letting things happen?"

Yes, she could... as she began to feel her cheeks flushing, she vehemently rejected Lucy's suggestion. "No, I can *not*! Lucy, you're crazy!"

"No, just practical," Lucy laughed. "Hey, you know Rocky's just a friend too. But I've liked him for... well, like *ages,* so when I realised I needed to bring someone... And I think he's keen to make the most of it too." She grinned, clearly not at all unhappy with her situation.

"Well, Clark and I aren't like that," Lois objected. "So - there's a spare bedroom, right? We'll just put Clark in there." There had to be other rooms - after all, her mother had originally planned to invite two other men.

"Uh-uh," Lucy chimed, shaking her head. "There are four bedrooms, but our loving parents - who were in the middle of a reconciliation - have had another fight and Daddy's in the other room. This is all there is."

"But..." Lois frowned, frantically trying to think of a way out of this. "But Mother was going to invite those other guys - where were they going to sleep?"

Lucy shrugged and rolled her eyes. "Neil's parents have a Winnebago, apparently."

"Great," Lois muttered.

Just then there was a light tap on the door and Clark re-entered. Closing it again behind him, he enquired, "So... any progress?"

"Lucy tells me this is the only room left," Lois informed him grimly.

"Oh, come on, you guys!" Lucy exclaimed again. "It's hardly such a big deal, is it?"

Before Lois could say anything, Clark moved to stand in front of the younger woman. "Lucy, it might not be a big deal to you, but you should think about how Lois feels about having to share a room when she'd rather not. And I know we're pretending to be dating, but even if we had been going out for six weeks or so, that's still no guarantee that we'd want to share a bed or even a room." He spoke softly, but there was an undercurrent of firmness in his voice which impressed Lois. She was surprised, and impressed, that he understood how she felt - and also that he didn't appear to take it for granted that sex should be an early part of any relationship. After her most recent experience, Lois had no intention of making the mistake of ever again sleeping with a man before she was very sure that she was ready.

Lucy grimaced. "Okay, okay, I'm sorry. I really didn't think it'd be a problem, and when Mother asked, I just..." She gave Lois a helpless look. "You want me to talk to them, see whether Clark can have Daddy's room?"

That would be too embarrassing, Lois realised; even more embarrassing than realising that she and Clark were expected to share this room. She glanced at Clark, seeing that he looked equally uncomfortable. "No. We'll manage," she said abruptly. "You go on down - tell Mother we'll be there in a minute."

After Lucy had departed, Lois turned to Clark again: he still looked uncomfortable. "I'm sorry about this..." she began awkwardly, gesturing at their surroundings.

"It's okay," he interrupted her. "I guess we should have anticipated it. Look, it's fine," he added. "I'll just wait until everyone else is asleep, then I'll go down and sleep on the couch."

Lois grimaced as a very recent memory came back to her: another occasion on which Clark had - despite his teasing - been a perfect gentleman and slept on what had to have been a very uncomfortable couch. She had no idea what sort of soft furnishings were provided downstairs, but apart from anything else Clark would have to get up very early to avoid being seen.

No, he was the one doing her a favour here. And she couldn't be so selfish again. Even suggesting that he sleep on the floor would be very poor thanks given the enormous favour he was doing her here... "No, Clark, I can't let you do that," she replied quietly. "Like you said at the Lexor - it's a big bed, how about we share?"


**************

The shared bedroom had been more than Clark's patience and self-control could take for the moment. Leaving their bags on the floor in the room, he made an excuse about needing the bathroom and left Lois and Lucy together. This complicated things in more ways than one: quite apart from taking away what he'd thought would be his escape-route from spending too much time with Lois and thus risking giving away his feelings for her, how on earth was he going to keep his secret *secret* under such circumstances? What if he floated in his sleep? How was he to make his escape to carry out his Superman patrols?

Though it seemed Lois was none too happy with the situation either, he reminded himself. She'd looked as shocked as he'd felt when their sleeping arrangements had become apparent, and he'd heard her hissed question to Lucy on the landing. Perhaps she was figuring out a way around this right now, he told himself. He should leave it to her. Everything would be okay.

Suppressing a faint twinge of guilt, he activated his Super-hearing; to his shock, he caught Lucy saying, "...imagine waking up in the morning and finding you've rolled together in the night, and just... letting things happen?"

He froze. Was Lucy talking about something else altogether - her and Rocky, for instance - or did she really mean Lois and himself? He *could* imagine it, only too well, and he felt uncomfortably warm at the thought. Knowing he should stop listening - this was a private conversation between two sisters, for heaven's sake - he waited with bated breath for Lois's response.

""No, I can *not*!" he heard her exclaim, and he immediately stopped listening, gritting his teeth as the impact of her words stung him painfully. What did he expect? Why had he imagined for one second that she might have said anything different? She wasn't attracted to him, after all; had never, in the few months he'd been working with her, given him any reason to hope for anything more than the reasonably good working relationship they had. She just wasn't interested...

But he knew he hadn't imagined her behaviour outside, when he'd put on that show for her parents' benefit. The expression on her face, the way her lips had involuntarily parted... she had *wanted* him to kiss her. And he'd been tempted, so tempted... but the timing had been all wrong, the situation completely wrong. He didn't want to kiss her as part of a pretence. He wanted to kiss her with both of them knowing it was for real.

But that wasn't about to happen any time soon, if at all, he knew, and they still had to get through this weekend. He'd worked out his strategy already: closeness together with teasing, bantering humour. That way things wouldn't get too intense. There would be no awkward silences when they were alone, each trying to overcome the embarrassment of having touched the other in a way they wouldn't normally. He just had to psych himself back into the frame of mind where he could do it. Easy, he told himself. A few deep breaths, pin the smile back on his face, and head back to the bedroom.

The bedroom.

They still had to resolve the question of sleeping arrangements....

With a heavy sigh, he exited the bathroom to return to the bedroom. But Lois's refusal to allow him to sleep on the couch took him by surprise; her suggestion that they should share the bed left him reeling.

Did he really want to? Was it a good idea in any case? And how on earth was he going to handle getting away to be Superman?

"I can sleep on the floor," he pointed out, knowing that it wouldn't help him with his Super activities, but it would be easier to bear than sharing a bed with the woman he loved and who saw him only as an irritating partner.

"You can't do that!" she objected. "There's not even a carpet - it's bare boards!" She was right: beautifully varnished floorboards, and one thin rug beside the bed. "You'd be cold and uncomfortable, and even if there was a spare comforter somewhere that wouldn't be enough. No, we'll share the bed."

She wasn't going to let him argue, he quickly realised, and he capitulated. "On one condition," he added seriously, partly from a gentlemanly motivation, but mostly because he thought it was the only circumstance under which he could handle sleeping in the same bed as Lois and *not*... make a fool of himself in some way. "I'll sleep on top of the covers."

"What's the matter, Kent? Don't trust me?" she retorted, but to his surprise there was a flash of humour in her brown eyes. "Okay, if you insist, but I warn you - it gets pretty cold in these cabins at night. We used to come here when I was a kid."

That was hardly likely to cause him any problems, Clark mused. "Hey, I grew up on a farm in Kansas. We know all about extremes of temperature."

She shrugged, accepting his answer without further comment. "We better go downstairs."


***************

"So, Princess, just what was it about Clark here which made you see him as more than a partner?"

Lois almost choked on her coffee, her father's question taking her completely by surprise. Almost immediately she felt a warning grip on her arm; Clark, sitting next to her, was reminding her about their pretence, she guessed.

What was she supposed to say to that? she wondered frantically. What was it about Clark...?

"Yes, Lois, just what was it about me?" her partner's voice drawled amusedly in her ear. "I'd love to know that too."

Clark Kent, just wait until I get you upstairs! I'll kill you! she gritted silently, turning to look at him and seeing the expression of mischief in his eyes.

"Well..." she began, pausing for effect and smiling inwardly. He deserved this, and she was going to enjoy every second of her revenge. "I think he managed to catch my attention by being *really* helpful in editing my copy... and that Kansas farmboy accent is pretty cute, I guess." She paused to watch Clark wince as her mild barbs hit home. "But I guess what really made me notice him is his sense of humour."

"Yeah?" her father asked, clearly making an effort to show an interest.

"Yes, Clark's a never-ending source of jokes. Keeps the whole newsroom smiling."

"Aw, honey, that's sweet of you," Clark murmured, clearly for the benefit of her parents; but as she smiled mischievously at him his eyes glittered with a threat of revenge later. His hand pressed her arm gently in an unmistakeable message. "Hey, want to know what I saw in you?" he asked, grinning broadly.

"Yeah, I'd like to hear that!" Lucy exclaimed from the corner in which she was sitting cuddled close to Rocky. "I still find it hard to believe that you actually put up with my sister!"

"Clark should consider himself lucky that Lois chose him," Ellen interjected snippily, but was ignored.

Lois raised her eyebrows questioningly at Clark: he still had an infuriating grin on his face.

"Okay, you want to know? Well... I just love the way you pay me compliments, for a start," he observed, his voice sounding almost tender; the tone was not matched by the devilish expression in his eyes, reserved for her alone. "Right from the day I started at the Planet you caught my attention with some... really special words. And I was in no doubt about how fortunate I was to be able to work with you." His quick smile in her direction removed any sting from his comment, however, although it was still obvious to her that he was enjoying this.

"Come on, Clark, that doesn't sound very romantic!" Lucy challenged him. "Okay, I know Lois can be pretty hard to take sometimes, but..."

"Hard to take?" Sam Lane interjected with a short laugh. "She's a Rottweiler! Kent, you have my sympathies - and my intense admiration!" So much for her father's apparent desire to make up for his years of neglect, Lois thought bleakly. He still couldn't bring himself to say anything nice about her. And, given Clark's barbed comments of just a minute ago, he'd probably agree with her father.

He turned to glance at her; something in her expression must have caught his attention, for he frowned momentarily before reaching to take her hand in his. Drawing it over to his lap, he turned back to Lucy. "Romantic, you said? Lois doesn't like me getting too mushy and sentimental, but maybe she won't object just this once." Stroking the back of Lois's hand with his thumb, he continued, "I fell in love with your sister the instant I saw her come barrelling into Perry White's office during my job interview."

Lois caught her breath: she could almost have imagined that Clark meant that softly-spoken declaration. And, to her amazement, some part of her wished he had. But... but that was crazy, she told herself. She didn't *want* Clark Kent to be in love with her... did she?

Her mother's harsh voice cut across her confused reflections. "But, Clark, doesn't it bother you that Lois is *so* focused on that career of hers? I mean, for years she hasn't even had a social life - I supposed I shouldn't be surprised that she's ended up dating someone who works at that paper! I keep telling her that she shouldn't be so competitive, that men find that sort of behaviour threatening. But she's just too ambitious for her own good - I think she's frightened off every man who's ever shown an interest!"

Lois couldn't look at Clark this time. She was sure he was grinning at this exaggerated, but basically accurate, image of her. She was well aware that her Mad Dog Lane tendencies intimidated some men and repulsed others; while she tended to tell herself that anyone who wasn't prepared to accept her as she was probably wasn't worth the effort, deep down inside she sometimes wished she knew how to make herself less fearsome and more appealing. On the other hand, she knew she would never respect a man who failed to see through such an act on her part.

"I admire Lois for her ambition," Clark was saying firmly. "She is focused on what she does, and she's brilliant at it. Even if I wasn't in love with her, I'd feel privileged to be working with her. And I don't know about any other men, but she hasn't frightened me off. And won't, either. Actually, I think anyone who could find Lois's ability *threatening* doesn't deserve her."

Lois sat still, knowing that Clark was smiling at her, that her sister was staring incredulously at him, and that her parents were gaping in amazement - and heaven only knew what Rocky was thinking. But she was incapable of saying a word. Clark's calm but firm defence of her had taken her breath away.

Oh, she knew he wasn't intimidated by her: he'd made that clear from the first moment Perry had sent them off on a story together. She'd laid down the law about their working together, and he'd come back with that smart-ass crack about her liking to be on top. Definitely not intimidated. Her competitive nature hadn't seemed to bother him either, and she'd assumed, without really thinking about it very much, that he probably just wasn't all that competitive himself. But now she wasn't all that sure any more. He was very able, he wrote well and he occasionally managed to come up with some amazing exclusives, frequently about Superman. Clark Kent, she finally admitted to herself, was the first reporter she'd worked with who was her equal in talent. As for drive... well, he wasn't as fiercely driven as she was, that was for sure, but he had no difficulty in keeping up with her, and she now suspected that he wanted to succeed every bit as much as she did.

His defence of her just now, though, was as gratifying as it was unexpected. Given the way she'd behaved to him on occasion, she couldn't have blamed him if he'd agreed with her parents, made a joke of it in the same way he'd done with his earlier response to Lucy's question. He could easily have done that and no-one would have batted an eyelid. But he hadn't; instead, he'd chosen to defend and support her. That was something, she reflected silently, which no man she had ever dated had done for her.

And he'd said he was in love with her! He had to be pretending - he was a far better actor than she'd imagined. She knew he was attracted to her, but in love with her...? Surely not! No, if Clark was in love with her, he'd have tried to do something about it. Okay, she'd told him during their first week working together not to fall for her, but that was months ago. He was a guy - they didn't get discouraged that easily, she knew that only too well. Men were always confident of their attraction to women - far too confident, most of the time. If he really was in love with her, he'd have asked her out or made a pass long ago. That was what men did; it didn't seem to matter what she said to put them off. No, he'd been lying; it was all part of the act.


***************

As the conversation became more general, Clark turned to glance at Lois again. She'd been silent for longer than he'd ever known her to be, which, he felt, was ominous. She had to be furious at the way her parents had been talking about her, he was sure - although it was also possible that she was hurt. He didn't think he'd imagined the expression on her face after her father's description of her as a Rottweiler. He hadn't been able to prevent himself from saying what he really felt in his response; he just hadn't felt capable of dissembling or coming up with a jokey quip.

Of course, *that* left him with the problem that he had openly confessed his love for her. He had no idea how she'd reacted, other than her facial expression, which had seemed taken aback. Her heart-rate had increased a little, but only briefly.

If he was lucky, she'd assume it was all part of the act. If she asked him straight out, though, he'd have a problem. Maybe he should take the initiative, defuse the situation by raising it first himself? Possibly. He'd have to play it by ear, he decided.

That discussion had also given him a number of other insights about Lois's life. It was now even more clear to him why Lois avoided talking about her family. The little she'd told him in the car on the way to the cabin had certainly given him some idea, but he could never have imagined this casual bitchiness dressed up as concern. It was clear that neither Sam nor Ellen Lane had the faintest idea of what Lois was really like, where her interests lay, or of any dreams or ambitions she held. And yet they seemed to feel that they had the right to criticise her - openly, in front of someone they supposed to be her new boyfriend.

His mouth tightened. He could understand so much more clearly now the forces which had made Lois what she was. It wasn't surprising that she was prickly and defensive; it was only surprising that there was any warmth underneath the exterior. And yet there was: he'd seen it several times now.

He'd had enough of being sociable to Lois's parents. Turning towards Lois with a smile, he suggested, "How about a walk before we go to bed? The night sky up here is so beautiful, isn't it?"

He'd suspected that she might be glad to have an opportunity to escape this travesty of a happy family get-together, but the alacrity with which she jumped to her feet took him by surprise. "Great idea, Clark." Turning to her family, she added, "We'll probably go straight upstairs when we get back, so we'll see you all in the morning."

They left the room amid a chorus of goodnights, but as soon as they reached the hall and the door swung closed behind them Lois took a shuddering breath and leaned limply against the wall. "Clark, give me a reason why we need to go back to the city first thing in the morning, *please,*" she muttered.

He couldn't let her do that. "Come on, get your coat," he urged cheerfully. "We can talk outside."

She obeyed him without enthusiasm, and they walked together in silence along the narrow path which led from the cabin towards the woods behind. He could sense her tension, however, and he longed to reach out and touch her, wrap his arms around her, rub her back and tell her that it didn't matter what her parents thought: he thought she was special and he wouldn't let anyone get away with saying otherwise. But he didn't have that right, he knew, and he was sure that such an overture wouldn't be welcome.

"Lois... are you okay?" he ventured after a few moments.

She sighed heavily, then turned to glance in his direction. "Yeah. I guess." She lapsed into silence again and they walked side by side for several paces. Then she exhaled noisily and grimaced. "No. No, I'm not. Why do I always let them do this to me, Clark?"

"Do what?" he asked.

"My parents. Why do I let them get to me? It's not as if I really *care* what they think of me - why should I? They never cared about me, after all - they were always too concerned with their own lives to care about what I needed, or what Lucy needed. Daddy's always the same - he calls me his princess, and yet he disapproves of me. Any time he met someone I was dating, he tried to get them to play some sort of macho game of male solidarity against me. Just like he tried with you," she threw at Clark.

"He might have tried, but - " Clark interjected.

"I know. You didn't play along. And you didn't agree with Mother either. I... you were very convincing, Clark," she added awkwardly. "Umm... thank you. For what you said. It was really sweet of you. And very quick thinking too, to be able to come up with all that stuff."

But I meant it he wanted to tell her, despite his earlier worries about how he was going to convince her that he'd merely been playing the necessary role. I wasn't pretending!

But he knew he couldn't; after all, this entire weekend was a pretence, and Lois was not interested in hearing those sentiments from Clark Kent. And with a sudden flash of insight which amazed him, he realised that even if he did tell her that he'd meant it she wouldn't believe him. She'd become conditioned to think of herself as unlovable, thanks to her parents' behaviour, and that was why she'd erected that hard wall around herself.

His heart ached for her, while at the same time he yearned to be the man who could show her that she was indeed loveable. *He* loved her. But she wasn't interested in him in that way.

But he was now very sure that underneath her prickly exterior she yearned to be loved. And he suspected that when she decided that she would trust someone with her emotions, she would be very vulnerable. He hoped to God that whoever she did decide to love was worthy of her trust; at that moment, he vowed never again to encourage her as Superman. That was not only completely unfair, but would run the risk of hurting her badly.

Realising he still hadn't answered her, he put on his best light-hearted tone. "So you think it worked? Great - that should make things easier for the rest of the weekend."

She frowned, and he remembered her earlier despairing plea. "You don't still want to go back to Metropolis?" he asked her, surprised.

"I'd go back right now if I could think of a good reason," she gritted. "Anything rather than face my parents again tomorrow."

He could understand that, but still... "Lois, you can't keep running away," he told her seriously. "Look, I can understand how you feel. I'm just very grateful for the parents I have. But I think your parents do love you, in their own way. They just don't know how to show it. Your mother's worried that you'll never meet the right man, but she doesn't realise that being a great reporter is also very important to you. Your father cares about you - why do you think he was so tough on me earlier? But he doesn't know how to show affection - and he's also very competitive. I think maybe he's the one who feels threatened by your success."

She stared at him incredulously. "Daddy? Threatened?"

"Yeah. You're at the top of your profession, the best reporter in Metropolis. It's only a matter of time before you win a Pulitzer. He was a great doctor, but it all fell apart and he probably feels that you and Lucy don't look up to him any more. Look how you had to help him out over that boxing scandal. He knows you're more successful than he is, and it probably gets to him a little."

Lois stopped walking, turning to lean against a nearby tree-trunk. "How'd you get to be so insightful about my parents, Clark?"

He shrugged awkwardly. "Just a guess, from watching you with them. Anyway, even if I'm right, that doesn't excuse their behaviour. But maybe it explains it a little."

"Maybe it's them and not me that's the problem after all," she murmured under her breath, a remark Clark knew he wasn't expected to hear. "Okay, so if you're right, then what, Mr I'm-full-of-ideas?"

"Stay," he urged her. "It's your mother's birthday, and you don't want to spoil that. You've proved her wrong about frightening men off, so you shouldn't let anything else she says upset you. And you've got me pretending to be madly in love with you, so we've got the perfect excuse to get away and be alone for a couple of hours when things get too much for you. And," he added, giving her a self-deprecating grin, "if you prefer it, you don't even have to entertain me if you want to be alone."

She grinned at him, and he knew he'd got through to her. "No chance, Kent. I need someone to scream at!"


******************

They turned then, as if by mutual consent, to walk back towards the cabin. It was dark, the stars clearly visible in the cloudless night sky, and Lois couldn't stop herself thinking that this would be the perfect night for a romantic stroll, under any other circumstances. If she had someone else with her... if her companion was, say, Superman....

Or, perhaps, Lex, she mused thoughtfully, but then surprised herself again by rejecting that idea. For all Lex's charm and good looks, for all his power and influence, she just wasn't attracted to him as a person. And anyway, she acknowledged wryly, walks by starlight were not really Lex's idea of a romantic evening - unless he and his companion were somewhere like Monaco or Antigua or some similar billionaire's playground.

As for her present companion... Lois sneaked a quick glance at Clark, who was walking in silence beside her. For the first time, she allowed herself to acknowledge that he really was a very attractive specimen. He was tall, dark and undeniably handsome. His eyes were by no means the sludge-brown she'd claimed all those months ago: they were in fact a deep chocolate-brown which lightened when he laughed and darkened whenever he got passionate about anything... as in fact they had when he'd been telling her family all the reasons why he supposedly loved her.

That made her wonder, just for a second.

But then she dismissed her crazy thoughts. Of course he hadn't *meant* what he'd said! He'd only said it to defend her and to continue their pretence. And he'd been passionate in his declaration *because* he was defending her. From his words to her just now, it was clear that her parents' comments had angered him and made him want to support her.

All the same...

She stole another glance at Clark, a part of her wondering what he'd think if she reached out and took his hand, or slipped her arm through his. Would he pull away, or would he squeeze her hand in return? Or would he simply ignore the gesture? Or perhaps he might even pull her closer, wrap his powerful arm around her shoulders and pull her close to him?

The image was tempting. So tempting that she almost reached out and touched him... but she stopped herself in time. This *was* only a pretence. The only reason Clark was here with her was as a favour to her. He did care about her: his behaviour was making that obvious. But it wouldn't be fair to take advantage of his good nature by demanding more - and if he still was attracted to her, it wouldn't be fair to suggest by her actions that she might be ready to return the compliment. She *liked* Clark - finally, she allowed herself to admit that. He was a good guy, someone whose friendship she valued, and she didn't want to put that at risk. Flirting with him at the Planet and when they spent time together socially was one thing, but in this environment it could be very dangerous.

Oh, not physically dangerous; she knew Clark well enough to know that he'd never push things beyond a point at which she felt uncomfortable. But dangerous to her peace of mind....


***************

As they reached the cabin, Lois's thoughts began to turn towards the next few hours. When she'd first discovered that she and Clark would have to share a bedroom, her mind had completely recoiled from the idea; she hadn't been able to contemplate the prospect of sharing so intimate a situation with him. Okay, they could get dressed and undressed in the bathroom, but they would still have to go to bed - to sleep - in the same confined space. They would share a five-foot bed. For the first time in a very long time, Lois would fall asleep to the sound of another person's breathing.

The prospect had alarmed her far more than she'd imagined it could.

Clark wasn't really her boyfriend, after all. He was a colleague, someone she worked with. She would be equally appalled at the thought of having to share a room with Jimmy.

But now, the prospect didn't seem so alarming. After all, they'd recently shared a suite, and although they had slept in separate rooms, they'd seen each other in nightclothes and underwear, had shared a bathroom and been on pretty intimate terms for those few nights. She didn't think Clark snored - at least she hadn't heard anything - and although he seemed to be a restless sleeper, she knew he presented no danger to her in any other way. Even his suggestion of sleeping on top of the covers, she knew, had been made to reassure her about his intentions.

Yes, it was probably going to be a bit embarrassing, but it could also be fun. She was enjoying Clark's company now, after all, and it could be nice to lie awake in the darkness and talk about anything and everything. She might even get Clark to tell her a little more about what he meant by his confession of having dated 'a little' while on his travels. Did that mean he'd just had brief affairs along the way? That he'd gone out with women knowing that his intentions weren't serious, just looking for a light-hearted fling? Had the women he'd dated felt the same way, happy to have uncomplicated sex with this guy who was just passing through?

She couldn't do that. Brief flings weren't for her, not any more - if they ever had been. Claude had certainly taught her that she wanted more from sex than a one-night stand. But perhaps Clark had been more honest than Claude about what he wanted. If Claude had told her he wasn't going to stick around, given her the choice, then perhaps....

But there was no point raking over old sores. This was now, and tonight she and Clark were going to share that bedroom.

She turned to her companion as she reached out to open the cabin door, intending to smile and make some jokey comment about which of them would take the bathroom first. But his face was bleak, the distant look in his eyes suggesting that his mind was somewhere else entirely.

"You go on in, Lois," he said, almost brusquely. "I'm going to walk some more - I'll be about a half-hour or so. I'll try not to wake you when I come in."

She stared at him. "Clark... but what if my parents see me coming in without you - or see you when you come in alone?"

He shrugged. "That shouldn't be a problem. You were cold, I'm giving you time to get washed and whatever else it is you do before going to bed..." His expression suggested that he had no intention of changing his mind. "Go on, Lois. I'll see you later, or in the morning if you're asleep when I get back."

She went in, stunned by Clark's sudden change of mood and castigating herself for her own light-hearted attitude of a few moments before. Why should she have imagined that he'd see sharing a bedroom with her in the same light as she? Just because she'd thought it would be fun to talk into the night didn't mean he'd want that too.

Clearly he was embarrassed by the scenario, or just found having to be with her the whole time a complete chore. He had probably been more bored than embarrassed by that scene earlier with her parents, and had probably found having to comfort her tiresome; and that was why he'd told her to go in on her own. He was obviously hoping that she'd be asleep when he got back.

Well, if that was what he wanted, that was what he'd get.


**************

The closer they got to the cabin, the more the thought of going up to that bedroom they were to share filled Clark with dread. How was he going to prevent himself revealing his feelings for Lois in some way? Seeing her in her nightwear, having to share a bed with her, possible intimate night-time conversations... and then getting up again in the morning? Plus the fact that he was worried about giving himself away through involuntary use of Super-powers. What if he floated in the night? What if, half-asleep, he let slip something which he could only know about through Super-hearing or X-ray vision?

And he still needed to find a way to escape and carry out a patrol of Metropolis; it wasn't good for Superman to be noticeably absent. Not only would criminals take advantage of the fact, but it could also lead anyone with a particularly intelligent mind - such as Lois - to associate the absence of Clark Kent with that of Superman.

So the idea of telling Lois to go up without him had come to mind. It was sensible, he thought; he showed himself to be considerate, allowing her time to get washed and undressed and into bed in privacy. It should also ensure that she was asleep by the time he came to bed, which would be a good thing for him - no chance of her accidentally seeing him do anything Super.

No doubt she was relieved, he thought as she closed the door behind her and he heard the sound of her light footsteps on the stairs.


****************

It was almost an hour later when Lois heard the light footfalls on the landing; a few moments later, the handle of the bedroom door was turned and the door opened slowly, tentatively. In the darkness, alleviated only to a limited extent by the moonlight streaming in through the thin curtains, Lois saw the dark shape of her partner creep into the room.

She immediately closed her eyes and buried her head under the comforter. He'd wanted her to be asleep, and as far as he was concerned she was going to be asleep.

There was the sound of soft rummaging, then the door creaked open again; Lois opened her eyes to see Clark disappearing back out onto the landing. She hadn't even heard him cross the room. Moments later, she could hear running water from the direction of the bathroom, and then a couple of minutes later still the door re-opened. He must be treading very lightly indeed, she thought as she closed her eyes again, continuing her pretence of sleep. She hadn't heard him return along the corridor, although those boards were a little creaky; and he was making very little sound in the bedroom too.

Then there was another sound, which she identified as that of clothes being removed. Suddenly the thought of pretending that she'd just woken up was so tempting... she could turn, and look confused, and then apologise for staring....

No! She *wasn't* interested in seeing her partner without clothes - or any more than she already had, she reminded herself. She'd seen him in a T-shirt and sleep shorts - she'd seen him in just a towel, for that matter! She had no interest in ogling Clark Kent, even if he did have a pretty decent body.

A moment later, the other side of the bed was depressed as he sat down; there was a pause, and then he stretched out, turned over, and his breathing quickly became even.

So how come Kent can fall asleep in seconds when I'm still lying awake? Lois thought, annoyed. Clearly all the trauma of that evening - which really had bothered her - had meant nothing to her partner. But then, she already knew that.


**************

One almost sleepless night later, Clark sat up on the shared bed and glanced across at Lois. She was sound asleep, for which he was grateful; he wanted to feel a little more prepared before he had to talk to her again. He'd suspected she hadn't been fully asleep when he'd got back the previous evening, but he'd pretended to fall asleep quickly himself, to spare her any embarrassment. But he'd found it impossible to sleep, with the knowledge that he was lying next to Lois, with her subtle scent washing over him, the sound of her light breathing also reminding him of her presence. He had wanted, so much, to lean across and stroke his hand over her hair, touch her face with his fingertips, press his lips to hers, and to have her wake and slide into his arms, as if they were an established couple...

Now, it was past dawn, and he gratefully seized the opportunity to get up. Clutching his wash-things and fresh clothes, he headed towards the bathroom, having first checked that it was empty. It seemed like no-one else was stirring yet.

They'd made a convincing start as far as Lois's parents were concerned, Clark mused as he focused his heat vision on the bathroom mirror moments later. It was important to her that they continued to be as convincing; and because of that, he needed to make sure that he could continue to treat Lois as a girlfriend without any of his hidden yearnings getting in the way.

A long cold shower should help him get into the right frame of mind, he thought in wry amusement.


**************

The smell of fresh coffee woke Lois from a restless sleep in which she'd dreamt that her parents and Lucy were all interrogating her about her relationship with an unknown man, and that she was being backed further and further into a literal corner as well as a metaphorical one.

Blinking, she dragged herself into a sitting position in time to see Clark place a steaming mug on the nightstand beside her. He was already clean-shaved and dressed, and he looked disgustingly awake and alert for eight-thirty on a Saturday morning.

"Morning, Lois!" he announced cheerfully, bending towards her; she wondered what he was up to until she noticed the door standing open behind him. After a moment in which his face was very close to hers, he straightened, smiling down at her. "Did you sleep well, honey?" he asked, his voice deepening.

"Umm... not bad," she managed to stammer out. "I never heard you get up. Who else is up?"

"Just your father. I don't think we'll see Lucy and Rocky for some time yet, and your dad said your mom probably won't be down for a while."

He could have left me to sleep for a while longer, then! Lois protested grumpily, but silently. But the smell of the coffee cast out its own lure, and after a moment she reached out for the mug. It was placed in her hand.

"This is real coffee!" she exclaimed after taking one sip.

"Sure it is," Clark replied with a grin. "You think I'd offer you anything else?"

"Well, I couldn't see Mother bothering to bring real coffee - it's too much effort," Lois explained. "And I know for certain that Dad didn't make this."

"Nope," Clark confirmed. "I'd already made coffee by the time he came down." He didn't explain where the coffee had come from, which puzzled Lois momentarily, since she was still convinced that fresh coffee was unlikely to have formed part of her mother's shopping list. However, it wasn't worth worrying about. Something else was, though....

"What did Dad think about you being up so early?" she asked quickly, keeping her voice soft.

He smiled. "Not a problem. I just told him that I'm used to getting up early, being raised on a farm. And since I didn't want to wake you, I crept out and went downstairs."

"Okay," Lois agreed, sipping her coffee. "Can I stay here another couple of hours, then?" she asked him, a little snippily.

"Only if you want to miss breakfast," he informed her. "And that'll be ready in about a half-hour."

"Breakfast...?" That got her interested. She knew Clark was pretty good in a kitchen.

"Yeah - I'm cooking. So if you like pancakes with maple syrup, and eggs scrambled the way my mom cooks them, you better get yourself downstairs."

Lois debated the merits of a Clark-prepared breakfast versus another hour in bed, and decided that the breakfast won. Hands down. "See you in half an hour," she announced. Pushing at his strong chest, she added, "Go on, get out of here!"

Laughing, he left the room.

************

Clark's apparent good mood that morning made Lois reconsider the conclusions she'd reached the previous evening; perhaps he wasn't really bored or fed up after all. Maybe he'd just been tired... and actually, now that she thought about it, perhaps he'd simply been being gentlemanly. Giving her time to get into bed, and perhaps fall asleep, before coming to bed himself...? Knowing Clark, that was entirely possible.

Having decided that this was most likely the case, by the time Lois followed her nose into the kitchen she was feeling much happier about the situation. After all, she and Clark had carried off their charade with ease the previous evening, and he'd been extremely supportive when things had become awkward for her. Continuing the pretence, acting lover-like with Clark, really wasn't going to be a hardship.

Entering the large, warm kitchen, Lois wasn't surprised to see Clark, an apron tied around his waist, guarding the frying pan. She was, however, taken aback to see her father leaning against the worktop, a cup of coffee cradled in his hand, chatting in a very male-bonding fashion to her partner - about sports, naturally.

For some reason, she wanted to disrupt this cosy conversation. Sidling up to Clark, she slid her arms around his waist from behind, laying her head against his shoulder. "Thanks for the coffee, Clark," she murmured huskily.

She felt him still for a brief moment, before he turned to face her; with his free hand, he caught her around the waist. "Trying to escape so quickly, honey? You can thank me in a better way than that... if you want any pancakes, that is!" Devilish amusement was dancing in his eyes, and his voice held a challenging note.

"Stop waving that spatula at me!" she retorted, surprised by the ease with which he'd called her 'honey'. But out of the corner of her eye she could see her father watching them attentively. For all his earlier male bonding with Clark, she could tell that her father was alert for any sign that she wasn't comfortable with the situation. Perhaps he did care about her after all, she realised, taken aback.

But Clark was waiting for a response to his challenge, and her father was going to notice if she did nothing....

Swallowing the butterflies which had suddenly appeared unbidden in her stomach, she reached one hand up behind Clark's head, pulling him down to her; once his mouth was close enough, she leaned up and kissed him.

She could sense his shock, but very quickly he recovered and his arm around her waist tightened, drawing her closer to him. Returning her kiss, his lips parted a little and he began to deepen their embrace. To Lois's amazement, she found herself wanting to get closer to him, to open her mouth beneath his and to experience again the sensation of being kissed passionately by her partner. That kiss at the Lexor had been so unexpected she'd barely had a chance to appreciate his technique, but now, here, there wasn't any real need to end it any time soon... the longer the better, she thought hazily as she sighed against his lips and hoped that he wouldn't stop....

But he raised his head and stepped back. "Forgot the pancakes," he murmured, returning to the stove-top and giving the one on the pan a quick flip. His entire concentration seemed to be focused on cooking, and Lois stared at him in dismay. That kiss had been pretty amazing, to her - and yet he could act as if nothing had happened!

Yet more evidence that this was all pretence, as if she'd needed it, she told herself as she busied herself laying the table for breakfast.


**************

Clark had had to break off their kiss; any longer and Lois would have seen exactly how much it was affecting him. She'd have realised that this was no pretence for him. It was just as well he was wearing an apron, he reflected ruefully; it afforded more protection than his jeans did in the current circumstances.

He'd known that sooner or later they'd have to kiss, in order to maintain the charade, but he had hoped that it might be at a time of his choosing, so that he could at least be prepared and be able to control his reactions. Instead, Lois had been the instigator - but he couldn't blame her for that. If he hadn't taunted her...

He grimaced inwardly. Had he somehow thought she wouldn't follow through? But he knew Lois; his partner could never resist a challenge.

Impossible to deny that he'd enjoyed the kiss; it had been wonderful, just perfect. Or it would have been perfect, if he hadn't known that it was all pretence. Pretence on her part, perhaps, he mused sadly. There'd been no pretence from him.

Still, he thought as he carried the hot dishes containing pancakes and eggs to the breakfast table, at least Lois's father could be in no doubt about their relationship now - which was precisely what Lois had wanted from him.


***************

They'd just finished eating breakfast when Lucy and Rocky appeared, arms wrapped tightly around each other. As the young couple squeezed onto a single chair at the table, Lucy looked straight across at Lois and winked; Lois understood that to mean that her sister had got what she wanted as far as Rocky was concerned.

She was taken aback at the sharp feelings of jealousy which assailed her.

What's wrong with me? Lois asked herself, shaken. It couldn't be that she was jealous of *Lucy,* could it? Not because of Rocky... no, because Lucy has someone she's in love with, or at least in a relationship with, a little voice told her.

But that was just stupid, Lois told herself sardonically. She didn't need a man in her life - and if for some reason she did, she could find one. After all, Lex Luthor himself had made no secret of the fact that he wanted her.

Her gaze fell on Clark then. But what did he have to do with these confused feelings she was experiencing? She wasn't attracted to *Clark.* But on the other hand, that kiss had been... really good....

That was irrelevant, she told herself. Clark was only here because she'd asked him to come, to pretend to be her boyfriend. That was all. There was nothing else to it.

Her reverie was interrupted by Clark offering to make more pancakes for Lucy and Rocky. Again, Lucy caught Lois's eye. "He cooks as well, Sis? You better hang onto this one - *you* of all people should be able to appreciate his talents!"

Lois shot Lucy a swift frown. But at the same time, part of her acknowledged, unwillingly, that Lucy was right. Clark did have undeniable talents. Some day, some woman was going to get very lucky.


**************

For the rest of that morning, the little group walked, carried on desultory conversations, and Lois and Clark managed to fend off any questions which might have been too probing. When they'd gone outside, Clark had immediately taken Lois's hand, interweaving his fingers with hers. She'd seemed briefly taken aback, but had then smiled gratefully at him and returned his firm grip.

There was one sticky moment when it looked as if they were running into trouble. As the five were re-entering the cabin after their walk, Sam Lane asked Lois and Clark, "So where did you two go on your first date?"

"The movies," Lois answered quickly.

"An Italian restaurant I know," Clark said simultaneously. Guiltily, his gaze shot to Lois, silently asking her what they should do now.

"Umm... we went to a matinee showing and Clark took me out to dinner after," Lois amended quickly.

Clark grinned gratefully at her. "Yeah, I kind of forgot about the movie bit. But then, it was an awful movie!" he added, laughing. "I don't believe we really went to see Wayne's World!"

"Hey, that was a great movie!" Lucy interjected. "I loved it!"

Clark was still facing Lois, so he caught her expression and the roll of her eyes. She was no doubt right: it was her sister's type of film.

"I blame Jimmy," Lois added. "He insisted that we'd like it, and he never told me how weird it was."

That was certainly true, Clark reflected. They had gone to see Wayne's World together, but Jimmy had been with them, and it had been Jimmy who'd insisted on choosing that particular film.

Under cover of people hanging up jackets and windcheaters, Lois leaned towards Clark. "Don't do that again! You nearly blew our cover! It was just as well I was able to come up with an explanation - *this* time."

"I'm sorry," he muttered in reply. "But that was something we didn't discuss - remember? So how is it my fault that we both had different answers?"

"Because it is!" Lois retorted illogically.

Clark sighed, giving her a mildly irritated look. "Okay, you take all the awkward questions from now on!"

Lois seemed to be about to say something in retort, but then he literally saw her bite her lip. A movement from over her shoulder caught his eye: Sam Lane had come up close again. Placing his arm around Lois's waist, he grinned down at her. "I hope what we did afterwards made up for the lousy movie."

Playing her role again, Lois leaned into him and smiled. "That chocolate mousse was out of this world, so yeah, you were forgiven."

He actually *had* taken her to an Italian restaurant which was a favourite of his, as it happened. It had been a few weeks earlier, one evening when they'd been working late at the Planet together. When they'd finally decided to give up for the night, both had been hungry and neither had particularly liked the prospect of a solitary dinner in their own apartments. Lois had suggested take-out at her place, but Clark had - never expecting her to agree - offered to take her to Guiseppe's. She'd raised an eyebrow at him, asking a silent question; he'd read her expression as warning him that he'd better not think that this was anywhere approximating a date. So he'd assured her that he'd just had a craving for some of Guiseppe's cannelloni, and she'd accepted his invitation.

And she had indeed declared the chocolate mousse to be 'out of this world'.

Catching her eye before they moved into the kitchen, in a tone soft enough not be overheard - so that she'd have to realise this wasn't part of the pretence - he asked her, "So... would you like me to take you there again some time?"

She dipped her head, allowing her hair to obscure her features; Clark recognised this as a common reaction from Lois if she was embarrassed or taken by surprise by something. He hoped that this time it was the former and not the latter. After a moment or two, she cast him a swift, assessing glance. "Okay."

Okay? It wasn't the most enthusiastic acceptance he'd ever had, Clark mused as he followed her into the kitchen. But it was a yes as opposed to a no, and that was good enough for now. Good enough? He checked himself, wondering what he was talking about. It was *brilliant,* far better than he could have hoped for. Lois was going to go out with him - and even if nothing explicit had been said, he'd seen enough in her expression to tell him that she understood that he'd meant it as something more than just two colleagues having dinner together because it was convenient.

She had agreed to go out on a date with him. Even if she'd meant just as a friend, it was a start.


**************

What had she just agreed to? Lois asked herself as she followed Lucy and Rocky into the kitchen. Oh, she knew that she'd said 'okay' to going back to that great restaurant with Clark. Well, that was no hardship; she'd loved the place. The food there was fantastic.

But with Clark? As a social outing?

Well, why not? she asked herself. He was good company, they worked together and she wouldn't be so busy trying to make conversation that she'd be unable to concentrate on eating. It was strange... how with some people she had to work hard to keep conversation going, how a silence of mere seconds could feel embarrassing, and yet with Clark they had no trouble coming up with unusual or interesting things to talk - or argue - about. And yet silences were companionable rather than embarrassing.

But how did Clark interpret this forthcoming outing? Lois grimaced inwardly - how had she intended him to interpret it? He'd meant it to be a social invitation, nothing to do with their professional relationship; that had been obvious. Well... they were friends, and friends did socialise. They even went out to dinner together.

Was that how Clark interpreted it? Or did he think it was more than that?

Perhaps more pertinent still, did Lois want it to be more than that?

She just didn't know... it was so confusing, what with her feelings for Superman and the way she'd always insisted that she wasn't interested in Clark in that way -

"Lois! Stop daydreaming and lay the table, can't you?" Her mother's voice, sounding impatient and very snippy, interrupted her musings.

"Sorry, Mrs Lane," Clark's voice came from somewhere behind Lois. "We'll do it together, won't we, Lois?"

Brought back to awareness of her surroundings, Lois realised that there was an unpleasant burning smell somewhere in the kitchen, and that the others, apart from Clark, had all escaped to another room. "Mother, what are you cooking?" she demanded.

"Macaroni cheese," Ellen snapped. "And it would have been nice if either you or Lucy could have had the *consideration* to stay and *help* instead of going off out enjoying yourselves with your *fancy men*! This is supposed to be *my* birthday weekend, after all...."

Out of the corner of her eye, Lois could see Clark opening the oven and examining its contents. His dubious expression seemed to suggest that there wasn't much which was salvageable.

Sighing, Lois took her mother by the arm, trying to guide her out of the kitchen. If need be, she could drive down to the nearest town - there was bound to be a Domino's or, if there was absolutely nothing else, a McDonald's. That chain seemed to be everywhere. "Come on, Mother," she urged. "Let Clark and me finish getting lunch ready."

Ellen grudgingly agreed to go, helped on her way by Clark, who came to stand on her other side and smiled winningly at her. "Go on, Mrs Lane, why don't you take a break for a few minutes? It's obvious you've been working hard in here while we've all been out having fun."

Muttering something about what a change it was to encounter *someone* who still possessed good manners, Ellen stalked into the living-room.

"Phew!" Lois closed the kitchen door so that their voices wouldn't carry. "Clark, did you notice any fast-food places in that last little town we drove through yesterday?"

"Fast-food?" he echoed. "Dunno - but there's no need for that." He reached into the oven, which, she realised, he'd switched off earlier, and removed a dish whose contents were very blackened.

Lois rolled her eyes. "There's no way any of us will be eating *that*!"

"Oh ye of little faith..." Clark drawled. "Lois, trust me on this - in fifteen minutes' time we'll have an edible meal here. Ten, if you'll help."

"Me?" Lois stared at him. "I've told you - I have no talent whatsoever in the kitchen!"

He grinned at her, and she again experienced a very weird sensation; it almost felt like butterflies in her stomach. "Sure you do, you just haven't found it yet. Come on..." He produced a block of cheese and a grater. "You can do this. Just grate me a plate-full of cheese, okay?"

Sitting at the table grating cheese wasn't exactly the most challenging of tasks, so Lois was able to keep an eye on Clark as she worked. He seemed to be scraping something off the top of the no-doubt dried up concoction in the baking dish - not that she knew what good that would do. Then he did something mysterious with milk and some of her grated cheese and some ground black pepper, following that up by grabbing Lois's grater and using it to make breadcrumbs. Finally, he took the remainder of her cheese, mixed it with the breadcrumbs, and sprinkled it on top.

"And this is going to be edible?" she challenged him.

He raised an eyebrow. "Do you doubt me?"

She simply stared back at him without commenting, letting her sceptical expression speak for itself.

He was silent while he placed the dish in the oven, then turned back to her. "Okay, Lois. How about this, then. If it's not edible, I will personally drive you to the nearest Fudge Castle and buy you your favourite dessert, with everything on it. If it *is* edible... well, then, you'll owe me." He grinned broadly. "And I'll look forward to collecting on it."

Changing the subject then, he added, "Come on, partner, we have a salad to toss."

Collecting *what*? Lois thought, a little alarmed, as she followed Clark's instructions as to the fine art of lettuce-shredding. This was a side of Clark she didn't see very often: confident, very much in control of the situation. Usually she made the rules and he followed them; but within the last half-hour the dynamics of their friendship seemed to have altered. And she wasn't all that sure how to handle it... or even how she felt about it.


*************

Clark was right about lunch: his rejuvenated macaroni cheese was excellent. He was very modest about it, however, giving all the credit to Lois's mother and claiming that all he'd done was to scrape off a few bits of burnt cheese. Lois knew otherwise, though, but held her tongue; her mother was preening in the light of everyone's praise. As she ate, however, her thoughts were distracted; she was wondering, not without some trepidation, just what Clark was planning to claim from her as his winnings.

After lunch, the plan was to go, by car, to the lake which was half a mile away; Lois would have preferred to walk, but Ellen Lane insisted that she wasn't dressed for walking on dirt tracks and paths which weren't properly paved. So, Lois thought dryly, just because her mother wanted to drive that seemed to mean everyone had to. The party divided itself between Lois's Jeep and her father's large Pontiac, with Ellen Lane joining Lois and Clark, and Lucy and Rocky travelling with Sam Lane. So relations between her parents showed no sign of improving yet, Lois noted with an inward sigh.

It was just as well the car journey was short, and that Lois was driving. For the entire duration of the less than ten-minute trip, Ellen interrogated Clark about himself: his parents, his upbringing, where he'd gone to school and university, and what he'd done before joining the Planet. She was clearly unimpressed with his tales of travelling the world for a couple of years, apparently considering that a waste of time and something which had caused him to fall behind in his career and earnings potential.

Lois was impressed with the way Clark handled her mother, though. She was biting her tongue throughout in an effort to stop herself losing her temper; Clark had touched her arm lightly after the first couple of questions, a gesture she'd interpreted as asking her to let him handle the questions.

"Yeah, sure, if I'd gone to work for the Planet straight after leaving university, like Lois did, I'd probably be earning a little more by now. But not that much - and anyway, Ellen, remember I'm from Kansas," he explained with a degree of patience which Lois considered her mother didn't deserve. "I didn't know anyone in Metropolis, and I had to prove myself beyond the Smallville Post before someone like Perry White would even look at my resume. The travelling helped to get me my job."

It nearly destroyed your chances Lois thought with a wicked inward grin. That stupid article on those... what were they? Geckos? And what the heck's a gecko?

"Yes, that's all very well, Clark," Ellen Lane objected. "But are you sufficiently ambitious?"

Sufficient for what? Lois wondered silently, her irritation now simmering beneath the calm surface which she was struggling to maintain.

Clark shrugged, catching Lois's eye to give her a swift grin. "I want to do well in my career, get nominated for some awards - it'd be nice to win a couple - but that's not what really matters to me. I want to know that, by doing the job I do, I can help to make a difference. If a story I write - or *we* write," he added, glancing over at Lois again before returning his attention to her mother, "helps to right an injustice, or take a criminal off the streets, or otherwise makes our city or our country a better place, then I'll be satisfied. That's probably not the kind of ambition you were talking about, but to me that's what's important."

Clark was so impossibly idealistic, Lois reflected, not for the first time. She'd noticed that about Clark in the first few weeks of their acquaintance, but had expected that it would soon get knocked out of him once he'd been on the job a couple of months. She found herself strangely pleased to realise that hadn't happened.

"That kind of thing's all very well," Ellen complained, "but it doesn't put food on the table. You should be concentrating on making sure you earn enough for a mortgage on a decent place, with enough left over to support a wife and children!"

"Mother, who says Clark won't marry someone with an income of her own?" Lois objected at last. "You never know - his wife could even earn more than him!" His wife? To her amazement, she felt a sudden pang at the thought of Clark marrying someone; why, she had no idea.

"Lois, don't interrupt," her mother snapped. "You don't know what you're talking about - you have no *idea* of what it's like. A man should support his wife, and that's all there is to it."

Hurt and resentful, Lois fixed her gaze on the road ahead; immediately, Clark's hand touched her arm lightly in what she recognised as indicating sympathy. In a smooth but firm voice, he responded to her mother. "As it happens, I'd be happy to support my wife and any children we were lucky enough to have. But if the woman I was fortunate enough to marry wanted to pursue her own career, then I'd be very happy for her to do that. After all, if she ended up feeling frustrated, how could we be happy together?"

That silenced Ellen, and a few moments later Lois drew the Jeep up next to her father's car; as the two groups converged Lois touched Clark's arm lightly. "Thanks," she said softly.

He didn't pretend to misunderstand. "That's okay. Actually, I meant everything I told her, you know."

"I guessed that," Lois began, but was prevented from continuing the conversation by her father's appearance by their side.

"So, Clark, can you row? You better be able to - my princess here was never much good at it. You wouldn't want to rely on her to get you back to dry land!"

Lois mentally began counting to ten, convinced that she'd have to see her dentist in the coming week because she was continually gritting her teeth this weekend. "I *can* row," she pointed out, she hoped calmly.

"Well, just thought I'd warn you, Kent," Sam Lane added, laughing, before walking off.

Clark caught Lois by the shoulders before she could move. "Ignore him, Lois. We'll just prove him wrong, okay?"

She stared at him. "Are you saying you can't row a boat?"

He raised an eyebrow. "Sure I can. But that's not the point here."

What was it with Clark Kent? Lois found herself wondering as the small group wandered down to the shoreline to take charge of their pre-booked rowing boats. He seemed to have formed his own interpretation of her relationship with her family, and was doing his best to support her against her parents' criticism.

Why was he so determined to defend her? Why wasn't he taking every opportunity to demonstrate his own macho credentials? And why was he not thoroughly enjoying the spectacle of Mad Dog Lane being cut down to size? He could get free drinks for the next month out of this weekend if he played his cards right - so why was she getting the distinct impression that nothing which happened up here would ever be mentioned to anyone at the Planet?

Because it wouldn't. That was something she had to acknowledge about Clark; he did not gossip. And he had also proven to be very good at keeping secrets: she knew he'd never breathed a word of the stuff she'd told him when they'd been captured by Antoinette Baines. Sure, she'd threatened him, but she had a sneaking suspicion that his silence had nothing to do with her threats, and everything to do with the fact that Clark Kent was loyal and trustworthy.

Nothing like any other man she'd ever known, then.

Suddenly Lucy cannoned into Lois, causing her to stumble backwards; instantly Clark's hand was at her back, steadying her. "Lucy, what the heck - ?" Lois began, but her sister overrode her.

"What are you waiting for? Let's get in the boat and get this over with!" Lucy grumbled. Clearly Lucy was enjoying this family get-together just about as much as Lois herself was. She seemed to be surgically attached to Rocky now, Lois noted with distaste; she hadn't taken to the spiky-haired so-called 'music promoter' at all.

"You're coming with us?" Lois asked in dismay, not looking forward to more of Lucy and Rocky's inane conversation about insignificant bands they both seemed to think would be 'big' some day soon, and Rocky's attempts to make himself seem important by name-dropping. Lois had thought earlier, when Rocky had been boring her senseless with an account of the time he'd met someone who had once sung backing vocals for Bon Jovi, that if she chose to she could come up with a far more impressive list of people she was on first name terms with: Lex Luthor, various senators, a couple of well-known actors, even Superman.

"The parents are having a 'deep and meaningful conversation' again," Lucy drawled, her voice becoming cynical. "I thought we should leave them to it."

Lois glanced at her parents; they were indeed engrossed in what seemed to be another argument. She sighed. Why couldn't she have just said she couldn't come? "Okay," she agreed reluctantly. "Let's get this farce over with."


**************

Clark was finding that his own reserves of patience were becoming exhausted by the time they'd rowed out onto the lake and back again. He'd been able to put up with Ellen Lane's intrusive questioning; in fact, despite Lois's obvious embarrassment, he'd found it amusing. But Lucy and Rocky were steadily driving him to the point of annoyance.

They'd insisted on sitting side by side in the prow of the small boat, even though there was really only space for one person; then they'd started making out as if they were completely alone. As if that wasn't bad enough, their movements had made the little boat rock alarmingly; Lois, who was rowing, had almost lost an oar at one point. From his position sitting behind Lois, Clark had reached forward to cover her hands on the oars with his in order to help her row; bracing his legs along the side of the boat and making subtle use of his Super-powers, he'd managed to steady the craft.

"Get me out of here," he heard Lois mutter as Lucy started to treat Rocky as if he was dessert.

He tightened his hands over hers briefly. "It's only until tomorrow."

"We're leaving before breakfast!" she muttered in return.

"I'll bring you breakfast in bed," he offered. "And when we get back to the cabin, I'm going to say we're going for a walk on our own, okay?"

He felt her sigh at the same time as he heard it. "I can't wait."

"I don't think we'll be missed, anyway," Clark murmured softly. "Looks like your sister has other things on her mind, and from what I can see your parents will be... um, *talking* for some time."

"Yeah. Problem is, once they're through Mother's going to want someone to talk to about how awful Daddy is and how he only ever thinks of himself," Lois complained.

Clark, for about the twentieth time since their arrival, thanked whatever good fortune had ensured his adoption by Jonathan and Martha Kent. "And you'll listen, and nod at the appropriate points," he told her quietly. "My guess is she doesn't really want you to say anything, does she?"

"No, unless it's to agree with her that all men are bastards," Lois answered, keeping her voice low. "Not that I need much convincing," she added cynically.

"Hey!" Clark removed one hand from an oar to give her a mock-punch on the shoulder. "I resent that remark!"

Lois shrugged. "Oh, well, not you. And not Superman either," she added, a little dreamily. "He's just about as perfect as it's possible to get! But in my experience you're the exception, not the rule."

Wondering whether it was a good sign that he'd been excluded from the bastard category, Clark was about to thank her dryly for the compliment when his Super-hearing kicked in. He groaned inwardly; how was he going to get away to be Superman *now*? He'd just have to leave the emergency services to deal with it....

But he quickly realised that wasn't going to be possible. He was hearing the radio in the boat-rental office, which was broadcasting a news report about a cruise ship which was about a ninety-minute sail away from Metropolis Harbour. It had sprung a major leak and was already sinking; help was on the way, but could be too late to save many passengers. Superman had to go.

They were several yards away from land; glancing over his shoulder, Clark used his Super-breath to help propel them closer, while at the same time he told Lois, "I'll take over rowing from here - you give your arms a rest." She let go, and he was able to use more powerful strokes to get them to shore.

Impatience to get away was tearing at him, but he had to wait to assist Lois out of the boat. Drawing her a little away from Lucy and Rocky, who were also scrambling out, he caught her gaze. "Lois, I hate to do this to you, but I have to get away for a while."

"Huh? What are you talking about, Clark?" She glared at him, her tone annoyed. "What do you mean, get away? Where to?"

He sighed; the news report was now telling him that the stricken cruise ship was sinking at an even faster rate, and he needed to get going. He had no idea how he was going to explain this...

"Lois, I can't explain now. I'm asking you to trust me. Please, cover for me, and I'll be back as soon as I can. I could be a couple of hours, though."

She stared at him, clearly confused. "Clark, I don't understand! Where - "

"I can't explain now," he interrupted, his tone staccato. "But I'll be back, I promise." With that, he stepped away from her and broke into a run, taking the path behind the rental office which led into the trees; once out of sight, he shot upwards, spinning into the Suit as he flew and hoping that he'd still be in time to save lives.


************

Lois stared at Clark's retreating back, wondering just what had happened here. Barely two minutes earlier they'd been rowing to shore together, and she'd actually been looking forward to getting back to the cabin so they could take that walk he'd suggested. She'd been aware that he'd only come up with the idea as a means of getting her out of her family's reach for a while and that if she'd wanted, he would have taken himself off somewhere for the duration. But suddenly, the idea of being alone with Clark had seemed very appealing....

It wasn't just that anyone would be far better company than the alternative. She was actually enjoying being with Clark. And, to her surprise, she'd realised that she wanted to talk to him about that kiss in the kitchen earlier. Her first reaction, after he'd pulled away, had been to pretend it hadn't happened, or if that wasn't possible, then to insist that it was only pretence, just done to convince her father of their supposed relationship.

But Lois knew that the kiss had been more than pretence. *She'd* felt things she'd never expected to feel with Clark Kent; things she'd only felt with... with Superman, she acknowledged in amazement. That day Superman had kissed her at the airport.... How she could be similarly affected by Clark puzzled her; she'd never thought of herself as capable of being drawn to more than one man at a time.

Clark hadn't been pretending, either. Oh, she'd thought he was at the time, but now she was convinced there was more to it. For a start, the way his lips had touched hers had been hesitant, tentative, but she felt there had been a sort of suppressed passion there too. And she was almost convinced that his body had reacted to her, too. He was certainly attracted to her.

So she'd decided that they needed to talk about what was happening. It wouldn't be straightforward, given that they worked together and there'd inevitably be gossip if they dated. There was also the question of what would happen to their working partnership should a relationship between them not work out, and they'd need to discuss whether that was a risk they wanted to take.

And, Lois was aware, there was the question of her feelings for Superman. She loved Superman. She was sure of that. She desperately wanted to be with him, and even though she knew that just wasn't going to happen, it didn't make her want it any less. So could Clark accept the fact that she couldn't commit exclusively to him?

Not that it would make much difference, she'd thought sourly as the boat had approached land. Superman was never going to ask for more than her friendship, so Clark had nothing to worry about! Though why she couldn't make up her mind, just accept that Superman was out of her reach, and focus on Clark, she just didn't know.

And then, suddenly, Clark had announced that he had to leave. Leave for where? Where on earth was he going? They were up in the mountains; the nearest town was three miles back down the road, and the cabins were half a mile away. And anyway, they'd been just about to go back to the cabin! Lois had intended to suggest that the four of them return in her Jeep, leaving the elder Lanes to return in Sam's car.

Just what did Clark Kent think he was doing?!

If he hated her company so much, just why had he agreed to come with her? she asked herself miserably as she turned away from the direction in which he'd run. And why had he just *gone,* just like that, with barely any warning? When they'd have been back at the cabin in about ten minutes?

She'd thought Clark was reliable. She'd even thought, going by his behaviour since they'd arrived at the cabin, that he cared about her and wanted to spare her pain.

Once again, she was wrong about a man. Once again, she'd been reminded that there was no such thing as a trustworthy man.

"Lois! Are you going to stand there all day? And where's Clark gone?"

Standing almost frozen in her position, Lois had been completely unaware of the presence of her sister and Rocky. Shaking herself, she tried to focus on Lucy, who was now looking very impatient. "No. Let's go," she replied abruptly, starting to walk in the direction of her Jeep.

"But... Lois, what about Clark?" Lucy protested. "Aren't we going to wait for him... wherever he's gone?"

Lois struggled to avoid letting her true feelings show; she was so tempted to castigate Clark publicly for his desertion of her, to insist that if she never saw him again it would be too soon. But a lifetime of hiding her true feelings from her family stopped her, made her search for a plausible explanation. "No. No, he said to go on back, that he'd meet me there later. There was something... he wanted to go and look at something in the woods over there." She gestured vaguely in the direction to which Clark had disappeared. "Come on - they don't look like they're anywhere near ready to leave yet." She waved a hand towards her parents, whose boat was unmoving out in the centre of the lake; its occupants appeared deep in conversation, for want of a better word; her mother was gesticulating angrily, from what Lois could see. "Let's just go."

Rocky seemed only too willing to head for the Jeep, but Lucy paused. Taking a step closer to her sister, she frowned in concern. "Lois - are you okay? Did you and Clark have a fight or something?"

Or something... if they'd had a fight his abandonment of her would be easy to understand, Lois thought bleakly. She just hadn't the faintest idea what lay behind his sudden change of mood, his haste to get away from her. One minute they'd been together in the boat, united in a silent but shared feeling of resigned impatience at the other couple's behaviour, and looking forward to some time alone together - or, at least, she thought, *she* had been looking forward to it. But she was about to confide none of this to Lucy. "Come on, Luce, you know Clark's just a friend doing me a favour. Why would we have had a fight?"

Lucy continued to regard her thoughtfully. "Because you looked as if you'd just lost your best friend, Lois. And... Clark's a nice guy, and I think he cares about you. So... whatever you said to him, I bet he'll have forgiven you when he comes back."

Whatever... whatever *I* said to *him*? Lois echoed disbelievingly. Why did Lucy automatically assume that she had to be at fault? Shaking her head, she began to walk again in the direction of the car. "You know nothing about it, Lucy. Now, come on - I want to get back."

"Hey, your boyf okay?" Rocky drawled as the two women caught up with him at the car. "He seemed to be kind of in a hurry - "

"Clark's fine," Lucy interrupted briskly, taking Lois by surprise. "He'll be back later."

"Okay." Clark forgotten, the young man wrapped his arms around Lucy. "Say, since your sister's not going to be going anywhere, how about we borrow the Jeep and take off for a couple of hours, hon?"

This was *unbelievable*! Lois stared at Lucy in amazement; her sister simply shrugged. Shifting her attention to Rocky then, Lois favoured him with a glacial stare. "*No-one* drives my car apart from me," she informed him, turning away to unlock the doors. Except for Clark the voice of her conscience pointed out, but she ignored that. Suddenly realising that she had an opportunity to get this obnoxious person out of her hair for the next few hours, she turned back to him. "However, if you want, I can drop you off in town. You can get a cab back later, I guess. Just make sure you're back for dinner."

"Sounds good to me," Rocky agreed. "Better than hanging around up here with nothing to do and making conversation with oldies," he muttered to Lucy.

Lois gritted her teeth again and started the engine, cursing Clark and looking forward to the moment when she would never have to see her sister's friend again.


**************

Clark landed on his apartment balcony and disappeared inside faster than a human eye could see him; as usual, although he was confident that his balcony wasn't visible from anywhere in the vicinity, he wasn't prepared to take the risk that he might be seen.

He'd just managed to get to the cruise ship in time; people had been frantically trying to break down interior doors so they could make it up onto the rapidly-submerging deck, and those already in the water were running out of energy as they tried to scramble onto the floatation devices or be hauled into the lifeboats. His abilities had been crucial, freeing those who were trapped, taking people to the safety of other ships which had come to assist, and supporting the stricken cruise ship for long enough that rescue workers could search for other survivors, or, in some cases, bodies.

He hated it when people died at an emergency where he was assisting; it always seemed to be a sign that he'd failed. And yet he knew that wasn't true. He'd talked it over with his parents on many occasions, and they'd reminded him time and again that he couldn't save everyone. He could only do as much as he was able.

That was what he'd done this afternoon; and hundreds of people were alive who might not have been if he hadn't been there. That was what he needed to keep telling himself.

After a quick shower, to rid himself of the smell of diesel and salt water, he hurriedly dressed again in his Clark clothes. He needed to get back up to the cabin... Lois would be furious by now, he realised with an inward groan. What had he told her to explain his absence? Precisely nothing, he remembered. Just that he had to go, and he'd asked her to trust him.

That was a good one, he mused with some irony as he combed his hair. Lois, trust a man? Well, she'd trust Superman, Clark reasoned. That was an idea... he could have Superman show up and explain to Lois that he'd needed Clark for a couple of hours because... because...

Because *what*? That was a stupid idea. Anyway, how was Superman supposed to have contacted Clark?

No, he'd just have to bluff his way through it.

One thing was for sure: she was going to be *mad.* Just how mad probably depended on how awful a time she'd had in his absence: whether Lucy and Rocky had managed to drive her completely crazy, whether her father had made any more unnecessary critical comments... on how her family had interpreted his absence.

After all, he had just run off on her out in the open, in broad daylight, in full view of her family. He hadn't made an excuse, such as needing to go... somewhere, or to obtain... something. He'd just run, leaving her to come up with an explanation for his behaviour. And, to any bystander, it would look as if he'd run from *her;* she'd be humiliated.

He hadn't had any choice, but that wasn't something he'd ever want to do to Lois.


*************

After leaving 'love's young dream,' as Lois sardonically referred to Lucy and Rocky, in town, she'd slowly turned to drive back to the cabin, wishing all the time that she could just head straight back to Metropolis. What point was there in staying? Was there any reason at all why she should feel obliged to participate any further in this farce? The only reason she hadn't gone home the previous evening had been that...

That Clark had talked her out of it.

And yet he'd bailed out himself, leaving her behind.

She pushed him from her mind, telling herself that he'd said he would be back. Perhaps he was back at the cabin already, waiting for her? Well, he'd better have a darned good explanation, she told herself.

But he wasn't at the cabin. Her parents, on the other hand, were. And they were on what looked like round ten of a full-scale argument. Her father was marching around the cabin's ground floor, furious, while her mother chased after him flinging accusation after accusation.

Lois had heard it all before, but she paused for a moment to listen. Nothing changed, it seemed. Her mother still blamed her father for her alcoholism. She still bore resentment about his affairs - which, Lois thought, was reasonable. But she found herself unwillingly sympathising with her father's taunt that he'd hardly felt welcome at home: Ellen Lane had surrounded herself with friends who'd only been interested in shopping, gossiping and indulging in liquid lunches.

But what about us? Lois thought bleakly as she listened. Lucy and herself; they had been left to bring themselves up, their parents' neglect leading them to believe that they were unwanted and no more than a nuisance.

Reminding herself that she had little reason to feel sympathy for either parent, she headed for the stairs. But her father saw her, and he broke off his tirade to frown at her.

"All alone, princess? Where's Clark?"

"We're not joined at the hip!" she snapped, before she'd had time to consider her reply. Still, her retort seemed not to have done any harm, since her father barely acknowledged her reply before turning back to answer her mother's latest charge.

She should have gone back to Metropolis. She would, once she'd packed; and once back, she would write to Perry asking to be assigned to a different partner. If Clark Kent could walk out on her here, when he knew how important pulling off this deception was to her, then he didn't deserve to be her partner - and anyway, she wanted nothing more to do with him.

What she couldn't understand was the *way* he'd done it. If he'd really had enough, all he had to do was *tell* her! They could both have left - it wouldn't have been that hard to come up with a reason to leave. Why had he just run off like that, with no explanation whatsoever? Where had he been going, anyway? she asked herself blankly. He'd been running *away* from the road, straight into the woods - he wouldn't have got back to the city that way!

So much for her earlier thoughts that he was an exception to the rule - damn, she'd even told him that, hadn't she? He was just as bad as every other man she'd ever met. Now, she wished she'd never kissed him earlier in the kitchen; that had been a mistake. And as for agreeing to go out with him, he could forget that! It wasn't going to happen. No way. He'd be lucky if she ever spoke to him again.

A soft noise outside the door made her look up. Clark stood in the doorway, his expression rueful.

"You!" she hissed at him.

He grimaced. "Lois, I'm sorry. I know I just ran off without any explanation, and, believe me, I hated having to do that. I came back as quick as I could."

She wanted to throw something at him. She looked around her; there was a lamp on the nightstand, a book beside it, a....

She looked away. Responding violently would only show him how much his actions had hurt her, and Lois Lane did not let anyone see that. Instead, she got to her feet and gave him a - she hoped - bored look. "So you decided to come back, then? I can't think why."

He stepped inside the room and closed the door. "Lois, your parents are downstairs re-enacting the Civil War. I'd really prefer not to do the same with you."

"Hah! You should be so lucky!" she snapped.

He sighed audibly. "Lois, I can guess that you've had a pretty horrible time since I left. And even if you hadn't, you're angry that I did it. You're entitled to be angry, too. So..." he paused, grimaced, then added, "Why don't we go outside, somewhere out of hearing of this place, and then you can yell at me all you want?"

She stared at him... and realised that she didn't want to yell at him any more. "Clark, where did you go?" she asked wearily. "What was so important, or so horrible about being with me and my family, that you just couldn't take it any longer?"

In under a second he was standing right in front of her, his hands cupping her shoulders. "Lois, it's not what you think. My leaving had *nothing* to do with you, or your family." His expression was as sincere as she'd ever seen from him; the concern and honesty in his gaze mirrored the way he'd looked at her last night when she'd been hurt by her father's remarks.

But she wasn't ready to be mollified. "No? Looked that way to me!"

He sat on the bed, reaching for her hand to tug her down beside him; he was stronger than she'd expected and, unable to pull her hand away, she ended up sitting beside him. She glared at him. "Okay, if you're determined to talk, we'll talk. But you're history, Kent! As soon as I get back to work on Monday - "

"Lois, if that's what you want, then I'll tell Perry myself," he interrupted her. "But let me explain first, okay?"

Lois grunted, unwilling to appear a willing participant in this discussion. She was actually intrigued to hear how Kent was going to explain this, but wild horses would never have made her admit it to him.

"Okay, first of all, I can't tell you why I had to go, or where I went," he began, making her gasp in incredulous amazement. "Please, just take my word for it, as your friend, that it was important. I *had* to go, Lois."

"How can I believe you?" she demanded. "How do I know that you didn't just go off on your own for a couple of hours to get away from - " She broke off; she'd intended to say 'my family,' but had almost said 'me.'

"You can believe it if you trust me," he replied. "Lois, you've known me for half a year. I know that's not all that long, but you should know by now whether or not you can trust me. Can you?"

She should jump up and tell him exactly where he could stuff his explanation that wasn't an explanation, she knew. She should tell him to get lost, that she wasn't going to be taken in by all this idiocy, that he could either tell her where he'd been or she would cut him loose. But there was something about Clark Kent's gaze....

"Okay," she said, reluctantly. "I suppose I sort of trust you. But if we're supposed to be friends, why shouldn't you tell me? Friends are supposed to tell each other things!" she objected.

"Do you tell me everything?" he asked quietly. She didn't answer, and after a moment he continued. "Lois, it was very important that I had to go, earlier. I'd never have run out on you otherwise. But I can't tell you where I went or what I was doing. Not yet. Maybe some time in the future... I don't know. I hope so. For now, I just want to ask you, as my friend, to accept what I'm telling you and please, not ask me any more questions - just trust me when I say that I had no choice?"

Lois was silent for a few moments, assessing his words. Could she just take him on trust? She'd never been able to give up on a mystery before, so why now? But then she smiled inwardly. Of course - it was obvious. She'd pretend to accept his story, but she'd devote all her efforts to finding out exactly what it was that Clark Kent was hiding. It was obvious that he was hiding something, but she hadn't the faintest idea what it could be. A secret lover, perhaps? Someone he'd arranged a tryst with, having told her - or *him,* she realised as a sudden, depressing thought occurred to her - where he'd be for the weekend?

Whatever it was, she would find out.

Turning to Clark then, she gave him a long-suffering smile. "Okay, Clark. I'm not happy about it, but if you're asking me to trust you, then I will. But I had no idea what to say to everyone else to explain your absence, so I hope you're going to help me!"

He smiled at that. "It's okay, I've thought of something. Tonight's the party for your mother, right?" She nodded. "I picked up a few things on my way back. We can tell them later that we'd decided that I was going to get some things ready for the party. Okay?"

She hadn't noticed the small bag he was carrying slung over his shoulder; now, he opened it and produced some home-made streamers and bunting, with 'Happy Birthday, Mother!" written on it in colourful ink. How had he managed to do that, up here miles from anywhere?

Yet another mystery to solve concerning Clark Kent. However, she agreed to his plan, keeping to herself her determination to find out more about her partner at the earliest opportunity.


*************

It had been a gamble, asking Lois to trust him like that, but Clark hadn't known what else he could do. He hadn't been able to think of any convincing explanation; his usual excuses for disappearing wouldn't work in this situation. And anyway, he'd realised that he just didn't want to lie to her yet again. It was probably foolish, since he knew everything she'd said and done this weekend was only part of the pretence, but somehow he felt as if they'd grown closer - much closer, and he couldn't bear the thought of concocting some flimsy excuse. That just seemed to suggest that he didn't care about her, and he knew that wasn't true.

Now, of course, she would be aware that he had a secret and, if he knew Lois, she would be constantly on the watch from now on, trying to find out what he was up to. He would have to be even more on his guard than usual...

Would it be so bad if Lois knew he was Superman? he wondered as they made their way downstairs. In the past, he'd dismissed such thoughts the instant they occurred to him: Superman's identity had to be kept a secret from everyone, otherwise he risked exposure. Lois was a journalist, and she'd see this as a Pulitzer-winning story. Lois had a major crush on Superman, and he couldn't bear to see her transfer that to *him,* Clark. It was safer for her, as well as for him, if she didn't know.

But now, he found himself addressing the question more seriously. Wouldn't it make things easier for him if he didn't have to struggle for excuses all the time with her? Perhaps she could even cover for him at work. She might respect him more if she knew... but then he wouldn't want her respect if it was only for that reason.

However, now was not the time to think about this, he realised as they reached the lower floor. Lois's parents were now in the living-room, and the volume of discussion had lowered somewhat, but it was clear that they were still arguing. And he could sense that Lois was becoming agitated: her heart-rate had increased and, he realised, glancing at her, she'd gone pale.

He touched her arm to attract her attention. "Come on. Let's go in the kitchen." It was getting near dinnertime anyway, and it didn't look as if any other member of the household was going to do anything about it in the near future.

A quick check of provisions and some questions to Lois made him decide on a Mexican buffet; he couldn't manage the refried beans, but there was rice and chicken and vegetables, some salsa and spices, and he could make flour tortillas easily enough. Giving Lois the vegetables to clean and chop, he got busy.

Ellen Lane wandered into the kitchen after about twenty minutes, looking flustered when she saw the activity in progress. "Oh! I was just coming to start dinner!" she announced.

Clark saw Lois's expression tighten, so he quickly intervened. "It's your birthday party this evening, Ellen - you shouldn't have to cook."

"No, I shouldn't, and what's more I should never have nagged Lois's father into arranging this weekend," she said snippily, sinking into a chair. "It's been a disaster from start to finish - first Sam's late picking me up, and then Lucy arrives with that *very* strange and rude young man - and heaven only knows where they've disappeared to now! Why she couldn't have let me introduce her to Neil like I wanted to - he would be perfect for her!"

"Mother, Lucy's too young to want to settle down," Lois objected wearily.

"She's almost twenty-three!" Ellen replied instantly. "I was married and had a baby by that age!"

Clark could imagine Lois's thoughts at that, and decided to intervene before this got unpleasant. "I think people in general are marrying later these days," he observed calmly. "It's a lot harder to get a job than it used to be, and people want to get a place of their own and take their time looking before they settle down."

"Lucy's problem is she wants to take too many free samples first," Ellen snapped. "As for you, Lois, you act as if there's all the time in the world. If you're not careful, all the good, reliable men will be gone by the time you decide you're ready to look."

"I thought there were no good, reliable men," Lois retorted, and Clark quickly crossed to her side, slipping his arm around her waist. He felt her tense for a moment before relaxing against him.

"Ellen, I think you're forgetting something," he pointed out gently, drawing the older woman's attention to them. As she looked across, Clark deliberately leaned forward and dropped a kiss on the top of Lois's head.

"Oh... well..." she muttered, her attitude now making it clear that she wasn't over-impressed by her elder daughter's choice. "But what exactly are your intentions towards my daughter, Clark?"

He felt Lois stiffen, so he tightened his arm around her in a warning gesture. "That's something I really should discuss with Lois first, don't you think? We haven't been together all that long."

"Yes, but are you just... sampling?" Ellen demanded, her voice and expression revealing her distaste.

Lois was about to speak, and Clark knew very well what was likely to happen if she did; quickly, he laid a finger over her mouth. "Please, honey, it's okay. I can handle this." Turning to Ellen, he spoke coolly. "Actually, that's a pretty unpleasant way to describe my relationship with Lois, and it's offensive to both of us. I don't know what you expect me to say - do you want me to go down on one knee right now, and then sweep her off to the nearest jewellery store tonight? If I was going to do that, I'd do it in private, for one thing. But, for another, whatever my own feelings on the matter, for some reason I don't think Lois is ready to hear something like that yet. And I've wondered why... that is, until this weekend."

Ellen flushed angrily. "Well, you can blame her father for that - "

"I blame both of you!" Lois snapped at last. "Why would I want to get married, when I had your example to show me what married life is like? Though now I've met Clark's parents, I can see not everyone's experience is like that," she added, more calmly. "You've been attacking Clark every chance you get today, Mother. But what you don't know is that he's done me more good than you ever did."

Clark caught his breath. Did she mean that, or was it all part of Lois's pretence? She was angry; was she so good an actor that she could remain in character even as she reacted furiously to her mother? That seemed unlikely; but so was the thought that Lois could see him in that light.

However, an angry scene like this wasn't helping Lois, or her mother. Still holding onto Lois, Clark spoke again, this time more calmly. "Ellen, I'm sorry I spoke to you the way I did just now. Look, this is your birthday, and I don't think any of us want to spoil it. So why don't you leave Lois and me to get dinner ready, and you go and lie down for a while, or maybe take a bath?" He was almost about to add that Lois could bring up a glass of wine, but remembered her alcoholism just in time.

Ellen shrugged. "I suppose I should."

"You do that. We'll see you later, Mother," Lois agreed.

After Ellen had left, closing the door behind her, Lois slumped against Clark. "I can't believe I let her do that to me again! I told myself I wasn't going to lose my temper or make accusations - it never helps, and only makes me feel worse. And here I did exactly what I swore I wasn't going to do!"

"You were provoked," Clark commented quietly. "I don't just mean by your mother now, but by everything that's happened since we got here."

"I guess," she agreed, but she still looked troubled. She turned to face him fully. "Clark... would you just hug me?"

"Sure," he answered immediately, his breath catching in his throat at the pain in her expression. He slid both arms around her, pulling her against him; she laid her head on his shoulder and after a few moments he felt her body relax against his.

After an interval, she drew back and gave him a shaky smile. "Thanks - I needed that. And... um, Clark... thanks for what you said to my mother. I know this is all an act, but... well, I don't know when anyone's ever stood up for me like that."

Longing to tell her that he hadn't been pretending, Clark forced himself to give her a light smile. "Well... you know, it wasn't all pretence." What did you say that for? he demanded of himself silently. Now she's going to want to know what wasn't!

But Lois just nodded. "Thanks." As she reached for the knife again to continue chopping vegetables, she added, "And what I said about you - I meant that." She didn't elaborate, but Clark guessed she was referring to her contrast between him and her parents.

But his enhanced senses told him that she was, emotionally, on the verge of breaking down; and his knowledge of her told him that she would hate to lose control in front of him. So he simply squeezed her shoulder in an encouraging gesture and got on with preparing the meal.


**************

Lois had expected that dinner would be another nightmare, with her parents still mad at each other and Lucy and Rocky doing their best to re-enact 91/2 Weeks in front of everyone. But, to her surprise, her father seemed to be on his best behaviour, producing a bottle of non-alcoholic wine for her mother, and acting as if that afternoon's loud and lengthy argument had never happened. Her mother, in total contrast to her behaviour in the kitchen, responded to her ex-husband's solicitousness with girlish simpers.

Catching Clark's eye, Lois gave him a 'can you believe this?' look; he responded with a grin and a wink.

Lucy and Rocky, while still behaving as if they were extras in an orgy scene, had at least made an effort to smarten up; Rocky's hair was still spiky, but at least the spikes were all headed in the same direction.

After dessert, birthday presents for Ellen were produced; Rocky's bottle of wine was received in embarrassed silence, and Lois was glad to see that Lucy actually glared at her boyfriend. Lois had bought a voucher for a day's treatment at a beauty salon, which she said was from her and Clark; she'd thought her mother would enjoy the pampering, since she loved having manicures and facials. However, Ellen's thanks seemed half-hearted, given that she added that she was only fifty, not over the hill. The designer blouse from Lucy seemed to be a more successful gift, until Ellen declared that, actually, she never wore green. And Sam's gift of one of his newly-patented stomach toners simply earned him a frosty glare.

Over coffee, the conversation turned to recent scientific speculation about life on other planets. Sam Lane intervened after a few minutes to scoff disparagingly. "There is no intelligent life out there. If there was, we would know about it by now. The idea that there are aliens from other planets capable of communicating with us is nonsense."

Lois noticed Clark seeming to stiffen beside her, and assumed that his reaction was for the same reason as her own. "Come on, Dad, that's ridiculous! What about Superman?"

"He's no alien," Sam insisted with a sceptical laugh.

"You've seen what he can do, Dad! If he's not an alien, then what is he?" Lois was first to challenge her father's certainty, though Lucy and Rocky also joined in the protests. Clark, however, was oddly silent.

"A cyborg, of course!" Sam pronounced. "Naturally, that's what he is. It stands to reason that there's no way he could really be from another planet."

"A cyborg?" This time, several voices came at once, including Clark's, Lois noticed. "Come on, that's just impossible!" Lucy added loudly.

"I've worked with cyborgs," Sam stated patronisingly. "I am well aware of what they are capable, and Superman is beyond any doubt a cyborg."

Lois shook her head, unable to accept that her father really believed what he was saying. "Look, Superman flies. And he can do things with his eyes - set things on fire! And his Super-breath - he froze people! And he puts out fires with it. How could a cyborg do that?"

"Well," Sam drawled, "I know I would love to meet the person who designed the technology. Superman uses far more advanced technology than in the cyber-limbs I was working with a couple of months ago. I have to admit, I have no idea how his creators managed to achieve the flying."

"This is ridiculous!" Lois exclaimed. "I've *met* Superman, remember? And so has Clark! He's not a cyborg! And I've interviewed him - he told me himself that he came from Krypton."

"And where exactly is Krypton?" Sam scoffed. "Have any astronomers come forward to authenticate his claim? The place doesn't exist."

"We don't know that!" Clark interjected at last; Lois noticed that his expression was pale and he seemed to be very agitated. She frowned; was Superman a closer friend of Clark's than she'd thought? Was this why he seemed to be taking it so seriously?

"I'm enough of a scientist to know when a claim is utterly ridiculous," Sam retorted. "Lois, since you know Superman, you can help me here. Get him - *it* to come and see me - I want to examine it, see how it all works. And if it'll tell me who built it, even better."

Lois stared incredulously at her father. "You have to be kidding! You think *I* would ask Superman to submit himself to being... poked and prodded and inspected by you, just so you can try to prove he's something he's not? And anyway, he's invulnerable, so how do you think you're going to examine him?"

"There's always a way," Sam observed, a steely glint in his eye.

Lois glared at her father. "Not with my help."

"Come on, Princess! Think of the story! I'll give you an exclusive once I've written up my paper for the scientific journals!"

"Some things are worth more than a story," Lois replied firmly, barely pausing to think about what she was saying. "Like friendship and loyalty. I think you're wrong, but there's no way I'm going to help you find out. Superman's saved my life and the lives of friends of mine, and I won't repay him like this."

"That's not very professional of you, Lois," Sam drawled. "Perhaps that's why the only awards you've won so far are local, Metropolis, ones. To win the real awards, the ones that count, you need to show rather more ambition than you're doing at the moment. Emotion will get you nowhere."

Lois expected Clark to leap in and defend her - defend both of them, since they were partners - as he'd been doing ever since the previous evening. This time, he was oddly silent. Casting a swift glance at him, she saw that his expression was strained. She turned back to her father. "Actually, my ambition and my intention of winning further awards are as strong as ever. And I'm going to get that Pulitzer one day. But it won't be through betraying a friend, I can promise you that."

She got up, laying her hand lightly on Clark's shoulder. "I'm tired. I think I'll go to bed - coming, Clark?"

He gave her a sharp questioning glance; she knew what he was asking. He was reminding her of their pretence, and asking whether she wanted him to say that he'd be up later.

She shook her head quickly. "Let's go."


*************

Clark followed Lois from the room, frankly relieved to be out of her father's company. *He* was sure that he wasn't a cyborg; it had been hard enough for him to come to terms with discovering that he was actually an alien from another planet, though that had been better than suspecting that he was some sort of experiment. Sam's insistence that he had to be a cyborg had hurt him deeply; even more so once Dr Lane had started referring to him - or his alter ego - as 'it'. He was a man; okay, he wasn't human, but he had emotions and reactions just like any other man. He didn't have a computer for a brain - he was Superman, not MetalMan! He might not feel physical pain, but he could experience emotional hurt as easily as anyone else.

And he *wasn't* a cyborg!

Okay, he had no proof that he'd come from Krypton; all he had was the globe, which had glowed and seemed to speak silently to him when he'd handled it. No words had been articulated, but somehow, in that moment, he knew. Krypton was his home planet. Not that he would tell anyone but his parents about that - who'd believe him? And he didn't want to be chased by any more nuts like Trask who were convinced that anything alien, or which possessed abilities not normally found on Earth, was dangerous.

He'd found it very difficult to listen to the discussion; he'd deliberately stayed out of it apart from the one intervention when he'd found it impossible to stay silent any longer. It wasn't a sensible argument for him to get involved in; he'd only over-react because of his personal involvement, and how could he explain that?

He wasn't a cyborg. He had no intention of doing anything to prove otherwise, though. Sam Lane's theory was certainly not accepted in the scientific community, so it was hardly likely that anyone apart from the sillier tabloids would listen to him. Clark had no intention of allowing any scientist, reputable or not, to examine him; his father's warnings about being dissected like a frog came back to him, although he barely needed the reminder.

Lois's defence of Superman had been very interesting, though, he acknowledged as he followed her up the stairs. Of course he'd expected that she'd deny her father's claim; she thought she loved Superman. But she'd gone further; she'd talked about loyalty to friends being more important than a story.

Did that mean that, if she knew Superman's real identity, she wouldn't print it - even if that was the exclusive which would win her the elusive Pulitzer?

Did he really want to find out?

He sighed. If he ever wanted Lois to be more than a friend, he would have to tell her some day. But he still couldn't reconcile that wish with wanting to be sure that she'd chosen him for *himself,* for Clark Kent, and not because he could fly.

Once in the bedroom, Lois closed the door firmly and turned to face Clark. "I'm sorry," she mumbled, her face flushed, clearly embarrassed.

Clark frowned slightly. Did she know something... had she figured it out? Watching her warily, he said nothing; let her give away what she knew first.

She turned away from him and went to fuss at some items on the nightstand. "My father... I've always known what he's like, and I hate it, but there's no reason why you should have been exposed to that. He... I don't know if he really believes that about Superman, but that's not the point. His behaviour was offensive."

She didn't know. Clark breathed a sigh of relief before crossing the room to stand behind Lois. "He was pretty offensive to you," he said softly. "Looks like I might have been right about what I said last night, about him being jealous of your success."

She turned to glance at him, grimacing. "Yeah, maybe. But that still doesn't excuse..."

"No. It doesn't," Clark agreed. It was no wonder Lois was a difficult person to get close to, he mused. With a family like this, she'd no doubt learned long ago not to look for love or approval. And yet, somewhere deep inside her, she still believed in the fairy-tale notion of happy ever after; he was sure of that. If only he could find a way to get through to that side of her....

But right now, there were other, more practical things to deal with. Like the fact that it was bedtime....

"We're leaving right after breakfast tomorrow, right?" Lois was now looking determined.

"Yeah, sure." He had no wish to stay any longer, anyway. "Um... want me to go and take a walk for half an hour or so?" he offered, partly from a sense of obligation: she needed privacy to go to bed and fall asleep. From his own point of view, he knew he'd feel more comfortable if she was asleep by the time he came to bed; last night had been difficult, but how much worse would it have been if...? And anyway, Superman should probably fly a patrol.

Expecting her to agree, he walked over to the door.


*************

Lois now realised that when she'd insisted that Clark accompany her out of the room downstairs, she hadn't given a thought to what would happen once they got *upstairs.* This was the room they were sharing, the room they were to sleep in. Together. Tonight. *Now.*

And Clark had just offered to make himself scarce for a while, to give her privacy, just as he'd done last night.

And... suddenly she knew she didn't want him to do it.

"Clark?" Her tentative use of his name made him pause with his hand on the doorknob.

He turned, looking at her with a quizzical expression. "Lois? Was there something you wanted me to do first?"

She shook her head. "No. I don't want you to go."

He paused, his entire posture indicating that he was very taken aback. "Lois... you don't?"

"No. I... I'd like to talk, Clark. If that's okay with you, that is," she added quickly, realising that *he* might be embarrassed about sharing the room.

But he released his grip on the doorknob. "Sure it is. I'd like that, Lois."

Now it was her turn to be embarrassed. "Um... you can use the bathroom first, okay?

He nodded, collected his things and left the room, leaving Lois wondering whether she'd done the right thing. Did she really want to go to bed *with* Clark? - oh, not with any sexual intimacies in mind, but in terms of the routine of intimacy which couples went through every night without thinking. He would return from the bathroom, probably already dressed in his sleepwear since he'd taken a bundle of clothes with him, she would go to get washed, then they'd both climb into bed together and...

And *talk*!

After today, there was a lot she wanted to talk to Clark about; and somehow she guessed that if she didn't seize the opportunity to ask him tonight she'd lose her nerve - at least about some of it. She still intended to find out exactly what his secret was, what he'd been up to during the afternoon, but she wouldn't say anything to him about that. There were other things, though....

Realising that he'd already been gone several minutes, she quickly scrambled into the large knee-length T-shirt she'd brought to sleep in, and was ready to head for the bathroom when she saw the doorknob turn. Clark re-entered, wearing a sleeveless T-shirt and a pair of sleep shorts; somehow, although she'd seen him wearing less than that, the sight of him made her swallow....

With a muttered apology, she fled to the bathroom.

Calm down, Lois! she told herself. It's only Clark. You see him every day - why go weak at the knees now, for heaven's sake? She splashed her face with cold water before brushing her teeth; she needed to calm down.

Returning to the bedroom a few minutes later, she found Clark reclining on the bed reading, the top spread draped over his lower limbs; that, at least, was something of a relief. Dropping her robe on the floor by the bed, she hurriedly climbed under the sheets. He glanced at her briefly before looking away again, and she saw the beginnings of a blush on his face; that made her pause. He was as nervous as she was, and they weren't even going to do anything!

It was her fault; perhaps she should have let him go for a walk as he'd suggested. But she hadn't wanted that; she'd wanted to talk. So she would have to start the conversation. That wasn't too difficult...

She reached out to touch his arm; his skin felt warm and smooth beneath her fingertips. "Clark - I wanted to thank you for earlier. With my mom, I mean. You were really great."

He put his book down, turning to smile at her; it wasn't his full-blown megawatt smile, but not far off it. "I'm glad I could help. I know it's none of my business, but I really can't understand why your parents treat you and Lucy the way they do. I guess I was spoilt with my folks - but you're so witty and intelligent and... well, beautiful that I can't understand why they don't just love you unconditionally."

Lois sighed, wishing... "I don't know that I believe in 'unconditional' love, Clark. There's always strings - I'll love you if you're thinner, if you stop drinking, if you stop having affairs, if you do what I want you to do..." She trailed off, unwilling to reveal her hurt at her parents' treatment of her any further. Oh, Clark was probably right in what he'd said to her the previous night: her parents did love her. But not the way she wanted them to; they wanted her to conform to some image which they thought their daughter should match, and they'd never recognised that Lois was not like that.

"Lois, that's not true!" Clark objected. "Okay, you've had a rough deal - and your parents' marriage wasn't exactly a picnic. But look at my parents - what does their relationship tell you? And they've never set conditions to their love for me. They love me regardless of what I do, which makes me want to be the best I can be for them," he added with a wry grin.

"You were lucky with your parents," Lois observed, trying to keep her envy from showing in her voice.

He reached across and took her hand in his, squeezing gently. "I know. And I wish you could have..." His voice trailed off; he fell silent and instead stroked the back of her hand with his thumb.

The gesture was comforting; in fact, more than comforting, and Lois found herself wanting to turn to Clark, to ask him to hug her again, to... do more than hug her. But she didn't know whether that was a good idea. Oh, sure, she'd been thinking about Clark as a possible romantic partner when they'd been out on the lake with Lucy and Rocky - but that had been before he'd run off on her. And while he'd asked her to trust him, assuring her that he had a good reason for having done so, he was still keeping secrets from her. And she didn't like that. All the time she'd been growing up she'd felt excluded from things the grown-ups knew about, and her questions had met with 'it's not something you should know about,' or other similar uninformative responses.

And now her partner was keeping secrets from her.

But he was still her partner, and her friend, and the person who'd protected her from the worst of her parents' bad behaviour this weekend. Except for during the Superman discussion....

"Clark," she began, "you were very quiet when my father was expounding his idiotic Superman-is-a-cyborg theory."

He sighed; Clark sighed a lot, Lois thought, and it occurred to her to wonder whether it wasn't sometimes a delaying tactic. Running his free hand through his hair then, he grimaced and replied, apparently cheerfully, "Actually, I thought you were doing pretty well there, Lois - good enough for both of us."

"Maybe," she countered. "But you looked tense - as if you felt under some sort of pressure. And the only time you did say something, you sounded kind of stressed." She'd thought he seemed noticeably uncomfortable with the discussion; had it somehow touched a nerve with him? And if so, how? It was as if he'd somehow taken what was being said about Superman personally - but she couldn't understand why that should be the case.

Again, he paused before answering; when he did speak, his gaze was focused down on the comforter. "Superman's a friend of mine, Lois - you know that, don't you? I... well, I thought that if I did say anything I wouldn't be able to keep it objective. And that wouldn't help, so I just stayed quiet. After all, it's not as if I could prove anything either way."

Lois supposed that could make sense. Clark was fiercely loyal to his friends, even more than she was, and she'd heard him get angry in defence of a friend a couple of times. "So... you don't think he's a cyborg?" she asked him.

That seemed to take him by surprise; he gave her an incredulous look before it was wiped from his face a bare second later, replaced by a blander expression. "Do you, Lois? It sure didn't sound as if you did, downstairs."

"No, I don't!" she quickly answered. "But... well, part of me couldn't help wondering whether I just wanted that to be true. I mean, he's a friend of mine too, and..." she paused, blushing, then decided that since Clark probably knew anyway, confessing probably wasn't too much to get embarrassed about. "And since I've kind of had a crush on him since I met him, I didn't want it to be true."

Again Clark was silent for a few moments; then he cast a quick glance in her direction and asked, "Did he feel like a cyborg when he kissed you?"

Lois wondered fleetingly how Clark knew about that, but realised that, since there had been several witnesses to the kiss at the airport, it was hardly surprising that he'd heard. "No, he didn't. He felt... like a man." A very attractive man, who'd kissed her like she'd never been kissed before....

That had been a pretty spectacular kiss. But then, so had Clark's kiss, earlier, in the kitchen; so good that she'd been thinking about it on and off all day. Glancing quickly at her partner now, she wondered what he'd say if she asked for a repeat performance; but he appeared to be deep in thought and she decided that he probably wouldn't welcome it. And anyway, she still wasn't sure whether she wanted to take that risk with their friendship.

He was still wearing his glasses, although, like her, he'd slid down so that he was almost lying flat, simply propped up by a pillow beneath his shoulders. It looked like he'd finished reading for the night, since he'd closed his book and put it on the far side of the nightstand. Come to think of it, Lois realised suddenly, she'd never seen her partner without his glasses. Was his sight so bad that he couldn't see anything without them? Would she be just a blur without them?

Suddenly, without her even giving the action any conscious thought at all, Lois's free hand snaked its way up towards Clark's face. Her fingers had closed around the lenses of his glasses before his other hand came up to cover hers. "No!"

His agitated response had her staring at him. Then he sighed and gently pulled her hand away, placing it on her other hand and enclosing both within his own hands. "Sorry, Lois - I guess I over-reacted. I... I'm just very sensitive about anyone touching me anywhere around my eyes, I think."

"Oh," she responded in a small voice, feeling embarrassed, as if she'd trespassed.

He squeezed her hands briefly before releasing them. "I think maybe we should get some sleep," he suggested in a matter-of-fact voice. "You did say you want to leave after breakfast?"

"Yeah." Definitely, she thought. No way could she take any more of this family 'togetherness.' She leaned across to switch off her beside light. "Goodnight, Clark."

The room was plunged into darkness as his own light went out, then she felt his lips drop a brief kiss on the top of her head. Perhaps he wasn't too annoyed with her, then. Was that what his kiss implied? "Goodnight, Lois," she heard him whisper. "Sleep well."


**************

Lois might sleep well, but he wasn't sure that he would, Clark mused as he tried to put from his mind the fact that he was lying inches away from the woman he loved. He should have gone out earlier - apart from anything else, he should have flown a patrol - but there had been something in Lois's voice when she'd asked him to stay, a pleading note that he just hadn't been able to refuse.

And anyway, it wasn't as if he hadn't welcomed the idea of spending some time alone with her, without any of her family or Lucy's hanger-on around. As much as this weekend had been nightmarish in some of its elements, he felt it had brought them closer. Lois now saw him as more of a friend than she had before; she trusted him more than ever before. And although his having to fly off earlier had seemed as if it had damaged their fragile friendship, in the end it might even have strengthened it. She'd responded really well to his request that she trust him.

But he'd regretted agreeing to stay as soon as he'd returned to the bedroom and seen her in that T-shirt. Sighing inwardly at the memory, he tried to persuade his recalcitrant body to relax. At least, though, Lois wasn't likely to notice anything now. If she hadn't left the room so quickly earlier, it would have been another matter....

Their conversation had been something of a minefield, too; it had been hard coming up with an explanation to justify his lack of response to Sam Lane's cyborg nonsense. And when Lois had tried to remove his glasses.... He wondered wryly whether she would actually have recognised him as Superman; he still couldn't really believe that the glasses were that much of a disguise. Okay, there was the altered hairstyle, the fact that he held himself more rigidly as Superman and spoke more formally; but he'd come to the conclusion a long time ago that the main thing which made the disguise work was that it didn't look like a disguise. By not wearing a mask, Superman didn't look as if he had anything to hide. And anyone looking for Superman would never expect to find him in a reporter for the Daily Planet.

So maybe she might not have recognised him. But if she had... well, that was a whole new can of worms, he mused. He still hadn't come to a conclusion about the question which he'd been mulling over on and off since getting back from helping with the cruise ship: was it time to tell Lois?

He just didn't know.


**************

Daylight was forcing its way through the curtained window when Lois blinked and slowly opened her eyes. She'd slept well, surprisingly, and actually felt rested. Stretching, she suddenly realised that she was pinned down on the bed by a dead weight.

Investigating, she discovered that it was Clark's arm. He must have rolled over in the night, for he was now facing her, lying very close to her, and his arm was around her waist, holding her next to him. He was still asleep, apparently, for he didn't seem to have noticed that she was stirring. Some part of her recognised that, oddly, she didn't actually mind the fact that he'd trespassed on her personal space or that he was pinning her down; she carefully avoided asking herself why not.

Instead, she took advantage of this rare opportunity to study her partner. He *had* removed his glasses - last night she'd even wondered in some amusement whether he slept in them. His hair fell loosely over his forehead, one slightly longer lock half-obscuring one eye. The mole above his upper lip was more obvious now that she was closer to him, but somehow it didn't detract from his attractiveness.

He blinked, then his eyes opened fully and he was staring into her eyes; without the barrier of glasses, she felt as if she could drown in the hazy dark brown pools gazing at her. And his pupils seemed to grow darker as she stared....

"Clark." Her voice was unexpectedly husky; the hand which came up to caress his face seemed not to be controlled by her conscious mind.

"Lois..." His voice was a sigh, and the movement of his body towards her seemed somehow natural and expected. He slid closer, his upper body covering hers, and his lips closed over hers in a warm, sensual caress. Instinctively, her arms went around him, holding him close to her as she returned his kiss.

He felt so good; his mouth on hers sending a surge of sensation through her, causing her to yearn for more, to long for him to touch her, to want to touch him... she ran her hand over his back, exploring the feel of his taut muscles and the notches of his spine through the thin cotton of his T-shirt. If only he hadn't been so gentlemanly in his insistence on sleeping on top of the covers.... She would... they could be closer to each other, he could touch her properly, they could explore each other...

Lost in the sensation, she allowed his tongue entry to her mouth and moaned softly in her throat as she felt him start to push away the comforter which formed such an unwanted barrier between them.


**************

Clark was having a wonderful dream. He'd dreamt that he'd woken up to find Lois in his arms, gazing at him longingly, and he'd done what he'd always wanted to do - slid closer to her and begun to kiss her passionately, as he'd always dreamed of doing. In his dream, she was beautifully responsive, sliding herself nearer to him, wrapping her arms around him to pull him closer, caressing his back - oh, and how he wished she'd let her hand explore beneath his T-shirt.

In his dream, for when he was dreaming he could do whatever he wanted, he thrust his tongue forward to slide it into Lois's mouth, his hands reaching to push the bedclothes aside. He wanted - *needed* - to get closer to her, and the comforter was just in the way....

He heard her moan as her tongue came to meet his; the sound was so clear, so *real* that he could almost believe he wasn't....

He wasn't dreaming. Oh God... he wasn't dreaming.

Abruptly he dragged himself away, sitting up, running his hand frantically through his hair as he tried to get to grips with the embarrassment. He had practically assaulted Lois! Okay, he'd been asleep, but that was no excuse! What if... oh, *God,* what if he hadn't woken up? How far would he have gone?

Why hadn't she stopped him?

He became aware that she was sitting up next to him, clutching the sheet against her upper body. Closing his eyes despairingly - she was never going to forgive him for this - he said shakily, "Lois, I'm sorry. I was... I guess I was dreaming, and I... just didn't know what I was doing. I'm so sorry."

Silence. He didn't dare look at her; he could imagine her expression. She was no doubt furious, deciding that she could never trust him again. He could hear her breathing heavily, no doubt from rage at his behaviour.

Then she spoke, at last, her voice strained. "Forget it, Clark. Like you said, you didn't know what you were doing - and it's not as if anything really happened. Nothing more than when you kissed me at the Lexor to stop the chambermaid seeing anything she shouldn't, I guess," she added, sounding weary.

He heard the rustle of bedclothes, and glanced around a moment later to see her standing beside the bed, in the act of wrapping her robe around her. "I'm going to take a shower," she informed him. "I... I guess I'll see you later."

He flopped back on the bed, eyes rigidly closed, knowing that he'd probably destroyed any possibility that she would ever trust him, ever accept that he wasn't like any other man she'd been involved with. Only interested in one thing, she'd told him once, in a late-night conversation when they'd been on a stakeout; only out to chalk up another notch on their bedposts. And now, he'd just given her every reason to believe that he was exactly the same.

Okay, she'd made light of it following his apology, but her increased heart-rate had shown him that she was agitated; her precipitate flight from the bedroom had confirmed his conclusion. For all he knew, she'd been half-asleep too; for all he knew, she could have been imagining that it was Superman who'd held her in his arms, kissed her senseless.

But just as he was promising himself that he would never lay a finger on Lois again, that he would volunteer to ask Perry to reassign him, he heard his mother's voice almost as clearly as if she was standing beside him, telling him not to give up so easily; that if he really thought he'd messed up then the best thing to do was to acknowledge that it had happened, do what he could to make up for it, and *move on.* There was simply no point in obsessing over and over about his mistakes. It was done; he had to accept it and let it go.

Whether Lois could be persuaded to do so was another matter entirely; but his behaviour in the immediate future would no doubt have some bearing on her response.

Resolute now, he got to his feet and pulled on his jeans, grabbing his glasses as he strode from the bedroom.


************

She'd been foolish to imagine that it had been real, Lois thought as she scrubbed herself savagely in the shower, as if by vigorous application of sponge and shower-gel she could blot out the feel of Clark's lips on hers, his hands on her shoulders as he'd begun to peel away the comforter, the heavy, heady sensation of his body half-lying over hers.

He'd been asleep the whole time. No wonder his eyes had looked hazy when he'd opened them and stared at her. The memory of Clark's mortified voice as he'd apologised to her made her squirm yet again.

And she'd *encouraged* him! Had kissed him back, had held him to her, had wanted him to take the kiss further - much further, if she was honest with herself.

And all the time Clark had been asleep, had thought he was dreaming. Probably thinking about some woman he found attractive, someone he knew or lived hear or admired from a distance, like a movie star or a model.

But... he'd spoken *her* name. Just before he'd kissed her, he'd said her name, softly, a murmur - so he had to have been thinking about her, her rational side, finally asserting itself, reminded her. And she was pretty sure that Clark was attracted to her. So why not believe that he'd meant it - that he'd done in his sleep what he longed to do awake?

However persuasive that argument was, part of her refused to let her believe it. Why would Clark want her? She just wasn't the kind of person he would fall in love with, want to be with - and, despite her rather lurid imaginings the previous day, somehow she knew that, for Clark, making love meant *being* in love. She wasn't a nice person, a loveable person. And Clark had spent the last couple of days in the company of her dysfunctional family, which surely suggested that he'd want to run a mile in the opposite direction rather than contemplate getting involved with Lois Lane.

Towelling herself dry, she blinked away tears. How blind she'd been all those months, working next to Clark and not noticing how attractive he was, what a decent person he was, and how - how *real* next to someone like Superman who, incredibly handsome he might be, was nevertheless far out of her reach. She'd ignored Clark - in fact, she'd done more than ignore him; she'd actually been rude and unkind to him.

But she had to look forward, not back; and she was going to have to come out of that bathroom sooner or later. Clark's mortified behaviour suggested that he was going to find the next couple of hours, until they got back to their respective homes, awkward; it was up to her to show that she'd put what had happened from her mind and to treat him as the good friend she hoped he'd remain.

And hope that he'd forget just how wantonly she'd writhed in his arms this morning, clung to him and kissed him. Heaven only knew what he'd think of that, if he remembered....

Re-entering the bedroom a few minutes later, she thought with some surprise that she could smell coffee; when her gaze fell on the mug on her nightstand she realised that she wasn't imagining things. Clark had clearly been busy in her absence.

A shadow fell across the open bedroom door, and she turned to see her partner standing there, looking apologetic but otherwise normal; his glasses were in place but he needed a shave and his hair was untidy, which actually made him look even more ruggedly attractive. "You okay, Lois?" he asked softly. "I'd hate it if I... scared you or made you want never to see me again."

He didn't think she was sluttish... Shaking her head, she fixed her gaze at a point on the door-frame somewhere to the left of Clark's shoulder. "No... no, you didn't do that. I think... maybe we should forget it ever happened, okay?" That should find out whether he'd meant it or not, she thought. If he really *had* wanted to kiss her, dreaming or not, wouldn't he object, saying he didn't want to forget it?

But his body relaxed, and he nodded. "Yeah, I think that would be best."

She felt a stab of almost physical pain at his words. Turning away to pick up the mug, she said, without looking at him, "Thanks for the coffee."

"No problem." He paused for a moment, then added, "I'm going to get a shower - see you downstairs?"

Nodding, she didn't allow herself to look at him while he collected his wash-things and clean clothes; once he'd gone, she quickly packed and took her weekend bag out to the Jeep so they could make a quick getaway.

Only her father was in the kitchen when she walked in a few minutes later; he was fiddling with the control on the toaster, muttering something about there having to be a happy medium between burnt and anaemic. He glanced up as she refilled her coffee cup. "Good morning, Princess!"

She grunted a greeting back, but he wasn't to be deterred. "I thought last night went off pretty well, didn't you? Your mother should be happy."

Lois stared at him; this man was her father, had known her for twenty-seven years, and yet he still hadn't the faintest idea of how her mind worked. It was barely credible, but it seemed as if he genuinely didn't recognise that he'd managed to upset at least two people the previous evening. Lucy and Rocky hadn't been so bothered by the discussion; they'd disagreed with her father's conclusion, but had treated the whole debate as an enjoyable argument. Ellen Lane, on the other hand, had almost shrunk into a corner, sipping her non-alcoholic wine and looking more and more miserable.

But she wasn't going to argue with him; what was the point? "If you say so, Daddy," she replied tonelessly, opening the packaging on a chocolate cereal bar.

"So where's your other half this morning?" Sam asked, clearly trying to show some interest in his daughter's life.

"Clark's in the shower," she told him, in a voice which didn't encourage conversation.

"Hmmm. You know, you could do a lot better than him," Sam pointed out in what, to Lois, sounded a very overbearing tone.

"You think so?" she threw back, in what anyone at the Planet would have recognised as a dangerous tone.

"Sure I do! I bet he doesn't even earn as much as you do. Oh, he's not stupid, I'll give him that, but he's stuck in a job that's never going to go very far. And he's too much of a nice guy, and you know what they say about nice guys."

"Oh?" Lois enquired, her voice growing even more dangerous. "And who do you think would be a better choice for a date? Someone like Lex Luthor, perhaps?"

Sam chuckled. "Now there's a man I admire. Self-made, a very respectable fortune, knows his friends and his enemies, and he's extremely personable. If I could have *him* for a son-in-law, I'd be very, very happy." He paused for another chuckle. "No chance of that, of course! I couldn't see a man like Lex Luthor looking twice at you, more's the pity."

Gritting her teeth, Lois got up to rinse out her coffee-cup. As usual, her father had just demonstrated that he really didn't have a clue about her life or the things she valued, and had - if she'd been dating Clark for real - insulted her and her judgement in men. In fact, he'd insulted her anyway, because she had chosen Clark over Lex in a way. "You know, you're wrong there, Daddy. As it happens, Lex Luthor has asked me out. But I'm not interested. And, just so you know, Lex may be the third richest man in the world, but Clark's worth ten of him. Not that you'd understand why for one minute, but then, I've decided I don't much care what you think. You weren't around enough when I did care, so it's too late to pretend an interest now."

With that, she marched straight to the door, almost crashing into Clark, who was on his way in. He caught her by the shoulders to steady her, his expression surprised; she gave him a wobbly smile and headed outside for some fresh air to help her cool down.


***************

After Lois had brushed past him, Clark had needed to pause for a moment to collect his scattered thoughts. She'd told her father that he was worth ten of Lex Luthor? Well, given what he suspected about the billionaire, that wasn't much of a compliment, but Lois and the population of Metropolis at large weren't aware of that.

Oh, it was more than possible that Lois had only said it as part of the pretence; even knowing that, however, he was surprisingly gratified by it. But he forced himself to forget about that, and about the fact that Luthor had actually asked Lois out, which was news to him, and instead to concentrate on Lois; her father, in his usual apparently tactless manner, had managed to upset her again.

He was just about cordial to Sam Lane, but didn't stay any longer in the kitchen than it took to pour himself a cup of coffee, immediately heading outside to find Lois. She was standing some distance from the cabin, staring unseeingly into the middle distance. He came to stand beside her, not touching her but remaining close.

"I don't know what I expected from this weekend, Clark," she said bleakly a few moments later. "Maybe that, for once, they'd accept me as I am instead of trying to make me into some ideal image of what a daughter of theirs should be. But I must have been crazy ever to have imagined that would happen."

Clark hesitated, unsure as to how to answer her; after a few moments, he said softly, "Seems to me it's their loss, if they can't see what a great person you are already."

He heard a stifled choke, then she replied without looking at him, "It's really sweet of you to say that, Clark. Especially as... I haven't always been exactly nice to you."

"Hey!" He deliberately inserted a lighthearted note in his voice. "You're a great partner, and a good friend. Yeah, you can bite people's heads off sometimes, but there's usually a reason for it. But there's no-one I'd rather work with, and no-one else I'd rather have as my best friend."

At that, she turned to look at him. "You mean that, Clark?" Her voice was strained, and he could see tears shimmering in her eyes.

Reaching out to touch her arm, he answered firmly, "Yes, I do. You should know that by now."

She was silent for a few moments, again staring at some unseen object far away. Then she inhaled deeply, clearly pulling herself together. "No-one at the Planet would believe it if they'd seen me this weekend! I don't make a habit of getting like this."

Clark wasn't so sure that Lois's protestation was true; he'd seen her visibly upset on a few occasions now, all of which had taught him that under the coolly professional exterior she had a caring heart. She was also capable of feeling hurt, particularly when someone she cared about spoke carelessly.

It occurred to him then to wonder whether her mention of the Planet had been deliberate, a warning to him that she didn't want any of the weekend's occurrences mentioned in the newsroom. She should know him better than that, he thought, a little bleakly. Speaking firmly, he hastened to reassure her on that point. "Well, since they're not going to find out, it doesn't really matter what they'd think, does it?"

"Oh!" She turned to look at him again, visibly surprised. "Clark, I didn't mean to suggest that you would... I mean, I know you wouldn't tell anyone!"

"Okay," he replied, accepting her answer. "Come on, let me get you some breakfast," he offered then, thinking that the sooner he got her away from this place the better. Having breakfast first would force her to concentrate on the mundane for a while, helping her to regain control over her emotions - something she seemed to prize.

As he ushered her back into the house, it occurred to him that she was behaving as if the kiss had never happened. Grimacing, he told himself that it was probably a good thing.


**************

Her father had disappeared when they returned to the kitchen; instead, Lucy perched on Rocky's lap while she fed him toast. Ignoring the contrary sensations of revulsion and envy this scene caused within her, Lois bade her sister and Rocky good morning and moved to watch Clark chop and dice some fresh fruit.

"Hey! You promised me breakfast!" she objected indignantly.

"Sure - fresh grapefruit and melon. Delicious and very healthy."

She punched his upper arm, and was taken aback at his powerful biceps. "What happened to pancakes with maple syrup?"

He raised an eyebrow at her. "Not good for you. They're okay once in a while, though."

She stared at him. "Is this Clark Kent I'm talking to? The junk food freak? What's with the health kick all of a sudden?"

He turned to her, flashing her a very white and very charming grin. "Well... I just thought it would make a change."

"Hmm," she muttered, unimpressed, though that didn't stop her reaching to grab a chunk of melon. "Nice," she conceded. "Though, you know, it would taste even better with pancakes...." She threw him an impish grin.

Laughing, he began to collect ingredients together. Watching him as he moved with an economical grace about the kitchen, Lois felt an enormous sense of regret about that morning's events - specifically, *the* event. Not that it had happened - no, never that - but that it had ended when it had, and that Clark seemed so keen to pretend it hadn't happened.

Regret that it had finished... she caught herself and wondered, incredulously, whether she was really saying that if Clark hadn't stopped once he'd realised what was happening, she would have wanted to continue. Yes, she admitted to herself; she'd wanted more. Lots more.

You'd have made love with him? she asked herself; without pausing to consider, she knew that the answer was yes. Shocked at this recognition, she blinked and poured herself some more coffee as a delaying tactic. She would have made love with Clark - had wanted to make love with him.

Still wanted to, she admitted, helplessly eyeing his very attractive body as he mixed the pancake batter.

But Clark clearly preferred to forget that the interlude had ever happened, judging by his words then and his behaviour since. If he did find her attractive, he certainly wasn't interested in doing anything about it.

And yet... if that was true, why had he asked her out the previous morning, for what she was sure he'd intended as a date?

Unless he hadn't meant it that way at all; perhaps he'd simply intended his invitation as a friend suggesting that they have a meal together? She really wasn't sure at all now. Yesterday she could have sworn... but no, not after his weird disappearing act that afternoon and the way he'd refused to give her an explanation. And not after his horrified reaction when he'd realised what they'd been doing in bed.

She'd been stupid, and blind. She'd been craving something - some*one,* more precisely - who was way out of her reach, while all the time a more valuable, more *real,* prize had been under her nose the entire time. Clark. And it seemed that, whatever he might have felt for her in the beginning, he now only wanted her friendship.


*************

Lois had been quiet since breakfast, and now that they'd said their goodbyes to her surprised parents and were finally on the road, she still seemed to be lost in thought. Clark hoped that it wasn't his appalling behaviour earlier that morning which was causing her introspection; that she wasn't really deciding that he'd set himself beyond the pale after all.

Once on the freeway, he glanced in her direction again; she was driving, and was concentrating intently on the road ahead. "You want some music, Lois?" he asked her.

"What...? Oh..." It was clear that she'd barely heard his question. "Oh - well, if you want."

He shrugged; then, realising she wouldn't have seen it, answered, "Not particularly. You... well, you seem kind of quiet, that's all."

"Oh - not entertaining you with my witty, sparkling conversation, is that it?" she retaliated, her tone a little bitter.

"Lois, I'm not your parents," he pointed out, somewhat roughly. "Don't judge me by what their reactions might be."

There was silence in the Jeep again for a few minutes, leading Clark to wonder whether he'd put his foot in it again. Then she sighed deeply. "I'm sorry, Clark. I shouldn't have... I over-reacted."

"It's okay," he hastened to tell her. "So... um, anything you want to talk about?"

That was probably a stupid thing to say, he chastised himself once the words had escaped. Did he really want to give her the opportunity to remind him again that it had all been a pretence, that he shouldn't imagine for one second that she'd *meant* anything she'd said about him or the two of them as a couple, that any of the touches and caresses, even her kiss in the kitchen on Saturday morning, had been real? Did he want her to remind him that what he'd done that morning should never be repeated?

She was silent again as she overtook a driver who was keeping to the speed limit. Then she cast a swift glance in his direction. "Yeah. What do I owe you?"

"Huh?" He was bemused by her question... surely she didn't imagine that he'd demand some sort of payback for helping her out this weekend? She had to know him better than that by now! He could have expected that from the Lois he'd known a few months earlier, but they were friends now.

"The bet," she reminded him. "Yesterday. You said you'd collect... later. But you didn't tell me what!"

Oh, *that,* Clark thought, relieved - and suddenly amused. "Oh yeah," he drawled, savouring the words. "I didn't, did I?"

"So...?"

"Well..." He paused deliberately. "I don't know. Maybe I should keep you waiting another day or two before I tell you. It could be anything. Maybe I want you to switch the order of our names in our byline," he suggested, giving her an exaggerated grin.

"Never," she gritted. "It's Lane and Kent, and that's the way it stays. I am the more experienced reporter, after all."

"But don't you think Kent and Lane has more of a ring to it? Besides, it's alphabetical. Like Abbott and Costello, you know?" He smiled inwardly, waiting for her reaction.

"Oh? What about Laurel and Hardy, then?" she flung back at him. "And anyway, are you trying to suggest that I'm half of a slapstick team?"

Clark laughed. "Well, you do make a great fall-guy, Lois!" he teased her.

She glared at him, but he could tell that she wasn't really annoyed. "Okay, since we're not going to change the order of our names, what do you want from me?"

You'd be shocked if I told you, Lois... he thought, but pushed that from his mind. He knew what he intended to ask her, but wanted to wait for a more appropriate moment. He was going home to Smallville for Christmas in a couple of weeks' time, and he wanted Lois to come with him, for no other reason than that he'd enjoy having her there, although, of course, now that he'd seen her interact with her family, he also wanted her to spend some time in a happier family environment.

In a tone which he knew she would find infuriating, he replied, "I think I'll just keep you guessing for a while, Lois."

She growled deep in her throat. "I'll remember this, Kent!"

Laughing, he changed the subject to their latest joint investigation, and they passed the remainder of the journey in amicable discussion.


**************

The closer they got to Metropolis, the more the ache in Lois's heart grew painful. Regardless of how awful things had been with her parents, she just didn't want this weekend to end. Once they arrived back in the city and she dropped Clark off at his apartment, their time together would come to an end. She wished she'd had the presence of mind to suggest detouring to one of the picturesque little villages they'd passed on the way back, just so she could spend more time with him, pretend that they were really together.

But it was too late... and now she was turning the corner into Clinton Avenue. Clark's building was just up ahead on the right.

She pulled up alongside the kerb and turned to Clark, giving him what she hoped was a bright smile. "Well, here you are then - home safe and sound."

"I guess I am," he answered, almost as if surprised to find himself outside his apartment. "Thanks for the ride, Lois - I'll see you tomorrow."

He made as if to open the door, and, unwilling to let him go just yet, she reached out to touch his arm. "Clark - thank you for everything. You know - the way you stood up for me in front of my parents, and all the rest of it. You made it... bearable. You were the only thing that did." She stopped before she made a fool of herself by crying again, or by pleading with him to hold her.

He was silent for a moment or two, staring directly ahead at something she couldn't see. Then he turned towards her with a smile which seemed oddly forced. "We put on a pretty good show, didn't we? I think your folks believed us."

"Ummm... yeah," she forced herself to reply. He seemed to hesitate for a moment, then reached for the door-handle again.

"If only it wasn't just a pretence," she whispered, very softly, as she watched him swing down from the passenger seat.


***************

Clark's mood had darkened the closer they got to the city and his apartment; in a very few minutes, he would be saying goodbye to Lois and to the closeness they had enjoyed over the past few days. She would drop him at his apartment, and that would be it.

He fumbled his way through the appropriate words as she pulled up outside his building, not wanting to leave her but knowing that it was over. His mind already on the long flight to Antarctica he intended to take once she'd gone, he jumped down from the passenger seat and began to open the rear door to collect his overnight bag.

Then he froze as the words Lois was whispering embedded themselves in his consciousness. "...only it wasn't just a pretence." Although she was whispering, barely speaking the words aloud at all, he could hear the wistfulness in her voice.

*She* wanted it not to have been a pretence?

But... but what their kiss this morning, which she clearly wanted to pretend had never happened? What about her crush on Superman?

What was going on here...?

Unable to dissimulate or pretend he hadn't heard her, completely carried away by his astonishment, he leaned into the back of the Jeep and exclaimed, "Don't you know that none of it was a pretence for me?"

He both felt and saw her shock at his words; she visibly tensed, and he could sense her heart-rate increasing rapidly. "Cl... Clark, you *heard*?" Again, her voice was little more than a ragged whisper.

"Yeah. I heard."

"How...? You were outside...!"

Because I'm Superman The words were on the tip of his tongue, but he bit them back. Wrong time; not a good idea to introduce that into this already tense conversation. "I... remember I told you I can lip-read?" That would work as an excuse, he thought.

"What do you mean, none of it was a pretence?" she demanded, still sounding stunned.

"It wasn't," he repeated, thinking that his meaning should have been clear enough. Then, coming to a realisation that this was not the place to carry on a discussion of this nature, he added tightly, "Come inside. We can't talk here."

She followed him into his apartment, having locked the Jeep; in silence, he opened the door and led the way inside, habit and good manners taking him straight to the kitchen area. "Coffee?"

Shaking her head, Lois replied, "I want to know what you meant."

His posture slumped a little; telling her he hadn't been pretending had been an impulse, but now that he was actually being required to explain, the words seemed reluctant to come. He guessed that some instinct was urging him not to lay himself open to any possible humiliation.

When he didn't answer, she took a couple of steps closer to him. "This morning, then - you weren't asleep? Weren't dreaming when you were kissing me?"

He flushed. "I was asleep - I was appalled when I woke up and realised...."

She looked away, unhappy; clearly his answer hadn't been what she'd wanted to hear, and he wondered what he'd said that was wrong.

"So what weren't you pretending about?" she demanded then, still avoiding his gaze.

He hesitated, but then decided that he'd given away enough already, so a little further humiliation wouldn't be too much to bear. "What I said to your father that first night. What I said to your mother in the kitchen yesterday evening. All that was true... and I wished everything else was."

Her voice was hoarse. "Everything...?"

"You. Me. Us. As a couple," he answered semi-coherently.

"You did?" The incredulity in her tone was obvious.

He nodded. "Yeah. Come on, Lois, you knew that. Isn't that why you asked me? - because you knew I was in love with you and so I'd do a good job of playing the devoted boyfriend?" And the thought hurt far more now than it had a few days earlier, when the idea had first crossed his mind that this could be why she had asked him.

He knew instantly that his words were a mistake; she went white and gasped audibly. "Clark... no! I had no idea... you *are*? I'd never think... I asked you because you're my friend and I *trust* you!"

"I'm sorry," he muttered, now feeling more than humiliated. Turning away from her, he began opening cupboards at random, with no knowledge of what he was searching for.

Then he felt a hand on his upper arm. "Clark? You're... in *love* with me?" Again, the incredulity in her tone took him aback.

He turned to face her; she was staring up at him, her expression disbelieving. "Lois... you had to have known," he insisted, but at the same time his mind was recollecting the conclusion he'd drawn about Lois on Friday night. She believed herself to be unlovable. He had to tell her that wasn't true; even if she didn't love him back, it would be worth it just to convince her that she was wrong. No matter that he was already feeling humiliated himself; this was Lois. He loved her; ergo he couldn't bear to see her hurt, or unable to believe herself capable of inspiring love in anyone. Especially when he knew only too well that it simply wasn't true.

"Yes, Lois." He didn't take his eyes off her. "Yes, I love you. Like I told your sister, I fell in love with you the second you walked into Perry's office when I was having my job interview."

He saw the disbelief in her eyes change to... wonder, and incredulity, and something which looked like hope.

"You really do love me?" she whispered. "After everything...?"

He nodded again, still watching her intently, now allowing himself to hope that she might possibly have some feelings for him. "Yep."


*****************

Lois stared at Clark, hope beginning to replace the feeling of despair which had been building up inside her all morning. "You... really... love me?"

He was standing in front of her now, his expression solemn; taking a step closer, he placed his hands on her shoulders, his gaze holding hers. "Lois, I'll say it as many times as you want, until you believe me. I love you. I *love* you."

"But..." Her voice caught in her throat, and she had to swallow before she could try again. "But, this morning, you said you wanted to forget it had happened, that it was a mistake..."

As she watched him, he shook his head. "I thought it was a mistake because you don't feel that way about me, you're not attracted to..." He stopped abruptly, gave her a wry smile, then continued. "I knew you didn't see me that way. And anyway, I practically assaulted you this morning! I was amazed that you didn't use your Tae Kwon Do on me and throw me off the bed!"

He'd been honest with her, and she could tell from his expression that baring his soul in that way hadn't been easy. So she felt she owed him the truth... "Clark, I didn't want you to stop," she whispered. "I... I loved the way you were kissing me, holding me... I was... hurt... when you pulled away and told me you hadn't known what you were doing. I... felt... that you were telling me that if you'd been aware of what was going on, kissing me was the last thing you'd have wanted to do."

This time it was Clark's turn to look incredulous; he ran a hand raggedly through his hair and stared at Lois; she recognised the hoarseness in his voice as he asked her, "You... enjoyed... kissing me? *Me*?"

"Clark, I didn't want you to stop!" she admitted, half-laughing, half-crying, wanting to plead with him to kiss her again, *now.*

But he stood staring at her, as if in shock. "Really?"

"Really."

"So... Lois, *none* of what I said or did this weekend was a pretence. I love you. I wish we were really dating. When I asked you out yesterday before lunch, that was... well, I was hoping it could be a sort of date, though I knew you didn't see it that way..." He trailed off, then gave a helpless laugh. "You wouldn't believe I work with words as a career, would you? I feel completely inarticulate...!"

He felt the same way she did. There was no reason to prevaricate any more. Lois took the final step which brought her into contact with Clark, and placed her hands against his broad chest, warm beneath his dark T-shirt. "Clark, I didn't realise it for a long time, but I'm in love with you too. This weekend showed me how much. All the time you were saying those things about me, touching me, behaving like a lover - I wanted it all to be real, so much it hurt."

"Me too, Lois," he whispered. "Why do you think I insisted on sleeping on top of the covers?" She blinked, wondering what that had to do with anything. "So that I... wouldn't embarrass myself if we rolled close together during the night," he explained, the trace of red creeping up his face indicating that he found his confession a little embarrassing.

"Clark..." Her arms reached up around his neck. "You're talking too much. Kiss me," she urged.

He duly obliged; his head descended, blocking out the light as his mouth slanted over hers, capturing her lips in a deeply passionate kiss which made those of earlier that morning pale into insignificance. There was love there too, gentleness amid the fiery desire, tantalising strokes of his tongue as well as tiny nibbles along her lower lip. She moaned deep within her throat, wrapped her arms more tightly around him, and met him kiss for kiss.


***************

Emerging light-headed from their embrace some time later, Clark gazed down at Lois in wonderment. He had kissed her before, both as Clark and as Superman, but always - with one exception, the occasion on which he'd quit the Planet - under some sort of false pretences. This time, he knew she loved him, and she knew he loved her. Just where their relationship was going, he had no idea; but right now, he didn't care. Just being with her was enough.

He reached down and tenderly brushed away a stray strand of hair which lay across her cheek; she turned her head and kissed his fingers.

"I love you, Clark," she told him again. "And I feel so... so *stupid* for not having seen what was under my nose all along. I kept wishing for the moon - and all the time you were there and I just hadn't noticed."

No, she hadn't; but right now he could forgive her anything. "It doesn't matter," he assured her. "We used the time well anyway - we became good friends first, and that's worth a lot to me."

"Me too," she answered, laying her head against his shoulder. "I don't think I've had a real friend in years, and having you in my life taught me so much about friendship and loyalty and trust that I never understood before."

"You always knew what loyalty meant, Lois," Clark pointed out. "Even when there was a story at stake, I've seen you put loyalty to something or someone you believe in first. And, trust me on this, you are a great friend." He hesitated, unsure whether to mention her defence of Superman the previous evening, then decided against it, since it would raise topics he wasn't sure he was ready to discuss yet.

She leaned away from him then, looking at him but seeming deep in thought. "You know, Clark," she said after a few moments, "I always knew you were a very attractive guy, *and* that I was attracted to you. But I wonder if possibly one reason I never acknowledged that I was attracted to you, or even how attractive you are, is that maybe I knew subconsciously that if I let myself see that I'd just be too vulnerable where you're concerned. It's not that I didn't trust you not to hurt me, but I didn't trust myself."

Since that tied in with his own analysis of Lois's attitude towards men and relationships, Clark nodded. "Maybe. But the important thing is that we've got past that, together. You don't need to be scared to trust someone any more." He paused, dropped a kiss on her forehead, then continued speaking. "You *know* I love you, Lois. I can't promise never to do anything that'll hurt you. But I do promise that I'll never stop loving you."

She laughed, a little emotionally. "I'll hold you to that."

"You do that," he teased, before scooping her up into his arms and carrying her into the living area and sitting on the couch with her on his lap. "Right now, I can think of much better things to do than talk..."

Some minutes later, Lois tore her lips away from his, exclaiming, "Clark!" She clutched at him in agitation. "We're floating!"

He glanced downwards, seeing that they were indeed a couple of feet above the sofa. "Mmmm. We do seem to be." He gave her a devilish grin and a wink. "Did I say that there's something else I need to tell you about...?"



- The End -