SUGAR & SPICE By Doc. Klein's LabRat ______________

" ... sugar & spice and all things nice ... ... that's what little girls are made of." Olde English Nursery Rhyme.

Superman drifted carefully through the open window, as cautious as though the shivering woman he was carrying against his chest was made of spun glass. He'd rarely felt as awkward about flying with anyone - let alone her - and he was thankful that she had finally calmed some. Her squealing and squirming had been completely disconcerting and his nerves were just about shot, leaving him still a little twitchy, despite his gratitude that she'd *finally* stopped screaming and settled on simply clinging to him with an around the throat Ninja death-grip instead.

He didn't actually *mind* the death-grip. Afraid that her struggles would result in her falling, he had been forced to hold her tighter than he might otherwise have done, which was not, he had to admit, an altogether unpleasant experience. Her tight grip around his throat pressed her soft curves in an equally pleasant way against his chest and her breath fanned warmly at his neck where she'd buried her face against his shoulder; an automatic gesture of seeking protection that had - as always - charmed him completely. It let him inhale the soft collection of scents that formed her, savor the feel of her settled in his arms ... and it was preferable to that wildly hysterical screech which had just about driven spikes into his brain with its intensity and pitch. Even invulnerable Superears had their limits.

The flight to her apartment had been like nothing he'd known before. Lois had *felt* just the same in his arms as she'd snuggled up against his chest, but she hadn't behaved in the same way at all. He was used to her being relaxed in his embrace. She'd always trusted him, right from the start, and he'd grown accustomed to that trust, taken it for granted. More than he'd understood until now, when it had been taken from him, and so cruelly.

What he *wasn't* used to was the wriggling, squirming and - at one unnerving point as he'd taken off from the top of the Planet building - shrieking child she'd become in her mind. She'd all but given him heart failure on the spot and his balance had wavered, dipping them downward in a sudden jolt before he recovered. That hadn't helped convince Lois she was safe at all, of course. She *had* stopped screaming, after a time, but only because she appeared to run out of air. Silent and trembling, she had thereafter completed the journey wrapped so tightly around his neck that he'd long since have choked to death before reaching her apartment, if he'd been any normal man.

As though privy to these thoughts, the woman in his arms shifted slightly, bringing her back to his awareness. He tightened his grip around her reflexively in response. No, it wasn't that unpleasant having her cling to him like this; having her turn to him for comfort and protection. It was just that he was beginning to wonder, as he floated gently into the neat living room, whether he could actually get the vice around his neck to loosen up, now that he had her safely home. Given her reactions to him taking into the air, it was entirely possible that he might never persuade her to let go again, and while this predicament might have been one to warm his heart under any other circumstances, it was dashed scaring at that particular moment, all things considered.

He settled onto the wooden floor, swiped a hand against the light switches by the front door, and made the attempt to loosen her grip with gentle fingers wrapped around one of her wrists. She sobbed and burrowed deeper. Superman sighed and let go. He was loath to use his strength to pry her loose of him. In her current, fragile state of mind he didn't want to scare her more by forcing her into anything. Even something as simple as this. He was too afraid of spooking her.

He raised his head, looking around the brightly lit room as he continued to hold her easily in his arms, patted her absently and soothingly against one shoulder, and tried persuasion instead.

"Lois? Look, we're home," he said. "It's okay, you're perfectly safe. See? We've stopped flying now. You won't fall."

She buried herself against his shoulder, whimpering. Her grip around his neck tightened convulsively.

Superman stood, nonplussed, and then he remembered his lure. Well, it had worked to get her *into* his arms ... he thought wryly. He brought out one of the three dull gray objects he was carrying and held it close against his trembling passenger's ear. He squeezed gently. It squeaked.

Lois stopped whimpering and, although her position wrapped taut around his neck didn't change, he could tell from the way that her body tensed that she was at least paying attention. He repeated the move. She lifted her head, sniffling; eyes interested now, longing and curiosity dampening the fear.

"Yes, that's it," Superman said encouragingly. He pulled the object back a little; waved it slightly, tempting her. "See? Look, Lois ... Space Rat. You want the nice Space Rat, don't you?"

Lois stared at the obnoxious little stuffed animal unblinkingly for a moment. Her eyes flicked warily in his direction. A look that said she was less than sure he wasn't preparing some trap that would be sprung the instant she took the bait. A look which left Clark feeling uncomfortably like one of those child molesters her parents had probably warned her about in her childhood. It would only take the inclusion of an invitation to visit some new born puppies and the illusion would be complete, he thought, giving in to his natural, innate sense of the ridiculous, even through his embarrassment.

Lois' gaze turned back to consider the toy, thinking it over. Finally, reluctantly, and carefully avoiding his gaze, she eased one arm from around his neck, reached out a hand and silently took the Rat from him. She clutched it close against her chest as she darted another suspicious glance up into his face, as though expecting him to snatch it back at any moment.

/Gee, Lois, thanks for the unconditional trust *there*!/

That incautious reminder of bleak, earlier thoughts broke through the armored shell of his determinedly wry mood, saddening him all at once. She'd always trusted him. Always. The renewed realization that he'd lost that, along with everything else, made him suddenly want to weep. Lois was watching him carefully. He shook off the blackness of his new mood before she could pick up on it and pasted a somewhat overly bright smile on his face.

"There you go," he said, cheerfully. "Now, why don't I put you down and you and Mr. Rat can go play? Wouldn't that be fun?"

Lois didn't seem to be listening any more. The wary look in her eyes softened as she gazed at the Rat adoringly. She took her other arm from around his neck, settling back into his cradling embrace easily as she held the Rat between her hands and slightly away from her, the better to study it intently. Superman took this as an agreement. He lowered her to stand, more carefully than he had ever done in his life. He had the feeling that if he spooked her now she was going to cling on fast again and this time he'd never get her loose.

But, she seemed to have calmed some. The death-grip appeared to have been transferred to the Rat, her knuckles growing bone- white and the tips of her fingers punching deep dents into its fake, latex skin as she held it.

Superman set her gently on her feet. Lois lifted her head, looking around her, but to his relief she gave him little trouble, much more interested it seemed in her surroundings all at once than in him. He held on to her arms a moment, until he was certain that she'd found her balance okay, then let her go and stepped back a small pace to watch her cautiously, as though wondering what she might do next. And less certain than that that he really wanted to know.

What she did was nothing more startling than stand in the middle of the floor and gaze around the apartment uncertainly, before looking back at him. After a moment or so, as an awkward silence grew between them, her thumb rose slowly into her mouth. She began to suck on it thoughtfully, eyes large and solemn above its steady pull as they held his.

Superman sighed and leaned forward to tug it free with a faint, chiding smile. It was the fourth time he'd had to remove it since he'd picked her up at the Planet. He looked around for something suitable to wipe it clean with and then sighed again. He dried it with the corner of his cape. She watched him without protest and he patted her hand with another comforting smile as he let it go.

Lois looked at the thumb as though it was some strange attachment she'd never seen before and transferred it back into her mouth. Superman rolled his eyes. He'd had enough. This time, he figured it could stay there.

Or not, he amended, as Lois removed it all on her own, the better to tug at the thin, plastic whiskers of the toy in her hand as it caught her attention again. This age regression thing hadn't dampened her capriciousness any, it seemed. Doing the opposite to what he expected seemed to be a natural trait.

He watched her worriedly as she bent her head to the Space Rat and began to murmur some unintelligible nonsense at it. Although the trip from the Daily Planet office to her apartment had taken less than five minutes, he noted with dismay how much further she seemed to have regressed in just that short span of time. He had enticed a Lois of perhaps eight or nine after him with the bait of that Rat. Now, he was facing a child of five at best. Or even younger than that, he thought morosely, as he listened to her babble baby-talk at the Rat.

His frown deepened. Why? Why was whatever it was in that Rat that was causing this effect on his friends - spreading through the entire city if he'd heard those newscasts correctly - only affecting Lois this way? Were Jimmy and Perry and the rest of his friends back at the Planet regressing further too? He hadn't noticed any further change in anyone else.

Maybe the chemical that was affecting everyone took a firmer hold on the distaff half of the population than it did on the male? Maybe it was ... hormonal. Or maybe it was a question of degree. Had Lois gotten more exposure to the thing than they had? He sighed. Or was it just Lois?

Clark grimaced. It was bound to be just Lois. Out of a hundred possible explanations, out of thousands of people affected, it was just one of the unwritten rules of the universe that if there was going to be trouble, death, doom, gloom or disaster, then Lois Lane was going to be right smack in the firing line and the worst casualty of all.

Looked like the good old Lane luck was still going strong.

A small clink of sound brought him out of these depressing thoughts. Lois had begun to wander through the apartment, heading for the kitchen and exploring various items scattered around the room as she went with natural, childish curiosity. She stood by the counter, blinking up at the overhead lights and then stared out of the window as she cuddled the Space Rat closer against her chest, cradling it against her like a child.

Clark studied her, feeling his throat tighten over the hard lump that had begun to form there. Her movements had lost their unconscious, feminine sway and swing as she moved. The smooth rolling motions of her hips which had so often drawn his eyes and tormented his libido were gone. The instinctive, seductive motions learned through years of adolescence and adulthood, so ingrained they were a part of her without her even thinking about it ... these were simply reflexive lures to the male of the species; nature's enticements in the mating game. Of no use to her now and therefore forgotten, along with so many other learned skills.

Yet her slightly jerky, less coordinated movements as she tottered unsteadily around the kitchen in her heeled boots still sent the short pleated skirt she was wearing to flipping and dancing around her thighs, revealing enticing, momentary flashes of a body that was in no way, shape or form that of a child and still as much a lure - to him at least - as it had ever been.

Clark slowly became aware that he was tracking her intently, playing the old, by turns, frustrating and fascinating game of trying to sneak a glimpse more of that body than she'd intended to provide. The game he'd played out almost every day for months now. Flushing deeply, he looked hastily away. He fixed his eyes on a painting on the wall, feeling the low burn redden in his cheeks as he realized where his thoughts had been heading.

Before the day had turned crazy on him, he had rather enjoyed the outfit that Lois had worn to the office that morning. At any time of the day or week, Lois was an accident-causing collection of curves he never tired of watching, but it was always nice when she gave him a little added incentive. The dark, satin- backed waistcoat, teamed with its short - its very short - skirt, had gifted him an intriguing and welcome glimpse every now and then of those firm thighs with their flawless, satin covering of lightly tanned skin and showcased the long, slender and delicately carved contours of her legs, while molding itself to her upper body in ways that made the most of her softly rounded curves. Such incentives could make or break his day. And his nights too, as each glimpse was filed away to be recovered later and endlessly replayed in dreams that left him weary and sweat-soaked and unsated in the dimly creeping dawn light of his bedroom.

He'd followed her movements around the Bullpen with admiration and not a little healthy lust as she walked. The accompanying white blouse and the neat touch of the wide tie she'd put around its neck had made the whole ensemble seem perky and cute to him back then. Now, it only served to accentuate her descent into childhood, seeming school-girlish in the extreme. Recalling the thoughts it had given him earlier in the day, and the way it attracted his attention to her body now, embarrassed him, retrieving those unwelcome thoughts of perversion. He knew it was dumb - she hadn't changed any, she was still Lois. Still a bewitching, beautiful and sensuous woman.

The woman he longed for.

Except that she wasn't of course. She wasn't that at all. Not any more. And his desire for her was misplaced. No more than a cruel joke at best, his longing for her twisted into an unhealthy exploitation of her body by his deviant mind.

If this hadn't all been so personal, so wounding, he might have taken a philosophical course on that and begun to ponder on that dichotomy. Just what was it anyway that defined who they were to a watching world? Outward appearance or what went on in their heads? It might have made for an intriguing puzzle. But he was too close to the subject of the experiment to consider it.

What he felt wasn't anything close to clinical detachment or scientific curiosity. It was grief. As though he'd lost a friend. And, in all the ways that counted, he knew that he had. The sudden thought scared him so badly all at once that he felt its crushing weight knit his chest tight around his heart, chopping off his breath. What if she never came out of this? What if the effect was permanent?

Dark panic bubbled up out of where he'd buried it deep; deep where he'd hoped never to confront it: an evil smelling eruption from a cesspit, spilling into his mind like a rush of bile in his throat. He thrust it angrily away. The effect hadn't been permanent on him. True, that wasn't exactly a recommendation for hope, given the differences in his physical makeup, but it was a sliver of light and one which he clung to grimly, like a shipwrecked mariner to an upturned life-raft.

He glanced back cautiously at Lois as she wandered the kitchen, opening up cabinets and peering curiously into their depths, and then, finding nothing of interest, moving on in her circular tour around the workstation. She stretched up on her toes to explore a high shelf, bending slightly at the waist - a move she would never have considered in that skirt under normal circumstances. It rode up around the backs of her thighs with the motion.

A groan gathered in Clark's chest, pulled up deep from the pit of his stomach - and was choked off as though he'd been punched in the throat as Lois straightened, curiosity waning, turned and saw him watching her.

The look in her eyes was frighteningly innocent; pure and shining; instantly recognizable. He saw it in the eyes of children every day, as they gathered around him, awed and wondering. Desire faded and shame replaced the hunger for her that had been clawing at him.

Clark tore his gaze away and scrubbed a sharp hand through his hair as he shook his head. He had to get out of here. Retreat sounded a clarion call in his ears. He couldn't hold back the pain and fear and anguish that was roiling in his chest; tightening in his ribs; making it hard to breathe. He couldn't reconcile his desire for her; warring with his shame and disgust. He'd never been claustrophobic, but suddenly the walls were closing in and closing in fast, the rolling tide of grief and loss threatening to overwhelm him like a rough surging wave.

Jimmy. Perry. He really had to get back out there - find out what was happening at the Planet, with the rest of the city. Find a way to beat this thing before it spread; before it lost more victims to its madness; before it brought more pain to others. He clutched at that excuse gratefully. Yes, he needed to help others besides Lois.

Others with whom he could be safe. Who wouldn't set his heart to jack-hammering painfully in his chest whenever they stood close. Whose soft, warm scent wouldn't make him dizzy. Whose eyes wouldn't draw him in like dark, toffee- colored flames, consuming him and setting him afire with their brilliance.

He moistened dry lips and swallowed hard once or twice before he found his voice, injecting a by now reflexive ebullience into his tone as he spoke up, "Well, now that you're home okay, I'll just -- "

He hooked a thumb across his shoulder and smiled in that somewhat distant Superman way he'd become used to showing her in such moments of pseudo-intimacy, wrapping the strength of his alter ego around him like a cloak of protection, like a steel- plated suit of armor. A cinderblock wall he could cower behind and use to keep distance on her.

The fact that the walls he raised around him had proved dismally ineffective in keeping her out of his heart in the past, had proved no barrier at all to her determined and unconscious siege of his soul, he steadfastly refused to consider, knowing that if he did all of those carefully constructed walls would crumble into dust in an instant, brick by useless brick, and he would be lost.

He turned his back abruptly, cape swirling around him impressively as he headed for the window.

A soft, broken sob from behind him stopped him in his tracks and he turned back, startled. "Lois?"

Her eyes were his undoing. Wide and luminous with fear, spilling over with the tears that were welling suddenly in their deep, velvet brown depths, they tugged at his heart like nothing he could resist or deny. He was across the room without another thought, a few strides bringing her into his embrace as he trapped her in his arms and enfolded her against the solid, comforting wall of his chest.

She began to sob in earnest as he tucked her chin into the hollow of his shoulder and laid his cheek against the smooth silk of her hair. His hand pressed itself to the nape of her neck, caressing the thick strands against his fingers absently. He made soothing, meaningless noises in the back of his throat as he felt her tremble against him.

"It's gonna be okay, Lois," he promised quietly as he stroked a soft hand in small circles between her shoulders.

He closed his eyes, listening to those small, piteous cries as she keened against his shoulder, feeling the prickle of his own tears before he blinked them away. He had to be strong. She needed his strength, not pity or the weakness of his own misery and pain. She needed his help. He clung to that; a last straw before drowning.

As to *how* he could help - he hadn't the faintest idea. He had no idea what was wrong with her.

She was quite clearly terrified. Of what he couldn't say as he held on to her, puzzled. Although the evidence was right there in front of him, and despite his dark thoughts of only moments before, it was still hard for him to view her as a child. She had been a woman to him for much longer. But, at last, as he reviewed the last few moments, listened to the choppy, broken pleas she was sobbing over and over into his shoulder, he came to some understanding of what was scaring her.

Clearly, she had no real recollection of the apartment. All she had known was that someone she barely recalled had brought her here to somewhere unknown and that now he was about to leave her there alone.

He berated himself silently with the realization, the inherent empathy that served him so well as both reporter and superhero enabling him to view the situation starkly from her suddenly strange, five year old perspective. How could he have been about to just fly off and leave her here, all alone? What had he been thinking of? But he knew what he'd been thinking. He'd been thinking of her as he always had. As his brilliant, beautiful partner. A grown woman, perfectly able to fend for herself. This Lois, he understood with a surge of dismay, he could no more leave to look after herself than he could any other child. Even if that 'child' was a fully developed, beautiful and alluring woman.

As evidenced by the quivering, wonderfully soft and undoubtedly female form held in the circle of his arms.

The paradox of these two opposing realities - of the feel of this woman in his arms and the emotions, long held and long buried, that she invoked in him, coupled with the knowledge that her mind was no more than five years old at best - was disturbing.

He looked down at the dark head settled on his chest as Lois' sobs gradually subsided and became gentle hiccups of breath and closed his eyes again, tightening his arms around her small body and pulling her closer against him. No matter. He knew that so long as she needed him, he was going to be here. No matter how painful that decision was for him. No matter how hard it was to deal with her like this. Jimmy, Perry and the rest of the world were on their own. He was staying with his partner until she came through this thing. And she would come through. He knew she would.

Didn't she always?

It was a small, frightened whisper in his mind that last, and it sounded less than convinced.

Yes, she did. She did come through. The Lane luck worked both ways.

He took in a deep, steadying breath and held it a moment. /Now what?/ he pleaded desperately for some guidance to whatever higher authority might be listening. And who might take pity on him.

"Here," he said finally, taking the initiative when no one and nothing else stepped up to do it for him, and leading her over to the sofa.

She sat unprotesting under the faint pressure of his hand at her shoulder and looked at him doubtfully as he hunkered down beside her. Clark tried to ignore the glistening tracks of tears on her cheeks and the fear still harbored in eyes that were glassy and brimming over with lingering panic. A drop of moisture clung to her lower lashes and his fingers trembled as he reached out gently and wiped it clear.

"It's okay," he reassured her, letting that hand rest quietly against her cheek for a moment. "I'm not going anywhere."

She continued to stare at him, snuffling slightly. Clearly not reassured at all.

Clark stifled a soft sigh. This was impossible. He couldn't stand to see her so upset and yet not obey his first impulse to gather her to him and hold her close, stroking her through the pain. Yet he couldn't bring himself to comfort her further either. Her mind might be child-like and innocent, but her body wasn't and his was reacting all too eagerly to the remembered feel of her soft curves pressed against him. He'd longed to hold her that way for so long now. Fighting his body's natural response to that exciting, enticing collection of scent and warmth and voluptuous curves was impossible, no matter how ashamed that selfish urging made him or how deeply he castigated himself for letting his baser desires overcome her need for comfort from him.

His thoughts fumbled around desperately, seeking an escape, and then he brightened.

"Hungry?" he asked. It hadn't been that long since he and Lois had shared lunch at a pavement caf» just around the corner from the newsroom, but, he figured, grimly forcing himself along the somewhat difficult and ludicrous path he needed to take to get himself through this, kids were always hungry. Weren't they?

He didn't realize he was holding his breath again until Lois smiled tentatively. Bingo. Chalk one up for the Kansas farmkid. She nodded, almost shyly, and began to twirl a strand of dark hair around her index finger.

Clark nodded with her. "Great! How about - " He rose to his feet and glanced doubtfully across his shoulder into the dimly lit kitchen. He knew he was unlikely to find anything he could make into a kiddie meal. Lois barely kept enough food in there for anyone else. He felt himself begin to flounder again and then, "Pizza!" he declared, looking back at Lois with a bright, fixed smile. /When in doubt ... /

"Like pisa." Lois rewarded him with a firmer nod, a curious and entirely unexpected yet somehow endearing lisp that set his heart to fluttering giddily before he tamed it, and another smile.

"Well, okay!" he said, after a moment spent staring blankly at her and wistfully wishing she'd say something else just so that he could hear that lisp again, before he blinked and then evicted the thought ruthlessly from his mind. He headed rapidly for the phone, throwing out a commanding finger at her in his wake. "Stay there. I'll be right back."

Maybe he was going to get through this okay after all. All it took was the right mind-set. If he kept himself firmly on track, gave himself a half dozen reminders a minute that he was dealing with a child who was a stranger to him and not *his* Lois and kept a super-steel, super-hold on his responses, he'd get through just fine. How hard could it be? He'd had enough practice dealing with his own cousins. Kids liked him. They responded well to him. He could do this.

Yes, he could.

Lois' kitchen pegboard was a mass of brightly colored paper scraps, pinned haphazardly and scrawled upon in her familiar, bold script with what must surely have been the details of every takeout joint in a ten mile radius. Clark swiftly chose the one with the nearest location to the apartment. He dialed the number for Bernie's Pizzaria and glanced over at his partner as he waited out the burring tone in his ear. He smiled despite himself.

Lois had traded her perch on the sofa for the floor, where she was now sitting cross-legged, staring raptly at the TV. She'd found the Cartoon Channel and was watching 'The Adventures Of Floppy Bear'. The thumb was back in her mouth. As he watched, she removed it and seemed to be relating the TV action into the ear of the stuffed animal in her arms as its unblinking black eyes stared back at her.

/From the secure perch of his new found conviction that he was in control of the situation now and could deal with it, Clark could find something in the incongruous image she presented to nearly make him laugh out loud. He almost wished Jimmy was here. No one was ever going to believe him without pictures. And Lois was just going to die when she --

"Bernie's! Whatcha wantin'?!"

The cheerful voice broke into his amused thoughts, took his attention from Lois, and he quickly gave his order. Replacing the receiver, he turned back to his partner - and his jaunty air of self-confidence fell apart and dissolved at his feet in a quivering heap.

Lois was sitting sideways on to the TV now, head bent to consider her fingers as they determinedly tried to divest her of her blouse, which had been pulled clear to hang loose from where it had been neatly tucked into the waistband of her skirt. The tie she'd worn around her throat was abandoned in a heap on the carpet. Her waistcoat was keeping it company.

Clark's eyes shot wide. His eyebrows joined them, climbing almost into his hairline. "What're you doing?!" he demanded, perhaps a shade more shrilly than he had intended. Certainly, the sharply barked question caused Lois to jump violently and glance up at him in surprise. He covered the few yards of carpet between them and hastily crouched by her side to put a hand over hers and prevent her opening any more buttons.

"Hot," she told him by way of explanation, getting over her momentary fright and looking up at him doggedly.

"Oh," Clark said, hoarsely. His voice sounded as though he were pushing it through an avalanche of rocks lodged deep in his throat. She'd managed to unbutton the blouse all the way down to her navel before he'd spotted her and the view was just as spectacular as he'd always imagined it would be in countless, breathless dreams. Her skin glowed, deep honey, as the flickering shadows from the TV screen played against it.

Clark swallowed past the rough blockage in his throat - his self-confidence was on its knees along with him, beaten and whimpering, and had begun to beg for mercy now.

He eased his hand carefully away from hers, clenching it into a fist. He had never been so aware of her, never so torn by his impulses and conflicting emotions. It seemed suddenly as though she permeated every sense he owned. The scent rising from her skin; the softness of her body; the steady pulse beating in her throat and quivering in the pale curve of that breast, still sheathed in rose satin, still holding his darkening gaze, still pressed up warm and oh so *soft* against his --

He puffed out a hard breath and moved his hand to join the other at the edges of her blouse. Then, with a flicker of disappointment he couldn't quite conceal, tugged them gently closed and redid the buttons. He was unusually clumsy about it, the faint tremor in his fingers all too obvious against the white cotton.

"Well, don ... don't take that off. I know! Why don't I open the window? Let in some air!" he babbled out hastily, getting to his feet and retreating rapidly.

Lois looked after him and then doubtfully to the window. Clark looked doubtfully at it too. With three days to go to Christmas and Metropolis still locked in the fading grip of its first serious whiteout in four years, it was nudging at the low side of freezing out there. Still, Clark reasoned, as he snapped clear the latch and threw the window wide, if cooling down was what she wanted ...

... cooling down was what they were *both* going to get. He gulped in a few, deep lungfuls of the frigid air that crept into the apartment from out of the darkening night. The chill wasn't enough to dissipate the throb of need beating in his chest, but it did clear the haze of his thoughts a little.

He was dismayed by his lack of control. This was ridiculous, he told himself, disgusted. What was the problem here? He wasn't some kind of base animal controlled entirely by its hormone levels. He was an intelligent, rational thinking man who had the brains to overcome his basic, biological urges and put them firmly in their place until he was willing - until he *chose* - to let them command him.

In fact he had more advantage over his hormones than most men. He could control the minutest changes in his body chemistry simply by thinking about it. He was never too hot. Never too cold. His temperature was a simple matter of maintaining absent control. His physiological responses to external stimuli were as easy to will into submission. Usually. Was that what Lois was? 'External stimuli'?, his mind wondered absently before getting itself back on track.

So why did he have so much trouble controlling a basic, reflexive physical response to ... to ...

... he shook his head sharply, clearing it of a welter of sudden, distracting images that reminded him just what it *was* he was physically responding *to*.

/Come *on*, Kent! You're *Superman*! Remember him? The Big Guy? Resident local Superhero? All round Boy Scout? The Man of -- /

He wondered, distantly and with a certain frisson of panic, if he could get away with a quick dash to the Arctic and back again before Lois missed him. Five seconds, that would do it. Just a quick, mercy dash, a few moments of below zero silence, ice cold abstinence and ---

/You're babbling, Kent. You *don't* babble. *Lois* babbles. *You* are Superman. Calm under fire. Cool under pressure. You can -- /

A small rustle of movement sounded at his back and he felt his shoulders stiffen. She wasn't getting up, was she? She wasn't coming over to stand with him. She wasn't ... He screwed his eyes tight and prayed frantically for her to stay right where she was. His fingers clenched into the wide windowsill, barely avoiding leaving permanent gouges in the wood as he hauled in a few more hard, calming breaths.

Did Superman hyperventilate? he thought, desperately.

Only - the response came like the punchline to an old joke - when Lois Lane was in close proximity.

The sounds died and weren't repeated. No small body crept to stand by his side. Her warmth didn't rise around him, her skin didn't connect with his. The Man of Steel let out his relief in a soft rush of breath and sent a silent, heartfelt thank you out to a nameless deity he'd never really believed in.

Now, if he could just set himself to finding a few, calming moments - Lois-free - he might just be able to get himself under enough control not to embarrass himself completely.

He opened his eyes, staring up into the night sky. With the continuing cold snap, the black canopy stretched out overhead was clear and brilliant, dotted with shimmering points of light. Clark began doggedly counting stars like an insomniac counted sheep - and with much the same purpose in mind. Distraction. Control. Calm - naming the ones he knew ... wondering about the ones he didn't.

Was there someone out there, on the other side of that star- field, counting dots of light and naming them too? Was it really possible *he* came from somewhere out there? Out there amongst that cold, sterile darkness? Sometimes, his life seemed all too much like one, big cosmic joke. If he listened real hard, he was almost sure he could hear faint, sardonic laughter.

His eyes continued to search the skies ... reflexively looking for a star that wasn't there, that he would never see, that he wouldn't have seen even if it still existed, out there, somewhere in the dark.


A mapped out globe.

Lois ... his mind answered, almost reflexively, as though it had become skilled at finding her amongst random patterns of thought and was wondering why it had taken him so long to get back to her.

Lois, kissing him goodbye in the plane, as the wind roared and howled around them, whipping her hair across her face ...

She had tasted of coffee. Apple and cinnamon. And it had felt so ...

... it had felt so *good* ...

... right ...

Clark had lived off of that moment for months, in midnight dreams and daytime fantasies ... feasting on the memory that still had the power to make his heart beat unevenly and his breath quicken ... even if it had all just been nothing more than one of Lois' desperate schemes. In his dreams, in his fantasies, it *was* the real thing.

He doubted if Lois even remembered that kiss.

He doubted that he would ever forget it.

Lois ...

... wasn't going to be evicted from his mind or protected from the lustful intentions of his body, if he kept on thinking of her that way, he told himself sternly. How had he gotten back to Lois anyway? Wasn't he supposed to be thinking about ...

What *had* he been thinking about?

Oh, yeah. Stars.

A bus passed by on the street below, momentarily taking his attention and his eyes caught on the advertisement it carried on its side:


The 15th. Helman Parnow's trial was on the 15th. Clark reminded himself that he'd been thinking of suggesting to Lois they should attend, maybe do a follow up to their earlier story on the Councilman's arrest for tax evasion. Maybe he'd go himself if she didn't agree - she'd already been pretty vocal on how bored she was by the subject - and, of course, he frowned as the unwelcome thought intruded on his mused plans, if she was in any fit state to attend a courtroom at all. Which, considering he could hardly get her to keep her clothes on in the privacy on her own ---

He clicked his tongue impatiently and dragged his mind back from where it had begun to slyly steal away into thoughts of Lois unclothed, entirely without his consent and in a disconcertingly determined manner, and focused them back where he wanted them to be.

Well, maybe not where he *wanted* them to be, but certainly where they *should* be. Where they ought to be. Where they'd better stay if he wanted to avoid getting himself into a whole lot more trouble than he was in already.

He pulled in a short breath. Okay, Helman Parnow. Taxes. Taxes ... His own tax returns were due in. Well, not till April, obviously, but still ... it never hurt to start considering your responsibilities to the government's spending plans too early. It was easy to overlook vital paperwork if you left it till the eleventh hour. As Helman Parnow would testify to. And well might if his attorney had any sense.

So ... taxes. Right. He thought about that, steadily, for a few moments, mentally beginning a tally of his past three months expenses account. He was doing fine - there was nothing like death or taxes to take your average (or not so average) American male's thoughts off of sex, he considered sardonically ... until he got to the entry for the Talman story.


Travel expenses.

The motel ...

Lois ...

... and he, grounded in Baltimore during a lockout by air traffic control and an inconvenient blizzard. It had been the weekend of the Baltimore Trade Exhibition and there'd been three other conventions in town. Motel rooms had been at a premium, but they'd managed to get two that adjoined. The downside had been that the motel was definitely in the low rent district of town. Lois had freaked out when a cockroach got into her hair as she took a lukewarm shower.

Her shriek had just about given him heart failure and had brought him rushing /from his own room and into the tiny bathroom in hers fully prepared to deal with kidnappers, serial killers or terrorist assassins - at the very least: even as Clark. (He'd figured it was just pushing co-incidence too far for Superman to have heard Lois scream from way out there in Metropolis and hadn't had time to concoct a plausible explanation for him to be just 'passing by' when she did).

The sight of his partner dressed only in a skimpy, motel issue towel that barely covered the essentials and leaping up and down as she screeched at him to 'Get rid of it!' had been another memory his subconscious had filed away and brought out to play with repeatedly in sweat-soaked, breath-heavy dreams.

If he'd been another man, he might well have feigned confusion in the hope that another few minutes of bouncing around might have seen that towel slip its precarious hold completely on her still wet, glistening, pink and warm body. But, being that he was a Kansas farmkid and gentleman, he'd simply plucked the offending insect from where it struggled in amongst her dripping hair and ignored Lois' hysterical demands that it be given a watery execution in favor of letting it loose in the darkness of the parking lot. Lois had recovered her cool and avoided embarrassment by muttering righteously for almost an hour afterwards about *people* who thought they were reliving the Baltimore version of 'Born Free'.

They had shared takeout in his room too on that trip, he recalled. And a surprise bottle of wine that Lois smuggled in ... just because. Although he'd known it was as close as he was going to get to an apology and accepted it in that vein. Had she put that on her expense account? 'One reward - to Sir Clark, for dealing with the evil, hideous, fire-breathing cockroach and rescuing fair maiden'.

Presented with picking up that tab, Perry's face would have been a picture.

Later, he'd lain in the darkness, restless and alone, tortured by the knowledge that she was there, just on the other side of the thin, adjoining door, mere yards away. Fingers clenching into fists as he fought the urge to check on her with his augmented vision and ...

... and hadn't he been thinking about his tax returns?

He sighed. Okay. Taxes weren't doing it for him anyway. Death. Death was good. He began stubbornly reciting two chapters of obscure twelfth century Indian funeral poetry, from a book he'd picked up on his travels: now well-thumbed, well loved and committed to memory through familiarity. In its original Urdu. Halfway through he switched to Russian. Then Greek. Ancient *and* modern. By the time he reached chapter three he was alternating half a dozen languages with each line quoted.

Given the fiercely dogged determination with which he habitually refused to connect the concepts of Lois and Death in his thoughts at all on a daily basis, this recitation conjured up no images of Lois ... or Lois and him ... or Lois in the newsroom ... or a motel ... or a plane ... or ... or anywhere else for that matter ...

... and, to his relief it actually began to work. Finally, when he figured he'd regained enough equilibrium - and some degree of mastery over his traitorous body - not to mention the nerve to face his partner again, he carefully eased his fingers from the windowsill. The wood prized itself loose of his skin stickily, seeming to want to hold on for a moment, and he winced as he glanced down to find the perfect finger shaped dents in the edge of the sill. He cleared his throat, swiped a calming hand through his hair, reminded himself to buy some plastic wood sealant and make some repairs - preferably before Lois spotted the damage - took a deep, steadying breath and turned away from the window.

To discover that Lois - with typical five year old female mule- headedness - had ignored his earlier command completely, taken advantage of his distraction to dispense with her blouse, which was now a crumpled heap on the carpet beside her, and was currently staring down at the satin and lace scraps of her bra as though they were a conundrum needing to be solved, her brow puckered in concentration.

"Whoa!" It wasn't super-speed that got Clark from the window to his partner's side in just under point five of a second, but sheer, unadulterated terror. Not least because he knew with stone cold certainty that no amount of considering the burial arrangements of a long dead Sultan's favorite elephant was going to save him this time if Lois succeeded in her current quest.

Like the inevitability of death and taxes, that one was a given.

Lois squeaked as his hands wrapped themselves around her upper arms and jerked her to her feet.

"Okay, if you're hot, why don't we go find you something cool to wear?" Clark muttered desperately as he snatched up the crumpled blouse and draped it, somewhat ineffectually, around her shoulders as best he could. He hustled her rapidly for the bedroom, practically dragging her along with him. He kept his eyes determinedly on his target as they went, refusing to let them even flicker downward.

/Spoilsport!/ a less noble portion of his mind taunted him and he found himself flushing hotly as he fixed his gaze on the approaching bedroom door with an intensity which almost sent him cross-eyed.

Lois let herself be swept along, glancing up at him through her lashes as though examining some strange new species she didn't quite understand. She stood submissively where he placed her, against the wall, and watched the red and blue blur swarming around the room with round eyes as he went through her dresser at super-speed. When Clark finally stopped dead in the center of the room, with a thin t-shirt and shorts ensemble dangling from one arm, Lois applauded him delightedly, eyes sparkling and practically bouncing on her toes.

Clark shook his head and held back a brief invocation to that higher authority which didn't seem to be listening to him much.

"Here," he said, handing over the garments and then, frowning as he noted her suddenly awkward stance. "What's wrong?"

Lois ducked her head, cheeks growing slightly pink as she shuffled from foot to foot. She glanced across her shoulder and then back at him, a faint desperation blooming in her eyes.

"Need to go make -- "

"Oh!" Clark nodded quickly. "Okay, sure. Bathroom's right over here."

He helped her on with the covering t-shirt awkwardly and then led the way. Lois skipped a couple of paces to catch up on his stride and he started as she slipped one small hand into his. Clark glanced down at her and couldn't help but smile as she looked up trustingly into his face. When they got to the bathroom door though, she hesitated. Clark's smile slipped as a suddenly horrifying thought occurred. He glanced down at her again, eyes widening.

"You do ... I mean, you do know how to ... you aren't going to need me to ... ?" he blurted.

Lois frowned and then, somehow deciphering his meaning from amongst the almost panicked stream of words, removed her hand from his with five year old dignity and a lofty tilt to her chin.

"Big girl," she informed him, sounding deeply offended by his offer of aid. Tugging the bathroom door from him and entering, she peeked around its edge. "Go 'way," she ordered, before pushing it to a firm close and clicking over the lock.

Clark let out a puff of breath. "Right," he muttered, before he retreated thankfully to the living-room.

Lois was still in the bathroom ten minutes later when the pizza delivery arrived. Clark, although beginning to worry and already wearing a nervous trail in the Chinese rug with some restless pacing, was nevertheless of the opinion that this was a lucky break. Possibly his first of the afternoon, he thought wryly. It enabled him to safely spin into the suit he had worn that day to the Planet before he opened the front door.

He had wondered how he was going to explain Superman's sudden urge for pizza to the delivery boy. He hadn't thought that 'babysitting for a friend' would be a reasonable excuse. Especially if Lois arrived on the scene before he could deal with the delivery. 'Babysitting *a* friend' was probably going to do it even less. But he hadn't wanted to change out of the Suit and completely into Clark either when Lois was in the vicinity. Instinctively, he realized that Lois, even /from the depths of her child persona, had remembered enough of him to trust Superman without question. Whether she would trust Clark in the same way, or even recognize him at all, was doubtful.

But, with Lois safely ensconced in the bathroom, his dilemma was temporarily solved. In a matter of moments, Clark Kent had taken delivery of the ordered Jumbo Pepperoni, paid and tipped the delivery boy and dispatched the delicious smelling concoction onto two plates, complete with cutlery and napkins, on Lois' low coffee table in front of the sofa - and all without any awkward questions being asked or the faintest flicker of a surprised eyebrow.

Setting down the last plate and with a cautious glance across his shoulder, he spun back into the Suit and then sat down on the sofa with a heavy sigh. Not only had he gotten away with it, it seemed he'd done so with seconds to spare. Lois would surely be back at any moment.

Congratulating himself on this small achievement, he took a slice of pizza from his plate as he waited.

And waited.

And waited.

Finally, he could no longer ignore his partner's disappearance. Putting down his last slice of pizza, he made his way to the bathroom. Pausing at the closed door, he listened cautiously. He heard running water, faint giggling and vigorous splashing. Lots of vigorous splashing. Frowning, he hesitated before rapping tentative knuckles against the door.


The giggling stopped. After a second, the distinctive sound of the faucet being shut off followed.

"Lois?" he said again. "Are you through? Pizza's ready," he added with the shameless bribery instinctive to adults. "Hurry up, or it'll get cold."

There was a damning pause from the bathroom before a small, breathless voice yelled back. "Comin'!"

Clark stepped back a pace as the door was hauled open and Lois shuffled around its edge, trying to close it behind her as she went. Her attempts to leave enough room for her to ease her way out, while at the same time keeping it close enough that he couldn't see into the room wasn't the only glaring hint that she'd been up to something she felt guilty about.

Lois literally dripped water from head to toe. It fell from the ends of her soaked hair and collected in a puddle around her bare toes. That wasn't what drew Clark's suddenly fascinated attention though.

She looked like Miss Wet T-shirt.

And, all at once and unwelcome, Mr. Basic Instincts was right back on line and looking for trouble. Clark wrenched his gaze away and sent an emergency message rocketing southward. Was it getting awfully hot in here or was his temperature soaring skyward all at once?

His eyes drifted back to Lois ... and slid downward. His thoughts scattered, yipping off into the darkness like frightened puppies. Good sense went with them.


Clark coughed, tore his eyes away and fixed them on his partner's face as she looked back at him, innocent and inquisitive, and completely unaware of the effect she was having on him.

He blinked and then raised a censorious brow, retreating into superhero mode; using his disguise like a dash of iced water against his face. Or maybe a dash lower than that. Superman never ogled naked women ... semi-naked women ... women whose t- shirts were plastered to their ... oh, god.

"What were you doing in there?" he said gruffly.

Lois looked down at her feet and shrugged. Superman's gaze became slightly glazed.

"Tol' you. Had to make - "

"Yeah ... " Clark said absently and then, snapping back, "Yeah! Right! Why are you wet?" he added, suspiciously, mentally reaching back with the question to grab the scruff of his neck and shake himself vigorously.

Lois looked down at herself as though surprised to find that she was. For a moment, she gave him a look which suggested she was about to claim something outrageous - like she'd been caught in the rain - then, obviously thought better of it in the face of that sharply raised brow which lifted a dangerous inch higher. She ducked her head, hands tucked behind her back as she scuffed one toe along the edge of the hall carpet where it met the bathroom's tiles and muttered something about having had to wash her hands.

Clark sighed. He pushed open the door and grabbed for a convenient towel, taking care not to brush up against her in the process. He didn't think he could take any more provocation. He handed it to her before turning her around by the shoulder and prodding her for the bedroom.

"Go get dried off," he told her, exasperated. "I'll be through in a minute to find you something else to wear."

Lois complied happily. She even added a skip or two as she headed for the bedroom. Clark watched her disappear into the room and then shook his head, muttering darkly under his breath. He turned back, pushing the bathroom door all the way clear.

The small room looked as though it had been used as a set for 'The Poseidon Adventure'. The sink had been filled with water to over-flowing and a variety of Lois' perfume and bath oil bottles were gaily floating in the created pool as makeshift boats. Water had flowed over the sink edge and onto the floor, pooling on the pale green tiles. A pile of sodden towels in a heap on the floor were clear testament to a guilty Lois' attempts at damage limitation.

Clark grumbled to himself as he cleaned the ensuing disaster zone at super- speed, unwilling to leave the little monster he was sharing his afternoon with alone for longer than a second. Lord knew what it'd get up to next, he thought with a shudder as he mopped up the remaining water spill with a handy towel and gathered up the rest from where they'd been discarded haphazardly on the floor.

Did all kids have this sadistic streak in them? Or was it just her? Had she been this way when she'd truly been a child? Or was it another side effect of the drug contaminating her? Or ... was she just trying to kill him?

Yeah, that was it. She was trying to kill him. Plain and simple. Right out. Full throttle. No mercy.

He shook his head, lecturing himself sternly and gathering patience. He seemed to be doing that a lot. Resisting. Gathering will. He wondered if there was an unquenchable source he was drawing from. Or whether he was going to reach his limit any time soon.

He hoped not.

Finally, he opened the laundry basket and dropped the towels inside before slamming the lid down tight and then dropping to sit on it momentarily as he let out a low breath. He was losing it. He was definitely losing it.

/Get a grip, Kent./

/Oooh - believe me, I'd love to ... /

The faint sounds of squeals, thuds and giggles reached him from the direction of the bedroom, startling him out of that unexpected memory ... and the faint, wistful smile it had brought to his lips. He frowned.

What *was* the little minx up to now?

He had a bad feeling in the pit of his stomach that he was about to find out. And an equally despondent premonition that his partner wasn't finished tormenting him yet. Not by a long chalk.


As premonitions go, Clark had been batting a thousand.

He grimaced as he carefully cleaned the last of the gooey sauce off of his partner's chin, ignoring her screwed up expression which was silently protesting his ministrations.

"There," he announced, crumpling the sticky tissues into a wad and tossing it negligently in a sure shot for the wastepaper bin beside the kitchen cabinet. "All clean."

Lois unscrewed one dubious eye and then, reassured that he was indeed through with his spot clean-up, relaxed. She gazed up on him with those trusting, doe eyes that melted his heart and made him smile, despite everything.

It had been that unquestioning trust that had somehow gotten him through the awkwardness of the situation. Once he had forced himself to look at her - think of her - as something other than his smart, sassy, street-wise partner, to stop thinking of her as a woman at all and respond to her solely at a child-like level, it had gotten easier. Not a whole lot easier, but easier all the same. When it came right down to it, as child or woman, she trusted the red and blue Suit implicitly, without reservation, and he couldn't help but respond as a superhero when she looked at him that way.

But, of all the superfeats he'd achieved since he'd come to Metropolis, of all the wondrous displays of heroism, of strength, of power and will that had awed an entire world ... he had never, in his wildest flights of imagination, thought that simply keeping his hands off of Lois Lane would be the one that would most challenge the infamous Will of Steel.

He was glad that he had gone with his first instincts and retained his Superman persona. It had helped him maintain a necessary distance as he retreated into the safety of that other identity; helped him hold on tight to a sense of perspective. Since he couldn't hold on tight to Lois. And humor. There'd been times when he thought he'd needed that last as protection more than anything else. More than strength and powers and Superwill combined.

There were other reasons why it had been a good decision too though. He was now more than certain that Clark Kent didn't figure in Lois' life right then and that she wouldn't have understood why the man she trusted had deserted her to leave a stranger in his place.

So, though it was Clark Kent who took delivery of the pizza, it was Superman who fed it to his giggling, uncooperative partner, who listened to her aimless chatter as she ate, and Superman who cleaned up the aftermath, trying all the while to ignore the ludicrous situation he found himself in.

But there was only so far his resistance could stretch. By the time he had gotten through the awkward meal, his nerves were pretty much at screaming pitch again. The unreality of the situation and his growing discomfort were beginning to wear him down. He just couldn't handle this any more, he thought, almost desperately, as he cleaned up the remains of their meal and Lois plumped herself back down before the TV.

He watched his oblivious partner from the safety of the kitchen as he washed up the few plates and utensils he'd used. It was impossible. He just couldn't deal with a five year old Lois for another moment. She was driving him crazy. They'd gone through five changes of clothing already and the laundry hamper was getting pretty full. Lois had apparently been on the cusp of laundry detail too. His choices for replacements whenever she messed up another shirt were getting pretty slim.

Then there'd been the disastrous incident with the basketball she'd unearthed /from somewhere - he didn't know how he was going to explain the wreckage of her favorite blue glass vase, now residing in the kitchen trash can in a thousand jigsaw pieces, several of them crushed beyond even Super-repair. Or the Gatorade stain in psychedelic Cherry Rush on the Chinese rug. Or the scrawl of red, fluorescent indelible marker on the wall behind the TV. He'd done what he could with the latter - with Lois wailing all the while about what he was doing to her daisy and doggie pictures - and it had faded some, would probably be easy enough to obliterate entirely over time, but it was still clearly visible. It had taken him over an hour to persuade her to sit down and eat, by which point he'd been about ready to just tie her to the sofa for the duration and have done with it.

He fixed a weary stare on the clock as he put away the plates. It was almost six. His mind spun furiously, and then a somewhat forced smile settled on his face.

At least - a desperate escape route beckoned - he couldn't deal with a five year old Lois *awake*.

"Time for bed!" Superman announced cheerfully, wiping his hands dry with the kitchen towel as he strode back into the living- room.

Lois' expression immediately turned mutinous as she glanced across her shoulder at him and then away again, as though in the firm belief that if she couldn't see him then she had to be invisible to him too. Her brow puckered into a frown and, in profile, her jaw set. She settled herself more firmly into the carpet beneath her, wriggling her bottom deeper into the plush pile as though anchoring herself and preparing for a siege.

Oh-oh, Superman thought.


Lois ducked her head, tracing fitful patterns on the carpet with one finger. "Not sleepy," she tried, but the conviction was half-hearted as though she was aware that this was a ploy which rarely worked in such situations.

Clark tried brightening the smile a notch. Several notches in fact. "Well, maybe you *will* feel sleepy once we get you into bed." He pushed back the sudden image that the words conjured up in his traitorous mind as he put the towel back neatly on its rail.

He stood by the counter for a moment as she ignored him, almost straightening into the usual imposing stance, arms folded, expression grim, that he habitually used when Lois was being unreasonable and stubborn, and then realized that it was way too intimidating for a child to deal with. He thought for a moment and then crossed the room to sit on the edge of the sofa and eye her expectantly. Maybe if he exuded an air of quiet confidence in the fact that he was in charge here and he expected her compliance, she might take heed.

Course on the other hand, he thought, after a few moments of tense stand-off in which Lois doggedly ignored him entirely and began flipping steadily through the TV channels with the remote - her lower lip jutting mulishly and her shoulders stiffened into a tight, rebellious line - maybe Lois hadn't lost as many of her usual traits when she'd regressed as he'd figured.

A five year old Lois was still Lois, after all. Still stubborn, still willful ... still darned infuriating.

Clark sighed and gathered his cape reluctantly as he began to rise to his feet. The thought that he might have to physically put his partner to bed - and keep her there - if she refused to co-operate appalled him, but if she was going to be awkward ... ...

He never got the chance - perhaps fortunately - to test the strength of will it would have required to force Lois into the bedroom ... and then leave her there. Lois spotted his tentative motion from the corner of her eye, tossed the remote aside and, with a natural slyness that wasn't just reserved for her childish persona alone, pushed herself to her feet. Closing the gap between them in a move that rivaled superspeed, she threw herself bodily into her partner's lap.

"Story first!" she demanded, gleefully wrapping her arms around his neck and bouncing up and down with excitement.

Clark thought that he might just die. He could have sworn his heart stopped cold as she landed on him. And then recovered to make up for it as it set off in a thundering gallop. He closed his eyes, panic flaring in him as Lois wriggled in his lap, finding herself a more comfortable perch.

His eyes opened wide and found themselves inches away from her bright-eyed and hopeful stare. Somehow, his hand had found its way onto her knee as he made an attempt to stop her bouncing on him. The hard ball of bone beneath his fingers, encased in smooth satin, enthralled his fingers like nothing else they'd encountered before. He flexed them gently and then reluctantly pulled them clear. This was definitely above and beyond the call of duty. She wasn't going to be content with killing him. She wanted to torture him slowly first.

"Uh-uh," He shook his head firmly. "I don't think so, Lois."

He put his hands at her waist, preparing to lift her clear of his lap and stand her back on her feet and paused as he saw the tears well up in her eyes abruptly. Lois hauled in a high, shuddering breath. Clark knew, from recent, terrifying experience, just what *that* meant.

"Okay, okay! Story first!" he caved in, pre-empting her wail. Kent, you are such a pushover ... he told himself, disgusted.

Yeah, right! And if she starts crying again ... ? It's all over, buddy! he snapped back in his own defense. Trust me!

Victorious though, Lois spared him, her face turning sunny with the capriciousness of the five year old she'd become. She snuggled closer against his chest and tucked her head against his shoulder.

"Supeyman smell nice," she murmured, sighing contentedly and fiddling with the edge of his cape.

Clark stifled another groan. He was, he thought dismally. He was going to die before the evening - and his partner - were through with him. He just knew it.


Superman swept the bed from top to bottom with a gentle burst of heat vision.

"Here we go. Why don't you get in while it's still warm?" he encouraged, turning back the covers of the neatly made up bed and bending briefly as he switched on the bedside lamp. It cast a friendly glow on the room.

Lois stood in the doorway of the room and watched these preparations in suspicious silence. But she was tired and, after a moment, she crossed the room unsteadily and brushed past the waiting superhero. To his surprise, she dropped the Rat carelessly to the carpet in her wake. It had never been more than a few inches from her side all evening and in fact she had had a minor attack of childish hysteria at one point when it had been temporarily mislaid, sending him on a frantic Super-vision search for it to calm her down. But now she abandoned it without a glance in favor of plucking a little black bear from where it rested on its pillow. Clutching the bear to her chest she scrambled under the covers.

"Good girl." Clark smiled down at her and then paused, struck by a sudden and almost overpowering glow of affection. In the dim pool of yellow light, in her Daffy Duck t-shirt (all he'd been able to find in her dresser for sleepwear that didn't bring to mind thoughts that were undoubtedly best not dwelt on) and her hair tousled and tangled around her shoulders, she looked adorable. Before he could stay it or think better of the idea, he found his hand reaching out to tuck a few strands of her hair behind one ear and then drift further to briefly cradle her cheek.

"Goodnight Lois," he whispered. He bent closer, hesitated and then changed direction from her lips to press his gently to her temple.

As he straightened, she surprised him, shifting to wrap her arms around his neck and planting a wet and sloppy kiss against his cheek. "I love you, Supeyman," she said.

Startled, Clark could only stay still in her embrace, feeling his heart start to pound fiercely in his chest. He eased himself carefully clear of her and smiled, somewhat shakily, as she scooted down into the bed. After a moment's wriggling to find the most comfortable position, she curled up on one side and closed her eyes, that iniquitous thumb gravitating almost inevitably for her mouth again.

Clark sat on the edge of the bed for a moment, watching the steady rise and fall of her chest, listening to her low breaths and the soft, drowsing beat of her heart as it drifted into sleep, unable to tear himself away. He stroked the back of one finger softly over her cheek. The evening had been a series of tortures for him and - just for this one moment - he couldn't deny himself the indulgence of taking advantage of the situation, reveling in the privilege of being allowed to watch her sleep as he never had been able to before.

She looked so ... cute. He knew she wouldn't appreciate the definition, but it was apt. Clutching the plush little bear to her and curled around its comforting softness. Lashes laying like dark moth's wings against her cheeks, fluttering slightly as she entered REM sleep. He wondered what she was dreaming about. Little girl dreams? Or was Lois reasserting herself somewhere in the muddle of that drifting mind?

/Come back to me, Lois,/ his heart whispered a plea from the depths of his mind and he leaned forward slightly to draw a strand of hair back from her forehead. She stirred, murmured something, low and soft, and he leaned closer, suddenly intent, hope a wild drumming in his chest.

Had that been his name?

"Lois ... ?"

She didn't answer, settled back into sleep in another moment. Clark sighed and straightened, going back to simply watching over her a time.

At last, he pulled his fascinated gaze away. As he leaned over her to switch off the lamp, his attention was caught by the toy she was holding.

His eyes widened a touch as he recognized it. Though he'd never forgotten - couldn't forget - the evening he'd won it for her at the Smallville Corn Festival Fair, he had never imagined that she'd kept it. And certainly not that she'd keep it here, in her bed. For a moment, he mulled over the vague implications of that and then shook his head. Best not go there. It was a cute bear, that was all. She had other such soft toys laying around the room. It probably appealed to her. Why shouldn't she keep it?

/But none of the others were in her bed,/ a small voice insisted.

Clark shook his head again and then took another glance at the woman beside him. He reached out and tugged the comforter higher around her shoulders and, remembering her words of a moment before as he rose to his feet, felt a warmth fill the pit of his stomach and flicker steadily in his heart.

"I love you too, Lois," he said softly, his eyes glowing in the dim light reaching long fingers across the bed from the living room, before he turned and walked from the room.


Clark started awake, uncertain for a moment just what it was that had brought him out of a fitful doze, and then realized it had been a low, sharp cry from the bedroom. It was followed almost immediately by a thump.

"Ow! Darnit!"


He was up, off of the sofa and at the doorway of her bedroom, in an instant. His subconscious warned by that savage exclamation of disgust, he somehow found himself reaching it as Clark. He paused, holding onto the doorframe with one hand, as he found Lois in a heap on the floor beside the bed, legs tucked under her as she leaned one elbow against the rumpled covers and one hand pressed hard to her forehead. She moaned softly.

"Lois?" he asked, tentatively.

"Clark? Oh ... my head."

She looked up at him miserably, eyes dark with pain, and then gulped, a look of alarm swiftly crossing her face. She clapped a hand across her mouth, looking positively ashen now, and staggered to her feet. Violently shrugging off his automatic helping hand, she headed out of the door in a wild rush for the bathroom.

Clark watched her somewhat unsteady progress until she was out of view and then he let out a small sough of air that was tinged heavily with relief. He found himself wearing a somewhat goofy smile. See, he triumphantly challenged his earlier, more pessimistic self as though he himself had never doubted it as fact. Told ya she'd come through.

Faint retching noises emanated from the bathroom. Clark grimaced and went on a search of his partner's kitchen cabinets.

Lois paused in the bedroom doorway when she returned, watching him as he placed a water glass and foil packets on her bedside cabinet. He turned before she could speak and indicated the items. "I brought you some painkillers. You had some ginger ale in the refrigerator; if you wash them down with it it'll help settle your stomach."

Lois ignored the advice with a scowl as she staggered past him, still clutching a hand to the side of her head. "What are you doing in my bedroom, Clark Kent? At - " she squinted painfully at the glowing digits of the bedside clock, " - four in the morning?"

"I heard you yell." He pointed a finger out into the living room. "From the sofa."

Lois sighed as she leaned over to switch on the bedside lamp. The sudden wash of light drove splinters into her eyes and she winced. She switched it off again, relying on the softer light spilling fitfully into the bedroom from the dimly lit living room beyond.

"And you were on the sofa *because* ... ?" she said, grumpy with pain.


"I don't remember inviting you *onto* the sofa - "

"Ah. Well, once you were asleep I didn't want to leave until I was sure you were okay, so I got some blankets and - "

"Never mind." She waved him off as she slumped to the edge of the bed again. "Ohhhh," she whimpered. "What hit me? Did something hit me?" she looked up at him muzzily and winced again as the motion set the ache in her skull to brightening unmercifully; a series of flashbulbs erupting crazily behind her eyes.

"Not exactly."

"Well, whatever it was, it sure hit hard." She groaned as she propped her elbows on her knees and her head in her hands.

"You don't remember?" Clark said, watching her with sympathy. "Nothing at all?" He sat down diffidently on the side of the bed beside her, leaving a circumspect inch or two of space between them.

Lois considered with a frown. "No. But, judging by the firecrackers going off in my skull right now, I have to figure it was some wild party." She jerked up her head, forgetting even to wince at the jolt of pain that speared through her, so dismayed was she all at once.

"Ohmigosh, I wasn't ... " she swallowed the words, looking stricken and then went on in a whispered rush, "I didn't do any ... " her hand gestured in midair; a series of vaguely suggestive curves, " ... dancing. Did I?"

Clark couldn't help a grin. "No." The grin took on a thoughtful aspect. "At least," he reconsidered blandly, remembering the moment when Lois decided to show off the results of the ballet classes Ellen Lane had enrolled her in almost two decades previously with a slightly uncoordinated though definitely cute rendition of the 'Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies', " ... not as such."

"Oh." Lois was silent for a moment. She looked down at herself. "Well, at least I'm not wearing chiffon this time," she muttered and then, plucking distastefully at the cotton t-shirt she was wearing, "Though this isn't exactly my usual taste in nightwear either."

The motion drew Clark's attention to the t-shirt. He stared at the Daffy Duck logo and the softly rounded curves that it was stretched across. It *was* a little on the undersized side of tight, now that he looked at it. He wondered briefly why he'd failed to note that when he picked it out for her to use as sleepwear. But then, by the point where he'd gotten her into bed, he'd been desperately trying to avoid noticing what she was wearing at all, he recalled with a small grimace.

"Did somebody say something about painkillers?" Lois' low, pained voice brought up his head with a jerk.

"Oh! Here!" He handed them over with the ginger ale and watched her down them. She tipped back her head to encourage their passage. Clark's eyes couldn't help but be attracted to the soft rippling motions of her throat as she swallowed and the way that her movements caused Daffy to dance against the thin fabric shrouding her slim figure.

"Thanks." She handed back the glass with a soft smile and then glanced down at the t-shirt again wryly. "You know, I haven't seen this thing for ... well, I can't even remember. It wasn't even mine, it was Lucy's. She left it here when she moved out and I never remembered to give it back."

She stopped considering the shirt and looked up on Clark again, eyes clouding over with puzzlement. "Why did I start wearing it now?"

"Ah. Well, you didn't," Clark started an explanation and then paused as Lois gasped. He watched in concern as she straightened abruptly, her face suddenly wax pale as it drained completely of color.

"Lois?" he said, startled by the abrupt change. He reached out to clutch at her arm, as he said again, anxiously, "Lois? Lois, are you okay?" He moved quickly, taking hold of her shoulders. "Maybe you should lay back down and - "

She shook him off stubbornly as he made an abortive attempt to ease her under the covers again and he backed off, holding up supplicating hands in defeat. Her head swiveled to view him, her eyes round as saucers as she blurted, "No ... ! Tell me I didn't!"

"I said you didn't. I - "

"What?" Lois looked at him, confused and then, understanding and dismissing the comment with a sharp, irked wave of her hand, "No, not *that*!"

"Oh," Clark said, wrong-footed. "Didn't what then?" he asked warily. The question could cover a lot of sins and he wasn't putting his neck in *that* noose willingly.

Lois closed her eyes, recovering color in a rush, cheeks burning now. Clark, through his bemusement, watched with a certain, clinical interest. He didn't think he'd ever seen anyone change so many colors in so short a time before.

"Tell me I didn't ask Superman to read me a bedtime story!"

Clark chuckled and then shrugged as her eyes flew open to glare at him. "'fraid so," he confirmed. "At least, he did mention - "

Lois moaned again as her memories brightened unmercifully and then buried her face in her hands. "Fox In Sox!" she whimpered on a near wail. "I sat on Superman's lap while he told me Fox In Sox!"

Her head jerked up as Clark watched her, at a loss as to how to respond to that. Although a small, uncharitable portion of him briefly considered taking up the offered opportunity to make his partner squirm - just a little. Payback for all the torture she'd put him through that evening. As he was rapping said portion sternly across the knuckles for its ungenerous thought, Lois' expression switched with a quickfire capriciousness he recognized from humiliation to calculating inquisitiveness.

"How'd Superman know Fox In Sox?"

"I dunno. Maybe it was one of his favorites. When he ... was a kid."

"You think?" A quick, fleeting curiosity crossed her face as she filed that away for future consideration in that portion of her mental file cabinet labeled: 'Superman - Curious Facts About', briefly mulling over the intriguing possibilities it hinted at, and then she crumpled into another wail. "How could I *do* that? I am never going to live this down, Clark! You realize that? Never!"

"Lois ... " He reached out gingerly to pat at her shoulder and for a moment couldn't help but be struck by the memory of another time, when she'd been just as crushed, just as humiliated, as he'd fumbled to reassure her. A faint smile flickered on his face with the recollection and then hastily wiped itself clear as Lois glanced at him suspiciously.

"Don't tell me it wasn't my fault," she growled.

"Well, it wasn't."

"Okay ... so whose fault was it?" She leapt to her feet without waiting for his answer, wavered for a moment, and then set off on a wild tangent, missing Clark's quickly aborted move to steady her. Her fists clenched spasmodically at her sides and she growled under her breath with that unsteady march for the closet in the corner.

"Wait a minute, where you going?" Clark said, rising hastily to his feet after her. He knew that tone -- and it never harbored anything good.

Or reasonable.

"To find the slimy little *skuzzball* who ruined my life! And, I'm telling you, Clark, when I do -- " She propped to a halt and twisted on one heel to stab a furious finger at him, forcing him back an instinctive step out of its prodding reach. "I'm gonna show him just how much 'Christmas cheer', 'Peace on Earth' and 'Goodwill to all *men*' figure in Lois Lane's vocabulary!"

She tore open the closet door with a deal more force than it strictly deserved, sending it banging back on its hinges. "I'm gonna kill the slimy, sleazy, lowdown, son of a -- "

"Lois, it's four in the morning," Clark protested mildly. "Besides, don't you think 'my life is ruined' is overstating the facts? Just a little? Come on. Relax. It could be worse."

"Worse!" Lois spun back to face him, arms thrown wide in emphasis with that screech. "Oh, do tell, Kent! Just exactly *how* could it be worse!" she snarled, face twisted in sarcastic venom as she set her fists on her hips and glared at him in challenge.

"Well ... at least Superman brought you home. You could still be back at the paper. Playing hopscotch," he pointed out congenially. "At least here it was just the two of us ... you ... the two of you. And ... and me," he added hastily, recovering awkwardly from the almost slip.

"Well, there you go!" Lois gestured triumphantly at him, before resuming her burrowing of the closet in high dudgeon. "Not only do I make a perfect *idiot* of myself in front of *Superman*, but he invites my partner along to see the show! My *partner*, Clark! The person I work with at the Planet every day! The one person I need to have respect from! The only other person in the entire *universe* whose opinion I actually happen to -- "

She straightened abruptly, breaking off her tirade, floundering for a moment as she caught Clark's suddenly interested gaze and realized where that furious diatribe had begun to take her.

"I - I mean - well, anyway," she recovered smartly, disappearing again, "I'm gonna find the little creep and I'm gonna carve his liver out with a blunt dessert spoon and staple it to his forehead! If I can *find* ... *my* ... *stupid* ... *boots*!" she added in a frustrated growl as she gave up her search abruptly and hauled out her coat instead. "Where the hell are my boots!"

Clark sighed. "Drying out in the kitchen."

Lois snapped him a look that was half exasperated, half perplexed. "What?"

"You ... uh, decided on a scientific experiment. You wanted to see what would happen if you tried to flush them down the toilet. I rescued them, cleaned them up," he added dryly. "But they got pretty wet."

Lois stared at him, dumbfounded for a moment. "You're making that up," she said finally.

Clark shrugged. "Nope."

Lois blinked and then responded to this revelation with an inarticulate mutter in the midst of which there were several more, undefined threats against the 'skuzzball', along with a detailed and highly implausible rendition of his bloodlines and family lineage. She vanished back into the closet as that aggrieved muttering continued, burying herself in its depths as she began to rummage. The air was suddenly filled with shoes flying in all directions. Clark snagged one high-heeled sandal out of mid air before it could hit him square in the face. He sighed heavily.

"Lois - "

She emerged with a pair of black suede boots and glared at him. "Are you ready to go? Or are you going to let yourself out? Either way, make up your mind quick, because I'm out of here, Buster! With you or not!"

Clark raised a slow brow at her and then looked at the shoe in his hand. He moved for the closet as Lois dropped the boots to a nearby chair and hauled on her coat. Clark paused in the doorway of the closet, looking nonplused for a moment. Then, with a shrug, he gave up on looking for order among chaos and tossed the shoe negligently into the untidy heap in the bottom of the closet where its fellows resided, before turning back to Lois.

In her fury and impatience she'd gotten herself entangled in the left sleeve of her coat and was currently fighting it viciously, struggling like a stoat in a gin-trap. Clark sighed and reached out automatically to help her, earning himself a sharp slap on the wrist for his trouble as she batted his hand away, glaring up at him.

He sighed again. "Don't you think, maybe, you should calm down first?" he suggested. He decided against mentioning that it might also be a good idea to get dressed, since that would only encourage her. "You'll just end up running around half the night and be no better off by morning. Leave it till then. We can get hold of Bobby; see what he knows. Anyway, Superman's bound to find him before anyone else does. He - they - could be anywhere in the city, Lois."

Lois paused, knowing, even through her anger, that he was making sense. Unfortunately, without the prop of righteous rage to bolster and distract her or a firm plan for working it out of her system - i.e. working *over* the skuzzball - she was left with only one thing to focus on.

"Superman ... " she said, seeming to crumple inward with the mention of the superhero. Blank eyed, and with another of those mercurial swings of mood, she gave up all thought of leaving, a low moan trickling from her lips. "What must he think?!"

Clark looked at her for a moment and then threw caution to the winds as he stepped around her and reached out to ease her coat from her shoulders. This time, she didn't protest. Or hit him. Instead, she sniffed a little and then swiped a hand against her nose.

This was not a good sign.

"Come on, Lois," Clark said gently as he hung the coat back neatly in its closet and led her, unresisting, for the bed. He sat her down and settled himself beside her, taking hold of her hands in his as he said, earnestly, "I'm sure he understands. You weren't yourself. There's something in those Space Rats that affects the mind. I'm sure of it."

"There is?" The reporter in his partner came out of hiding, brushing aside other considerations as she gleaned the hint of a story somewhere in the middle of this mess.

Clark nodded. "What's the last thing you remember?" he asked, attempting to distract her now as he shifted sideways on the bed so that he could study her more closely. "Clearly remember?"

Lois thought about it. "I think ... it was when we were in the toy store. I picked up ... " Her eyes brightened as she looked suddenly excited. "You know, I think you're right! I picked up one of those dumb Rats and ... then this completely *rabid* woman tried to grab it from me and, well I wasn't going to put up with *that*, even if she did have a seven year old kid that was going just *hyper* over the thing and Christmas morning *would* have been kinda miserable if he didn't open the right parcel, I mean you know what kids are like, even if they do just play with the box the darned toy came in, it has to be the *right* box or - -- "

"Uh, Lois - ?" Clark interrupted as he saw this tangent galloping into the distance with a thunder of hooves, like a steer in a stampede.

Lois gave him a surprised look and then, "Oh! The Rats. Right." She frowned a little to gather her thoughts and went on, "I got sprayed in the face with that stupid gun it was holding. The Rat, I mean, not the woman ... or maybe the woman happened after the Rat ... I dunno, it's all jumbled up in my head. After that ... " She looked a little distressed again. "It's all a blur. More or less. I remember ... hopscotch?" she murmured glumly, giving him a small dismayed look as she remembered his earlier words. She let herself flop backwards onto the bed proper and moaned loudly as she stared at the ceiling.

"Right!" Clark said, keen to keep her on track and not let her slip back into maudlin self-examination again. He resisted the urge that made him want to reach out and pat a hand consolingly against one cotton-clad shoulder, knowing that the best way to keep her on the pace wasn't to offer sympathy, but to remain strictly downbeat and professional. Distance.

"It was more or less the same for me. Last thing I remember was you spraying Jimmy and me in the face with that Rat. You know it even affected Superman for a time."

"It did?" Lois shifted her gaze to him, looking inordinately pleased at that. She sat up.

Seeing the faint relief in her eyes, Clark nodded. He hadn't intended to reveal to anyone that Superman was as vulnerable as anyone else to the effects of the Rat spray, but now he decided to lay it on just a little thick, responding to the hope and wounded pride in her face. She needed the sop to her self- esteem.

"Sure! He was the biggest kid of all! So, you see ... he really does understand it wasn't your fault. It's just lucky he seems to have gotten over it sooner than the rest of us. Having a greedy, childish superhero flying around Metropolis doesn't bear thinking about. It was bad enough last time with ... that clone," he finished after a small pause. It was still rarely advisable to use Lex Luthor's name in front of his partner unless there was the inclusion of several expletives tacked on.

Not that she was listening. "Hmmmmm," she agreed absently. "I should have realized. Cos, that Pheromone spray of Miranda's affected him too, you know." A small, distant smile grew on her lips with the words and her expression turned dreamy.

Clark studied her intently, knowing what she was remembering. A scowl puckered his brow suddenly as he watched that all too familiar, all too irritating, look of hero-worship glowing on his partner's face like a benediction.

"Lois?" He jogged her sharply. Perhaps a touch more sharply than he'd meant.

"Huh?" Lois started and glanced at him, frowning now. "What?" she said, a touch belligerent at being jerked so rudely from her fantasy.

Clark made to speak and then paused. He looked away instead and down at the hands folded between his knees. "Nothing," he said heavily, feeling a sudden, weary depression sink in on him as he studied his entwined fingers disconsolately.

There was, he thought, an almost perfect irony about the entire situation. He had just spent an evening feeling closer to Lois than he could ever remember being before - and she'd been all of five years old. She'd needed him. To comfort her. Protect her. More than she'd ever had before. She'd wanted what he'd always longed for her to ask of him, what he'd longed to give her ... and none of it had been real.

And now that she'd recovered her sense of identity? Returned to normal? She was drawing away from him again. Retreating back to her fantasy hero, who was about as real as her own distorted persona had been. Who could never provide her with any of the things she truly wanted. And who was the only one in the universe she wished would.

Okay, so maybe 'retreating' was unfair. Since only *he'd* ever been truly there for her in the first place.

Was that faintly mocking cosmic laughter growing louder?

He must, he thought heavily, continuing that downward spiral into maudlin self- pity, be the only person in the entire history of creation to have invented his own rival in the quest for affection from the woman of his dreams. *Other* guys were happy enough beating off the local office Lothario or charming old flame. But, no ... not Clark Kent. Not him. *He* had to go one better. Nobody had ever been *that* dumb. Ever.

Well ... there'd been Cyrano de Bergerac of course, he supposed, but at least *he'd* had something - someone - tangible to fight against and, anyway, the parallel didn't really hold up to --


It was his turn to start violently as he felt Lois' hand come to rest lightly against his knee. She was watching him with that familiar look in her eyes - concern and an invitation to confide - and he realized that the dejected run of his thoughts had shown on his face. Clark gave not the slightest hint of the sharp jolt of electric heat that coursed through him from where her soft touch lay warm against his knee, but he shifted a little, drawing away from her while trying to make it look like he wasn't.

He shook his head. "Nothing," he repeated. "It's just been ... a rough day." He offered her a pallid smile.

Her eyes showed sympathy now, turning contrite. "You were sprayed too. Clark, I'm sorry, I didn't think." She patted him gently and began to rise. "I should have more painkillers in the bathroom cabinet. Is your head hurting? I'll just - - "

"No, Lois, it's okay. I'm fine. Really." He looked up at her wanly, reaching up to grasp her arm lightly and tug her back to sit as he rose to his feet instead.

"I guess I'm just a little more tired than I thought I was. Look, I really only stuck around to make sure you were okay. You seem," he glanced around the room and the minefield of discarded footwear scattered around the bed and then returned to her puzzled face, "pretty much back to your old self. I guess I should go. It's late - and we'll be busy later. You need to rest. You should go back to bed. Get some sleep. I can let myself out."

"But - "

"No, really." He backed up for the door. "I really am tired. I - I'd best just go. Go back to bed, Lois." He hesitated. Then, "I'm ... glad you're okay."

Lois looked perplexed by his seeming eagerness to leave, but she nodded and gave him a small shrug of her shoulders. "Well ... I guess I'll see you in the morning? Later *this* morning," she amended, with a rueful glance at the clock beside her. It emerged as more of an uncertain question than she'd intended it to be, a testament to the sudden oddity of his mood.

"Yeah. If you want to go get breakfast before we head in, just give me a call. Or ... I'll ... see you at the Planet. Yeah?"

"Sure. Okay."

Clark nodded and gave her a quick smile that simply stretched the skin of his face taut before it faded. He turned for the door and almost made it before Lois spoke up softly from behind him.

"Hey, partner ... "

He turned back, looking slightly anxious. She smiled shyly. "Thanks. For using my sofa? For taking care of me, I mean," she added as he frowned. "Looking out for me."

A beat of silence passed between them.

"I like looking out for you, Lois," he said solemnly at last and then, seeming to regret having voiced the thought, turned cool and remote again as he waved an absent hand towards the living room. "I'll ... just get my things and get out of your way."

Lois sat for a moment on the bed's edge as he vanished into the dimly lit living room and then, with a frown, got to her feet to follow, somewhat unsteadily still.

"When did he leave?" she asked, as she leaned against the frame of the bedroom door and watched him button up his cuffs and the open neck of his shirt.

"Huh?" He glanced at her as he searched for his tie. He found it under one of the cushions. "Who?"

"Superman. Was there some emergency? Is that why he left? Did he ask you to stay here? Did he go get you? Here, give me that," she added as he started to fold up the blanket he'd taken from her closet.

"No, it's okay, I can - "

"No, really, please, you don't have to - "

"Really, Lois, it'll just take a moment and -- "

They stopped, both realizing in the same moment that they had somehow gotten into a gentle tug of war with the blanket between them. Clark gave her a sheepish look and let go. Lois folded the blanket over one arm, smoothing at its soft folds as she ducked her head to watch the motions of her hands against its warmth.

"There wasn't any emergency," she said bleakly after a moment as he stood watching her, recognizing something in her sudden stillness - a deep despair - that made his heart ache all at once. "Was there?"

She glanced up at him, her eyes dark and wounded in the dim light. "He just left, didn't he? He left and asked you to look out for me instead. He just didn't want to be here. With me."

Clark couldn't answer, had no answer, and Lois was watching her hands make absent patterns on the blanket intently now, her voice thick with suppressed tears. "What's *wrong* with me, Clark?" she blurted. "Why can't he love me the way I love him? Why can't he see what he means to me? I know if he did, he'd understand, he'd *know* - "

Afterwards, Clark could never say just exactly why her words provoked him as they did. Why then? She was just being Lois after all. Mooning over her elusive superhero; confiding in her best friend; spilling out all of her hurt and insecurities against a warm shoulder he'd dutifully provided time and again. There was nothing new in that. Nothing to make him furious with her all at once.

And yet he was. Suddenly, he was furious and hurt and wounded as badly as she was.

He couldn't even fall back on the accusation that she was using him. He was the one who'd stepped into her personal life, unasked and, until recently, unwanted. He was the one who'd forced his way past the barbed wire fences and 'keep out' signs she made no secret of erecting against him. My God, the woman had warned him off practically the very first moment they'd met. What more had he needed? A gilt-edged rejection notice? Yet, he was the one who'd stepped over the line she'd carefully drawn in the sand between them and offered himself up as a sacrificial sounding board.

And, he was the one who'd let Superman play fast and loose with his partner's affections. Who'd used the superhero as a convenient proxy whenever his own weakness overcame him and he found himself unable to stay away; needy for the unconditional love she gave him when he donned the red and blue Suit. The only way, it seemed, to obtain what he desired most. And who left her bereft for days and weeks after, as guilt drove him from her ... until he succumbed to her lure again. Like an addict desperately craving and resisting the source of his addiction in one and the same moment.

None of it was Lois' fault. He was the one who'd gotten himself into this mess.

So, *why* was he so angry with her? And why now?

Perhaps it was because he had never felt closer to her, despite the circumstances, than he had sharing this evening with her. Maybe it was simply that he was tired and fraught and the strain of the day's events were beginning to stretch nerves already shredded and fatigued. Or maybe he'd just reached the limits of that unquenchable resistance and was all out of patience.

Maybe, he'd never know.

The reality of it was that, for whatever reason, her words sent a pulse of dark anger blooming in his chest, tightening its way around his heart and pushing him to extremes he'd never have considered only hours before.

He grabbed for his jacket, thrown over the back of the sofa. "Maybe he just didn't want to stick around babysitting, Lois," he snapped, hearing the cruelty in the words and yet, somehow, unable to pull them back. Worse, he knew he didn't want to. Something black and stinking and corrupt was tearing itself loose in his soul, scrabbling free of his heart, and it wasn't going to let him put it back in its cage now.

As though he was watching and listening from a distance, he saw himself wave an impatient, scathing hand at his partner as she stared back at him, startled into silence by the harshness of his response.

He turned his back on her as he stiff armed his way angrily into his jacket and stuffed the recovered tie deep into its pocket. "Maybe he had other things to do. Maybe he's even got a life. Did you ever consider that? Maybe spending all his time picking you up and dusting you down every time you get yourself in trouble isn't what he figured he'd be doing twenty four seven when he came to Metropolis!"

He heard her take a hard, shocked breath and then choke it off, but he didn't look at her, couldn't look at her, and, somehow, he couldn't back off either.

"Clark - "

He felt his shoulders clench, setting themselves tight against the plea in her voice. He twisted slightly as he caught her movement out of the corner of his eye, avoiding the touch of her hand as she reached out towards his sleeve, and saw her freeze, hand wavering uncertainly in mid air before she let it drop back reluctantly to her side.

Her bewilderment at his unexpected and inexplicable hostility, at the dark scorn in his words, and her attempts to understand, to reach out to him even then, when he'd lashed out at her so harshly, only infuriated him further. Couldn't she even understand when he was trying to hurt her; trying to wound her as deeply as she'd hurt him? Couldn't she see *why*, even then?

"Clark ... What's wrong with you?"

Clark threw her a quick, incautious glance and felt the anger in him waver as he met the confusion and hurt in her deep, brown eyes; stark on his amid the sudden pallor of her face. She was still disorientated by the events of the day, already vulnerable in her perceived abandonment, emotionally fragile. Her eyes were still a little hazed as the last, trace residue of the drug leeched through her blood, adding to her bewilderment, and he was guiltily aware that he was kicking his partner when she was already down and badly wounded ... but he couldn't let it go. He couldn't. Not now. Somehow, he'd set himself - set them both - on a path from which there was no turning back and part of him, though damning him for it, ashamed and guilt-ridden, was relieved that he had.

He'd been angry with her - furious with her - like this before and he'd stepped aside; caged the beast; let his feelings for her rule him; told himself that he had no right to place himself in her path, no matter what he thought or wanted for himself. Or for her. Choosing a path for her was as much a violation as Luthor's sick, twisted perverting of her hopes and dreams.

So, he had stepped aside; let her go; told himself that her happiness was more than enough consolation for the shards of his own dreams laid desolate at his feet. Except that he'd known, even then, that it was a lie. Known that her happiness was never assured. Not with Luthor. And that giving her up to him was the biggest mistake of all.

But ... even so ... knowing all that as he did ... he *had* stepped aside.

It had been the most painful decision of his life. And the most fatal. One which had almost resulted in him losing his own life and come close to delivering Lois into unimaginable depravity: a hell of Luthor's making which would have shaped her life in dark ways too terrible to contemplate. Clark could easily recall Luthor's words. His threats. As clearly as though he was still there, still curled, helpless and hurting, on the floor of the faintly glowing, humming cage, feeling the stark bite of pain snap at his lungs and claw at his belly, clenching his breath tight in his throat like a noose.

/I love Lois ... I really do. But she's just a little too independent, don't you think? Well, I'll take care of that ... /

Clark remembered the terror that had flooded through him with those words. The sick knowledge that Lois was in more danger at that moment than she'd ever been; that there was nothing he could do to save her; that she didn't even know that the predator was closing in on her. That the trap was almost sprung and she was walking into that snare with her eyes closed ... and blissfully happy as she did. He had been more afraid in that one moment than he had been considering, with sick defeat burning like acid in his mind, how close *he* was to dying at Luthor's hands.

He had imagined her smiling up at her dark captor, her soon to be abuser, dressed in white silk and satin and so fragile, so easy to break. So easy to destroy.

Even thinking about how near that future had come, how easily it might have been, had the power to chill him now. They had come so close ...

Clark hadn't given in to his own wounds until after it was over. When he was safe at his parent's farmhouse, when Lois, her wedding night spent miserably in his arms, had finally succumbed to the draining sleep that had overtaken her. Worn out by storms of weeping and self-castigation and dark, pitiful hurt as he'd held her close in the wake of Luthor's death and the destruction of her dreams.

The betrayal of all her hopes.

His heart had broken for her as he had. For those shattered hopes which had never included him. She had been so hurt, so broken, he had sometimes feared she might never return from the brink of the abyss where Luthor had pushed her.

Later, desperate with fear for her, full of black-choking guilt for not stopping Luthor sooner, for letting his own pride and anger get in the way of protecting her - something he might well never forgive himself for - he had broken down and wept like a child in his Mom's arms. Taking the same, uneasy comfort that he had earlier given.

For months after Luthor's death he had been plagued by nightmares. Dark, violent dreams in which Luthor's words came to fruition.

He was back in the cage and Luthor brought his new bride of only a few months down into the cellar to view his pet captive. Luthor knew this torture was much harder to bear than death for the superhero and so kept him alive, caged and defeated, in constant pain yet never allowed to slip into oblivion. And, besides, the superhero made an ideal hostage to ensure his wife's docility.

Superman stared at Lois through the green glowing bars as she stood demurely beside her husband. A Lois who was outwardly everything she had always been ... smart, intelligent, beautiful. But the spark that had lit her from within, that he had so adored, was gone and her eyes were dead and cold on his. Luthor wanted an obedient, submissive trophy wife, not a tough minded, career woman and had molded her that way from the outset. In whichever way got him results. There were bruises sometimes. But though he had a temper that was vicious as a polecat when provoked, Luthor rarely marked his most prized possession. There were other ways to tame his bride to his will. Others whom Lois loved who could be used as bargaining chips to secure her submission. Luthor, already well proven the master of manipulation, who knew psychological terrors more powerful than any physical wounds, had no limits to his cruelties and even the smallest of them could wound deeply. And swiftly break even the strongest, most defiant will.

And, on other nights ...

Superman had died in that cage as Luthor had planned all along. And had roamed the empty city streets, viewing snapshots of life as it continued without him; an invisible wraith, a ghostly voyeur. He watched Lois through the years as Luthor systematically broke her will and spirit with threats and beatings and every sick, twisted cruelty at his command.

Dark nights ...

There were other dreams too. Repeating endlessly in the night terrors of his room and all of them with one common thread: Lois, broken and debased by Luthor. Dreams which had brought Clark jolting out of sleep, drenched in sweat and trembling, more nights than he could count. Or cared to recall.

They had faded, those dreams. In time. But their memory was still raw and it was their dark, cancerous stain in the depths of his soul that stiffened his resolve now. He had let another man get in his way before and Lois had almost paid the price. He wasn't going to repeat that mistake.

No, he wasn't going to step aside again. Not this time.

And especially not for his alter ego. Who, more than most, had no right at all to get in his way.

"Clark! Clark, please! Don't go ... not like this ... "

That voice, trembling and thick with the promise of tears, jolted him back to the present. He'd somehow found his way to the door of her apartment, his hand clenched tight enough around the doorknob to whiten his knuckles. He ducked his head, staring blankly for a moment at the hand that had laid itself against his arm and stopped him in his tracks. He could feel the tremor in those long, delicate fingers pulse through his skin ... and reach its way into his heart.

Reluctantly, Clark raised his head and looked into soft doe eyes that were glassy with tears. Betrayal. Pain. Bewilderment. She didn't deserve any of it. She had asked for his understanding, as she'd always had; reached out to him for comfort, that he'd always given ... and instead he'd struck out at her from the depths of his own frustration; used her as a convenient whipping post for his own rage. And his own failings.

He shook his head, anger snuffing itself out abruptly, like a fading summer squall, in the face of what he found in those eyes. He couldn't hold on to rage assaulted by her tears. She reached too deep into his heart for that. All at once, he felt nothing more than weary and defeated ... and desperately alone.

"Oh, Lois ... " he said regretfully, taking hold of the hand resting against his sleeve and entwining her fingers tight with his own. His free hand lifted, cradling her cheek as his thumb brushed fitfully at the damp tracks of moisture on her skin. "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. I never meant to - "

/ ... to hurt you ... /

But he had. He had meant to. And succeeded.

He was almost disappointed to see her respond with a small, uncertain smile. He didn't deserve her forgiveness. He would have welcomed her anger; would have known he'd earned it.

But there was nothing but relief in her eyes as she looked back at him. And concern. Even now, concern. For him.

"Lois," he said again, shaking his head a little in a familiar amazement at what this woman standing by his side could do to him. What she would do for him. How easily she could forgive him; anything at all. He frowned.

"What I said ... it wasn't true, Lois," he blurted, desperate now to retract the hurt he'd caused so selfishly. "Superman ... he wanted to help. Stay. But he ... he knew how upset you'd be when you woke up, how embarrassed ... that's why he left. He just wanted to make it easy on you. I don't know why I said what I did. It was stupid ... worse than stupid ... it was - "

"Yes you do." Lois looked up at him evenly, with a soft light of determination in her eyes now that he took note of with dismay. "Clark, what is it?" she pushed. "This isn't like you. You're not that ... that cruel." For a moment there was a renewed threat of tears tightening in her voice with that last, then she made a visible effort to maintain her composure. "What's wrong? Tell me," she insisted and Clark sighed; let her go.

He leaned back heavily against the door behind him, his weight pushing it to a close again. He heard the soft snick of the latch as it clicked over and then he closed his eyes briefly, shook his head.

"I dunno." He rolled his head to look at her again. "I just don't know, Lois. I'm just so ... tired."

That last emerged on a low sigh and his partner put a tentative hand on his arm again, looking more concerned than ever now. Clark noted the hesitation, almost as though she expected the gesture to be rebuffed, and he put a hand over hers as it lay against his sleeve, squeezing lightly at her fingers.

"Of ... me?" Lois said quietly. There was an undertone to the words, almost resigned, as though this was something she had long expected, had even anticipated - that he would tire of her, as partner and friend, as others had before him. Perhaps there was even a shading of surprise - that it had taken until now, that he had stuck with her for so long. Abandonment had been so much a part of her life, from those she cared about most, that she almost accepted it as her due.

She pulled her hand clear, dropping her gaze to study her bared feet and the wooden floor. "I know," she started, hesitatingly, "I can be kind of ... well, hard to get along with and, well I'd understand, really I would, if you wanted, I mean if you -- "

"No! Lord, no - not ever!" Clark choked out, suddenly recovering his voice after a moment of stunned silence. He grabbed at her hand again; unconsciously bringing their joined grip up to rest against his heart as he took a deep breath. Almost as though he could persuade her of his sincerity just through letting her feel the rough, triphammer beat in his chest; letting her know the way his heart beat for her. Only for her.

"It's not you, Lois," he reassured her hastily in a slightly more even tone as she looked back up at him, surprised by the vigor of that denial.

He shook his head, as though questioning her lack of self- esteem, her emotional fragility, that she could even think such a thing. He put a hand into her hair as she watched him, waiting, all of her insecurities, all of her hopes, laid bare - stark and vulnerable in her eyes on his.

"How could you think that?" he told her gently.

She frowned at him. "Then what? If it's not me, then -- "

The tenderness fled from his eyes, his hand, which had been moving quietly through her hair stilled. "*Him*," he said and Lois almost flinched before the harsh, bitter sound of that word in his throat.

"H ... him?"

Clark pushed himself abruptly free of the door, facing her, needing her to understand. "Him. Superman. I'm just so *tired* of him getting in the way all the time, getting in the way of - " he paused and she studied him, still puzzled.

"Getting in the way? Of what? Clark," a spark of impatience, of familiar irritation, had begun to bleed through her tone now. "I don't understand ... "

Clark stared at her, as though taking stock, weighing and measuring. Then: "This," he said simply and reached out, taking her face firmly between his hands and letting his mouth close fiercely over hers.

Her hands came up automatically to cover his, but she made no further move to pull herself from his grasp, her fingers, cool and light, resting against his own as the firm, demanding pressure of his lips dazzled her thoughts into silence. She felt her own lips part as she closed her eyes, willingly surrendering to his with no more thought of resistance ... but the warm pressure left her all at once, taking no further advantage, retreating before she became aware that he had gone, his mouth leaving hers almost as quickly as it had found it. Lois opened her eyes as she felt his thumb stroke softly against her cheek and she looked up, dazed, into the deep, soulful brown eyes fixed on hers as he spoke again. "I'm so tired of him getting in the way of this," he said softly.

And then he kissed her again.

Warned this time, Lois considered that she really should put up some kind of struggle. This wasn't what she wanted. This hadn't ever been what she wanted. Not from him. He was her partner. Her best friend. He wasn't ... he was ...

... he was so *good* at that.

Where'd he learn to be so good at that?

And who had taught him?

The sudden, suspicious - and somewhat indignant - tint to her thoughts was swept away in another moment as Clark tightened his embrace, pulling her closer with a low, masculine groan that threatened to overwhelm her own control. It was the sound of a man rapidly losing touch with reality and becoming engulfed in the sensations she was provoking in him.

Wasn't that ... wonderful?

Yes ...

Wonderful ...

Just ...

Oh, Clark ...

He lifted his head, eyes pinning hers and she realized she'd moaned that last aloud.

Lois might have felt dismay at having revealed so vividly her appreciation of his attentions, except that what was burning, deep and dark in the mocha-colored eyes fixed on hers, swept away the last of coherent thought and in another moment she was lost as Clark gathered her up close against him, wrapping her tight as he went back to exploring her lips feverishly with his own.

Her next clear thought was to wonder just how - and, come to think of it, when - she had ended up sprawled on her back on the hardwood floor beside the front door; pinned by the taut, muscular body moving restlessly against hers; enjoying the attentions of her partner's mouth and hands as they roamed her, heating her ...

She hooked one leg over his thigh, stroking the ball of her foot in a caress across his calf as she arched up into him and cried out softly. Her eyes widened and then slipped closed as she dropped back her head in the wake of his quick, darting kisses across the length of her neck and the hollow of her throat. His hands, fisted gently but restive in her hair, tugged her close again to where those questing lips could find her mouth, her cheek, the soft, sensitive patch of skin behind her ear. A shiver ran through her, rolling in her like waves, all the way down to the tips of her toes.

It didn't occur to her to ask him to stop. Her hands, splayed across the hard slabs of muscle that formed his back, clenching and flexing in a frenzied exploration of him, made no attempt to push him away. Suddenly, so suddenly it burst full blown into her mind - ground zero in a nuclear blast - she realized that she had been lying. To herself. To him. Lying all along. Because she did want this. She wanted this like nothing she'd ever wanted before. And she wanted it from him. She always had.

/Superman ... ?/ her mind voiced the thought, a touch uncertainly. Lois evicted it ruthlessly. Superman was an illusion. A fantasy of the best kind. But here and now was the reality. Here and now ... with her partner ... was the real thing.

And the real thing was ... was ... oh, sweet Lord ... was wonderful ...

His body fitted itself against hers, pressing her down into the polished wood beneath her shoulders and buttocks, but she failed to register the discomfort as Clark continued to lavish a trail of open mouthed kisses across her face, her neck, everywhere that he could find of her that was open to him. His lips discovered hers blindly, covering her, exploring, caressing, driving deeper into the moist depths and shallows of her mouth and dueling eagerly with her tongue as she matched him stroke for stroke, ardor for ardor, passion for passion.

And then he wrenched himself free, pulling back sharply, until he rested on his elbows either side of her, his body crushing her beneath him, his hands still fisted into her hair.

They lay there, entwined, breath panting hard and shallow in their throats as they stared into each other's eyes. Both shaken by the force of the emotions that had swept them up, like a tornado, swirling and pulsing in them and leaving them now, momentarily, calm and still, afraid to move, held, trembling, in the eye of the storm.

And then, Clark's hands dropped away from where they framed her face, slipped down the smooth sides of her throat and rested lightly against her shoulders.

"God ... " he breathed out softly. In his voice, Lois heard shock and disbelief. He sounded like a man, used to controlling his emotions, his actions, weighing the risks, calculating the odds, damning impulse as a risk too far ... suddenly finding that control lost ... and wondering, dimly, where it had been lost ... and how. It was the dazed, wondering voice of a man shaken to the very core ... emerging from a dream and suddenly face to face with dawn's cold reality. Finally understanding that he wasn't going to wake. Not this time. And, faced with that reality, uncertain if he was truly ready for it.

His gaze dropped away slightly, running down her body, trapped beneath his own, each soft quiver and tremor translating into a pulse of erotic heat as she shivered against him, and then came back to her face, near stricken as he shook his head.

"Lois. Lord, Lois, I'm sorry, I - "

He was moving as he spoke, making the attempt to free himself from the sprawling tangle of limbs that their bodies had become. Her hand, reaching to lie light against the side of his throat, was all it took to still him, to lift his head and fix his eyes on hers. In them, deep and dark and haunting, she saw the faint dawning of hope.

And a question. A question that lit up his eyes and hovered there, unspoken, as though it hardly dared to enter his mind, let alone give itself the courage to be voiced aloud.

Lois answered it - answered him - with a whisper. "Please ... "

She felt the muscles beneath her fingers flex and tense up hard as he opened his mouth. He paused as she moved her hand from the smooth heat of his skin and laid her fingers across his lips, pre-empting him.

"Please ... " she said again, bringing up her other hand and fisting it with its companion into the shoulders of his jacket as she tugged him down on her again.

"Lois, no ... " he protested gently, even as he let her do it. "You don't have to do this, I -- "

For a moment, listening to that denial, Lois felt her heart swell, beginning to beat so hard she thought it might burst.

She knew what he was offering her. Knew that if she told him no now, he would leave, walk away, and he would do his utmost to forget this moment between them ever happened. Would do everything in his power to set their relationship back to simple friendship, even though it cost him everything he had of himself. And he would do it simply because what *she* wanted, *her* feelings, were more important to him than his own. The enormity of that made her heart creep into her throat and her eyes mist over with unshed tears. In her entire life no one - and certainly no man - had ever offered her that. To put her above their own desires.

But, sweet as the offer was, he was wrong. Their desires weren't in conflict. Their needs were the same. He had no need to protect her this way.

"I know what you're thinking," she said.

"You do?" Clark said and for a moment there was a flare of something disconcerted in his eyes, seen and then gone, as he stared down at her.

Lois smiled coyly. "Besides that," she said and saw him flush at the dryness of her tone.

"Oh," he said.

Lois frowned, suddenly aware that he was hunched over her now in a strangely awkward pose. It puzzled her for a moment, until she realized that he was attempting to stay still as stone against her, twitching not the slightest muscle, while at the same time trying not to lay his weight on her at all. Lois fought the impulse to laugh out loud with the discovery.

Strangely enough, he seemed to be succeeding in his aim. Although she couldn't for the life of her imagine how. Yet, certainly, somehow, his weight wasn't nearly as heavy against her as she considered it should be. She shook her head, banishing this small puzzlement. Whatever. She wasn't about to let him play the gentleman. Sometimes, he took this Kansas farmkid business just a tad too far.

Experimentally, she let her body arch up slightly, pressing herself tight to the lean, muscular body covering hers. A flicker of a satisfied smile crossed her lips as she watched him close his eyes tight in response, his jaw clenching hard as iron.

She looked at him innocently as he opened his eyes and growled a soft complaint. "Lois ... "

"You think," she said, putting up a hand to stroke back that stubborn lock of dark hair that had fallen over his brow. "That this is what was in those Rats talking, still. But, it's not."

He looked down at her, eyes troubled in the gloom. "Isn't it?"

"No." She shook her head with the firm denial. "No. I know what I'm doing. I know what I want ... "

And she knew, with a sure certainty all at once, as though the thought was something physical that had worked its way loose inside her, something that had freed itself deep within her, that it was true. That simple revelation warmed her, like winter ice melting from where it had encased her heart for so long, thawing, dissolving into nothing and letting that heart beat strong. Strong with love for the man laying atop her now. Strong and fierce with longing and wanting and need for him.

Stronger than anything she'd felt before.

She saw him smile slightly, the desire in his eyes tempered suddenly with a tenderness that made her heart ache anew in her chest and he stroked a soft hand against her cheek.

"So ... what *do* you want?" he asked quietly and then hissed out his breath, taken unawares as she arched up tight against him again in answer.

"This," she said breathlessly, closing her eyes, letting her hands caress him, exploring his shoulders and the firm muscles of his back, his arms, as she let herself drift, limp against the hardwood floor, her movements languid. "This is what I want. Clark ... I want to ... "

"Lois -- "

She laid a hand softly against his lips again, stopping him before he could complete that thought, before he could persuade himself - and perhaps even her along with him - that she was simply doing this to please him. That pleasing him wasn't what the two of them together was all about. That pleasing him at the sacrifice of her own feelings wasn't what he wanted from her ... not now and never in the future. She didn't want to hear that. She didn't want to hear any of that. What she wanted to hear were more of those sounds he'd made when she'd kissed him.

Soft, dark, masculine sounds of passion and heat.

"I want you to ... "

She pressed herself deeper against him, fitting herself to him, letting the curves of her body speak for her, and heard him sigh against the side of her neck as he buried his face against her skin.

"Lois ... "

His hands rested at her waist, stroking her softly through the cotton t-shirt, caressing her ribs, the swell of her stomach and then dropping away and coming back to trail her arms to her shoulders. His fingers cupped at them tight and then slipped restlessly on, moving down her back as she curved upwards in response, up against the firm body weighting her down, molding herself tight to the hard contours of his chest.

I want ... " her words ended on a softly whispered sigh that became a hitch of inward taken breath and then a low moan of pleasure.

"Oh, Clark ... Clark ... "

She made no protest as he shifted, letting her go just long enough to lift her into his arms, but simply clung tight around his neck and trailed soft, feverish kisses along his jaw until she found his mouth again and claimed it beneath her own, ravaging it in fireflood of eager, restless desire.

Clark stumbled slightly, as though taken by surprise by the ferocity of her explorations and then recovered balance. He let her in, his tongue meshing eagerly with hers, the quick, rough panting of their breath mingling and heating them further. Then he tore his lips away, as though unable to keep from exploring all of her that he could, as though just her mouth could no longer satisfy him, and began a rough nuzzling at her throat and along the line of her jaw. His lips closed briefly on one ear and then renewed its quest to taste as much of her as he could find.

Lost in a shroud of heat and desire, Lois clawed out blindly as they passed the sofa, fingers catching on the low back as she tried to tug them to a stop. Good enough a place as any. She wanted him with her. Now. Needed him with her. Waiting was unbearable.

Clark clearly wasn't satisfied with her decision though. He didn't break his forward stride, didn't pause, didn't even lift his lips from her throat as he caught at her fingers and jerked them gently clear of their hold to set her arm loose around his neck.

"No ... " he murmured only and she subsided, letting him take charge. "No. Not here ... " he added, in between trailing kisses across her jaw and cheek and then returned to capture her lips.

Lois put all there was of herself, all there was of passion, into that kiss as she returned it in kind. Her hands fumbled blindly with his jacket, managing to yank it back off of one shoulder and halfway down his arm before he began to aid her. In a matter of moments, she had it dangling in her hand by its collar. She let it drop carelessly to the floor behind them.

And then, somehow, they were in the bedroom. Her bedroom. And she was landing on her back on the bed. So fast she could almost have sworn he flew them there.

His lips were gone, the kisses that had driven her crazy leaving behind a cooling sense of loss and she moaned, lifting her arms blindly to find him and draw him close again.

He loomed over her, a dark shadow in the dimly lit room, back- lit by the faint lamp-glow in the bedroom doorway, so that he became a creature of mysterious hollows and pits of dark and light. A glint of light sparked against his face and Lois reached up a hand, pulling his glasses clear. His hand lifted with hers, a reflexive motion, and then he surrendered them to her.

"You won't need these for a while," she whispered, reaching to place them carefully on the cabinet and then she put her hand to his cheek. "Seeing with the eyes is over-rated anyway," she murmured, letting the tips of her fingers glide over the sharp bone and then down to follow the full, sensual line of his lips. "Touch is better."

She smiled as she withdrew her fingers and then she reached for him.


For the longest time, Lois felt nothing but warmth. She was floating, wrapped in the protective cocoon of her lover's arms, secure in his embrace, sheltered by his heat clasped tight around her.

Safe ...

She smiled, snuggled deeper, felt his muscular arms pull her reflexively closer, a soft drowsy grunt against her shoulder his only other response.

Lois tilted her head to view the dark top of his and stretched slightly, glorying in the feel of him against her, limbs entangled, the soft rise and fall of his chest against her breasts, their bodies slick with the cooling heat of their passion. She reached out a hand, stroking it through the silk of his hair and trailing it softly against the skin of his shoulder. He felt like smooth, burnished steel.

The blissful, slightly dreamy smile that had begun to spread on her face vanished all at once as reality crashed in around her, intruding rudely on the warm, cozy lethargy of her afterglow. Her eyes widened.

Her lover ...

/What did I do?/

/What did you *do*? You made love to your *partner*, Lois. That's what you did./

/*Actually* ... *he* made love to *you* ... /

That last seemed to have an echo attached, reminding her of something. But it flitted away from her before she could grasp it and floated into the sea of bright moving colors that still filled her mind, drifting out of reach in another moment.

Lois held back a soft sigh, absently resuming her slow stroking of the thick hair beneath her fingers. Maybe she should just work out another set of life choices to live by, she thought wearily. The old ones sure didn't seem to be working any.

She bit down into her lower lip as she stared at the ceiling through the darkness of the room. She had the unwelcome feeling that she was going to pay for this breaking of the rules. And pay hard.


But she couldn't find it in her to regret anything about what had just happened between them. She just couldn't. And she could trust Clark. She always had trusted him, she realized. Right from the first. He was no Claude. He'd never betray her. Or hurt her.

She already knew that with Clark there were no shades of gray. In everything; his beliefs, his opinions, his ... - the smile, smug and self-satisfied, returned to grace her lips again - ... his passion ... he was open, honest and entirely guileless. She could see right through him as though he were plate glass: completely transparent.

He was loyal. Tender. He --

He moved his head slightly, nuzzling at the juncture of her throat, his hands tightening where they lay against her waist. Lois forgot to worry about the implications of what she'd done. She closed her eyes, drifting with the moment, wishing it would never end. Reliving the ways that he had loved her.

She had never known a man be so responsive to her needs before, who seemed to be watching carefully for each sign and signal from her body, almost anticipating her desires before she could. She gave herself up to the images gathering warmly in her head. There had been a wave rolling over her, drowning her, caressing her, like being swept up into the eye of a hurricane and then ... there had been nothing.

Nothing but heat ... and floating ... and the deep, warming embers of satisfaction settling in her that came with having been loved.

The soft flush of heat burning her cheeks and throat deepened.

Not surprisingly - she doubted she'd been his only victim - Claude had been an experienced and expert seducer. But he had never been an expert lover for all that. A fact which would undoubtedly have come as a surprise to Claude himself. The simple truth however was that he simply hadn't cared enough about her in the midst of his own pleasure to even consider her own desires.

Whereas Clark ...

The epiphany swept over her. What they'd just shared - she and Clark - hadn't been sex. It was ... it was ... *love*.


The word settled in her heart and grew there, like a budding rose unfolding its petals to the light after a winter spent underground. For the first time in her entire life, someone had cared enough about her to actually make love to her. Not slake his own passions in her body. Not use her to satisfy himself. But to take time enough to find her, explore her, set aside his own passions to complete hers. To give her everything he had of himself, without reservation. Without deceit. Honest and caring and --

"Lois ... ?"

His soft voice in the darkness, tinged a little with concern. She realized all at once that she was trembling so fiercely her entire body was quivering. A tremor he could surely feel against his skin.

In answer, she simply shook her head and burrowed her face against the warm, cinnamon smell of his shoulder.

"Hold me ... " she whispered. "Just hold me. Please ... "

He wrapped himself around her tighter, gathered her closer and did as she asked, saying nothing more. His hand stroked its way gently across her shoulder, soothing her.

She lay quietly, breathing soft and deeply, drawing the calm, familiar scent of him into her lungs. Just as she was beginning to feel oppressed by his continuing weight against her, he shifted.

Rolling onto his back a little, he kept light hold on her, pulling her with him until she rested against his chest. He stroked gently at her hair. She felt herself enveloped in the tenderness of his arms.

For Lois, who had only ever known men who'd put their own pleasure first, never really thinking about or considering her needs at all, other than in the most superficial of ways, this was a startling development. But, considering the man who lay with her, not entirely unexpected, she realized, after mulling it over a moment.

She felt a slow warmth suffuse her with the drift of her thoughts. It was followed by a low sigh from her partner as he shifted slightly, turning his head to bury himself deeper against her, nuzzling lazily at the curve of her throat. It was a sound of lazy satisfaction and it made her want to purr aloud her own contentment.

He was so careful of her, she thought, feeling that warmth gather, deep within her. So kind. He was ... she felt that broad, slightly goofy smile start to spread across her face again and hurriedly quashed it ... *incredible*. He was ... he was ...

A flicker of confusion pricked at her blissfully meandering thoughts as a sudden, new reality intruded upon them. She frowned.

He ... was ...

Oh ... my ... God ... !

Her eyes snapped wide, frozen in an almost comical expression of shock and dawning horror as she scrambled upwards, kicking out frantically to jerk herself free of the arms holding her, almost dislodging herself over the edge of the bed in her panic to get loose. She felt him slip from where he rested, warm and soothing against her, and, despite the frantic mantra rushing through her mind ...

Nonononononononononononononononnonononononono ... ... oh God, *NO*!!

... she still felt a small, cold sense of loss as he left her.

She heard a soft grunt of surprise and then her scrabbling fingers found the lamp on the cabinet beside her and the room flooded with light.

Lois stared in shock at the man kneeling dazedly beside her, his eyes blinking bemused into the light as he scrubbed a hand through his hair.

The stranger beside her.

Well no, not a stranger. He was all too darned familiar. But he might as well have been. Because he certainly wasn't the man she'd thought he was.

And he wasn't the man she'd made love to.

Lois clutched desperately at the sheet, dragging it around her, clenching it tight against her throat in white-knuckled fists as though it was armor plate that could protect her from the whirlwind of emotions tearing through her.

Panic ... fear ... fury ... pain ... hurt ... rage ...


She attacked him with all of the rage boiling up within her, lashing out at him furiously without another thought. Because anger was the least destructive of the forces warring suddenly within her and holding on to it, striking out with it, could dull the hurt. At least for a time.

"You - !"

Clark was taken by complete surprise as the word stuck in her throat as a wild sob and she clawed out at him, kicking and pummeling him with all the strength she had in her until her wild attack succeeded in tumbling him from the bed.

He was so confused by the abrupt change in his previously docile partner and by his own circumstances - one moment he'd been lain atop her warm and supple, soft and yielding, body, blissfully reliving the past moments of pleasure with her and then he was being pounced on by a raging wildcat - that he almost didn't remember to let himself fall. It was close, but instinct and self-preservation kicked in smartly a second later and he hit the floor beside the bed with a pretty convincing yelp and an even more convincing thud. If he said so himself.

/From his new position, sprawled naked on the floor, he looked up in frank astonishment at his partner as she scrabbled her way clear of the bed and threw herself blindly across the room until she'd backed herself up against the wall in the furthest corner she could find away from him.

What the ... ?

"Lois ... ?"

She shook her head, and he saw how luminous her eyes were, how white her face. Her whisper sounded hoarse and raw and it broke before she was through asking, "Why?" She looked at him, stricken. "Why, did you do it?"


He said it aloud, shock registering in his face. "What?"

Her jaw tightened and he saw the soft distress in her eyes fade in favor of anger again.

"It wasn't right! It wasn't - it *isn't* - fair! How could you do that to me? How *could* you?!"

"Lois - "

She threw him a high-octane look that should, by rights, have incinerated him where he sat. Wisely, despite his bemusement, he shut up, recognizing the mood. This was Lois Lane in full rant. He simply watched as she began to pace the room in a tight circle, throwing words and venom at him in equal measure, and took the opportunity to gather himself and his scattered thoughts while he let her run out of air. And hopefully some of that anger too. Enough at least that he might get a word in edgeways and figure out what was going on here.

He wondered how he'd gotten *to* 'here'. From ... there. Despite himself a small smile threatened to overtake him. There had been pretty good. He glanced up at the spitting, growling woman restlessly quartering the floor in front of him, her tightly controlled movements as she paced back and forth interrupted only by the occasional heavy smack of her fist hitting her palm. He sighed heavily.

His confusion wasn't helped any by the fact that his body seemed to be ignoring her fury completely and finding the lithe motions of her body, as she stormed around the room yelling incomprehensible epithets at him, an incredibly erotic aphrodisiac. He found his eyes traveling along her slender figure as she moved, clutching the sheet high against her throat. It draped and clung against her breasts and hips in ways that made her body more desirable, more of a temptation, more of a mystery, than she would have been naked. His attention settled on the bare, round curves of her shoulders above the line of white cotton, her skin gleaming milk and honey under the room's dimly warm light. Her hair was mussed around her face, a dark cloud, enticing his thoughts into drifting unwisely over just how it had gotten that way, his mind filled with images of their bodies entangled in passion, among the sheets of her bed.

He shook his head and tuned in belatedly to what she was saying. Yelling. What was she talking about? He listened to her. Not just to the words. To the tight, coiled motions of her body as she threw herself back and forth in front of him in a stiff stalking, like a caged tiger, snarling and spitting its rage. And his heart froze. Choice. He hadn't given her a choice? Is that what she'd just said?

A choice.

But ... she couldn't mean ... His eyes followed her again, stricken. What else could she mean? He shook his head slightly, hardly noticing the movement as his appalled thoughts rushed on ... and then reason asserted itself again in the midst of the chaotic whirlwind of panic and horror inexperience had temporarily made of his thoughts.

No. Wait a minute. That was ridiculous! Confusion became a small flash of irritation. For pity's sake - she'd been the one who'd - how could she be saying now that he hadn't let her choose? That was crazy! He hadn't ... forced her into anything. He'd hardly thrown her to the bed and ravished her. Although ... his tumbling thoughts took a detour as he recalled the moments of passion they'd just shared ... well, not as such. And if he had ravished her, she'd enjoyed it just as much as he had, he thought stubbornly. He hadn't taken her anywhere she wasn't willing to go. It was a small mental victory that vanished almost as soon as it formed. He flushed brightly. Was that knowledge? Or just a certain, male arrogance he'd never known he harbored?

He thought back again to how she'd been in his arms and how she'd just about driven him crazy with her response to his attentions. Could he use insanity as an excuse, he thought dimly?

No. She'd been willing. She had been. She'd had all the choices she needed. That couldn't be what she meant.

Or ... had she simply been willing by default? His heart lurched sickly in his chest with the thought. He'd known how vulnerable she was, how hurt by Superman's apparent abandonment of her when she'd needed him most. Had she simply been looking for comfort by proxy? For consolation in his arms when those she wanted more than anything else around her weren't there for her? Another thought followed hard on the heels of these ... one that stopped his heart cold in his chest and turned his face paler than wax.

Had she been thinking of Superman as she'd made love to him?

The thought was a leakage of dark, corrosive poison in his mind. He made an abortive attempt to scramble to his feet and suddenly became aware of his state of dishabille. Blushing furiously, he hauled himself to the edge of the bed, yanking at his clothing and hurriedly pulling on his pants.

Lois hadn't stopped yelling any.

His jaw clenched stubbornly for a moment. Wait a minute, this wasn't all *his* fault. He scowled. How'd this get to be all *his* fault?!

He raised his head to advance this point and then Lois' voice rushed to fill the void that guilt and then annoyance had made of his heart and, as he focused on what she was saying, it stopped cold in his chest for the second time in so many minutes.

"I had the right to *know*, Clark! Didn't you think I had the right to know? What you are? *Who* you are? Didn't you think I needed to know that, before we ... we ... " She waved a hand at him, at a loss and then blundered on in full Lois Lane fury, "Before we took things that far? I deserved to know!" That last was almost a wail and then she paused, eyes narrowing on him. "Or is that it?"

"What?" Clark said warily.

"Well, it seems to me, there's one good reason why you didn't think it was important to tell me you were Superman before you ... you ... we ... " she stumbled on the words again and trundled over them again like a tank advancing on enemy lines, "If you didn't think it was any kind of ... commitment ... if you thought it was just a ... a ... *thing* ... a one night stand ... just a roll in the hay with your partner, huh? I mean, we do everything else together, right? Watch a few movies. Share some popcorn and soda. Might as well throw sex into the frame! I mean, why the heck not?!"

In the midst of his horror at her conclusions, one part of Clark's mind took wry note of the fact that she seemed to have no trouble with the terminology when she was dismissing their lovemaking as a casual encounter which had meant nothing to him at all.

How could she *think* that?

"Lois, that's not true," he said and there was a faint frisson of anger beneath his tone now.

How *could* she think that?

"I'd never think that way about you, Lo - S-Superman?" His irritation dropped away into instant panic as that one word leapt at him out of what she'd just said and smacked him hard in the face.

Lois folded her arms and raised a brow at him.

Clark's jaw felt as though it had suddenly hit the carpeted floor.

"Superman?" he whispered again. "Oh, my go ... no ... "

Not that. Anything but that. He'd almost prefer any scenario he'd been thinking, but this one. That she'd somehow found her way to his secret, had worked out his true identity ... and that she hated him for it.

"Lois - "

"Don't!" Lois snapped, throwing out an outraged finger in his direction and stopping the denial cold in his throat. "Don't you dare insult me by denying it! Don't you dare, Clark Kent ... Superman ... whoever you are!"

Clark sighed. He shook his head, rubbed hard fingers at his temple for a moment, feeling as though he'd suddenly stepped through the looking-glass. Then, he looked up at her, hoping against hope that she'd take account of what was in his eyes as they met hers.

"You *know* who I am."

"Do I?" she said, bitterly.

"You know that I love you."

"Do I?" If anything, her tone was harsher with the repetition.

"Lois, please - "

"You know, I really thought you were different, Clark. I really did. But you're just the same as every other guy I ever met, aren't you? To you loving a woman means *making* love to her, getting her in between the sheets -- "

"That's not true! Lois, you know that's not - "

"If you loved me, you'd have let me choose! You'd have told me who you were! Before we ever ... You - " her words choked off and she shook her head violently. "Just get out of here, Clark! Just go!"

"Lois - " he tried again. He got hastily to his feet - and felt something soft against his ankle. He glanced down and then stooped briefly to pick up the little black and white bear, with its jaunty red bow, from where it had been evicted from the bed along with him.

At least you got thrown out of her bed by accident, he told the stuffed animal, silently, with an inward sigh. He held it out to Lois awkwardly, face sheepish as she glared at him, impatiently.

For a moment, he thought she wouldn't accept it. He'd turned slightly, about to set it gently atop its customary pillow when she moved with a small, impatient growl and snatched it from his grip. She glared down at the defenseless stuffed animal and Clark had the disturbing impression it was playing proxy, so her first words - and the low, musing tone in which they were delivered, surprised him.

"I really did love this bear, you know. It meant a lot."

She sounded so forlorn that he had to will himself to stay where he was, knowing that any attempt to take her into his arms now wasn't going to be welcomed. "It did?" he said softly, after a beat, instead, matching her tone.

"Oh, well, you know ... it's a good old USA tradition, isn't it? Boy meets girl. Boy takes girl to fair. Boy wins cute bear in a feat of strength. That night ... it was the best time I'd had in ... well, in years really." She lifted her head suddenly, eyes frosting over into ice. "Except, it didn't really mean anything at all, did it? It meant less than nothing. I mean, Superman doesn't have any trouble at all winning at funfair tests of strength."

She glanced down at the bear again, mouth twisting in a grimace. "What a sap! It was all just a cheap trick to get into -- to get *me* into your -- into my -- " She gestured furiously behind him at the bed and then, giving up abruptly, "What an idiot! You must have been laughing fit to bust when I actually fell for it! Well, congratulations, Clark - you got what you wanted! Happy now? Here, why don't you take him back? Maybe you can use him as bait for your *next* conquest!"

The bear flew across the gap between them. It hit him solidly against his naked chest and dropped to the floor. A sense of dejavu hit Clark with the soft sound of its fall. A crowded courtroom, a small boy's loss of trust, eyes that had been friendly and welcoming now accusing. All the myriad of expressions he saw again in Lois' eyes now.

"Lois, it wasn't like that, I wasn't laughing at you, or trying to trick you any. I didn't have my powers then and that night - "

/ - it meant everything to me, Lois. Everything./ had been what he'd intended to say, but she cut him off with a violent shake of her head and a snarled, "Don't! Just ... don't, Clark. At least don't lie to me any more. I couldn't ... I just can't --- "

And then she did the last thing he expected. She began to cry. Harsh, wracking sobs that shook her body and dropped her to her knees on the carpet, huddled in against herself like some wounded animal. Deep, shuddering sobs that shook her slender frame. The sobs of a woman grieving for something that was lost for good and would never be regained. The sobs of a woman hurting and in pain. Terrible pain.

The sound of it tore his heart in two and killed it in his chest as though it had suddenly been encased in ice.

"Lois -- "

He put out a regretful hand and jolted to a halt, paling, as she recoiled from him sharply, flinching back from the instinctive move he made for her, almost overbalancing with the panicked motion. She jerked up her head, face drained white as candle-wax and what was in her eyes seared him to the bone.

"Stay away from me! Don't touch me!"

Frozen by that shriek, Clark dropped the hand that had reached for her, watching blankly as she withdrew to huddle up against the wall and as far from him as she could get, holding herself tight, rocking fitfully around her grief and pain.

For a moment, Clark stood there. Then he bent to scoop up the bear and laid it gently on its pillow. His hand lingered a little against the rough fur and then he stepped away.

The accusing fire in her eyes burned at his back as he left the room.


Clark didn't make it any further than the sofa. He collapsed onto the cushions and dropped his head into his hands, shoulders slumped into a disconsolate line. The picture of dejection.

Because he knew Lois was right. He'd acted like a complete idiot. Worse than an idiot. An idiot, at least, would have been unaware of the consequences of his actions. What *he'd* been had been cruel and unfeeling, too interested in achieving his own pleasure to think about what he was doing to Lois or what those consequences would be. That wasn't stupidity. It was sheer reckless, selfish disregard for anyone but himself. Plain and simple.

He'd used her. He winced mentally with the thought, but his conscience wasn't inclined to spare his feelings now. It savaged him as mercilessly as Lois had. And with as much right.

He tried to deny the accusation, but he couldn't. He'd used her. Like all the other men in her past who'd used her for their own gratification without a thought to how she would feel. If he loved her - really loved her - he'd have told her everything. Allowed her to make the choices she wanted. And accepted those choices as she made them, whatever they were and whether they fit in with his own desires or not. That choice was hers. Not his. It never had been.

Neither of them was content with casual encounters. He knew that. He understood what Lois was looking for and it wasn't a heated fumbling of lust in the darkness of her bedroom. She wanted commitment. Someone she could trust. Someone she could believe in. He did too. It was all he'd ever wanted. And he'd wanted it from her.

For Lois, for both of them, the step they had taken, making love together - although spontaneous, embarked on without planning or thought - had *been* an act of commitment. A solemn vow as much as any oath or promise of words could have been. A giving of souls and hearts as much as an offering up of bodies.

But she'd had the right to consider all of what committing herself to him would mean before she took the next step. She'd deserved that. To know that he was Superman, to know just whom she was entangling her life and her heart with, before she became intimate with him. And he'd effectively taken that right away /from her. He hadn't meant to. But he had. And all because he'd let himself get angry with her; because he couldn't control his base desires.

And now what? He didn't know. Couldn't begin to think where they went from here. Neither of them could accept what had happened between them as a ... what had Lois called it? ... a 'thing'. A one night stand. A brief lapse of reason which could be dismissed as lightly as an unexpected, stolen kiss or an accidental press of their bodies in the midst of a crowded room. Neither of them could ignore it and go on with their friendship, their partnership, intact. There would always be the blight, the corruption of it between them.

This was going to destroy them. Destroy everything he'd worked so hard for, everything he'd wanted so badly, for so long.

He let himself fall back against the sofa with a low sigh, flaying himself further with the dark, scorching, acid run of his thoughts, while part of him listened listlessly to the low, wretched sound of weeping from the other room. A part of him that wanted to go back and hold her. Make things right. Heal the hurt. Except that he knew there was no healing what he'd done. How could he? He had nothing to say, nothing he could do that would erase the last few hours.

Clark knew that what lay between them now was more than just a few yards of hardwood floor. It was a dark gulf of distance and pain that no amount of comfort he could offer her would narrow.

He should leave. Lois had told him to leave. She didn't want him here. If she came out and found him still sitting here now --

He should just go and let her be. He had no right to be here. Not now. Not with things the way there were. Not with how they would be in the future.

He'd lost her.

That truth chilled him to the bone, set his heart to clenching tight against his ribs, pain slicing through his belly.

He had lost her.

And it was all his fault.

Had it been worth it? he asked himself bitterly.

No. Making love to her had been ... the most wonderful experience of his entire life. The culmination of all his hopes and dreams, everything he had longed for for so long now. But it wasn't all that he wanted of her, everything he wanted *from* her and it hadn't been worth the loss of her friendship.

Clark let his head drop back against the sofa and closed his eyes. He couldn't leave. He'd never seen her that way before. Oh sure, he'd seen her angry, furious, he'd even seen her cry. But not like that. The force of her grief scared him a little. He was worried about her. He couldn't leave until he was sure she was okay. Then, if she still wanted him to, he'd go. He put a weary hand over his eyes, shook his head. He couldn't think about that right now.

The sofa was way too small to accommodate his muscular frame. He'd drifted into a doze earlier in the evening sitting huddled into its corner. He tried for a time to find a more comfortable position and then he stopped. He began to laugh, softly and bitterly in the darkness, as he realized he didn't have to restrict himself to the sofa this evening. Not any more. Lois knew.

She *knew*.

The knowledge of that hit him all at once, the first time he'd let himself sort through the tangle of emotions to find it. It seemed impossible that the one thing he had feared, had tried desperately to tell her, had worried over and fretted on all this time, was finally a secret no longer.

And just how did that fit into their new, broken relationship, he thought worriedly? And then damned himself immediately for bringing the emotional shards of that relationship down to a plain, unvarnished instinct for self-survival. Was that really all he could think of? Who cared what Lois did with that knowledge? Who cared if she destroyed him completely with it? Whatever she did to him now, he deserved all of it.

His thoughts drowned in the black, maudlin grief that swept over him.

He couldn't think about that either.

He rubbed hard at his eyes and then let himself drift upwards. He stretched himself out, some three or four feet above the sofa beneath him. He floated there for a time, dark, troubled thoughts circling endlessly in his head, his heart crying out, weeping its own grief as he listened hopelessly to hers, eyes fixed blind on the darkness of the ceiling above him, as his thoughts ran darkly on.

He couldn't sleep. Alone with his own, miserable thoughts, what twisted in him kept the respite sleep offered firmly at bay, no matter how he tried.

After a time - how long he didn't know - he realized that somewhere along the way, as he'd wrestled with his conscience and come out beaten and bloodied, wrapped in a barbed wire cocoon of hurt, silence had crept up on him.

There were no sounds from the room just yards away from him.

He thought about that for a moment and then let himself float carefully over the edge of the sofa and brought himself to a standing position. He kept himself slightly aloft though as he drifted towards the open door of the bedroom, unable to stay away, though he felt like a thief in the night as he made his way stealthily into the room. His lips twisted with the accuracy of the barb that thought launched into his heart. The description was painfully apt. He'd stolen more than enough from Lois already this evening. He shouldn't be here, now, risking more.

Yet, he didn't leave.

Lois, it seemed, had cried her way, finally, to an exhausted sleep, curled atop the comforter of her bed, fists clenched, the tracks of old tears on her cheeks, still wrapped in the enveloping sheet.

As he stood there, watching, he saw a soft shiver course through her. Frowning, he drifted closer. He hesitated, then laid the back of one hand to her cheek. She was chilled to the bone, he discovered, the thin sheet providing little warmth against the bedroom's cold.

He sighed. Moving carefully, he worked to lift her into the air over the bed with one steadying arm wrapped around her waist and drew back the comforter with his free hand. He put her down gently, froze as she shifted a little, a frown puckering her brow, and then pulled the covers over her, tucking them in firm, as she settled again without waking, burrowing into the pillow.

He floated there, beside the bed, a while, watching her sleep; afraid that she might wake, that he might face again that accusing pain that her eyes harbored, deep in them now, yet unable to bring himself to leave. Heart aching for the fact that, no matter how unwittingly or innocently done, he was the cause of that hurt.

Yet, despite that knowledge, he couldn't bring himself to regret what had happened between them. Despite himself his thoughts drifted back to those pleasurable moments when he'd held her. The feel of her, the soft sound of her voice, the warmth of her lips against his own and their bodies moving in sweet rhythm.

It had been ... more than he could ever fit into words.

He hovered there, in the heavy silence of the room, listening to the soft sounds of his partner breathing and the low beat of her heart, and he had never felt so alone.

Finally, reluctantly, he retreated, returned to the darkened shadows of the living room and the hard comfort of the sofa and, fitfully, at last, he found himself dozing his way into sleep.


He was woken by an ear-piercing shriek that blasted its way into his skull like a power drill.

"Geez, Lois -- !" he mumbled an automatic protest, recognizing those high pitched decibels by reflex and then, as his mind clicked into the present and he jolted fully into awareness, he jerked to sit, whipping his head around to where his partner stood in the shadows only yards away.

Lois' hand rose to clutch at her throat, her mouth working soundlessly, her eyes gone round and wide as a scalded cat's above those whitened knuckles as she backed up rapidly.

Clark saw it coming and darted out a warning hand. "Lois - !"

The backs of her knees hit against the edge of the glass coffee table a moment later and her shocked expression switched to blank surprise. Her arms windmilled violently, trying to regain balance and then she was falling ---

--- and dropping neatly into Clark's steadying arms as he landed on his knees on the table's other side and caught her against him.

"Lord, Lois! What'd you yell for?" he hissed out, exasperated, while checking her out worriedly for bruises. "You just about scared me half to death!"

"I scared you!" She twisted violently in his embrace, one fist thudding hard against his shoulder. "I! Scared! You!" She punctuated the yelled words with more blows as he stared at her, open mouthed. "Dammit, Clark, you didn't find *me* floating three feet above your sofa! In your own darn living room! In the middle of the night!" she added furiously, gathering breath in between blows.

"But - but you *knew* -- " Clark started a bewildered protest. She couldn't have forgotten. Was it the shock? The trauma? For an instant he had the surreal thought that he was doomed to play out an endless loop of time in which he reminded his partner that she knew his secret, only to have her mind reject the knowledge as it reeled in shock, protecting itself in a cocoon of denial.

And then Lois growled and hit him a few more times for good measure.

"Well, of course I *know*! Knowing is one thing! Seeing is something else again!"

She lashed out with another punch, landing her fist hard against his shoulder and then - seemingly for no other reason than that she was beginning to enjoy it - she did it again.

"Lois - " Clark complained wearily and then, getting tired of being her punchbag, he darted out a hand as she came at him again, snapping his fingers tight around her wrist like a vice and stopping her cold.

Lois went off like a small bomb at his touch, shrieking and cursing and flailing out at him wildly, until he managed to subdue her. She didn't make it easy for him and he felt her connect several ineffectual blows against his shoulders, chest and arms, before he could tame her, hampered by his knowledge that he could hurt her far more than she was capable of doing to him, despite her fury. Although, she sure was giving it a decent enough try, he thought dryly as he wrestled with her.

Somehow, he ended up straddling her as she lay struggling on her back, jammed tight in the narrow gap between sofa and table. The unequal struggle ended as he wrapped his hands around her wrists as she beat at him with her fists and pinned them tight against the floor beside her shoulders.

Lois kicked and writhed a moment longer and then, realizing that she was getting nowhere and never would, all things considered, she subsided with ill grace, panting heavily as she glowered up at her captor. The unpalatable knowledge that she was helpless in his grip and that nothing she could do would set her free until he chose to let her go, didn't exactly win him any favor with her either. He could see that in the laser glare of resentment blazing out of the eyes impaling him.

Clark waited a moment, regaining his equilibrium and trying to avoid the distraction of her body taut under his and the soft memories that bloomed in his head.

They stared at each other for a long moment of mutual assessment and then Lois, seemingly gaining a second wind, began fighting him viciously again, weaving her head from side to side in an apparent attempt to sink her teeth into the wrists pinning her down, even as she bucked and twisted her body upward, vainly trying to throw him from her.

None of which was helping Clark keep his mind on track.

He sighed. "Lois, would you ... calm down!"

He took a tighter grip on her arms as she ignored him. He was beginning to get mildly irritated now. Despite the fact that he was the guilty party here, as his conscience kept diligently reminding him. She was being completely ridiculous. Utterly ludicrous.

Entirely Lois.

Incongruously, entirely without warning or reason or the faintest sense of logic, he felt his heart lighten and fought the urge to smile.

Lois let herself flop back to the floor, eyes blazing up at him as she temporarily ran out of breath to continue the struggle.

Clark lifted a brow. "Finished?" he asked mildly.

"Bite me, Kent!" Lois snapped, savagely.

To her fury he grinned down on her. "Yeah?"

He cocked his head to look her over in a way that sent a flashflood of fire sparking through her while at the same time managing to incense her utterly. He looked back up and into eyes that were suddenly cold and clear as ice. And just as welcoming.

"Do I get to choose where?"

Lois sucked in a hard breath, her eyes narrowing, opened her mouth - and he leaned over calmly and kissed her before she could do more than splutter out an answering retort.

She had to admit, he *did* kiss rather well. Something her body didn't seem to have forgotten - even if she was trying to - and was keen and desperate to get more of - even if she wasn't.

Just like a guy, she thought viciously, keeping herself determinedly on track and distracting herself - somewhat desperately if she'd been willing to admit to it, which she wasn't - with the scornful thought. One kiss and they think they've solved everything. Think you'll forgive them anything. Think you'll forget what they did. Well, not this girl, Buster! she told him silently, fuming. Once bit ...

A small voice within her told her she was being unfair. That he was never that disingenuous ... and he was not Claude ... but, somewhat savagely, she told it to shut up, not in the mood to listen to argument and especially not willing to hear it from her own conscience.

She tightened her lips against the invasion, refusing to let herself be distracted from her anger. Yet she stayed still, apparently not considering that a simple twist of her head would break that kiss and, undoubtedly, discourage him from keeping on with it.

Or perhaps, somewhere in her subconscious, she did consider it - and rejected it. Perhaps, she didn't really want him to stop. She snorted scornfully as the vague thought worked itself insidiously into her mind. But she didn't deny it. To her chagrin.

"I'd rather do this," Clark murmured, as though picking up her thought, and brushing his lips lightly against hers as he retreated.

Lois swallowed roughly, fighting to still the rapid hammering of her heart. "I'd rather you let me go," she said grimly.

She saw the flicker of disappointment and fading hope chase across his face and then he sat back against his heels with a sigh. To her disappointment he did as she asked, letting her go and pulling her smoothly to her feet with him as he stood.

Furious, Lois yanked herself loose of his easy grip on her arm - a move which simply sent her staggering backwards, off balance, out of support, to wobble into the path of the coffee table for the second time. She collided heavily with it, whacking her shin hard.


Clark shook his head, rolled his eyes ceilingward, and bent to hoist her into his arms as she stumbled around blindly, clutching at the wounded limb and biting back tears of pain. None of which stopped her from renewing the struggle, legs kicking viciously in air, as he carried her towards the sofa.

"Put me down," she hissed. "Put me down, right now!"

"Stay still," he said calmly, ignoring the demand, and her eyes frosted, recognizing his retreat into full superhero mode and that infuriating, 'Superman Knows Best' tone. "I want to take a look at your leg. That table's sharp, Lois. And you hit it pretty hard."

Lois bit back an answering retort and made her displeasure felt in the only way she could - she folded her arms and held herself completely rigid. Clark gave her another glance and sighed heavily as he set her down carefully on the sofa.

"Lay back," he said, sitting down at the other end, alongside her. He took hold of her leg by the ankle and stretched it gently out across his lap and then put his other hand firmly against the soft muscle of her inner thigh, pinning it in place, as she tried to yank it away from him.

"What is this? Some kind of new game?" Lois snapped waspishly, trying not to let the fact that his fingers were burning fire against her skin ... forming a steel bracelet of scorching heat around her ankle ... unsettle her. "I'm not in the mood right now for playing Doctors and Nurses, Kent!"

"Lois - "

"Stop it! Just get away from me! Don't *touch* me! Let go!"

She kicked out at him again, scrabbling away from him as he loosened his grip in surprise and then cursing as he reached out, lips tightening stubbornly, and tugged her back into position with a censorious look.

"Lois! Lois, please ... stop!" Clark sighed. "You can't hurt me and if you keep this up you'll just hurt yourself."

"Oh, like you care!" she snarled, a reflexive thrust to his parry that hit its mark hard. She saw his face clench, a mix of guilt, chagrin and anger, and, encouraged, renewed her attack on him furiously.

"You think, just because I can't hurt you, I should just give up? Is that what you think? I should just give in - "

"Well ... yeah," Clark agreed, as though that was patently obvious. At least to anyone with a degree of logical sense in their head.

"Think again, Buster!" She landed a hard right smack in the middle of his chest.

"Lois ... " Clark tried again. He let her go, with an air that said he was humoring her against his better judgement, that she was being childish and unreasonable, and watched as she scooted away from him, up into the corner of the sofa, fists clenching. "Come on ... this is stupid."

"Stupid? Yeah, right! Well, that's me, isn't it? That's Lois Lane for you! Stupid ... d-dumb ... old Lois -- "

She was crying again, he saw suddenly to his dismay, tears slipping unchecked across her cheeks as she continued to lash out at him, her fists beating at him as he reached out reflexively and pulled her tight against him. He didn't try to defend himself against those wild blows and even wilder curses, as she raged out the storm against the solid wall of his chest and shoulders, railing against him viciously. He simply tightened his hold on her, trapped her more firmly into that steadying embrace, forcing the struggle from her, until, from one moment to the next, she crumpled against him, anger lost, the force of her sudden, low sobs shuddering through them both.

"Lois ... " he whispered, and that simple, single sounding of her name held all of the black guilt and horror at what he'd done to her, reduced to her to, all of the realization of just how badly hurt she'd been by his deception.

Her arms crept up around his neck.

Clark swallowed hard against the pain tightening in his throat as he shifted his grip to press her closer still, one hand hard against her hair, feeling the hurt in her as his own. He held her, rocked her gently, until she cried herself out, feeling guilt weight him down like a ball of lead in his chest as he did.

Finally, when that tempest of weeping had torn itself out, draining her to a new quiescence, Lois drew back in a tight huddle, knees drawn up against her chest, her eyes distant and blank with the lethargy that came from dampening down all emotion, hard. She kept her eyes fixed on the hands wrapped around her knees, refusing to meet his.

"Lois - " Clark started quietly and she shook her head, a single fierce motion. Her hand lifted to dash angrily at her cheek. "No," she said.

He sighed. He put out a hand and hesitated as she recoiled slightly at its approach, then persisted, laying it to her cheek, brushing at the lingering dampness of her tears with a soft thumb. "Lois," he tried again, knowing she didn't want to hear it, but knowing too that he had to at least make some attempt to heal the breach between them. "Lois, I never meant to hurt you like this. Not like this. Not in any way. You have to believe that."

Lois closed her eyes. Her head moved a miniscule inch, the barest of nods. "I know that." She turned her head to look at him and it was his turn to flinch at what he found in the glassy depths of her eyes. "But you did, Clark. You did hurt me."

He looked away, focusing his gaze intently on the thumb still stroking an absent path against her cheek. He dropped his hand and looked down to watch it enfold itself with its companion, against his knees. "If I could take it back ... "

"Is that ... what you want?"

Clark raised his head with a frown. She was frowning too and she looked, suddenly, more unhappy than she had a moment ago. Although he would have said it was impossible.

"No," he said honestly. "I mean ... I'd take back the hurt. But ... everything else? No, I wouldn't take that back. Not for the world." He paused and then asked tentatively, "Would you?"

"No," she said and then, her voice dipping so low it was only his augmented hearing that allowed him to catch the words, "Not for the world."

Clark felt his heart skip a small beat. Was she saying what he thought she was? Could she mean - ?

"Lois - " he started earnestly, shifting to face her, and then, distracted, his eyes caught a telltale stain of red on her shin. "You're bleeding," he said, reaching out for the injured leg before he could think about it.

The glass tabletop had caught her just below the knee. There was a sizeable, narrow gash, a couple of inches long, surrounded by an angry reddening of her skin.

Lois looked down at his hand on her leg, surprised and then winced slightly, only now feeling the sting of the cut since he'd focused her attention on it.

"Lay back," Clark said softly and this time his tone left no room for her to argue.

She surrendered to it, without protest. She settled herself back against the side of the sofa, her eyes holding his until he looked away and began to study the cut on her shin. Lois found herself relaxing despite herself, the gentle movements of his fingers against her skin soothing her somehow. She found herself watching him closely, marveling over how gentle his touch was, how much strength there was in those fingers, yet how lightly they moved. That contrast all the more fascinating and awesome now that she knew just how much strength he was capable of. He was so careful of her. He had always been careful of her. Right from the first. Had always done his best to protect her. Even from herself.

She felt the prickle of fresh tears welling up behind her eyes and bit down hard into her lower lip, burying the small sob that formed in her throat.

Clark glanced up from his ministrations and then looked contrite. "Sorry. Did I hurt you?"

Lois shook her head. "No ... no ... I - "

"I'm trying not to, but it's a pretty deep cut. Maybe I should - " he broke off, seeming to stare at the smooth expanse of skin beneath his fingers intently.

Lois saw only a faint shimmer in the air surrounding her leg, like a heat haze on a balmy summer day, and then a faint, warming tingle spread against her skin. She glanced up quickly and caught the faint, reddish tinge to her partner's eyes. Before she could think to move, Clark lifted his head slightly, looking satisfied. The warmth lingered like a heat rub and Lois craned her neck, curiously, to look at the wound.

She gasped faintly. "What did you do?"

The wound hadn't disappeared, but it was now nothing more than a faintly angry looking red line against her skin. Several weeks of healing had been accomplished in a second, it seemed. The sharp throb of the wound had dulled to a fading ache.

Clark shrugged, but he looked mighty pleased with himself, despite the nonchalant air. "I just sutured together the edges of the cut with my heat vision." He grinned up at her. "Like spot welding metal."

"Oh," Lois said. "I didn't know you could do that."

He looked a little disconcerted. He scratched a finger at his temple. "Neither did I," he confided. "I mean, I've never tried it on anyone else but me before."

Lois looked slightly startled.

"Knew it would work though," he added. "Anyway ... it should be okay now." He let go of her leg and Lois nodded, readjusting her position until she was curled up in a tight, defensive ball in the sofa's corner.

"Thank you," she said awkwardly, before the uneasy silence settled on them again.

Clark watched her a moment and then, perhaps judging that he had as good a chance to make things right between them now as he'd have again - at least she was calm, if not happy, and she wasn't hitting him any - he said quietly, "Lois, I know that you're angry and you've got every right to be, but - "

"I'm not angry."

He glanced up at her from where he'd dropped his gaze to study his hands with the beginnings of that apology.

"You're not?" He turned around, the better to study her. "You're not angry? How can you not be angry? Lois, I deceived you, I humiliated you, I - "

"Made love to me?"

He paused. "Well, yeah ... that too," he said lamely. "I know I shouldn't have ... and I know that I took advantage of you at a -- "

Lois sighed. "You're not doing an A-1 job for the defense here, Kent, you do realize that?" she pointed out acidly.

For a moment, he looked like he was fighting a smile. "Well, maybe there isn't any defense to do an A-1 job for," he told her. What had been the ghost of an emerging smile faded. "Maybe, I'm guilty as charged," he said grimly.

"Maybe. And, maybe, I'm the only one here who has the right to be prosecuting attorney," Lois answered snippily.

He thought that over. Then, prodding curiously, "So ... why aren't you angry?"

Lois loosed a dismal breath. "I'm too tired to be angry."

"Oh." He echoed her sigh. "You want to go back to bed?" he asked and then, hastily, "Uh, on your own, I mean. Alone. By -- "

"No. It's almost seven already. I want a long, hot shower. And then I want breakfast. And more painkillers," Lois decided as she got to her feet and headed for the bathroom. As she reached it, she heard the latch click on the outside door and turned, irritated to find her partner on the verge of sneaking out on her.

"Where do you think you're going?" she demanded.

Clark looked back at her, surprised. "Well, I thought you wanted to get ready for - "

"*You* can make breakfast," Lois told him firmly and, as he continued to stand there, bemused, "It's the least you can do." She paused. "I haven't finished with you yet, Kent. Not by a long shot."

Clark watched her as she disappeared into the bathroom with that cryptic warning and shut the door firmly behind her. Then he closed the front door and tossed his jacket to the back of the sofa with a sigh, before he headed obediently for the kitchen.

He supposed it was the least he could do to make amends at that.


Aside from Lois commenting favorably over her first bite of the healthy, nutritious - and even darned good tasting - breakfast he'd managed to produce out of the meager contents of her kitchen, they ate in awkward silence.

It was broken only briefly by Clark bringing his partner up to speed on what else he'd done while puttering around the kitchen trying not to think about the mess he'd gotten them both into, trying not to focus too hard on what was happening just yards away, keeping his hearing fixed firmly on the sputtering pan on the cooker and eyes front and center on the burner, while she showered.

"I phoned Perry and told him we'd be a little late," he said. "He didn't seem surprised. Half the office didn't turn up for work this morning and some of them are going to be later than we are. It's worse than that flu epidemic last winter."

Lois nodded sagely, without looking up from her plate. "I wondered how you avoided going down with that one," she said after a moment. "I remember thinking maybe you were holding out on the rest of us and hoarding vitamin C."

Clark paused as he reached for the mug of coffee at his elbow, uncertain how to take that. Was she trying to score another point? Spoiling for a fight? Or ... just voicing an idle thought?

The latter, it seemed, as she added, "Well, anyway, Perry shouldn't expect to see us anytime soon. We've got our friendly neighborhood King Rat to catch. And that means hitting the streets."

He nodded. "Yeah, that's what I told him."

Lois looked up sharply and, for just a moment, he thought her eyes softened. "Nice catch ... " she said and then, after the faintest pause, "Partner."

By the time he'd worked his way through all the possible permutations on that, tested out all the subtleties of tone and variations of pitch, and come to the - warming - conclusion that she'd meant it as nothing more than the simple compliment it seemed, the silence had dropped on them again and he could think of nothing to say to break it.

Actually, he was a little glad of it. His thoughts were in turmoil and he had no idea *what* to say any more. He was beginning to find the whole scenario surreal. If he squinted just a little, he thought morosely as he sipped at his second cup of coffee and half-heartedly pushed the remnants of his omelet around his plate with his fork, he could almost imagine that they were sharing breakfast together after a night of passion in just the way he'd always imagined they would.

Just the way he'd dreamed about so often.

Lois was looking naturally pretty, sans cosmetics, with that freshly scrubbed, post-showered glow about her as she sat across the table from him: her skin highlighted with a soft, rosy blush and her hair slightly in disarray. She'd pulled on what she was apt to call her schlumpy robe - and he wasn't incognizant to the subtle message in that - but it only made her more desirable to him, more than any expensive, shrouding mist of satin and silk designed to tempt and tease would have. Though he'd often dreamed of her that way too - the temptress, sleek and sensual - he'd longed for this other side of her with equal ardor. Cozy and warm. Comfortable and familiar.

Squinting just a little too hard now, he let a small sigh escape him. Lost in the midst of his fantasy, it came dangerously close to sounding content.

Lois paused, coffee mug halfway to her lips and gave him a swift, chilling look across the expanse of the table.

Clark, aware of the transgression, offered her a fragile smile that was half apology, half consternation and then took hasty interest in the remains of his cooling breakfast

He chewed at the rubbery morsel of omelet. He'd never imagined that being granted his wildest fantasies, given his ultimate dreams, succeeding in taking the next step in his relationship with Lois, would have turned out like this.

Be careful what you wish for ...

Clark sighed again and then turned it into a small clearing of his throat, darting his eyes away from the petite woman sitting opposite as she glanced up on him again. He kept his attention rigidly on the cup in his hands this time, nursing its warmth against his palms and staring into the dark, swirling depths as though hypnotized.

Actually, he was thinking about how soft she'd been as he'd held her. How cute those little sounds she'd made had been as he'd kissed her. The coffee was the color of her eyes, hazed, with passion burning in them.

He shifted uneasily in his chair and forced himself to be still as Lois frowned at him.

And trust, he thought. She'd looked at him with trust in those eyes too. Trust that he'd betrayed, a small, despoiling voice reminded him viciously.

He shook his head a little. And yet, despite that knowledge, his thoughts returned to the feel of her in his arms, the sounds of her pleasure, the warm mixture of scents that formed her, delicious and sweet ... and he knew he wanted ---

" -- more?"

He jerked up his head as her voice broke into his thoughts. "Huh?"

Lois held up the glass pot in her hand. "Do you want more?" she repeated. "Coffee," she elaborated as he continued to look blank.

"Oh. No ... no, this is fine, thanks."

She nodded and replaced the pot on its mat. Clark wished she wouldn't look so somber. So ... distant. Polite. She'd said she wasn't angry with him. If she wasn't angry with him, couldn't she just smile? Just one smile. He'd give anything for it.

He watched her a moment longer and then drew in a hard, fortifying breath. "Lois," he said, putting down his fork decisively, "we have to talk."

He saw the line of her lips tighten fractionally and for a long moment the cool, frozen silence held between them. Then she said quietly, seemingly pulling the thought up out of nowhere, "You didn't leave."

It wasn't the first thing he'd expected her to want answering, or even the most important, as he considered it, but it was, at least, a start.

Clark dropped his gaze, looking sheepish. "No. I know you told me to go - and I would have done - but ... well, I was worried about you, about how upset you were. I didn't want to leave until I was sure you were okay. And I guess," he paused, fingers brushing restlessly against the side of the mug in his hands as he considered them. "I guess I was afraid ... scared that if I left, I'd never get another chance to put things right."

She gave him a small, sideways glance and then went back to studying her own mug.

Clark paused a moment, trying to gather his thoughts. Knowing he probably had one chance to get this right. "Lois, I'm sorry - " he started and then he bit off the automatic apology. This wasn't the time for telling her what she wanted to hear. What he thought she wanted to hear. It was time for the truth. Plain and unadorned. As simple and as honest as he could make it.

"Lois," he began again, evenly. "I can't apologize to you for what I did. I just can't. It meant too much. I can't tell you I regret it, because ... well, because I don't. It wasn't the way I ever imagined you'd find out about me. It wasn't even the way I'd imagined us being ... well, you know ... together. And, believe me," he added dryly with a sudden, small, self- deprecating smile, "I imagined it a lot. And in a whole lot of ways too. But, it's the way it did happen, Lois. I can't change that ... and I can't tell you I'm sorry for it now. It was ... well, it was wonderful, Lois. It was ... beyond everything I'd ever hoped for. More than I could have dreamed of ... "

He stopped, holding his breath. Lois stared at him for so long his heart began to shrivel in his chest, dreading the explosion, almost unwilling to hear what she would say. Then, to his surprise, a small, decidedly smug, pixie grin spread its way across her face.

"Hmmmmm. I *was* pretty spectacular, wasn't I?" she said, letting that grin widen.

Clark felt his jaw drop. He willed it to close up again, but the simplest of actions seemed to have frozen in him, his brain spasming in complete shock as he stared at her.

Lois viewed him judiciously. "Close that up, Farmboy," she murmured after a moment. She rose to her feet, set her mug firmly on the table and moved around to drop decorously into his lap as he stared at her. "Or use it for something worthwhile," she added, huskily. And then she leaned forward, put a hand beneath his chin to steady him and kissed him firmly.

Clark got over his shock pretty quickly, she had to admit. After a sharp inhalation of air, his lips moved vigorously against her own, taking her eagerness for acquiescence as he probed deeper and more forcefully into the moist cavity of her mouth. His hands came up automatically to rest on her arms. A moment later and she felt herself swept up into his embrace and close against his chest as he broke the almost frantic exploration of her lips to bury his face deep into the soft mass of her hair. He sighed quietly, a soft susurration of breath that trembled fiercely against her skin.

"I thought I'd lost you," he whispered, burrowing deeper and nuzzling his way blindly against her jaw and throat as he laid his cheek against her own. "I thought I'd lost you for good."

Lois felt tears gather and swallowed over the blockage in her throat before she squirmed her way free of his tight embrace, laying back in his supporting grip enough to look up into his solemn face. She put her hands against his cheeks, framing his face tight.

"Oh no, Farmboy," she said, shaking her head. "You don't get away that easy."

She set her lips gently to his again and he looked up at her gravely as she released him, putting a hand against her jaw and brushing a light thumb across her cheek. "Promise?" he said. There was the faintest tremor in his voice, barely heard.

Lois put her hand over his, entwining her fingers with the ones resting against her cheek and drawing them clear. She set her lips lightly to the back of the hand gathered in her own. "With all my heart," she vowed softly.

For a moment he was still, measuring that vow and her words. He drew her close again, cradling her against his chest as though she was the most precious thing he knew.

For a time, they stayed entwined, listening to the soft, rhythmic sounds of each other's breathing and the slow beat of their hearts. It was almost, Lois thought wonderingly, as though she could actually hear those hearts reaching out and entwining themselves into one. And she knew in that moment if she'd never known it before that this man was hers for eternity, that their lives were inextricably joined. And that there was nothing to fear in that. There was simply joy.

Clark stirred against her and she looked up at him, shyly, from the safe harbor of his embrace. He met her eyes and then reached up a hand to draw a few strands of her hair back from her cheek.

"I had a lot of time to think in that shower," she said before he could speak, in explanation of what Clark still considered, wonderingly, an abrupt, desperately unhoped for, and miraculous change of heart. She hitched her shoulders in a small, self- conscious shrug as she looked away from the intensity of his gaze. "Clark, I ... said a lot of things, back there in that room -- "

He reached up, placing quick fingers to her lips. "Lois, you've got no reason to -- "

Lois shook her head, dislodging him, and went on as though he hadn't spoken. "I said some things. Hurtful things. Because I was hurt and I wanted you to be. But they weren't true. And I didn't mean them. Well ... at least ... not all of them. Not most of them. When I'd had time to think a little."

She flushed slightly, perhaps remembering the savagery of some of the accusations she'd made and then went on, hesitatingly, "Like I said, I had the chance to think things through and ... well ... you didn't take advantage of me, Clark. I want you to know that. I know what ... happened last night ... when we ... made love ... I know you didn't plan for it any. I didn't plan for it either. It just ... happened. And I didn't exactly give you the chance to back out back there. I know you tried."

Clark smiled a little. "Well ... maybe I could have tried a little harder," he said.

Lois dropped her gaze, to the fingers playing restlessly at the collar of his shirt now. "If you had ... I'd have missed out on something beautiful," she said softly. She looked up on him, earnestly. "The most beautiful night of my life. No matter what, no matter where we go from here ... I wouldn't have given that up. Not for anything."

She saw the deep, gypsy brown eyes darken with her words, his face softening, and sighed, shifting slightly on his lap. "I was hurt and angry, I still am, and understanding why you didn't tell me, doesn't stop me feeling that way. But, you know, after I thought about it ... after I thought about ... everything ... I realized that none of that matters."

Clark studied her. "Then what does?" he ventured quietly, sensing that she'd already found her way to an answer. Something more than he had, for all the way his mind had twisted over what he'd done, long into the night.

He saw her take a deep breath. "What matters is ... I love you." She glanced up at him and then quickly away. "I don't know if I want to love you, or even if I like the idea, but I do. And, I know we still have a lot of talking to do, a lot of things to work out, but - " She looked back and this time, steadily, she held his gaze. "But, I know we *can* work it out. I love you, Clark ... and nothing else matters but that."

"Lois ... " He shook his head, reached out a hand to put the tips of his fingers against her cheek. She felt his fingers tremble against her skin. His eyes were molten, dark and tender on hers. "I ... "

"I know." She shook her head, put up a hand to lightly trace the line of his jaw. "I know you do. But, I don't want to talk any more, Clark. I don't want you to tell me. Show me. Show me you love me," she said softly and hooked her arms around his neck as he pressed his lips obediently to hers, letting herself flow into the warm, loving caress.

After a moment, without breaking their kiss, Clark rose to his feet, lifting her in his arms and moving them over to the more comfortable retreat of the sofa.

Lois let herself sink back against the cushions in the corner of the sofa as his body pressed her back into their soft support, his hands covering her, their lips beginning to pick up heat and passion as they moved restlessly together. His fingers stroked a path along the long, curvaceous length of one thigh as her robe gathered back before that exploratory touch, baring the smooth expanse of silken flesh. His free hand cupped at the side of her throat, slid along the line of her shoulder, baring it of its rough, cotton covering and then he paused.

He lifted his head from where he was softly enjoying the taste of coffee on her lips and glanced downwards before raising his eyes to meet hers, looking slightly overwhelmed.

"Lois ... ?"

"Hmmmmm ... ?"

"I could be wrong ... but ... you're ... not wearing anything under this robe, are you?"

She smiled, relaxing back against the cushions and against his supporting arms. "Not since I last checked, no."

"Oh," he said huskily and, then, as an indistinct and absent afterthought from the region of her shoulder, as he laid himself against her. "That's ... good ... "

"Mmmmmmmm," Lois murmured, stroking at his shoulders as he nuzzled at the side of her throat. They continued their lazy, mutual pleasuring, both seemingly content to let the embers of their passion smolder without ever rousing into fire.

Eventually, Clark sighed and rolled a little to set his back against the cushions, settling his arms around her waist and pulling her gently close. Lois snuggled happily against him as he let one hand drift to stroke a slow path at her hip. He laid his cheek against the warm pillow of her breasts.

"Lois ... " he broke the cozy silence finally and then hesitated, as though about to approach a subject he thought best left unexplored, before he forced himself on, embarrassment sounding rough in his throat, as he lifted his head to look up on her curiously. "How did you know? That I was Superman?"

"Oh." Lois shifted a little in his arms and watched one finger of the hand resting spread against his chest as it began to run a slow, fitful circle against the cotton of his shirt. "Let's just say ... you were an ... unusual experience ... " she said eventually.

"Huh?" Clark raised his head to look up at her and then, catching the vague glint in her eyes, decided he didn't really want to have her explain that any. Well ... not now anyway.

Lois giggled as she watched him flounder.

He felt his cheeks redden. Lois took pity on him, smiling slightly as she leaned over and pressed her lips to his. Clark looked at her gratefully as she withdrew. She grinned and shook her head.

"Boy, you're just full of surprises, aren't you?" she said.

His faintly embarrassed air turned to quick calculation. "I certainly am." He put his arms around her waist and hitched her closer against him. "Wanna find out just how many more surprises I've been hiding?"

She paused, seeming to consider it. "Let's trade," she said finally, hooking her arms around his neck and letting him press her back gently to the sofa as she gave herself over to exploring his lips. "It's two days to Christmas," she added softly. "And I never got you a gift. Trading surprises will just have to do. For now."

Clark looked intently into the warm velvet of the brown eyes staring up into his. He didn't need any gift. She'd given him her heart and he knew that no gift he'd ever receive again, not now nor in the future, would match that offering.

"Merry Christmas, Lois," he said softly.

He looked so solemn, she thought her heart would break. She reached up a soft hand and pulled it through his hair and smiled. "Clark?"


"Think your folks would mind an extra houseguest this Christmas?" She smiled up at him serenely and added shyly, "This time, I won't object if Martha suggests we share your room."

Clark figured that was deserving of some reward, so he gave her one, his lips melding themselves to hers softly for a moment. Lois hooked her arms loose around his neck, enjoying the moment, before he drew back slightly to look down at her.

He grinned. "Why don't we call and find out?"

Lois shook her head, pulling him back down onto her as he made the first, abortive scramble away, her eyes dancing. "Later," she murmured, tangling her fingers deeper into his hair and dragging him down to meet her lips again as he submitted to her willingly. "We'll call later ... "

They indulged themselves in soft, lazy exploration for a time, their delight in each other made all the more sweet for knowing how easily they had almost come to losing this. Finally, they lay, quiet and still, nestling close together, simply savoring the moment.

Clark, glancing downward at the small body held warmly in his grasp, thought wistfully that he supposed they really ought to be making a move towards finding the culprit who was messing up his city. Although, he considered, with a small wry smile, it was going to be hard not to shake the guy's hand rather than haul him off to the nearest police precinct when he tracked him down. All things considered.

All's well that end's well ... he thought drowsily, shifting to nuzzle softly at his partner's cheek and taking a moment to inhale her scent. Now, there's a Christmas message to fit the season ...

He held back a sigh and put up a hand to stroke at the silk of Lois' hair and brush a light caress against her cheek. Well ... maybe, the bad guys could wait just another few minutes, he thought, closing his eyes and settling himself more firmly into the cushions.

Just this once.

"Lois," he said, rousing her from where she'd almost drifted back into sleep as he let his mind roll sleepily over the events of the last hours. "You know, I didn't cheat on winning you that bear. I want you to know that. I won it fair and square."

Lois opened her eyes and yawned softly. "Superman never cheats," she said firmly, tightening her arms around his neck. "You think I don't know that by now?" She snuggled deeper into the warm body pressed against hers and then looked up at him, curiously. "You said you didn't have your powers. What did you mean?"

"Ah ... well, that's a long story, Lois."

He told her about the Kryptonite. And losing his powers. And Trask. And, when he had finished, she looked at him solemnly from the shelter of his arms.

"You must have been so afraid," she said.

He shook his head. "No. I wasn't. Not really. I mean there was a lot going on that day to be scared about. But, there was a lot going on that was nice too. Like just being with you. I was able to just be myself in a way I'd never been able to before. Like you said. Just Clark. Me. I didn't have to worry about getting careless, relaxing too much, making some dumb mistake that gave me away. You were always so smart, I had to keep myself on track all the time. But that night ... it was so beautiful, Lois. Just you and me. No powers, no cries for help. I almost wrenched a shoulder winning that bear," he added, sounding almost proud, and then let his smile fade as he realized she was fighting tears, the tell-tale gleam shimmering at the corner of her eyes.

"Hey," he protested, putting up a hand to wipe at her cheek. "What's this for?"

She shook her head. "I just never thought before. What it must have been like for you. Hiding all the time. Oh, Clark ... you must have been so lonely ... " She moved, burrowing into the warmth of his shoulder, hugging him tight, as though she could erase all of the pain, all of the loneliness, just with the fierce protection of her embrace.

Clark held her tight. "No. Not lonely. I was never lonely from the first day I met you, Lois. Maybe, you were just with me in my head, in my dreams, but you were there. I talked to you a lot. When I had problems I needed to solve. You just weren't there to hear me. But you helped. You helped a lot. Sometimes," he smiled down at her, "you helped more than you knew. Superman wouldn't be here today if it wasn't for you. You inspired me to go on so many times, when I wanted to give up, when I thought I couldn't bear dealing with so much of the pain of strangers ... you were always there, always cheering me on. Always putting me right. I couldn't have done it - any of it - without you."

"Oh, Clark ... " Lois said, drawing him in tight for a long, soft and warm kiss in response to that. They lingered over the caress, softly ... gently ...

... and then a faint, ethereal sound intruded on the warmly intimate moment. Lois broke away, lifting her head as she listened to the soft harmony drifting through her window.

"Carolers," Lois said softly.

"Yeah," Clark agreed, looking surprised. "Aren't they a little early?"

"I'll just bet it's that kooky lot from the building next door," Lois said. "They're in competition with the Methodist group from the mall. They beat them by fifty dollars in the fundraising stakes last year and they're determined to beat them again. I think they're trailing behind though. They've been turning up at the oddest hours trying to boost their collection." She sighed. "I suppose I'd best rustle up a donation for them."

Clark turned his head and looked back at her, lying there beneath him, enveloped in his arms.

Their eyes met.

Lois made no move.

"*They* can wait," Clark said firmly as he recaptured her lips.

Fini. (c) LabRat - April 1999.


Thanks are due to Wendy, who persuaded me that Spice *could* be turned into a PG story after all. And thanks to my proofers and editors - love ya, guys!