Author's note: I wanted to explore the Lois-Clark relationship the way I think it would develop in today's world, working off only the basics of the legend. No Richard, no Zod, and absolutely NO magic amnesia kisses.

The first time Clark made Lois feel like the villain of the week, he wasn't even present.

She had woken almost hourly the night before, heart pounding, mouth dry, feeling her career crumbling around her. She had tried all night to think of a way being partnered with him could be anything but a slapdown, from the one person at the Planet she trusted.

Perry, who had put her in Investigative when no other city paper had a woman outside the gossip and lonely hearts columns. Perry, who had never laughed at the water-cooler jokes that made her a ballbuster for pushing as hard as the men for a worthwhile assignment. As if there were a more appropriate, somehow 'feminine', method available.

Perry, who had always accepted that she did her job, not to prove things or shock people, but to speak the truth to power. And who, to her delight and astonishment, had watched her growth into a respected city watchdog with every appearance of pride.

Perry, who had then shackled her two weeks ago to a new hire fresh from his journalism major - not counting his years of 'experience' at the Smallville Gazette, circulation three hundred counting the Sunday-onlies. So now she was sharing her bylines with a man whose major journalistic knack was disappearing before stories broke in front of him. A man who apologized his way through the day like bullpen machismo's answer to the offense of her existence. Lois, we found the kind of guy you're looking for.

There had been a few horrifying hours the first day, when she thought it was a joke that Clark was in on. Then she had realized he was being himself, and she was projecting on him a battle of which he was innocent. And oblivious.

So of course she felt sorry for him. First as cannon fodder, and then as a pawn in Perry's inexplicable betrayal. She tried so hard with him to bite back the retorts that had become second nature to her – when had she gotten so sharp-tongued? She did share her bylines with him, when they would have been easier to take than the candy from the proverbial baby. She knew he was gentle, honest and respectful – traits she was utterly unable to warm to, in her devastation at the symbolism of Perry's pairing him with her.

And then came the day that had touched off her sleepless night. Yesterday, when they took the wrong alleyway shortcut and the mugger who cornered them pulled off that wild shot, and poor Clark fainted. He wasn't a coward; in fact, she had been strangely touched, at the way he tried to protect her with his own body till the moment it gave out on him. It was just the hand he had been dealt, and he played it as best he could.

But not two hours later, right after hearing about it and exploding with due outrage, Perry was chaining him back up to her again. The only thing that surprised her at that point was that the implications for her future hurt less than the betrayal by her chief.

Which was why the next morning, eyes gritty, head aching, she found herself handling it the way she handled things more and more since starting at the Planet. Barreling in with guns blazing, demanding Perry's immediate attention, pacing around waving her arms and demanding justification, when what she wanted was his trust back.

"And it's not any sort of standard procedure – what, that you developed since six weeks ago, when King and Wechsler were hired without a baby-sitter of any kind? And I know I never got one. I mean, for the love of God, Perry, technically I still have a job to do."

She stopped and looked at him, panting with the pent-up fury of the last two weeks - at him for doing this to her, and at herself for expecting anything different.

"Or why," she added stingingly, "don't you just give me the lonely hearts column and be done with it?"

He had been sitting at his desk since she burst in, with his fingers steepled, looking into her eyes, barely moving and, uncharacteristically, making no effort to interrupt.

As she fell silent, panting a bit, she looked down for a moment and then up around the room, at the overflowing bookshelves lining every wall surface with the books stacked two deep and haphazardly, and the one half-wall with all his award photos crammed together with their frames touching.

It occurred to her he looked older now than in any of them. Against her will she felt sorry for him, without being entirely certain why. She backed up into the couch and sat down. She willed herself to neither cry nor say another cutting thing.

"You know," he said thoughtfully after a moment, "you've had eight substantive pieces in the last two weeks. That's up twenty-five percent from your last year's average. I thought your exposition was a little weak in the first two – not everyone understands the relevance of city council positions now to state legislature positions in the fall. But you cleaned it up by the end of the week, and your fact checking was as excellent as always, including the shortcut you didn't take with the predigested demographics from the last census. Which would have been irrelevant."

She was definitely not going to cry. She kept her eyes on the ground.

"Lois," he said softly. He got up and came around the desk and took a couple of steps toward her. Then he seemed to think better of it and sat back on the edge of his desk, pushing back four separate paperweights.

"I gave you Clark because you were the one I could trust to protect him."

She looked up and concentrated hard on keeping her lip stiff. He looked so tired.

"You really think I give a damn about symbols and implications? If I want to rein you in, there will be nothing symbolic about it." He gestured outside to the hall. "Clark would get eaten alive running around alone in Metropolis right now. Much less in here."

His gaze moved out the office window to the bullpen and then back to her. "Or have you maybe bought in to someone else's concept of career advancement?"

She felt it acutely as the unspoken question of betrayal that had been hanging in the room turned around squarely to face her. Her cheeks burned. What have I become here?

"Clark's exposition is better than mine, chief," she said softly, finally. "He handled that on the later articles. He…understands what it's like to not understand."

"Well, I'll be," he said mildly. She looked up and saw a trace of a smile, more in his eyes than his lips.

The weight of the world was falling away like water. I gave you Clark because you were the one I could trust to protect him. They looked at each other for a long moment, and she finally nodded.

"I think I have to go," she said abruptly.

He inclined his head politely and gestured to the door.

She made it out to the hall and then checked herself and stood there for a moment. She stuck her head back in. He was back behind his desk unfolding the morning edition. "Uh, Perry? I'm sorry." She ducked back out just as he was looking up, suddenly feeling too exposed to meet his eyes, and headed for the bullpen.

She might not be able to choose everything she became. Any more than brave, honest, fish-out-of-water Clark could choose when to faint. But she could choose who not to become. And she could do her job – which was, after all, to tell the truth in order to protect the innocent.

"Clark," she said as she passed by him, with his dark head bent down looking intently at whatever he was typing. It came out more abruptly than she intended. God, he typed fast.

He looked up through his coke-bottle lenses with his sweet half-daffy smile. "Oh, good morning, Lois! I didn't see you come in. How are you?"

"Clark," she said, sitting down beside him and slapping down the preprint copy on his desk, "you were on the scene here first, you did four of the five interviews, you did all the background, and oh, yes, then you wrote the article." She counted off his accomplishments on her fingers. "And I…let's see…I pressed play on the tape recorder."

She looked up at him. "So, Clark."

He blinked. "Yes, Lois?"

"You should be fighting me tooth and nail for sole author here. You can't hand out coauthor like candy any more, okay? You'll get eaten alive."

He blinked again.

"So you stand up now and take this down to the printer and give them the change, okay? And I'll fight you for the next one."

He backed up too far and hit the cubicle wall behind him. It shuddered and teetered for a moment. To her amazement, for a flicker of a moment, she saw him roll his eyes.

"Thanks, Lois," he said, bemused. "That's swell."

She almost closed her eyes and sighed again. But this time, a little more alert, she watched him through half-lidded eyes and was rewarded by a funny, knowing smile playing over his lips as he said the forbidden word.

She sat back in her chair and watched him go. What a day of wonders. Crack investigative reporter, indeed. There was some piece of him there she hadn't noticed. She wondered for the first time if he, too, always expected to be misunderstood.

I gave you Clark because you were the one I could trust to protect him.

It might be worth letting him come along on the crack house interviews today. On a suitably tight leash, of course, so he wouldn't get eaten alive.