Chapter 21: Beneath the Masks They Wear

"Lois, I'm not sure this is a good idea," Clark muttered as he ducked into the room behind Lois, shutting the door quietly behind him.

She didn't even bother to glance at him as she looked around the room. This was supposed to be the bedroom, but there was no bed in it. Instead, it was filled with large, bulky pieces of furniture. Several dressers stood along the walls – or at least what Lois would call dressers. They might technically have been "credenzas" or "highboys" for all she knew. There certainly were enough of them. In the middle of the room were two large plush chairs, a sofa, and a low table. Shaking her head, Lois thought churlishly that only the super rich could have an area the size of her entire apartment as an anteroom leading to their bedroom.

On the other side of the room, two large double doors stood closed, and she figured the bed stood on the other side. Remembering that she had no time to waste thinking about the extravagances of the obscenely rich, she strode over to the nearest dresser and pulled open the top drawer, feeling around inside. "It'll be fine, Clark," she said absently as she ran her fingers along the inside of the drawer.

He walked up behind her. "Well, why don't you just tell me what you're searching for, and I'll take a look around and see if I can find it," he offered.

Closing the top drawer, she pulled out the one directly underneath. "I would," she admitted, "Except I don't know what I'm looking for. I figure I'll know it when I find it."

A heavy sigh met her remark, so she paused and looked at Clark over her shoulder. Straightening, she turned to face him. "Look, I know you're not comfortable with this plan…" she began.

"Why wouldn't I be comfortable with this plan?" he asked, interrupting her. "On a flimsy excuse, we've snuck inside the house of a man who, for all we know, could be a sociopathic killer. We're rooting around his bedroom, two floors away from where we're supposed to be working, so if we get caught, we don't even have a good excuse. And you're in a French maid's uniform that makes a handkerchief look big by comparison. As far as I can tell, the plan is practically flawless!"

She shrugged nonchalantly. "If we get caught, we'll deal with it. It's no big deal," she said.

"It's you putting yourself in danger. Again," he retorted. "I just wish you'd let me do this on my own."

"Not a chance," she said flatly.

Rolling his eyes at her, he shot back, "Okay. Well, what are we going to do if we get caught? Pretend we got lost looking for the bathroom?"

Turning back to the dresser, Lois reached for a drawer when a sound in the hallway caught her attention. Someone was coming their way. Whirling, she slugged Clark in the arm. "What was that for?" he asked, looking at her in surprise.

"You jinxed us!" Lois hissed at him through gritted teeth as she scanned the room. There were no good places to hide, so she dragged him through the double doors and into the room on the far end. Closing the doors behind her, she eyed the area under the bed but quickly discarded it as a possible hiding spot. However, against the left wall, she saw a doorway that looked like it might lead to a closet, so she grabbed her companion's hand and dragged him towards it.

"What are we, six?" he grumbled behind her, apparently still focused on her comment, as he let her tow him across the room. She opened the door and started to shove him inside, but he caught her arm at the last moment and dragged her in after him, closing the door behind her.

Lois exhaled her breath in a whoosh as she found herself pulled against Clark's body, and she placed both her hands on his chest to steady herself. "What are you doing?" she hissed. "I don't have to hide! I can talk my way out of this, easy!"

He shook his head. "You said we were in this together, Lois. Well, I've decided that in this partnership, if you get to dictate where we're going to search, I get to decide what's necessary to keep you from getting killed while we do it."

Sighing heavily, she tried to pull away from him but there just wasn't enough room to move. She looked around, annoyed that they'd managed to confine themselves in such a small space. She'd always thought that the super rich had enormous closets. It took her a moment to realize that they probably did, but it just happened that Lois and Clark had managed to take cover in a shoe closet. An entire small closet devoted to racks and racks of shoes. Lois would have been slightly envious if it weren't so damn annoying.

"I'd be fine, Clark," she groused softly. "I'd pretend I'd just gotten lost or something."

"And when they didn't believe you, you'd be dead," he pointed out. "Besides, it's too late now. Whoever it is, they're in the outer room. Unless you want to be caught. In that outfit. In the bedroom."

She opened her mouth to challenge his words, but then she realized that he had a point. It probably wouldn't be the most prudent thing she'd ever done. So instead she snapped her mouth closed and turned her face away from him, staring at the back of the door as if she might find a way to see through it if she just tried hard enough. In reality, she was trying not to think of how close the two of them were. She could feel the warmth of his skin through their clothing, although she tried her hardest not to allow their bodies to touch. Her back was ramrod straight, the shelves of shoes digging into her spine as she held herself away from him.

How had she not realized before just how big he was? In this little space, he seemed huge! He shifted, his arm brushing against her stomach and she sucked in a sharp breath. She could hear their breathing, which sounded absurdly loud in this confined space, and she considered telling him to stop breathing so loudly, except that she knew it would sound absurd.

But every breath she took, she felt like she was breathing him in. The scent of him was all around her; she couldn't escape. "Clark," she whispered, not even realizing she'd spoken until she saw, out of the corner of her eye, him turn his head and look down at her.

"Yes, Lois?" he asked, his voice a husky undertone that shot shivers up her spine.

She felt foolish, uncertain of what to say next. She couldn't just leave it there, but she hadn't consciously spoken his name aloud. And now, having him this close, looking at her the way he was, she couldn't think. She couldn't concentrate, not even to come up with a convenient lie. With her breath rasping in her chest, she shook her head.

He seemed to misunderstand her gesture, because he reached out to her and wrapped his arm around her waist, pulling her closer, offering her comfort. "It's okay," he said softly, breathing the words into her ear. The touch of his breath tickled, and she shivered again. "I'll get us out of here. I'm not going to let anything happen to you."

It already had. It already was. Didn't he see that? As if compelled by a force beyond her control, Lois lifted her hands and pressed her palms against his chest. He was so warm, so solid. She remembered the way he'd found her, underneath the water, and pressed his lips against her, breathing life into her as she'd fought for air. She remembered the way he'd held her as he carried her to the surface, the way she'd lay curled up in his arms. He'd held her so close, his touch firm but strangely gentle, as if she was the most precious thing in the world to him.

The fabric of his shirt wrinkled under her palm as she slid her hand up to his shoulder, curving her fingers around his neck. Her eyes were locked on his. For one moment, she forgot where they were or why the two of them were hiding in this absurd little closet. Clark filled her senses, so close to her that he drove away all rational thought.

She remembered how he'd kissed her. Had it really been just a few days before? How he'd held her in his arms. The taste of his lips. The way he'd pressed himself against her.

She felt her body sway towards his again. His breath was hot against her cheek, and she wanted to give herself over to the comfort of his embrace. She saw the muscle in his neck jump as he swallowed heavily. She leaned forward and pressed her mouth against that soft patch of skin, and she felt the muscle jump beneath her lips.

Turning her head, she nuzzled him with her cheek, unconsciously seeking comfort. Then she drew back slowly, her lips barely brushing the skin along the line of his jaw to his chin as she pulled away. His eyes locked on hers as he tilted his head and leaned towards her, and she knew they were about to kiss. And maybe this time, they wouldn't be able to stop.

God, how could she still want him like this? After everything that had happened, she'd told herself that they needed to take it slow. They had to get back to where they had once been before they could move forward. She needed time; she'd told him as much. So why was the thought of kissing him so damn tempting?

She wanted him, and he said he wanted her. Maybe she should just give in to it. Her lips parted as he leaned in towards her, and her flesh tingled in anticipation of his kiss. She wanted this. Her head tilted back. She wanted him. She wet her lips with the tip of her tongue and found that she could still taste him on her lips. She wanted –

"I gave Chloe your football jersey," she blurted in an undertone when his lips were just a few millimeters away from her own.

Clark paused for a moment and then straightened to look down at her in confusion. "What?" he asked in a low voice.

Lois blinked in surprise, wondering where that thought had come from. She hadn't planned on telling him that; it had just popped out of her mouth. Clearing her throat softly, she murmured, "I – uh – I gave Chloe your football jersey." The moment had passed and they weren't getting it back; perhaps her mouth had saved her from making a huge mistake.

Thankful that he probably couldn't see her well enough to notice her flush, Lois whispered sheepishly, "I had it. I mean, I took it. A long time ago. I – you said something about how important it was to keep mementos of the people you care about, so I-I took your jersey. So I would have one of you."

"Oh," he said softly, though he still sounded slightly confused. As if he didn't know where this conversational topic had come from. To be fair, neither did Lois. "Um. Well, you can keep it, you know. I mean, I want you to have it."

"No!" she breathed, unconsciously clenching the fabric of his shirt with her hand. "I don't want it!"

Now he looked even more confused, and slightly hurt as well. "You don't?" he murmured.

Lois shook her head. "No. Not now. I don't –"

She was just about to continue when Clark stiffened and she fell silent. He lifted his head, turning to look at the door. "He's just outside the double doors," he breathed, his words barely audible. Lois tensed, forgetting all about the football jersey. "Lex," Clark hissed after a few seconds, and Lois opened her mouth to ask him how he knew, but then she remembered his x-ray powers.

She stifled a groan, her mind racing as she tried to find a way out of this situation. If she were caught, it would be bad enough. But she couldn't risk Lex finding Clark.

Lois clutched the front of Clark's shirt in her fists as she stared up at him. "Okay, here's what we're going to do," she said in a low undertone. "If Lex is searching these rooms, then he's going to find us. But you can't be seen by him, Clark. You can't. As soon as his back is turned, I want you to do that speeding off thing that you do and get out of here."

"I'm not leaving you," her companion growled irritably. "I can take you out of here with me."

She shook her head. "No. It looks like Lex is doing his own investigating, and we need to know what he knows."

"This isn't what we planned!" Clark retorted in an emphatic whisper.

"That's why they call it improvisation," she shot back in an equally soft voice. "I'll be fine, Clark. Trust me. Okay?" Her hands flattened against his chest once more. "Trust me. Run out of here as fast as you can; don't let him see you. I'll keep him distracted. We have to keep you safe, Clark!"

He shook his head angrily. "No, there is nothing more important to me than keeping you out of danger. If you think I'm going to leave you here –"

"You will because you have to, Clark!" she interjected. "I want this over. This investigation, the charade, all of it! I want this finished so that we can move on! I'm sick of skulking around in the shadows and pretending to be someone I'm not! I want this over, right now! I need you to trust me, Clark, and do what I ask you to do! I know you want to protect me, but the best way to do that is for you to leave before he sees you. If something happens to you, then you know I'm screwed. Right? The best thing you can do for me, right now, is to get out of danger and stay that way. As soon as you get out of here, call Ollie and everyone and tell them what happened. I'll keep looking around here, even if I have to do it with Lex, and I'll get in contact with you as soon as it's safe and tell you what we find."

"I don't trust him," Clark growled, his hand tightening against Lois's lower back.

"I don't either," she replied evenly. "But I don't have to trust him to get what I need from him. Look, there's no time to talk about this now. I want to stay here, but you need to go. He can't know about you, and you have to be safe so you can pull my ass out of the fire if anything goes wrong." She heard the double doors open and then shut quietly. "He can help me rummage around in dresser drawers; I can't trust him to be there for me if something goes wrong. I need you for that. Please?"

There was a moment of frustrated silence. He clearly didn't like what he was being asked to do, his mouth was pressed in a grim line and a muscle in his jaw jumped angrily, but he gave her a curt nod. "I'll always be there for you when you need me, Lois. I promise." Then he grabbed her and pressed a quick kiss against her lips. Almost before Lois had registered the contact, he sped away and was gone.

With a shaky breath, Lois looked down at the latch to the closet door. It was incredible; he'd sped out of here faster than a blink and still shut the door behind him softly enough that she didn't hear anything. Would she ever get used to the amazing things that he could do?

Putting her hand on the latch, she swung open the door and stepped into the room. Directly in front of her, she saw Lex, his head bowed as he rifled through some papers on a small writing desk. She watched without making a noise as he straightened and turned. There was a flicker of surprise on his face when he saw her, and then they stood there in silence, their eyes locked, as they sized each other up as one would an opponent.

It was Lex who finally broke the silence. "Well, well. So you're still alive," he drawled.

"Disappointed?" she challenged, arching her eyebrows at him.

"But not surprised," he agreed. "I should have known it wouldn't be that easy to get rid of you."

"Better luck next time," she said as she stood still waited for him to launch an offensive. She had no doubt that he would.

To her surprise, he smiled at her, and the expression made her want to throw something at him. Sticking his hands in his pockets, he stepped forward. Every line of his body radiated a deceptive insouciance, and after a moment he said lightly, "A couple of days ago, I was told that you were dead, and I haven't heard word of you since. Where have you been hiding?" Her smile was sugary sweet as she shook her head at him, knowing her refusal to answer would irritate him. A flash of annoyance lit his eyes, and then he pressed, "I should have known you weren't dead when nobody could find your body."

"I was investigating. And this really isn't the best place to talk about this, is it?" she asked curtly as she turned and walked towards the door. Of course, she had no doubt that Lex would continue to grill her. However, if she was going to be subjected to the third degree in enemy territory, she'd just as soon it happened at the Luthor Mansion and not when she was dressed in a French maid uniform.

She was halfway across the room when she heard him say in a casual voice behind her, "You know, they never found Clark's body either, did they?"

Lois froze, every muscle in her body stiffening. Her pulse skittered and then her heart began to race, the blood racing in her ears. Trying very hard to look casual, she turned and croaked through lips gone suddenly dry, "I'm sorry?"

He was staring intently at her, watching her every move, noting her every reaction. Like a hawk assessing its prey. And Lois knew she was on very thin ice. His voice was still deceptively casual, however, when he said, "Clark's body. I've had people out trying to recover it, but so far, they haven't found a thing." Then, with a slight quirk of his lips in a parody of a smile, he said in feigned sympathy, "I thought you might want to have something of him to bury."

She tilted her chin up and tried to pretend like her heart wasn't hammering in her chest. It made her nervous to be this close to Lex when she still had the taste of Clark's skin on her lips. As if he might be able to smell Clark on her and know he was alive. Lex began to circle her, each move slow and deliberate, and her sense of being prey sharpened. She hated that feeling, and she hated worse that he could so easy inflict it. In as steady a voice as she could manage, she said evenly, "I told you. There was an explosion."

"An explosion so intense that it vaporized his remains? A fire that burned so hot that all that's left is ash?" he asked skeptically, his gaze locked on her face as he watched for her reaction.

"You tell me, Lex. It was your warehouse," she spat waspishly at him.

"And it was your fault he was there," he replied in a far calmer tone. Lois tore her gaze away from his face and swallowed, and she heard him chuckle softly in victory. In two long strides, he came face-to-face with her, and he grabbed her chin and forced her to look at him. "You know, Lois, I'm beginning to think we've been going about this all wrong. Maybe all of this shouldn't just be for show."

Since she knew he hated her almost as much as she loathed him, Lois knew he didn't really mean what he said. "So you can torture me on a full-time basis?" she demanded as she glowered at him.

He seemed unperturbed by her hostility. "Not entirely," he responded mildly. In the face of her obvious skepticism, he smiled. "You said it yourself, my dear. I always want what Clark had." As he spoke, he reached for her, wrapping his hand around the back of her neck. It was a parody of a loving gesture, as he fisted his hand in her hair and pulled, drawing her head back. It didn't hurt, but Lois couldn't get away as he leaned in as if to kiss her.

Before he could make contact, she reached for him and pinched the soft skin of his stomach as hard as she could, twisting it until he let out a surprised hiss and released her. "I don't think so," she replied, as if nothing untoward had just transpired between them. Then, to prove that he didn't have her as cowed as he would liked to have thought, she said, "Lana may have been willing to settle for you, but that doesn't mean I'm willing to do the same."

She had intended her words to hurt, but he turned the tables on her. Instead of looking angry, as she expected, he laughed. "You're right. Lana did settle for me. I was nothing but her second choice, but at least I knew that going in. It's what happens when you come between two people who were always meant to be together." He paused for effect and then went in for the kill. "And you know that's what Lana and Clark were for each other, don't you? Meant to be together. Oh, they may not have managed to make it work." He leaned in to her and whispered conspiratorially, "I may have had something to do with that." Straightening, he continued in his previous tone, "But there's just no denying that Lana will always be the first girl Clark loved. The woman he would choose to be with, if he had the choice. Nobody will ever take her place in his heart. He would have died for her."

"Instead he died for me," Lois responded flatly, knowing that was where he was going and figuring she might as well beat him to the punch.

"Oh, no. He would have died for Lana. He died because of you. There's a difference," Lex corrected her. She sucked in a sharp breath, and he reveled in his minor victory as he asked with false sympathy, "How does it feel to know that?"

"What does it matter?" she demanded angrily, her hands fisted at her sides. "What do you hope to accomplish by reminding me of what Lana and Clark had together? He's dead, remember? You can't hurt him by any of this, so why don't you just give it up?"

"I can't hurt him," he conceded. "But I can hurt you. It's not quite as good, but it'll do." With a snarl of disgust, she turned and stormed towards the door. He followed, and when she reached for the latch, he covered her hand with his own. "It wouldn't hurt so much if it wasn't true, you know."

Sucking in a deep breath, Lois tried to calm down as she turned her head to look up at him. She knew he was watching her, enjoying every second of pain that he inflicted upon her. But she could afford to give him this minor victory in battle; it was more important that she win the war. "You have no idea what it's like to love someone, do you, Lex?" she asked pityingly after a moment.

"No," he responded quietly. "But I do know what it's like to hate someone." Grabbing a lock of her hair between his fingers, he stroked its silky texture as he asked in a deceptively light voice, "Do you?" She narrowed her eyes at him, answering his question with a glare rather than words. "And who do you hate?"

Rolling her eyes at him, she said, "Look, we're wasting time. Can we get going? I'm sure that you think torturing me is a lot of fun, but we really don't want to get caught here."

Lex shook his head slightly. Clearly he didn't mind getting caught snooping around in Steve Miller's bedroom. If they got caught, he probably had a story ready. Actually, being who he was, he probably thought he didn't need one. So he just stood here and stared at her. He didn't move, and she knew he wouldn't until she answered his question.

"Well, you're pretty close to the top of my list," she said sweetly, forcing a smile.

"What about Clark?" he asked, unperturbed by her response. "Is he on your list?"

She looked away from him, staring at their hands on the latch. "Sometimes," she admitted. "I don't know." Then she gave the latch a vicious yank and pulled the door open.

Lex fell into step beside her as she stormed down the hall. "So, since you're no longer pretending to be dead, I suppose you have a plan. Want to tell me what it is?"

Lois almost smiled. She hated Lex, and she knew he hated her almost as much. But yet he knew her, in some ways, just like she knew him. She didn't know whether to be amused by that thought or merely disgusted, so she decided to go for amusement. "I do have a plan," she admitted, glancing over at him. "You're going to hold a press conference."

"And you think that's going to make a difference, draw our mutual nemesis out into the open, when nothing else has?" Lex challenged her.

She nodded. "Yes, because we're going to give him something that he won't be able to resist." She saw her companion turn his head to look at her and said with great self-satisfaction, "We're going to give him you."

He winced, and it was her turn to feel victorious.

---

Clark walked through the door and slammed it behind him. Oliver and Chloe turned from their computers at the interruption and looked at him in surprise. "Where's Lois?" Chloe asked.

"With Lex," Clark snapped, though he tried to keep his face emotionless. "Long story."

Oliver sighed as he stared at his friend's face. Recognizing the storm that was brewing under Clark's stoic demeanor, he decided to intervene. "Well, then, I know you're probably not in the mood to think about anything else, but as it happens, we have news. That friend I told you about in Gotham? He came through for us."

Though Clark was still concerned about Lois and angry at himself for having left her behind, his curiosity was temporarily piqued. "Oh, yeah?" he asked, looking up at the computer screens as Chloe hit a few buttons.

As she pulled up a file, she explained, "I was doing some digging of my own when I got a message this morning. This file was attached. I tried to trace it, but…" She shrugged as her voice trailed off.

"Yeah, I could have told you that was a waste of time," Ollie told her with a smile. "He's too good for that. The man dresses like an overgrown rodent, but he's the smartest person I know." He paused for a second and then amended, "Well, the smartest human. No offense, Chloe."

"None taken," she replied, though an expression of irritation crossed her face for a brief second. "Anyway, I don can't say know how smart he is, but he does know his way around a computer, I'll give him that. He sent us this."

As she hit a button, a video popped up on the screen. It was black and white, the picture grainy, but two men were clearly visible on the tape.

"Who are they?" Clark asked, staring at them intently.

"According to the message that came with the video file, Ollie's mysterious pen pal seems to think they might be the men who attacked Lois on the bridge," Chloe answered.

Taking a step forward, Clark said, "The picture quality's not good enough for me to tell if they're the same guys who attacked Lois and me at the warehouse. Any chance you can clean it up a bit?"

"No need. He did it for us." There was an edge to her voice, as if Chloe considered it a personal affront that he would be a step ahead of them. Hitting a couple more keys, a clearer version of the feed came up on the screen. "He cleared up the video," she hit another button, "tracked these two using the footage to get us a better picture of their faces," she hit a button a pulled up the picture in question, "and used that photograph to identify our mystery men." As she finished, she hit a key on the keyboard and information on the men in the picture pulled up on another screen.

"John Walker and Robert Dawson," Clark said as he stared at the faces in front of him. His gaze traveled to the clearer picture of the two men and sharpened on the taller man's cheek. Even in the somewhat blurry, deep scratch marks that still hadn't healed were apparent on his right cheek. "It's them."