A/N: I wrote this for the 2008 Valentine's Day Challenge over at DI! Enjoy! And, of course, all normal disclaimers apply - I own nothing.

The Trouble with Love

"Hey, Lo. It's your dad. Listen, I'm sorry to have to do this to you at the last minute, but I'm not going to be able to come for a visit, after all. Something's come up, and I have to ship out in a few hours. I know you'll understand." The toothbrush in Lois's mouth drooped as she sighed in resignation, shuffling slowly over to the answering machine. The offending little black box let out a piercing beep as the perfunctory message came to an end, and Lois pressed the "Delete" button a little more viciously than was strictly warranted. She honestly didn't know which hurt worse: that her dad was bailing on her at the last minute – again – or that he clearly expected her to be understanding about the latest in a series of similar disappointments.

"Sure thing, Dad," she said to the unresponsive black box, her shoulders stooping in defeat. "I understand. When have you passed up the opportunity to go trudging through some godforsaken desert on the other side of the world, rather than spending time with me? I get it. I'm a good little soldier." She gave the answering machine a mock salute and then turned away.

"To hell with it," she muttered as she plodded back to the bathroom. She didn't have time to indulge a solid dose of self-pity at the moment. She had to get to work. Later, there would be plenty of time to dive into that bucket of Mocha Mint ice cream she'd bought the night before (she knew it was her dad's favorite flavor and she'd wanted to treat him, though if she'd known he was going to stand her up, she'd have indulged her preference for Rocky Road instead).

A half hour later, feeling somewhat frenzied, Lois flung herself into the chair at her desk at the Planet. She didn't know where the wormhole between her apartment and the Daily Planet liked to hide, but she was somewhat convinced that she hit it every time she came in to work. Maybe the corner of 5th and Main was like the Bermuda Triangle, and time was just inexplicably lost there.

Across the desk, Chloe ducked her head to hide her smile behind her short blonde hair. "Cutting it a little close, aren't we?" she asked lightly as she pretended to engross herself in the papers in front of her.

Presenting an air of supreme disinterest, Lois shrugged and responded in a similar tone, "As the General always says, 'Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades.' Don't focus on the fact that I was almost late; celebrate instead the fact that I showed up at all!"

Chloe laughed and shook her head, but then, growing more serious, she leaned forward and lowered her voice to give her cousin a mild admonishment. "But don't you think you should be a little more careful? You know it wouldn't take much for Lex to decide to fire you!"

Lois rolled her eyes. "Don't be ridiculous, Chlo. It's hardly like he's been the model of fairness thus far. If Lex is going to fire me, he'll do it, regardless of whether or not I give him a reason. So why should I go out of my way to pretend to be someone I'm not? It's not like it'll make a difference."

Though she still looked worried, Chloe sighed and sat back in her chair without further argument. Considering the subject closed, Lois leaned down and grabbed her little black notebook and a CD out of her bag, throwing only the tiniest of guilty glances her companion's way. If Chloe only knew that the occasional tardiness near-miss was the least of Lois's recent sins, she'd be jumping out of her skin. Of course, she was only in the dark about that because Lois had figured it would be better for everyone involved if the Lane-Sullivan team didn't join forces on Lois's most recent adventure, but even as she reminded herself of her purely altruistic motivations, she recognized that Chloe would be highly unlikely to view matters the same way.

Unfortunately, while she'd had the best of intentions at the beginning, she'd hit something of a wall and had come to the rather unpleasant realization that she was no longer going to be able to keep the entirety of her investigation secret. She was going to need Chloe's help, but it would take all of her ingenuity to find a way to get her cousin's opinion without divulging too much about what she was getting an opinion on. Well, the task wasn't going to make itself any easier by stalling, so, bracing herself, she took a deep breath and blurted, "Chloe, I need your help with something."

This probably wasn't the best time, and this definitely wasn't the best place, but when had Lois ever let that stop her? Scooting her chair around the side of her desk, she met her cousin's curious look. "Okay, you're not going to like this…"

"Oh, I always love conversations that start with those six little words," Chloe responded with a little smile, but her curiosity was clearly piqued.

Ignoring that little jibe, Lois continued, "I've been doing a little investigating into…er, something…I've come across something sort of…strange, really, and I need your help with it." Since a complete lack of comment greeted her not-quite-impressive revelation, she set the CD aside on the desk, flipped open the pad in her hand, and glanced down at the notes she'd jotted down – a superfluous gesture, since she had them all memorized anyway. "Okay, what would you think ab-"

Just as she was about to divulge all the dirty details, a cell phone on the desk rang, cutting her off. Scowling, Chloe scooped it up and glanced at the screen. Her features grew shuttered, and she said apologetically, "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. I have to take this. Give me…give me just a minute, okay?"

Then, instead of answering the phone at her desk, Chloe jumped to her feet and raced toward the restroom instead, obviously wanting a little privacy. Lois had to admit she was definitely intrigued, but she resisted the urge to follow. True, her natural curiosity was almost irrepressible, but she usually tried to put a leash on it when it came to her friends and loved ones, and if Chloe had a new love interest that she was keeping to herself, it really wasn't Lois's place to push for answers, all things considered.

Almost ten minutes later, Chloe raced back to her desk and hurriedly scooped up her bag. As she turned with the clear intent of making a beeline for the elevator, she caught sight of the woman still patiently (if one were to define "patiently" as a relative term) waiting to continue their conversation, and her expression morphed from surprise into chagrin. "Lois, I'm sorry…I really am. But there's something I have to take care of right now. It's important. Can we finish this later?"

Quickly hiding her disappointment, Lois flipped her notebook closed and rose to her feet. "Sure thing, cuz. Don't worry about it. You need any help?" she added with a nod toward the elevator. She didn't know what had Chloe so distracted, but if it was that important to her cousin, it was that important to her.

"Er…no. Thanks, but I've got it." Chloe gave a weak smile before turning to race towards the elevator with a hastily added, "We'll talk later, okay?"

With a sigh, Lois scooted around to her side of the desk and stared morosely at her notes. None of this was making any sense, and while she needed Chloe's help with her dilemma, she didn't think she could stand to wait for it. The more digging she did, the more she felt like that she didn't really want to find what was at the bottom of the hole – but she still couldn't walk away.

The investigation had started easily enough. Lois had been chagrined, even outraged, to discover that Lex Luthor had bought out the Daily Planet, but she hadn't been terribly surprised. She'd fumed about it for a couple of days, but she hadn't really internalized what it all meant at first. And then Lex had come in and started passing out pink slips like they were going out of style in an effort to, as he put it, "remove dead wood" in the newsroom, and Lois had clued into what he was really doing. He was firing anyone who opposed him and replaced them with people who were far more amenable to the Luthor philosophy of leadership.

Frankly, Lois had been shocked that she hadn't been given one of those pink slips in the first wave that hit the news floor. She'd been floored when she didn't get a pink slip the second time around. And now that the pink slips had mostly petered out, she was just suspicious.

She didn't know why Lex was keeping her around, since he quashed at least half the stories she brought his way. The more she thought about it, the more she came to the conclusion that it was probably just so that he could have the pleasure of dangling that threat of unemployment over her head. And, yeah, she would be heartbroken if he fired her from the Daily Planet, because as much as she'd once protested that she'd never be a journalist, she'd really found a home here at this paper. But that didn't really change anything. She wasn't very good at compromising at the best of times; she certainly wasn't going to do so now by bowing and scraping to his whims, and if that meant she was going to be out of a job, so be it. She'd be heartbroken, but she'd find a way to move on, find another paper to staff.

And maybe the bullheaded Lois Lane would have let that be that and simply charged into danger head-on, clashing horns with Lex as needed until she found one of those pink pieces of paper on her desk one morning. Except that every morning, Lois was faced with a reminder of why she couldn't just leave well enough alone at the Planet, recklessly charging into the lion's den time and time again, with no thought as to the consequences. She couldn't just move on with her life and hope that things at the Planet improved and Lex was eventually ousted from his throne. No, Lois couldn't even begin to reconcile herself with the idea of just walking away from the paper, because every morning, Lois faced Chloe across her desk and recognized that there was somebody else she had to fight for.

For as long as Lois could remember, Chloe had wanted to be a reporter, and, more than that, she'd wanted to be a reporter at the Daily Planet. It had been her dream, and she'd certainly thrown herself into chasing that dream with admirable enthusiasm. And it had paid off; she'd gotten a job at the Daily Planet, and if it wasn't on one of the upper floors, there was nothing stopping her from getting there if she really wanted to.

Curiously, however, Chloe had let a lot of opportunities pass her by. Lois didn't know about all of them, but she had a feeling that Chloe had done a lot more investigating than one could tell by reading what was put down on paper. For whatever reason, however, she had decided to keep such investigations to herself, and for all Lois knew, she had good cause to do so. It didn't stop her from being a great reporter; it just meant that her trip up the ladder might take a little more time. And if that's what Chloe wanted, it certainly wasn't Lois's place to judge.

All that mattered, in Lois's mind, was that Chloe was happy with whatever path she had chosen, and Lois knew that her cousin was happy at the Planet. It was her dream, and she'd fought so hard to get there, and Lois was going to make damn sure that nobody took that away from the girl she loved like a sister.

Lex Luthor could dangle the threat of unemployment over Lois's head; she didn't care. But she'd also sworn that he was going to have to get through her if he planned on doing the same to her cousin. Lois would be damned if she let Lex Luthor, of all people, take away everything Chloe had fought so long to have. Lois would be heartbroken if she had to move on past the Planet; Chloe would be destroyed. And Lois was not – was not – going to let that happen.

So she'd begun to do a little digging into the sudden acquisition of the Planet, and she had to admit that her early efforts produced little of value. Sure, he'd bought out the Planet, but there had been nothing to suggest that he'd done so by underhanded means. He'd paid a fair price for it, and the Board of Directors had all unanimously voted to sell out to him. Nothing particularly noteworthy there.

Not one to be discouraged by the first roadblock in her path, Lois had then begun to do a little more digging into each of the previous members of the Board, looking for any evidence that their votes had been attained by threats or coercion. Again, she'd come up with very little, and nothing concrete. It didn't help that almost nobody was willing to talk to her.

And then she thought of the rumor she'd heard about Grant's sudden departure from the Planet. She'd not given it much thought to that point, other than to be somewhat relieved to see him go. He was a good guy, and a good editor, but he was also a piece of her past that she was more than happy to put behind her. Her rebound from Oliver Queen, it hurt every time she thought of him because it recalled both spectacularly failed relationships to mind and just rubbed salt in an old wound. Besides, the rumor was that he got a cushy job over in Europe – London or someplace like that – so it wasn't like there was a lot of cause to grieve over the goodbyes that weren't said.

There was, however, that one little rumor that had reached her ears, saying that the night before Grant had shipped off for his Great European Adventure, there had been something of a scene between him and Lex that had been witnessed by one of the staff couriers. Since stories were always embellished with every recounting, to hear some people tell it, Grant and Lex were exchanging punches on the news room floor. Lois didn't really believe that, but regardless, there was reason to believe that there was bad blood between the Planet's new owner and its previous Editor in Chief. So Lois thought she'd track down her old flame at his cushy and no-doubt exciting new job and see if maybe he could shed some light on the situation. If he'd gotten the same type of threat the she suspected the Board members had received, it wouldn't be enough to prove the story but it would be something at least.

She'd figured it would take a day, two tops, for her to get a hold of Grant and weasel the information she wanted out of him. Almost a month later, however, she not only hadn't managed to track him down, she'd realized she had had stumbled onto a much bigger story than the one she'd originally been investigating. With everything she'd found (or, rather, not found), if it weren't for the fact that she'd known him personally, she'd have thought Grant Gabriel had never really existed.

It wasn't just that she couldn't seem to track his cushy new job down; the more she looked into it, the more she realized that the information that had been leaked about said job had been curiously lacking in detail. Nobody knew where he'd transferred to – except for maybe Lex, and it was a good bet he wasn't going to talk.

Of course, Grant wasn't at his old apartment, but when Lois had bribed Steve the Doorman (who had held out until she paid him almost her entire weekly salary), she'd been informed that the tenant had vacated the premises suddenly and without notice. Some movers had just shown up at his apartment in the middle of the night a few weeks ago, packed all of his stuff, dropped off a check to cover the rest of the lease, and hauled everything away.

His utilities had all been shut off and paid up around the same time, and his mail service was terminated without a forwarding address. It went without saying that he'd left nothing behind at the Planet. So, mildly annoyed that he was making it so difficult for her, Lois had started to do a little digging to see if she couldn't track him down. He'd been somewhat high-profile when he'd worked at the Daily Planet, being the youngest Editor in Chief of the paper's history. She doubted he would remain all that anonymous overseas.

But, curiously enough, he had. Lois had been unable to find anything anywhere that heralded Grant Gabriel as the newest member of a newspaper's team. There were no announcements to proclaim any new initiative he'd put forth or any new award for which he was in the running. No matter where she looked, or how much she dug, there was nothing.

Her curiosity definitely ignited, Lois had decided that, if she couldn't determine where he was going, she'd look to see where he'd been. Of course, she was nowhere near as savvy with computers as Chloe was, but even with her lackluster technological skills, she realized that there was something seriously wrong. Oh, sure, she could find information about him, but the more digging she did, the more she realized that there was nothing behind all of those facts and statistics. The high school from which he'd supposedly graduated no longer had any record of his attendance, and neither did his college. Though she did get in touch with two of his previous employers and they'd divulged a little information, they'd also grown suspiciously defensive with every probing question that she'd asked until they finally declared that they had nothing else to say and hung up on her.

It was strange, but she had realized that it was almost like Grant's entire life was a façade. But if that was true, then why? And how? And who would perpetuate such a deception? She supposed Grant could have been in the Witness Protection Program, but she just didn't think that was the answer. For one thing, the Feds would have probably been better at covering their tracks, and if they weren't, then she probably would have already had the pleasure of a visit from a man with a badge, a weapon, and a not-so-subtle suggestion that she drop her investigation immediately.

No, the fact of the matter was that she hadn't found anything because there didn't seem to be anything to find. With absolutely nothing left to go on, she'd begun to look into the night that, for all intents and purposes, he had disappeared. The night of his fight with Lex. She'd talked to the courier, who described the actual scene that he had witnessed (or, at least, as close as he could really remember), and while things hadn't escalated to the extent that rumor would have it, it was also very clear that there was no love lost between the two men.

So she'd gone back to Grant's old apartment, and after forking over another week's salary, she was told that the last night Steve had seen Mr. Gabriel, he'd left the building at about quarter after nine and gotten into the back seat of a limousine. While Steve had overheard Grant greet someone who was already in the vehicle, he didn't know who it was. Neither did he remember the license plate.

Unwilling to let go of her one possible lead, Lois had done everything in her power to try to get a hold of the apartment building's security footage to see if one of its outside cameras had caught a glimpse of the license plate she needed. She'd hit a bit of a wall there, however, because Grant had lived in one of the nicest apartment complexes in town, and they didn't give over their security footage to anybody with a press pass and a smile. No, Lois had been forced to take other action. One craftily (if hastily) planned distraction and an act of dubious legality later, Lois had "liberated" the CD containing the security footage for the night in question, and her possible lead had become a solid one.

With a glance over her shoulder to make sure nobody was watching, Lois slipped the disc in question into the drive on her laptop and watched the footage play out in front of her eyes for the hundredth time. As the doorman had described, she watched Grant walk out of his building and climb into a limousine that then pulled away from the curb and drove off. Though Lois had searched the remaining footage on the disc, there wasn't any showing his return to the building, so either he'd disappeared for good that night or he'd spent the evening elsewhere.

Unfortunately, no matter how many times she watched the security footage, she couldn't quite make out the license plate, and to enhance it would require a level of techno-savvy that was just beyond her capabilities. And, thus, she'd been hoping to get Chloe's help. That was clearly a bust for the time being, however so Lois began to try to think of anyone else she knew who might be able to lend her a hand in the interim.

Jimmy was pretty good with computers, but he was out on assignment. Kara might be able to help, but she was in Smallville, and there was no reason for Lois to ask her to make the long trip to Metropolis, since Chloe would probably be back from her errand long before the younger girl could make the journey. Tapping her fingers irritably on the desk, Lois cycled through everyone she knew who might have the ability to help her, but just as quickly, she eliminated them all until only one name remained.

She didn't want to do it. No, she really didn't want to do it. If it were anything else, she probably wouldn't. She'd sit back and wait for Chloe to return, and then she'd find a way to put a damper on her cousin's journalistic instincts and continue to pursue the story. Except that Lois had realized somewhere between talking to Grant's old bosses and liberating the security footage from the apartment building (she'd have to remember to get that back to them someday, when she was done using it) that there was something seriously wrong here, and it went beyond the acquisition of the paper. Someone had taken a lot of time and trouble to make what she could only believe was a false history for the previous editor at the Daily Planet, and she didn't doubt that the moment they realized she was on to them, they'd do whatever it took to cover their tracks.

What scared her most of all, however, wasn't her last boyfriend's false past but the complete lack of information she'd found on his future. With a sinking feeling, she'd long ago begun to suspect that if she ever did manage to track down Grant, she wouldn't find him alive.

The thought of that galvanized her into action. She may not want to go to Oliver Queen for help, considering their history, but considering what he did when he was moonlighting, she couldn't ignore the fact that he was capable of giving her the information she needed. Her personal feelings couldn't stand in the way of what had to be done. She didn't know what Grant's real story was, but if the reason why he'd disappeared so suddenly was that he'd been killed, she wanted to find out who had done it. She'd cared about Grant, even though she'd known it would never last between them. She wasn't just going to let somebody cover up his very existence now and hope the world would forget him. What had started off as a desperate gamble to protect her cousin's job had turned into so much more.

Slipping her notebook and CD into her bag, Lois got to her feet and walked briskly toward the elevators. It was time to pay her old flame a visit.

"Hey Ollie!" she muttered to herself as the elevator began its slow ascent. "I hope this isn't a bad time, but I need a favor. No. Um…I know this is awkward, but I was wondering if I could get your help with so…no." She sighed. "Geez, Lois. Why don't you just say something like 'I know the last time I saw you, I broke your heart and told you it would never work out between the two of us, but can we just put that in the past because I need some help?' Brilliant."

Long before Lois was ready for it to happen, the elevator hit the top floor and Lois stepped off, ready to meet what was bound to be a highly uncomfortable encounter head-on. What she didn't expect, however, was what she found in the middle of Oliver's living room.

"Well, well, well. Look at what the cat dragged in," a snide voice said as a tall woman with long brown hair rose to her feet and threw Lois a scathing look. "And here I was hoping I'd seen the last of you."

Though she was momentarily thrown, Lois recovered enough to retort, "Then I guess that makes two of us who are disappointed." She was about to ask what the die-hard conservative Dinah Lance could possibly be doing in the very liberal Oliver Queen's apartment when their not-so-cozy tete-a-tete was interrupted by two men who walked into the room.

"Hey, beautiful. Now you're a sight for sore eyes," the tall blonde said warmly in greeting, and Lois turned in surprise to hear a voice that she'd never thought she'd ever hear again.

"A.C.? What are you…?" she began in amazement, but Dinah cut her off with a harsh bark of laughter.

"Don't tell me…you, too? Is there anyone in this group who hasn't dated the not-so-lovely Ms. Lane?" she asked scathingly. From the position on the couch where A.C.'s companion had retreated, he raised his hand somewhat tentatively, as if he wasn't entirely sure the question wasn't rhetorical. After a moment, he hastily put it down and threw Lois a guilty look.

Lois rolled her eyes, but even though she wanted to retort with some sort of pithy reply that would wipe that superior smile off Dinah's face, she latched on to the enigmatic part of the statement instead. "Group. What do you mean, group?" she asked curiously, gazing expectantly at A.C., who suddenly looked distinctly uncomfortable.

"Well, I…uh…I'm not quite sure…" he began lamely.

If Lois thought her day couldn't get any more surreal or confusing, she was about to be proven wrong. Of course, she was not terribly surprised when Oliver walked into the room from somewhere in the rear of the apartment. She was, however, stunned to see that her cousin was accompanying him. They didn't recognize her distress immediately, however, because they were lost in conversation.

"…se I understand. Take your time and think about it," Oliver was saying. "But your help has been invaluable in the last few months, and I really think together we can make a difference."

Chloe looked completely entranced in the conversation as she replied, "I know, and I don't want you to think that I'm not grateful for this amazing opportunity. It's just that I've got…Lois!" This last word was said in a combination of surprise and chagrin, as Chloe finally turned her head to see the woman in question standing in the middle of the room and staring at her with her mouth agape.

"Chloe?" Lois replied stupidly. "But I don't…what are you doing here?"

Instead of answering right away, Chloe's eyes darted between her cousin and the man at her side, and she scooted away from him quickly as if she was afraid Lois would get the wrong impression. Or maybe the right one. Lois honestly didn't know. "I…uh…well, Oliver called and he needed some help with his…his computers. They had…um…a virus, and he…"

"He thought he'd call you to have you come racing across town instead of taking his computer into the Geek Squad?" Lois finished, her voice rife with skepticism. "Come on, Chlo. Pull the other one."

Oliver clearly thought it was time to send out a life line, though it wasn't entirely certain who he was trying to save when he said, "She came to help the Green Arrow with some information he needed on Lex Luthor's latest plan."

A five second pause followed bombshell, which had been spoken with deceptive calm. Finally, both of the cousins spoke together. "She knows?" they demanded before turning to look at each other and saying, again in unison, "You know?"

"Wow," Dinah said with acerbic amusement. "It's like a Doublemint gum commercial in here, isn't it?" Nobody responded to her rhetorical question, though Oliver did throw her an unamused glance.

Finally, Chloe sighed. "I'm sorry, Lois. I didn't mean to keep this from you, but it really wasn't my place to say anything. I've been freelancing for Oliver and Company for a while now, doing various acts of computer interception on his behalf."

Lois frowned. "Oliver and Company? You mean…you guys are all…er…" Her voice trailed to a halt, as she honestly had no idea how to finish that sentence.

"Superheroes?" Dinah supplied. Chloe offered a weak smile in response but she didn't say anything else.

Still scrambling to catch up, Lois turned to look at Oliver and said, "Okay, so you like to dress up in green leather and play with a compound bow." Then she turned to look at A.C. "What about you?"

That just-a-bit-too-cocky smile of his that she remembered greeted her question. "I told you, I swim really fast."

Lois rolled her eyes and turned to the boy who'd raised his hand earlier. "And you?"

He still looked distinctly uncomfortable, but there was also a little cockiness in his voice when he explained, "I run really fast." Clearly, not only did everyone in the group have a special ability, they were all very proud of that fact. Then, after a second's pause, he seemed to realize that Lois was curious about Dinah's ability but would rather chew broken glass than ask her about it, so he volunteered, "And she has a sonic scream that can shatter glass."

Okay, so the situation wasn't all that funny, but still, Lois couldn't quite suppress her snort of laughter. "I should have figured," she said wryly.

"Yeah, it's too bad we don't have need of someone who can nag someone to death or we'd ask you to join up!" Dinah interjected, clearly affronted at Lois's display of humor.

"Hey, that's not –" Chloe began in defense of her cousin, but Lois cut her off.

"Forget about it, Chlo. Dinah's wit is a lot like her personality. Both are strangely lacking. And as fascinating as all this is, it still doesn't explain what you're doing here. Last I checked, cuz, you're an amazing girl, but you haven't exactly been moonlighting in primary colored leather."

An awkward silence fell in the room as Chloe and Oliver exchanged silent glances that seemed to speak volumes for someone who knew the pertinent subtext. Chloe seemed to be beseeching him for help, while he seemed intent on letting her divulge as much or as little as she wanted. Finally, Chloe admitted slowly, "I…Like I said, I've been helping out with some computer stuff, and…" she paused and took a deep breath before blurting so quickly that all of her words ran together until they became undistinguishable, "He'saofferedmeajobinStarCity IthinkI'mgonnatakeit."

Lois's jaw dropped. "You're…you're what?" she asked softly. She wasn't used to being taken by surprise so often in such a short period of time, but it would figure that if anyone could do it, Chloe could. The rest of the people in the room might not have existed, for all Lois realized they were there at the moment.

Her face flushing, Chloe explained more slowly, "Oliver offered me a job in Star City. He wants me to help out the team on a regular basis, and…and I think I'm going to take it."

Swallowing heavily, Lois asked softly, "When do you think you're going to go?"

The petite blonde didn't quite meet her eyes as she answered so quietly that her cousin had to strain to hear the words, "I haven't decided yet, but Oliver thought I could be all moved in by the end of the week if I agreed to his offer."

"But…But I don't understand," Lois said, hating herself for the petulant note in her voice. But it just wasn't fair! How could Chloe spring something like this on her? How could Chloe just decide to leave her without warning? Had she even planned on giving her cousin – and roommate – the honor of a goodbye? But still, even though Lois wanted nothing more than to ask these questions, she knew she never would. Maybe if she'd heard the news in another way, she might have found a way to broach the subject, but it certainly wouldn't happen now. She was hurt, and as she usually did when she was hurt by something, she deflected it off of herself. "The Daily Planet…it's…it's your dream job! It's always been your dream job! How can you just…how can you just leave like that?"

Chloe grimaced. "Well, it was my dream job. But, Lois, things have changed! Lex Luthor bought out the Planet, and…"

"But I'm looking into that!" Lois interjected desperately. "I'm not going to let him fire you, Chlo, I promise you!"

"Lex isn't why I'm leaving!" Chloe exclaimed, causing her companion to fall into a shocked silence again, long enough so that she could explain, "I'm not leaving because of Lex. I'm leaving because…Lois, I've realized that there's this great big world out there, full of people who need help, and I may be the only one who can do it! I know…I can't make you understand, but don't you see? There's something I can do, and maybe nobody else can do it. Or maybe somewhere there's someone else who can, but they aren't doing it!"

She took another deep breath and chewed on her lower lip for a moment, clearly searching for the words to explain how she felt. In the silence, Lois asked with a hint of bewilderment, "Because you can work with computers?"

Behind her, she heard Dinah start to speak, but she fell silent again at a sharp look from Oliver. Finally, Chloe spoke again in a calmer tone. "Yes. No. I don't…I can't explain it. But this is something I need to do, Lois. Can't you…?" She trailed off. Then, in a desperate voice, she said, "I thought if anyone would understand, it would be you."

"I know you'll understand." General Lane's words came back to haunt his eldest daughter, and she reacted just as she had that morning. Old habits die hard. Pretending that she did in fact understand and accepted what Chloe had told her, Lois straightened, unconsciously assuming the parade rest position. She all but saluted when she said with false sincerity. "Of course. I understand."

She was miserable, but she didn't want her cousin to see it – and if anyone could see beneath Lois's façade, it was Chloe. No, this was what her baby cousin wanted. This was what she had decided would make her happy. Who was Lois to detract from that or stand in her way? "Um…okay, well…I guess I should leave you guys to…uh…work out the details. I should go," she said abruptly as she whirled on her heel and bolted toward the elevator.

"Lois!" Chloe exclaimed from behind her, trying to call her back, trying to explain. Maybe Lois hadn't hidden her emotions as well as she'd thought.

Pausing, Lois turned slowly to meet Chloe's eyes. Laying aside the sorrow and loneliness she'd already begun to feel, she said with genuine sincerity this time, "Really, Chloe. It's okay. You should do this! If you think you can…if you can make a difference, then you should! I'm happy for you, baby. And I'll be fine!"

Somewhat reassured, Chloe nodded and Lois turned to leave once more. As the elevator doors closed behind her, she heard Dinah's familiar acerbic tone ask, "Geez, can anyone stand to be around that girl for long?" Though a number of voices rose in Lois's defense, the woman in question was no longer around to hear them.

The rest of the day was spent in a haze as Lois tried to come to grips with the fact that Chloe might be gone in less than a week. Of course, it wasn't like the two girls would never see each other. Chloe was moving away; she wasn't dying. But, still, Lois had been spoiled at having her favorite person in the whole world so near. Chloe was everything to her, more of a sister than her own. She was happy that her cousin had found something that was clearly going to make her happy, but Lois selfishly just didn't know how she'd live without her.

When she finally returned to her quiet apartment that night, it was with a heavy sigh of relief. She no longer had to pretend like everything was okay, though she supposed in retrospect that her acting skills in that regard hadn't exactly been up to par. She certainly hadn't pursued her stories with the same tenacity she generally did. Even when she threw all caution to the wind and confronted Lex about Grant's disappearance, her performance was distinctly lackluster.

But, still, the day was over, and a third of a pint of Mocha Mint ice cream later, Lois went to bed.

Lois didn't know how many hours later she awoke with the distinct impression that something was wrong, but it didn't take her long to realize that her instincts were right. Coming rather blearily back to consciousness, Lois coughed and struggled to catch her breath through the thick smoke that filled the air. Jerking into a sitting position, she looked around wildly, trying to catch her bearings.

Her bedroom was hot, easily fifteen degrees hotter than it had been when she'd turned in for the night. Thick black smoke filled the air, and a bright light shining under the bedroom door confirmed what Lois already suspected. The apartment was on fire.

As she rolled out of bed and hit the ground heavily, trying to find a clear patch of air with which to fill her lungs, a tiny voice in the back of her mind wondered why none of the smoke detectors had sounded off. When Chloe had moved in, she'd begun an aggressive campaign to make Lois's life a little less risky by improving the safety of the apartment (starting with reminding Lois to lock the doors every night, something Lois had sometimes failed to do in the past). As part of her campaign, Chloe had installed no fewer than two new smoke detectors. Neither of them were audible now.

Considering the situation, now was hardly the time to worry about it, however. Instead Lois made her way over to her bedroom window, where she hoped to climb out onto her ledge and find some method of scaling the side of the building to get to the street. Her hands were on the window glass, however, when she paused and looked at the door behind her. Chloe normally slept on the couch in the living room, and though Lois was pretty sure she'd planned on spending the next few nights elsewhere while the General was in town, it was entirely possible that Chloe's plans had changed. There was no way Lois could leave until she knew that Chloe wasn't out in the living room, trapped in the fire.

Dropping to the ground again, Lois crab walked her way to the door, stopping every few seconds to cough she her lungs screamed for air. The smoke had thickened in the bedroom, making it difficult to see and almost impossible to breath, but Lois knew this apartment like the back of her hand. When she reached her bedroom door, she wracked her brain in an attempt to remember all her fire safety tips. Then she slowly placed one hand on the wood panel, testing for heat.

The door was hot, but not unbearably so, so it was possible that it wouldn't be immediately deadly for her to open it. Of course, she'd seen the movie Backdraft and she knew that bad things could happen as soon as she opened this portal to the living room, but since she didn't really know anything about how fires worked, she had no idea how to prevent such a thing from happening. And even if a backdraft – however such a thing was caused – was certain to occur, she probably would still open the door. No, if there was even the slightest chance that Chloe's life could be in danger, Lois would definitely open the door, to hell with the risk.

Rising to her knees, she grabbed one of her t-shirts off the floor where it had been hastily discarded days ago and wrapped it around her hand so that she could grab hold of the metal knob and turn it. As the door fell open, she fell to the ground again and tried to peer into the other room.

Though the heat of the fire slammed into her, causing her to recoil instinctively, and her eyes burned from the smoke, she squinted and tried to see into the room. It was useless; she couldn't see anything. It was perhaps a little comforting because she didn't hear Chloe crying out for help, but that didn't really mean anything. Lois refused to even think about the possibility that Chloe had died already from the fire itself, but it was still possible she had passed out from smoke inhalation. Considering Lois had at least had the meager protection of a door between herself and the flames and she didn't feel all that far from passing out herself, the odds that Chloe might have already lost consciousness were good indeed.

"Chloe?" she called as loud as she could and then had to pause for a few minutes as another cough overtook her. This was taking too long; she had to hurry. Even though her vision was obscured, she could see that most of the room before her had already succumbed to the flames.

Rising quickly to her feet, Lois pressed her t-shirt to her mouth and darted into the room. "Chloe! CHLOE!" She called her cousin's name repeatedly, but there was no answer. Having finally made her way into the center of the room, she had to lurch to the side as part of the ceiling caved in, dropping fiery bits of wood and plaster between Lois and her bedroom exit.

"Come on, Chloe baby…please tell me you're not here," Lois muttered to herself as she ducked and raced forward, heading for the sofa. When she finally was close enough to get a look at the piece of furniture Chloe generally used for a bed, she saw that it had been engulfed in flames but seemed to be empty. At least, there was no charred figure on top to indicate that her cousin had been caught in the fire.

Lois would have breathed a heavy sigh of relief if she could have found the air, but there just wasn't enough of it left. Her body wracked with coughs that just wouldn't stop, she tried to duck down close to the ground to get her bearings and try to find an exit, but it was just no use. She couldn't see, but, worse, she couldn't breathe.

On her hands and knees, she tried to make her way back to her bedroom, but her brain had grown strangely fuzzy and she couldn't seem to find her bearings. Stumbling forward, she tried to remember her way to the nearest exit as her body desperately fought to breathe.

It was too late, though; the smoke was too much. She'd known she was in trouble before she'd even started, of course, when she left her only means of escape behind. But, even knowing that there was a good chance she wasn't going to leave the living room alive if she ventured into it, Lois also knew that there had never really been a question of whether or not she should do so. There was just no way that she could ever have fled from the apartment with even the slightest bit of uncertainty that she was leaving someone behind.

But Chloe wasn't home. She was safe. And that was all that mattered as Lois lost her battle for consciousness and crumpled on the floor in a heap.

"…ois, it's okay. I'm going to get you out of here! You're going to be okay." She heard the reassuring words as if through a fog, but it was hard to focus. She tried to concentrate on the sound of the voice, though she couldn't quite place through her haze. Of course, if her savior really wanted to reassure her that she would survive, he could endeavor to sound a little less relieved at his own news. It was hardly confidence inspiring.

Maybe she'd bring that up later, because for now, even with the searing heat all around her, she felt safe. There was some rough fabric under her fingers, and she clutched it and rubbed her cheek against its coarse texture as she tried to come back to reality long enough to thank her unknown savior. She didn't know how he planned on getting her out of the fire, but…

But then she swore she felt the world fall away as the cold outside air embraced her and she lifted high, high…flying away from the fire and the fear and the certain death that had awaited her. So perhaps it was a dream after all, she thought. But, oh, what a lovely dream it had been; she was loathe to wake up. So rather than return to consciousness to find her world collapsing around her and her death imminent and unavoidable, she gave herself over again to the unconsciousness. If these were, in fact, to be her last few moments on Earth, she'd much rather they be spent in such a wonderful fantasy, safe in this man's arms.

A tiny frown creased her forehead when an idle thought struck her as she fell into the blackness once more. Was it possible that her make-believe rescuer wore a red cape?

"Lois? LOIS! Are you okay? Come on, Lois, open your eyes!" Lois heard the voice desperately entreat dimly, as if it were coming from far away, but it took her a moment to place it.

"Chlo?" she asked weakly, finding it hard to speak around the hard piece of plastic that was placed over her mouth. "'Zat you?"

The pressure around her mouth eased, and as her eyes fluttered open, she saw her cousin hovering above her, tear flowing down her cheeks. "Oh, god, Lois…Don't scare me like that, cuz! I thought I'd lost you!" the younger girl admonished shakily as she wrapped her arms around the woman lying on the gurney.

Her eyes darting around quickly as she weakly returned the embrace, Lois tried to get her bearings. What had happened? The last thing she remembered, she'd been in her living room, desperate to make sure Chloe wasn't sleeping on the couch. And then…and then…well, she'd had the most wonderful dream, about a man who had saved her life. And it had been a dream, hadn't it?

Finally, her gaze stopped on something. Clark Kent was standing a few feet away, concern and relief battling behind his eyes as he looked at the two women before him. Though her brain was still a bit fuzzy, she noticed that his shirt and coat were blacked, covered in soot, and marked by charred holes, as if he'd been…but he couldn't have…there was no way he could have gone into that fire and rescued her, was there? Frowning, she managed to force the words out from a throat that felt raw, "Clark, you didn't…?" Before she could ask him what he had or hadn't done, however, the EMT's resumed their checkup of her, and she no longer had the chance.

She didn't know how long she was examined in the back of the ambulance, but she was feeling slightly stronger by the time the EMTs let her go. She had suffered from some bad smoke inhalation, but it was nothing permanent. More than once, her companions remarked how amazing it was she'd managed to get out of the fire alive, and though she'd agreed with them, she couldn't exactly explain how she'd done it. She certainly didn't remember making her way downstairs and outside, but clearly she'd somehow managed to do so because Clark and Chloe said that they'd found her lying on the sidewalk when they'd come by to see how she was doing in light of the news she'd received that day. Then, when she'd asked about Clark's appearance, he'd explained that he'd tried to go into the Talon to make sure that nobody else was inside (though who exactly he'd been expecting to find was still somewhat vague) but had been forced to make his way back outside before he'd even made it upstairs.

And Lois could certainly believe that; the Talon was a total loss. By the time the fire department had arrived, the fire had spread throughout the building, and they'd had a fight on their hands to keep it from spreading to the surrounding area. More than once, she'd heard someone mutter the word "arson" but she was too tired and too weak to really worry about that at the moment. That was an investigation for tomorrow.

Unfortunately, at the moment, she was left with no place to go and no material possession left in the world except her car (but no keys, as they had been in her purse that had probably melted to her dresser long ago) and the kitty pajamas that she currently wore. Even Harold and Maude, her bunny slippers, had been burned to a cinder. Strangely, it the thought of how she'd never wear those stupid bunny slippers again and not the realization that she'd lost every other possession she owned in the world that brought tears to her eyes.

But she was alive, and, more importantly, so was Chloe. As Clark went to ask a few questions of the police officers on the scene, Chloe and Lois tried to figure out what to do next. There was definitely an awkward moment as they tried to decide where to go, since they no longer had a home and there wasn't a lot of room at the Kent Farm. However, when one of very nice firefighters on the scene suggested a local shelter where they could spend the night, they balked. Instead, Chloe suggested that Oliver would no doubt put the two girls up for as many nights as they needed, but although Lois knew that her ex would indeed have no compunction about doing so – it was one of the things she had loved about him – she still couldn't quite get up the nerve to impose herself upon him. It had been painful enough almost asking him a favor that afternoon. She really didn't think that she was up for crashing on his couch, particularly since she'd gotten a feeling from the distinctly jealous snark in Dinah's voice earlier that day that another woman was currently sharing his bed.

"Don't worry about it, Chloe. I've got plenty of friends who can put me up for a few days! I'll manage!" she said with false optimism.

"What are you guys talking about?" Clark asked as he walked up to the two of them. Out of the corner of her eye, Lois could have sworn she saw him reach for her hand, but when she turned to look at him, she saw him thrust his hands in his pockets as he refused to meet her eyes.

While Lois raced to cover, Chloe confessed, "Lois and I were just arguing about where she's going to spend the next few days or weeks or months, now that she's homeless," she offered with a distinct note of exasperation in her voice.

"She's staying with me, of course," Clark responded, somehow managing to sound both like his statement went beyond saying and like he was rather confused why there'd even been an issue to begin with.

Lois rolled her eyes. "Clark, don't be ridiculous. You can't possibly expect me to stay at the farm when…"

"Lois, don't even argue about this," he interrupted her, yanking his hands out of his pockets so he could cross his arms over his chest. Maybe if she got a rejoinder in before he could…no, it was too late. His jaw was set at a stubborn angle, and that meant there would be no arguing with him. "You're staying at the house until you're back on your feet and that's final," he said implacably.

If Lois weren't glaring daggers at her male companion, she might have noticed the quick look Chloe shot between the two of them. "Okay, then!" the bystander to the argument interjected a tad too brightly. "I guess we've got that all figured out, so I guess I'd better go."

It took about ten minutes for them all to say their goodbyes, but somehow, Lois eventually found herself bundled up in the cab of Clark's truck, though it was definitely against her will. She didn't know why she felt so irritated at the moment. It was an exceedingly kind gesture on Clark's part, and it wasn't like she had a slew of other options. But, still, she didn't know that she could stomach an indefinite amount of watching Clark and Lana cuddle before her eyes. She was happy for them that they'd found happiness, of course (she reminded herself hastily), but that didn't mean she necessarily wanted to see it.

The trip passed in strained silence, therefore, as Lois tried to find a graceful way of informing her companion that she'd really much rather stay at the shelter than watch the Clark/Lana Lovefest. She was so engrossed in her thoughts, in fact, that it took her a few moments to note the almost eerie silence that greeted the two of them when they finally made it back to the house and walked inside.

"Where's Lana?" Lois demanded a bit stridently as she turned to Clark with a frown. When she realized, after a moment, that her demand had been perhaps a bit inappropriately forceful under the circumstances, she cleared her throat and amended in what she hoped was a more reasonable tone, "I mean…uh…I just expected to see her here is all."

Clark didn't look at her as he walked past her and into the house, pausing only briefly to flick on the lights. "She went to her aunt's house," he said a bit too nonchalantly.

With a small frown creasing her brow, Lois asked as gently as she could, "When did that happen?"

When her companion turned to look at her, he had a small smile on his face. "Don't worry about it, Lois; she didn't leave because of you. She went to go visit her aunt a couple days ago. They don't see each other very often, you know. She was supposed to stay for a couple of weeks, but I gave her a call earlier and told her about what happened to you, and she offered to stay with her aunt until you get back on your feet."

Feeling like there was something she was missing in this entire exchange, Lois said lamely, "Er…well, that's very nice of her. She didn't have to move out just because I'm staying here for the night."

"A couple of weeks," Clark interjected argumentatively.

"A few days," she amended, glaring at him challengingly.

He arched an eyebrow in response, clearly not put off by the fierceness in her expression. "A few months, maybe," he shot back.

"Oh, in your dreams, Smallville!" Lois scoffed, but she couldn't help but smile. Trust Clark to be a pain in her ass, even when he was doing something incredibly generous. Of course, he was trying to get a rise out of her, but the offer was still there, underneath their bantering. She was free to stay as long as was necessarily, or as long as she wished.

Feeling slightly abashed about her previous attitude, she muttered lamely, "Anyway…thanks. I mean, I know you didn't have to do this or anything but…I appreciate it."

Clark looked uncomfortable for about three seconds, and then he arched his eyebrows and gave her an exaggerated look of astonishment. "Wait a minute, was that a 'thank you' I just heard? From Lois Lane of all people?" Making a big production out of racing to the kitchen to look at the calendar that hung on the wall, he grabbed a pen off the nearby counter and frowned at the sheet in front of him. "What's the date? I need to write this down. 'Lois Lane apologized to Clark Kent on this date.' Maybe I can convince the President to commemorate the moment. Maybe we can have some sort of national holiday. Hold on, let me call my mom to see if she can help me out." And then he turned, scooped up the cordless phone, and began to dial a series of numbers.

Lois followed him, rolling her eyes at his back, and crossed her arms over her chest. "Ha ha. Very funny."

Pausing, Clark looked up from his task, and this time, he had an exaggerated look of alarm on his face. "Or…wait…isn't that one of the seven signs of the Apocalypse? Right there with plagues of locusts and…and…uh…"

"Rivers of blood? Pestilence and boils?" Lois offered with a bemused smile. "And…wait…are you actually equating an apology from me to a plague of locusts?"

Pursing his lips, Clark frowned. "Hm…maybe you're right. I guess a simple apology isn't quite severe enough to count as one of the seven signs. Maybe if you told me that I was your hero and you have no idea what you'd do without me…?" He made the suggestion in a faintly hopeful tone, as if he had a chance in hell that she might actually do so. When Lois arched her eyebrows in response, he shook his head regretfully. "No…I guess it'll have to be the national holiday after all." And then he resumed his dialing.

It took Lois about three seconds to realize that Clark wasn't just dialing a random sequence of numbers, like she'd thought. No, he actually appeared to be dialing a real phone number! The rat! He was actually calling his mom!

"Clark, give me that phone!" Lois screeched as she catapulted forward and tried to snatch the phone out of his hand. Normally, she wouldn't mind a conversation with Mrs. Kent, but given Clark's mood right now, he'd probably do something to completely humiliate her.

Damn him, what the hell did he eat for breakfast that made him so tall and solid? He easily lifted the phone out of her reach, and even as she wrapped her arms around him and tried to grab the phone, he put it in the near vicinity of his ear and shouted, "Hey, Mom! You'll never guess who's here! Oof! Lois, would you let go of me for a second? You'll never believe this, but she just told me that I'm her hero and that she…"

"Don't listen to him, Mrs. Kent!" she bellowed right in his ear as she gave a small hop, coupled with a lurch to the left, that might have actually taken her down if she didn't have a strangle hold on the neck of Clark's shirt. He made a choking sound in response to her antics, so while he was distracted, she wrapped her arm around his neck and jumped, wrapping her legs around his waist from behind. She'd been hoping her move would accomplish the dual benefits of taking him by surprise while minimizing the height advantage he had on her, but, frustratingly, Clark still managed to retain possession of the phone.

"Lois!" Clark cried through a bark of laughter as her sudden addition of weight momentarily unbalanced him and he staggered backward a couple of steps, though he still managed to keep the phone just out of her reach, no matter how hard or how desperately she stretched for it. "Would you at least let me breathe a little? And I know you've had a crush on me for years, but don't you think we should take it a little slower?"

At the very thought that Clark's mom might have overheard Clark's jibe about her completely nonexistent crush, Lois let out a screech that very nearly shattered glass. "Mrs. Ke…Don't…He isn't…I DO NOT HAVE A CRUSH ON YOU, YOU DERANGED LUNATIC!" she bellowed finally, and if the grip around his neck grew ever so slightly tighter as she made another desperate lunge for the phone, clearly only Clark was to blame.

Finally, she managed to get her hand on the phone, though that could have been because Clark wasn't really paying attention to what he was doing any longer. In fact, he was having trouble breathing at that point, though whether that was because of the death grip she had on his neck or the fact that he was laughing so hard that Lois was afraid he'd topple over and take the both of them down, she couldn't say.

Feeling victorious, Lois brought the phone to her ear, an apology for Clark's lunacy right on the tip of her tongue. "Mrs. Kent, really, you shouldn't listen to a word he says. You know, I've said for years that fresh air is really bad for a person. It's clearly gone to his he…"

Mid-sentence, the words coming through the phone penetrated her consciousness and she listened in disbelief as the computerized voice said, "…uary thirteenth, 2008. The time is eleven for…"

"Date and time?" she asked, stunned. "You got me all worked up because I thought your mom was on the line, and you were really calling DATE AND TIME?"

Clark chortled. He actually had the audacity to chortle! Her eyes narrowed as she stared at the back of his earlobe, wondering how he'd react if she gave it a good solid flick. "I did need to find out the date, if I was going to commemorate this moment." While she spluttered in indignation, he laughed. "So, if you're no longer tempted to strangle me to death, are you thinking on getting down any time soon?"

"Who says I'm no longer tempted?" Lois snarled with false venom. Oh, sure, he definitely still needed punishment for the dirty trick he'd played, but now she had a more important problem to worry about. How the heck was she going to retain her dignity when she climbed off of him?

Clearly, only a threat would do. If she kept him on the defensive, maybe he'd not notice as she threw away her dignity with both hands. Scrambling down off his back, she huffed, "Just you wait. On your next phone bill, you're going to series of long-distance calls to Australia."

"As if there's anyone there willing to take your call," he scoffed, though his insult was lessened considerably by the warm smile he threw her way.

The look in his eyes disconcerted her; it was like their conversation was now filled with subtext that she had no idea how to interpret. And, unfortunately, unlike Wating for Godot, there were no Cliff's Notes she could reference in order to muddle her way through. Not wanting him to realize she was off her game, she sniffed in a superior fashion and drawled. "Hardly your best effort, Smallville."

About two seconds too late, Lois's eyes widened as she realized that sniffing was probably not a good idea just now. She smelled like…well, like fire and soot, actually, which was hardly surprising. It wasn't exactly all that appealing, either. "Clark!" she blurted in horror as it struck her that, considering she'd just been wrestling with him, her particular eau de fumée could hardly have gone unnoticed. "Why didn't you tell me I smell like…like…" she gestured impotently with her hands as her brain tried and failed to come up with an appropriate descriptor. "This!" she finally finished, her nose wrinkled in distaste.

Her humiliation knew no bounds, though she couldn't for the life of her figure out why. It was hardly like this was the first time that Clark had ever seen her at something less than her best. But for some reason…this was different. It had been different ever since the night she'd broken up with Oliver for the second and final time and Clark had held her in his arms like he…like she…like there was a chance the two of them…her mind skittered away from the thought and repeated, It's just different now; that's all. Gazing in chagrin down at her soot-covered and singed clothing, she recognized this difference even as she categorically refused to question what lay beneath it.

When she looked back up at Clark, he had that same expression on his face that so terrified her every time she saw it – a mixture of tenderness and concern, of an emotion deeper than the casual friendship that used lighthearted bantering as a defense mechanism to deny the possibility of anything more. He looked at her like he…like there was a chance…

Lois gulped and took a step back when she saw him swallow heavily and prepare to speak. If the next words out of his mouth were tender, or comforting, or even the slightest bit…well, nice, she swore she'd expire of humiliation right on the spot. Maybe she'd pray for a chance to test out that theory of spontaneous human combustion. Wouldn't that be ironic?

With a heavy sigh, Clark replied, "Well…I was kind of hoping for a hot shower tonight, since I seem to smell less than wonderful myself, and I knew that if I mentioned that you're in rather desperate need of the same thing, there was no way I was going to stand a chance of getting any hot water, once you'd finished with your regular marathon showers."

Lois sighed in relief. The tender look was gone; the mischievous glint always present in his gaze when he teased her was back. This was familiar territory. This, she could handle. However, lest she think he could score a point on her without retaliation, she crossed her arms over her chest and scoffed, "That was some pretty wishful thinking on your part, don't you think? And considering that the score is currently 726 to 0 – with me in the lead, of course – on who will beat whom in a race to the shower, what made you think you were going to be successful this time?"

Clark chuckled and turned his back on her as he pulled a canister down off the shelf. Spinning back around to face her, he brandished it proudly. "I thought I'd distract you with some of my mom's special cocoa."

With a longing look at the nondescript canister, Lois licked her lips. She didn't know what kind of special powers Martha Kent had, to make everything she touched so delicious, but even her cocoa was a small dose of nirvana. The ambrosia of the gods. Sheer chocolatey perfection, with a dollop of whipped cream on top. Though ten seconds ago, she could have sworn she wanted a shower more than she wanted anything else in this world, but now she wasn't so sure.

Clearly sensing her weakness, Clark went in for the kill. The evil, evil man. "You know, I think I even have some mini marshmallows around here somewhere…" he said suggestively, a distinctly merciless quirk at the corner of his mouth, and the glare Lois threw him in return could peel paint off the walls.

With a start, Lois looked around suddenly, searching for Shelby. He had to be in the room, because she could have sworn she just heard a whimper and there was no way that such a sound could have come out of her mouth. Damn it. The dog wasn't around.

Whipping her head around to glare at Clark again, lest he forget that he was three seconds away from being throttled again, she sighed and swiped an oven mitt off its hook by the stove. Throwing it fiercely at Clark (it was a pathetic weapon, but it was all she had), she rolled her eyes. "Oh, fine. Fight dirty. You know, there's a ruthless streak in you that's far from attractive."

Laughing, Clark shook his head lightly. If he was perturbed by her assessment of his character, it didn't show. After muttering a few choice comments about extortion among friends, Lois sighed in defeat. "Okay, fine. I'm still taking a shower first, but I'll try to keep it below a half an hour. Just for you."

"You're too kind," he drawled sarcastically as he turned his back on her and pulled a pot out of the cupboard. Lois should have been surprised that he didn't protest further, but somehow she wasn't. As much as the two of them teased each other, Clark had the biggest heart of any guy she's ever met. Even if she volunteered to relinquish first rights to the shower, she doubted he'd really take advantage of it. Then, as she pondered his generous nature, he said lightly, "You know, the sooner you get in the shower, the sooner you can start using up all the hot water."

"Clark, I…thank…" She caught herself before she could finish the phrase. The last thing her dignity needed was a repeat of the previous incident. Thankful his back was to her so he couldn't see her face, she said, "That is…um…you know, if you really want first dibs, you can have them. Just this once. But don't say I never gave you anything." She tried to match the lightness in his tone, but when she saw the way he froze at her words, his back stiffening slightly, she suspected she hadn't quite managed it.

Very slowly, Clark turned to face her, and once more, there was a world of things better left unspoken in his eyes. He started to speak, stopped, and then cleared his throat and tried again. "Lois, I…I'm not…There's…" With a heavy sigh, he ran his fingers through his hair in agitation, making it stand on end in a way that was frankly adorable. Shifting his eyes away from hers as if he was afraid of what she might see there, he muttered, "No, I don't…Take your time, really. I'm not…I mean…After everything that's happened tonight, I don't…I thought I'd…"

A long, tense silence fell between them as words failed Clark and his eyes locked searchingly on hers again. She didn't know what he was looking for, and though Lois realized she had a prime opportunity to escape – and hopefully things between them would be back to the status quo by the time she returned – she couldn't move. It was like she was rooted to the spot, but she didn't know if the next words out of Clark's mouth would release her or ruin everything.

With an obviously forced smile, he broke the spell when he said in a failed attempt at humor, "No…really. You don't have to do that. I mean…after all this time…You've been doing so well. I don't think we should break the streak now!"

Lois jerked her head in assent and turned to go, almost racing up the staircase and to the bathroom. She didn't know which was more humbling – that she felt she was running away from something, or the fact that she didn't know what it was she was running from.

Instead of taking the shower that she'd planned, Lois found herself running a hot bath instead. When she found a bottle of rose scented bubble bath underneath the cabinet – undoubtedly left behind by Martha – she could have sworn she was in heaven. She didn't know how long she lost herself in warm and nicely-scented bliss, but by the time she came to her senses and got out of the bath, the bubbles had long since dissipated and the water had gone cold.

Shivering slightly, she wrapped a hand around herself and reached for her pajamas before stopping with a scowl. It would be counterproductive of her to put those on at the moment, she realized, but on the other hand, she didn't have any other clothes on her. Actually, come to that, she didn't have any other clothes to her name at all.

Ruthlessly pushing aside the thought of all she'd lost – that would be a problem to be tackled in the morning – Lois rooted in the cabinet underneath the sink for the small bag of toiletries she'd left behind when she'd moved out, on the theory that it would be nice to have some emergency supplies on hand if she ever crashed at the Kent Farm for any reason. Her future was looking a lot less dismal when she found the object of her search, and she pulled it out with a small smile.

She quickly brushed her teeth with the toothbrush she pulled from the bag, then she stared critically at her image in the mirror as she ran her fingers through her wet hair. Scowling at the tangles she found, she rolled her eyes and, with a small shrug, grabbed Clark's brush. He wouldn't mind. Probably.

She barely noticed when she started to hum softy to herself, and she was completely oblivious when she started to sing quietly. "The arms I long for will open wide. And you'll be proud to have me right by your side. One fine day, you're gonna want me for your girl…"

Still wrapped in the towel and lost in the song she was absently singing, Lois tossed her ruined pajamas in the trash as she left the bathroom and made her way to Clark's bedroom. No doubt, he had some clothes she could steal. Er…borrow, she corrected herself. He had some clothes she could borrow.

When she walked through his bedroom door, however, she stumbled to a halt, surprised to find him already in the room. He flushed when he turned and saw her dressed in nothing but a towel, and he quickly averted his eyes. "I…uh…It occurred to me that you don't have anything to change into, so I thought I'd…uh…I just thought I'd grab some things for you to wear." Almost lunging towards his closet, he rifled through the clothes on one of the inner shelves and pulled out a pair of black sweatpants. Then he bent and rummaged through the bottom of one of his dresser drawers until he pulled out the old red and gold plaid shirt she'd once borrowed. She frowned a little when she saw it, confused at why it was folded in the back of a drawer when all his other shirts were hanging neatly in the closet, but since she had a feeling she didn't really want to know the answer to that, she let it go.

They looked at each other for a few moments in silence; then, Clark blurted, "I'd better take a shower, and then I'll make us some coca!" and bolted toward the door, brushing past her as he made his exit. She shrugged and changed quickly, then headed downstairs to await his return. She could make cocoa herself, but she had a tendency to burn it, so it was best if someone else took on the task.

By the time Clark returned downstairs, Lois had stretched out on the couch and drifted off into a state that was halfway between sleeping and waking. She heard him clomp down the stairs – how he managed to always sound like a herd of elephants stampeding up and down the steps was beyond her – but she couldn't quite work up the energy it took to move. When she heard his footsteps slow and his tread soften as he approached the couch, however, a tiny voice in the back of her mind reminded her that she stood a good chance of missing out on chocolate bliss if Clark thought she was sleeping and wouldn't realize it, and she forced open her eyes.

Just as her eyes fluttered open, they found Clark's as he gazed down at her, and she caught her breath when she saw the expression within those beautiful blue eyes. Once again, it was lacking in wry humor, or even mocking amusement. It was tender and sweet and…scared. There was something scared there that Lois recognized she should address, but since she wasn't sure her own fear didn't eclipse his, she couldn't yet face the possibility of what his gaze betrayed.

"Clark?" she asked uncertainly, her voice catching a little in the back of her throat.

Those tender emotions she had just seen were gone faster than she could fully process what they meant, and his humor returned. "Did you know that when you're sleeping, you look so innocent that it's hard to believe the kind of trouble you get yourself into when you're awake?" he teased her.

"Did you know that when you're sleeping, it's hard to believe you're not really funny when you're awake?" she retorted, and he grinned. He'd definitely scored the better point in this particular sparring match. Feeling grumpy at her lost ground, Lois sat up and muttered, "Anyway, I thought you promised me hot cocoa. What's keeping you?"

"Aye, aye, ma'am," he said with a mock salute, and he dodged a pillow she threw at him as he headed toward the kitchen. Feeling oddly bereft in his absence, Lois got up after a minute or two and followed.

Clark's back was to her as he stirred the pot of cocoa, so he didn't greet her when she walked into the kitchen behind him, her bare feet making barely any noise against the linoleum. He must have been aware of her presence, however, because he didn't seem in the least bit surprised when he finished pouring the hot liquid into two mugs and turned to find her directly behind him. "Here you go," he said softly. "According to my mom, hot cocoa is good for solving all of life's problems, from bad dreams to broken hearts. I figure it's just what the doctor ordered."

Lois felt a curious lump form in the back of her throat as she reached for the mug with trembling hands. As she stared at the murky liquid, a hundred things she wanted to say – a dozen questions she was too scared to face – bubbled up somewhere deep down, but when she finally spoke, it was to address none of them. "No marshmallows?" she asked in a shaky voice.

"Ah, right! Sorry!" he said quickly as he grabbed the bag on the counter and tossed a few marshmallows into her mug. When she looked up at his face with mild reproach, he added a few more.

"Thanks," she said softly, biting her lip to keep from saying more.

Her discomfort was apparently shared when Clark cleared his throat nervously and asked, "Two "thank you"s in one night? Are you sure that's not one of the seven signs?"

Her inexplicable bout of…whatever it had been passed, and Lois laughed as she punched him lightly on the arm. "I'm stocking up. I figure I get to go several months before I have to show you gratitude for anything now," she teased.

With a snort, Clark threw her a wry smile and led the way toward the couch. "Of course," he agreed.

In companionable silence, they sat on the couch together. It wasn't long, however, before Lois shivered and buried her feet under his legs, hoping he would keep them warm. Clark grabbed the blanket off the back of the couch and threw it over her legs. "Sorry. I should have grabbed you socks earlier. I forgot how cold your feet get without…" His voice trailed off; he didn't mention the bunny slippers she wore around the house when she was staying there. Trust Clark to be considerate enough to know that even the thought of the lack of a stupid pair of slippers would be devastating on the night that she had lost so much else.

Lois tried to smile, but she suspected her mouth formed a mockery of the gesture. It was hard to think that she'd lost almost everything to her name, and the only reason she wasn't more upset about it at the moment was because she was doing her best not to think about it. Still, she shrugged and said with brutal honesty, "I'll miss Harold and Maude, but they were just things. It could have been much worse."

Clark looked over at her, but he didn't press her for information, though she knew he was curious about what had happened at her apartment that night. But he didn't ask, and she knew he wouldn't. Touched by his consideration, she took a shaky breath and admitted, "I thought…I thought Chloe was in the apartment."

He was quiet for a moment more, then he said softly, "I thought your father was coming for a visit tonight."

"He was," she said a bit more caustically than she'd intended. "He…something came up. I didn't tell…er…get a chance to tell Chloe about the change in plans, but I thought she might stop off at home anyway, and I didn't…I couldn't…I could have gotten out of the apartment in time. I was right there at the window. But I couldn't…I couldn't go until I knew for sure."

"That's understandable, Lois. I'm sure she…"

"She's moving," Lois blurted, surprising even herself. She had meant to talk to Clark about the fire, because of all the things that she had to be depressed about, she could have sworn that would have been the highest priority. But, oddly, once she said it, she realized that, for the moment, she couldn't care less about the loss of Harold and Maude. She didn't care that she was going to be begging for a place to stay for the indeterminate future. She didn't even care that there was likely an ocean of plaid in her future, until she replenished her wardrobe.

It was a tactless thing to do, since she had no idea if Clark knew that Chloe was considering a move. But she couldn't take it back now, so she just had to plunge ahead and hope for the best.

Luckily, Clark rescued her. "Yes," he said heavily, equal parts resignation and sorrow in his voice. "I know."

"She's going to work for Ollie," she added, in case he didn't know. "My ex-boyfriend."

He nodded. "I heard something like that," he admitted.

Then, just because it had to be said, she blurted, "And I hate his new girlfriend. Really. I mean it. And it's not because he's my ex and it's a jealousy issue. I really, really hate her. Believe me, though; she came by my dislike honestly, on her own merits! It has nothing to do with Oliver! But his standards have really taken a hit since the two of us broke up."

The edges of Clark's mouth quirked a little, but he said solemnly, "I believe you."

With a sigh, Lois turned her attention back to the matter at hand. "It's just…Earlier today, Chloe seemed to be genuinely excited about this new job opportunity, and…I just don't get it! I mean, I thought I knew Chloe better than just about anyone, and I could have sworn she was born with a pen in her hand. So I don't understand why she's suddenly so eager to hang up her press pass so she can go act as tech support to…uh…to Ollie." She caught herself just in time before she slipped and revealed Ollie's secret – something Clark was undoubtedly still ignorant about. "I know that Oliver does a lot of…philanthropy – I mean, his company does, and so I guess she might think she's serving the greater good, but…still, I thought I knew my baby cousin. I thought it would take nothing less than a forklift to pry her away from the Daily Planet, and here she is, giving it up willingly!

"So I can't help but wonder if I've had her pegged wrong all this time. And, you know, outside of the realm of my love life – an area I think we can both agree is almost its own federal disaster zone – I've always thought I was pretty good at pegging the people I care about. In the last couple of years, however, I have to wonder, am I really completely blind and I just don't know it?

"I thought Lucy was this excellent student who had this bright future ahead of her; I never even suspected she was really a juvenile criminal mastermind. I thought Ollie was…well, I just never suspected that Ollie had this other side to him, but he did. I thought Grant was…" She winced; it was definitely not the time to bring up that conundrum. "And now there's this thing with Chloe! I mean, what's going to happen next? The General is going to put his daughters before his duty, and you're going to run away to the big city to pursue a sudden dream of being a pilot?"

Clark smiled, no doubt in acknowledgment of the fact that she'd tried to make a joke, even if it did fall rather flat. "Lois, people change. Their interests change. But it doesn't mean that you don't know anything about Chloe, just because you didn't know that she was thinking of changing jobs. I mean, I've talked to her, and trust me when I say this came as much of a surprise to her as it did to you. But sometimes…this is something that she never expected, but it's something that she feels like she has to do. It doesn't mean you had her pegged wrong all this time; it just means that she's found a different priority in life." With a quick squeeze of her hand, he added, "I know you're going to miss her though."

"Well, yeah. Sure," she agreed flippantly, as though she was completely unperturbed by the idea. But it was true; she really was going to miss Chloe. Of course, they would still see each other on occasion, but it wouldn't be the same. Lois had grown accustomed to having Chloe nearby, a Woodward to her Bernstein – or at the very least, a Butch Cassidy to her Sundance Kid (or maybe that would be the other way around). When she'd gotten the job at the Daily Planet, she'd been excited in part by the possibility of the two of them teaming up to work on stories. And now it looked like that wasn't going to happen. Hell, it was probably for the best, she told herself sternly. She worked better alone anyway.

Still, her fragile façade was undermined when her voice cracked a bit, but she plowed ahead as if there was nothing amiss. "But, you know, it's not like it comes as a big surprise. I mean, in a certain sense, Chloe's always reminded me a little of Lucy, my little sister. They're both so brilliant. They can do anything they put their minds to, you know? Of course, unlike my sister, Chloe isn't using her skills for some kind of criminal enterprise, but, still…it's just…it's so…" She was so close. If she could just this last word out, she could move off the subject she'd so foolishly brought up. She could keep her dignity and her own counsel. But before she could think of a word that would convey her unmitigated joy – that would convince her companion that she wasn't affected by the news she'd received – her lower lip began to tremble and she had to press her lips together to conceal her weakness.

She wished he would say something. She wished he would finish her thought for her, so she didn't have to come up with a word that would be both heartbreakingly true and a shamefaced lie. She wished he would change the subject. Hell, she wished he would mock her for her feelings so she wasn't so tempted to confide in him. But Clark didn't do any of these things. He simply reached out and grabbed her hand, threading his fingers through hers, as he looked at her in complete understanding.

He was staring at her with compassion but not censure. He looked sad but not judgmental. And so maybe that was why Lois gave in to the temptation to be totally honest with him. "I know I should be happy for her, that she's found something that she's clearly so excited about. But it's just…I know it's selfish, but it's hard to be completely happy for her when I can't help thinking about how I was perfectly happy with the way things were!" She sighed and shook her head. "I guess it was dumb of me to expect that things would always be the same, huh? That I'd become this kick-ass reporter, realize all my dreams, and have my little cousin there by my side the whole time, just because that's how I always saw the ideal in my mind. Pretty stupid, now that I think about it."

Clark winced and shook his head in response. "No, I don't think it's stupid," he said, and there was a wealth of meaning in those six little words. Somehow, Lois suspected he wasn't just talking about Chloe any longer.

Frowning slightly, she cocked her head to the side and considered the man sitting before her, but he wasn't meeting her eyes. There was something else bothering him, and while she had no doubt that he'd be perfectly willing – even eager – to address her heartbreak without even once mentioning his own, she didn't want to let this moment go. It was more than just a way to avoid her own problems for a few minutes; Clark was her friend, but the moments when he truly opened up to her without reservation were few and far between. When there was something bothering him, his automatic default position was to keep it to himself, and Lois usually respected that. Tonight, though, she felt not only like he didn't want to keep his feelings to himself but that he needed to talk about them with someone. And if she was going to humiliate herself by being totally honest with him, she thought with a certain degree of wry humor, the very least he could do would be to return the favor.

He didn't elaborate, so she took a stab in the dark. "You and Lana?" she murmured gently. She knew she'd hit the nail on the head when he turned to look at her in surprise. Smiling softly, she said, "You know, you offered me your shoulder when I needed it not too long ago. You don't think I'd be such a bad friend that I'd refuse to return the favor, do you?"

Though he sighed heavily, the corners of his mouth lifted slightly in appreciation of her halfhearted joke as he sat back and turned to face her again. "It's just…what you said, about wanting everything to stay the same because you were happy with the way things were. What do you do when you can't hold on to the past any longer? What do you do if…if there's something more out there for you, like a greater destiny out there waiting for you than spending your life on a farm? Maybe you could even change the world, but…you'd have to let go of something you've been holding onto for so long, you no longer have any idea how you'd live without it? Because it makes you happy." He frowned, then looked slightly confused as he added haltingly, "At least…at least it used to."

Lois had no idea what he was talking about. The man wasn't making any sense. Was he the one with the greater destiny, or was Lana? She wracked her brain, trying to put his words in context. The memory of the joking conversation she'd had with Clark once, where she'd suggested he look into a career in law enforcement (a suggestion he'd laughed off but never really discounted) came to her in a burst of inspiration. If Clark really was thinking about attending a police academy, it would explain both his fears that pursuing a different destiny could somehow mean leaving Lana behind and his assertion that maybe he could save the world. Clark always had been something of an idealist. "Clark, are you thinking about being a cop?"

Her question seemed to startle him. He pondered the question for a moment, then admitted, "Something like that, I guess you could say. But it's a demanding life, you know? Full of responsibility. And…and not everyone could stand to be married to a…a cop."

"Yeah, but just because everyone can't deal with it doesn't mean Lana couldn't," she offered in a conciliatory tone.

"You couldn't," he retorted, "And you're the strongest, most stubborn woman I've ever met. If you couldn't do it, what makes you think Lana or anyone else could?"

Well, he had her there. She'd left Ollie because the life he led as a superhero meant he would always leave her behind. Would she have been able to stay with him if he'd wanted to be a cop instead? Sure, a police officer wouldn't be likely take his job on the road, but Ollie's tendency to travel hadn't really the problem. She'd have been willing to travel with him if she'd thought – if there had ever been a chance – that she would have ever come first for him. But she never thought she would. Even when he wasn't leaving her behind to perform his duties as the Green Arrow, she'd never been first with him, and she couldn't deal with that.

Lois tried to put her previous statements into the correct context without giving too many of Ollie's secrets away. "I know how…the reasons I couldn't make it work with Ollie…it wasn't…oh, crap. How do I explain this?" She sighed heavily and tried again. "I loved Ollie, and he loved me. But he didn't…it wasn't enough, do you understand what I mean? You can have a life full of responsibility and spend your life with someone else, but you can't do it by always putting them second. You have to love them enough to put them first when you can, even if there are other moments when the world – or your small corner of it, at least – has to come first."

"And how do you know," he began slowly, and from the look on his face, she guessed that this was the crux of his problem, "if you love them enough?"

Lois bit back the words that came immediately to mind and fell silent for a moment as she tried to find a tactful way to get her point across. Finally, she settled on, "Clark, if you don't think you love her enough now, after you've adored her for most of your life, what exactly do you think you're waiting for?"

Clark grimaced. "It's not that easy," he said, sounding slightly irritable.

"No, Clark, it's not that hard," she countered.

He looked frustrated, but she couldn't tell if he didn't agree with what she was saying or if he just didn't like the fact that she was saying it. "That's not fair," he grumbled. "You know relationships aren't easy. Just because someone has doubts about where things are going, every once and a while, doesn't mean…"

"No, you're right," she interjected, cutting him off. "But those aren't the kind of doubts you're having, are they?" She gave him time to respond, but when he didn't say a word, she continued in a slightly more gentle tone, "Clark, you're an amazing guy. Really, you are." Pulling one foot out from under his leg, she poked him gently with her toe in a teasing gesture, "Don't let the fact that I said so go to your head or anything, but it's true."

Slipping her foot back under her leg, she interjected a brusque note into her voice – she knew Clark had a tendency to indulge in the occasional pity party, and she viewed it as something of her duty – if not her right – to pull him out of these states before he could brood for too long. "So if you really have doubts about whether Lana's the right one for you, then you shouldn't settle for something less than you deserve. You're a great guy, and I don't think I've ever met anyone more willing to commit wholeheartedly to a relationship. So why are you so willing to settle for a relationship of half-measures?"

Turning his head away, Clark looked down at the hand he was holding. In a soft voice, he said, "I've loved Lana for so long. Maybe the fact that I have doubts now…couldn't it be that I'm just expecting too much of her? Maybe I'm setting a standard for her, for our relationship, that nobody could ever live up to. If that's true, then maybe settling for a relationship of half-measures is all that I'm ever going to be able to have."

"Okay," Lois said slowly. "But since when is having high standards in a relationship a bad thing, Clark? As long as you're willing to live up to the same standard that you're setting, then why is it so terrible that you're looking for someone who'd be willing to reciprocate?" Though he still wasn't looking at her, she could see his profile and knew he wasn't entirely convinced.

Lois sighed. Well, this was something she'd never planned on sharing with him, but it might make him feel better, so maybe she didn't mind the potential embarrassment. "I know you're going to find this a little hard to believe, Smallville, but I'm actually a bit of a romantic. At heart. Deep, deep, deep down. So maybe it's just me and what I want, but when I fall in love someday…I know that there will occasionally be times when there will be doubts; it happens in every relationship. But if I'm going to love someone, I want to love them all the way, with everything inside of me. Otherwise, what's the point?

"If you have doubts, after all this time, I think there's a problem if…when I fall in love someday – if I fall in love someday – then I know I'll have doubts every once and a while, but if I'm going to be afraid, I want that to be because I'm afraid I love the man I'm with too much instead of not enough."

Lois couldn't read the emotion behind Clark's eyes as he turned to her and asked, "But if you thought you had that right now…if you thought you had a chance – maybe your only real chance – of ever feeling like that, of ever being that in love…would you really be able to let it go? I mean, why not hold on? You never know, it could be enough, in the end. Even if it meant you had to find a way to be as happy in the future as you in the beginning, before everything bad happened. Before the lies, the mistrust, the misunderstandings…back when you thought you really knew the person you were waking up next to every morning and before you realized that they never really knew you the way you thought they did. If there was even a chance that what you had could be what you've always wanted, why would you give it up when the alternative is…being alone?"

Well, if that wasn't an incredibly insightful glance into Clark's relationship with Lana, Lois didn't know what was. But, then again, she wasn't surprised. For a man who was surrounded by people he adored him, he had the most remarkable fear of being alone. Lois couldn't exactly blame him; it was a fear she'd entertained more than once.

"I still think…do you want to know the truth? I think I'd rather walk away from the remote possibility that what I have could grow into what I've always wanted. Because if you don't take that chance, you risk the possibility that maybe you'll be so busy focusing on what's never going to happen that you don't notice the love you've always wanted when it comes your way." She smiled warmly at Clark as she explained, "Your mom gave me that advice, you know."

He chuckled. "It sounds like her."

Biting her lower lip, Lois added, "I know…with Ollie, I know I could have had what you're describing. If I'd held in there, maybe there was a chance…maybe he would learn not to leave me behind, or maybe I would learn not to deal with the disappointment when he did. And the truth was, when we were together…I would have been happy. Every moment I spent with him, I would have been so…but it wouldn't have been enough. As happy as he made me when he was around, it wasn't worth the loneliness I would be left with every time he went away. The feeling that I didn't matter, that I would never really matter to him. That I would always be an afterthought. I wouldn't be able to deal with that, and I can't imagine ever wanting to."

Clark sighed, and his eyes were sad as he said, "You know, Lois, you and I aren't all that different. You don't want to be left behind, and I…I don't want to leave everyone behind. I know this doesn't make sense to you, and I can't really explain why I feel this way, but I just…I feel like…I'm afraid that if I leave Lana now, I'm walking away from the only chance I'll ever have to be with someone…to find someone to love, who will know everything about me and love me in return. I just…Like you, I want what my parents had. And I think…I think sometimes that having something, even if it's not perfect…it's better than the alternative."

Lois sighed and bit her lip as she considered how to address his confession. Finally, she said slowly, "I understand why you'd be afraid of being alone, Clark, but you're selling yourself short if you honestly thing that there's a chance that Lana's the only person out there with whom there's a chance you'll share the kind of love you want or the kind you deserve. You just have to be patient; I have no doubt that one day, you're going to find what you're looking for. And when you do, you'll realize it was worth the wait."

She watched as some of the tension left Clark's face, and then he asked softly, "And what about you, Lois? Do you think you'll ever find a love like that?

With a wry smile, she replied, "I don't know. I hope so. Of course, there's no guarantee that will, because the thing about love – the problem with it, really – is that it's crazy, and it's terrifying, and it's more powerful than anything else in this world. It's letting yourself go and holding on tight at the same time. It makes you act like an idiot, no matter how proud or how strong you are. So, really, it scares the crap out of me. But still…as much as I can be cynical about love, I think I know what you're looking for. I used to look at your parents, and I realized…I want that someday.

"I want what they had. It doesn't have to be the stuff of legends, or sonnets, or…or any of that. But I want…if I'm going to fall in love, I want it to be the kind of love…It doesn't have to move mountains. It just has to move me."

Then she laughed and added in a voice that was half-joking but half-serious at the same time, "But even I recognize that it's going to take a hell of a guy to put up with me. "I mean, at the very least, he'd have to be willing to break through the wall I've put up to keep people out, and I'm pretty sure it's bigger than the Great Wall of China!" She frowned for a second; her words had triggered the shadow of something someone had said to her once. She couldn't quite bring it to mind; it lay on the periphery of her memory, and so after a second, she shook her head and moved on.

"And then, even if he did manage that, he'd have to put up with the fact that I'm stubborn and pig-headed. I consider jumping to conclusions to be a huge time-saver. I'm horrible at compromising, I like having things my way, and I never back down from a fight. I look at Chloe, and she makes it all look so easy. She's compassionate and understanding, willing to compromise, willing to put everyone else first, blah blah blah. Hell, she can even find a way to save the world and be in love at the same time. But as much as I admire all that, I long ago came to recognize that, at least in terms of relationships, I'm no Chloe Sullivan."

There it was again. That expression that she'd seen so many times already, the one that terrified her because she wasn't sure what was behind it. He looked so tender, as if…Her brain balked, and she caught her breath, but he didn't seem to notice. "No," he agreed, and she was surprised by how easily a single word from this man managed to tear her heart in two. "You're not like Chloe. You're stubborn and proud and…incredibly brave. You're outspoken and independent, and you just…there's absolutely nobody in the world who's anything like you.

"You're an amazing woman, Lois, and I think one day you're going to find someone who loves the fact that you're stubborn and uncompromising. You make the people around you better simply because you demand that they be the people you know they can be, and they would never let you down by doing anything less. You're going to find someone who's going to love all of those things about you that you think will drive any sane man away, and if he's got a brain in his head, he's going to be just as stubborn about showing you that he wouldn't want you any other way. You'll find someone who loves you the way you are – who'd be willing to move heaven and earth, just to return to you at the end of the day. No matter what."

Her breath caught in her throat. "Clark, I…" she began, and then she tore her gaze from his. They were on dangerous ground, and it was only getting more treacherous with each passing moment. She saw the tenderness on his face, and she felt like she was on the verge of some kind of realization – or maybe they both were. It was like the two of them were standing on the edge of something, and she was scared of what would happen if she let herself take another step.

It was like she had said before. She was perfectly happy with the way things were; she didn't want things to change between herself and Clark, even if there was a chance that the change might be for the better. So, rather than take the chance, she simply refused to look too closely at what was right in front of her.

"I…uh…I don't know. It sounds to me like the man you're describing will have to be a saint, don't you think?" she joked in an attempt to inject some levity into the conversation and avoid looking at something she didn't want to see.

Clark chuckled, "Or a superhero," he added.

Lois laughed. "Saint Man. I can see it now!"

"Stubborn Man is more like it," he retorted with a chuckle.

She snorted. "I think, with all the sterling qualities he'll have to have in order to put up with me and my marathon showers for long, he'll have to be an all around Super Man. Don't you?"

"Oh definitely!" Clark agreed. "Let's see; he'll have to be patient, understanding, brave enough to join you in one of your many adventures that almost invariably end with you almost getting yourself killed…and willing to take daily cold showers! Take it from me; the patience, understanding, and bravery are easy. It would take a Super Man to be willing to put up with the daily cold showers, though."

Lois howled with laughter, and as Clark joined in with her, his previous tension and her blue funk melted away. Maybe it wouldn't be so bad, crashing at the farm for a couple of weeks. She'd missed these quiet moments with one of her best friends.

Once the laughter died down, the two of them sat in companionable silence for a while. Then, just as Lois was considering whether or not she should head to bed, Clark spoke again. "This thing with Chloe…Are you sure you're going to be okay?"

Of course. He would care about her enough to not let it go. With a shaky breath, she shook her head. "Yeah," she said, feeling like it just might even be the truth. "I guess that's just the problem with loving someone. If you love them enough to want to hold onto them, you love them enough to know that sometimes you have to let them go. You love them enough to want them to be happy, even if that means that they leave you behind."

He fell silent as he pondered her words. "No matter what happens with anyone else, Lois, I'm not going to leave you behind," he promised softly.

"Don't kid yourself, Clark," she said, and though she tried to pull away from him, disengage her hand from his, he didn't let her go. "Of course you will. There's more to you than the simple Kansas farmer, and you know it. And that's okay! You have to go after your destiny, and you can't do that if you keep looking behind you."

"I won't leave you behind," he said stubbornly, and he didn't speak again until her hand had relaxed in his. She looked away from him, uncertain of what scared her more – that she actually almost believed him when he made that promise to her, or how badly she wanted to.

The words were out of her mouth without the benefit of her brain approving of them first. "Yeah, I guess you never know," she said teasingly. "Maybe I'll even discover that I'm a part of your destiny."

As soon as the words were out of her mouth, Lois felt herself flush bright red and she yelped, "I mean as a friend! And maybe we could even work together sometimes, like on the story I'm working on now! You know, we'll be like…like a more respectable version of Bonnie and Clyde!" Wait. Bonnie and Clyde hadn't been just friends. "Or…or…uh…Bogie and Bacall!" No, they hadn't been just friends either. Before she could dig herself even deeper into a hole by suggesting something like 'George Burns and Gracie Allen' or 'Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner', she pressed her lips together and tried to take a few deep breaths through her nose.

Clark was looking at her with a peculiar expression on his face, and it was just too much. She shot to her feet as if she'd just discovered that the couch cushion she'd been sitting on was electrified. "Wow, is that the time?" she babbled, shooting a glance at the clock as she skirted around the couch and made a beeline for the stairs. "You know, it's pretty late. I should go to bed."

Though his eyebrows were arched almost into his hairline, Clark nodded. "Okay. There's something I have to grab from the…uh…the truck, but I'll be back in a minute."

"Yeah. Okay. Sure!" she agreed inanely as she catapulted herself up the stairs. With any luck, whatever Clark was grabbing from the truck wouldn't be a straight jacket – though heaven knew that Lois had just gone crazy enough to deserve one.

After she all but flew into the bathroom and slammed the door behind her, she tried to fool herself into believing that she'd done so out of necessity and not in a search for refuge. She killed the few minutes by brushing her teeth again and running Clark's brush through her hair a few times, and then she took a deep breath and walked toward the bathroom door.

Pulling it open slowly, she stuck her head through the crack and looked around. Good. The coast was clear. Not a farmboy in sight, so there was a good chance she could make it the few feet from the bathroom to the bedroom without humiliating herself. Flicking off the light, she straightened and tried to take those few feet with a semblance of dignity. It was beneath her to scurry for cover, after all.

Once she'd reached the safety of the bedroom, however, she realized that she was being ridiculous. Her comment hadn't been that bad! Why, Clark would probably not even remember it the next day. And it certainly didn't indicate that she might actually have feelings for him. Feeling slightly more self-satisfied, Lois shook her head and a laughed silently at he own stupidity. She was just overwrought after the events of the day and had spoken without thinking – something that was par for the course for her. What a thing to get worked up over!

With a sigh, she looked around at the surroundings that were so familiar to her, and yet there was an unmistakable difference. In the past, when she'd stayed in Clark's room, she'd had a few of her things with her that invariably had become strewn throughout the room – a little part of herself mixed in with all that was Clark's. Now, however, she had no personal belongings to scatter about, nothing to her name but the clothes she'd had on her back when she'd arrived. And even those were nowhere in sight.

For the first time that evening, she faced the pang of loss at the thought of everything that had gone up in smoke earlier. Her shoulders drooped in defeat, she made her way over to the bed with the vague hope that maybe everything would seem better in the morning.

Just when she was about to climb into bed, however, she noticed something lying on her pillow, partially covered by the sheet. Holding her breath, she pulled down the covers a little bit and saw the gift that Clark had left for her on her pillow – a floppy-eared pair of bunny slippers and a single red rose. Lois wondered where both had come from; even if he'd planned on giving her a rose for Valentine's Day (as her friend and nothing more!), he could hardly have known that her apartment would go up in smoke tonight. So where did he get the bunny slippers?

"Oh, crap," she breathed as she picked up the bunny slippers and pressed them to her chest as she turned to sit on the bed. It would figure that such a stupid gift from Clark would do this to her. It figured that he would know how much a stupid pair of slippers had meant to her.

There she was again. That precipice she'd been skirting the entire evening, the realization she'd intentionally tried to avoid. Out of the corner of her eye, she caught her reflection in the mirror and turned to look at it.

Her reflection told her everything she wanted to know and everything she feared. The expression she'd seen on Clark's face so many times lately and had done her best to run away from was mirrored on her own. And then she remembered what had been hovering on the periphery of her memory for the past half hour or so.

The words were Mr. Kent's, spoken to her one night after she'd made a similar joke about building a wall to keep people out. Throwing her a paternal smile, he'd said, "You know what they say, Lois. Sometimes you put walls up not to keep people out, but to see who cares enough to break them down."

Lois had taken those words to heart, but never, ever, in a million years, would she have guessed that the person he was talking about was Clark.

"You don't like Clark that way," she tried to convince herself. Her reflection didn't seem to buy it. "He's just Clark! He's your best friend! There's no way that you could feel that way about him!" Still, her reflection seemed skeptical. Raising her jaw stubbornly, she said, "You're better off this way, you know. Because there's just no way that you'll ever…ever…"

With a loud cry, she flung herself backwards onto the bed and stared morosely up at the ceiling. "Oh, crap!" she moaned miserably. Because even she knew that everything she'd just said was a lie.