"Just imagine it, my love."
Lois Lane let her gaze track around the crowded cubicle hell of the LNN research department. Monitors displaying live feeds of reporters in the field and anchors sitting in the studio were crowded into rows against one wall. The odor of old coffee and stale cigarette smoke and acrid powdery toner reminded her of the Planet bullpen, but she missed the familiar heady undertone of ink and newsprint rising from the lower-level presses, or the musty smell of the morgue file copies.
Lois turned to the billionaire standing at her side. His indulgent, expectant smile greeted her. Lois's own smile was a little less eager. "I don't know, Lex," she temporized. "I'm flattered that you'd suggest it..."
"It would be ideal," Luthor murmured, cupping his hand around her elbow and gently guiding her through the maze of cubicles, toward the studio. "You're beautiful and brilliant, and Metropolis deserves to experience that for themselves. In their homes every night."
While the smile she gave him in response was easy enough, her misgivings were legion. Television anchors were the vehicle for their stories, not necessarily the writers or researchers, and when Lois's byline was on a page-one story in the Planet, she had poured her blood, sweat, tears, caffeine, and exhaustion into it. And how would she ever be able to go undercover again, if the entire city, the entire world, saw her face on the evening broadcast?
"I'll think about it, all right?" she told him, her thumb brushing the engagement ring on her finger. She had tried to make it very clear that she would not accept any strings attached to the breathtakingly gorgeous diamond he had given her, but he was Lex Luthor, and he was accustomed to having his way. And damned charming when he set his mind to it, she had to admit.
"That's all I'm asking." Lex bent slightly to brush his lips against her cheekbone. "We can discuss it over dinner. Maybe at a quaint little bistro in Montreal? I have a campaign meeting, but I can have the jet fueled up and waiting."
Before he was even finished asking, Lois's eyes widened in regret. "Oh, Lex, that sounds fantastic, but I have a story that needs to be filed for tomorrow morning's edition. Raincheck?"
The corner of Lex's mouth turned up in a smile that didn't exactly feel like a smile. "Maybe I should give Mr. White a call. Let him know he's working my fiancée too hard."
"He definitely wouldn't appreciate that." Lois stood on her tiptoes to give Lex a kiss on the cheek, and the mild unease she had been feeling coalesced into a certainty that someone's gaze was lingering on her. Probably some mousy jealous researcher who had been biding her time, hoping that Lex would eventually notice her and sweep her off into a life of endless luxury, who was jealous that Lois had managed to catch his eye. Or, maybe, it was that damned engagement ring. She knew she should have made him give her something significantly more modest, but Lex wouldn't know what to do with himself if he wasn't actively demonstrating his wealth to the world. She forgave him this particular display, though, because he had easily spent the cost of ten such engagement rings on philanthropic efforts—and now he was pouring a good deal of his time into his congressional campaign.
Luthor had granted her the exclusive interview when he had initially announced his intention to run, and from there, she was still a little stunned at the remarkable speed of his courtship and the wedding plans. But a man with Lex's pedigree didn't often need to wait.
Lex was guiding her back to the elevator bank, saying something about his busy campaign schedule, but Lois couldn't focus on it. That certainty that she was being watched had only grown stronger, and it made her annoyed, and just a touch anxious. She was just considering mentioning it to Lex, asking if he felt it too, when her curious, straightforward gaze locked onto someone else's.
He was a dark-haired man wearing wire-rimmed glasses, his blue button-down shirt rolled up to his elbows, and his strong jaw was set. He held a few files at his side, and his mouth was set in a tight line.
But all that was gone in a second. His face relaxed and he turned away, heading in the opposite direction. Within a few seconds he was gone.
Lois was thankful that Lex didn't ask her anything when they reached the elevators. She had no idea what he had been saying for the past thirty seconds or so. "I would wish you good luck on your story, but I'm certain you don't need it. And please, do consider my offer, Lois. You would make an invaluable addition to the team—and it would remove many of these pesky obligations to your time."
Lex would make sure of that. He would make sure she had plenty of puff pieces to keep her occupied and off the street—
No, Lois told herself sternly. Lex wasn't like that, and their marriage would be a partnership, and once he understood that her career was definitely not a negotiable part of her life, this feeling of anxiety would fade.
Lois glanced at the bullpen again before she stepped onto the elevator, but the bespectacled man hadn't reappeared.
He looked familiar somehow.
Lois shook her head and smiled a goodbye at Lex before the elevator doors closed.
She had put the whole thing out of her head as soon as she slid into the taxi outside the building, planning the lead story for the morning's edition. She only had to confirm a few dates with two of her sources, and she would be set. Perry had become much more insistent about deadlines and getting stories to the copyeditors before five o'clock in the morning, and she was determined to have her story done before ten p.m. just this once—if only so she could use it for an example that she didn't always turn in her stories in the nick of time.
Lois was watching the slow crawl of the progress bar as her story uploaded when she suddenly sat bolt upright in her chair, the last bite of her triple fudge crunch candy bar in her hand.
The dark-haired guy with the glasses. She had seen him before... but she hadn't been introduced to him, not really. It had been within the last six months, and it had been work related. And that was all she could remember.
So he was a reporter. A newspaper reporter.
What was a newspaper reporter doing working in the research department at LNN?
Maybe he had suddenly wanted a career change. Maybe she was misremembering the circumstances of their meeting.
Either way, though, the guy had been staring at her and Lex, and Lois intended to find out why.
The morning editorial meeting passed in a blur of lukewarm coffee and day-old pastries. Lois had spent half the night racking her brain, trying to remember where she had seen the guy, without coming up with anything new. After a midmorning press conference she would have to beef up to even turn into a three-paragraph blurb, Lois headed over to LNN. From what she could remember about Lex's itinerary, she wasn't likely to run into him, and that was the way she wanted it. Lex could be almost infuriatingly dismissive of facts he didn't value, and she didn't want to go to him with her concerns until she had something concrete to show him. Plus, if she worried him over this and it was nothing...
She hoped it was nothing. Or, that if it was something, it would be something very juicy. It was never too early to start planning for the next Kerth Awards.
Lois arrived during the frenzy that marked the ramp-up to the noon programs, and as soon as she walked in she felt gazes on her, but that wasn't all that unusual. The employees recognized her as Lois Lane, star Planet reporter first, Lex's fiancée second, and either of those would make her stick out like a sore thumb in the crowded bullpen. Lois scanned all the faces around her carefully, but the dark-haired guy didn't seem to be around. She grabbed one of the more timid-looking interns—she could tell from the younger woman's more casual attire and faint air of panic—and described the dark-haired guy, asking where he was. The intern's finely-plucked brows were just drawing together when a door slammed open a few feet away from them, startling everyone in the room.
"He's here. Who do we have in the field?"
And no one in the room had to ask. From the tone of the voice, everyone knew.
Instantly the room was abuzz with conversation, shouted questions, the sound of every phone handset being ripped from the receivers as they tried to track down exactly what was going on, who was involved, where he was, where the camera crew was. Those who weren't on the phone were gravitating to the wall of monitors, waiting expectantly for a shot of the signature fluttering red cape.
"It's a bomb? I heard it was a bomb."
"Like it's true. This whole thing has got to be a hoax. Else he'd get in here, do a one-on-one interview, a demonstration in front of experts. Like a man could actually fly."
He can. I've seen it. Lois thought it loudly, but kept her mouth shut.
When Superman had surfaced a few months before, one of his first public feats had been at an event Lois had covered, and she had been desperate for an interview. And he had granted it. One of his first exclusive interviews had been to the Daily Planet, and Lois hadn't been able to shake the feeling that the superhero had connected with her. For a little while, even if it had only been in her head and only in her weaker moments, she had been just the tiniest bit infatuated with him.
But then, for the most part, he had been based in Washington, D.C. And given all his exploits since then—uncovering secret nuclear weaponry facilities, improving troop morale with his visits overseas, serving as a sort of goodwill ambassador between the rest of the world and his adopted home—he had managed to form a mutually beneficial arrangement with the party in power. Lois hadn't found an opportunity to ask whether he fully understood the American political system, if he knew that the next election could put him in disfavor, if he had someone special back home—
Well, that last one could definitely wait. His position on nuclear arms treaties was more important.
It took Lois a few tries to find an unoccupied cubicle, and she sidled into it confidently, reaching for the handset. Perry answered her call on the second ring.
"Just heard that Superman's doing a rescue on a train, might be a bomb involved—"
"Yeah, or he's at Elvis's second coming," Perry barked. "No one knows anything yet. We're keeping an eye on it, but if you hear anything substantive—"
Lois's gaze immediately went to the center monitor. On the display she made out the broken chain of the train cars as seen from above. The train had derailed in a grassy area, for all appearances just outside Metropolis, and if Lois stared hard, she could just make out the blue-and-red blur of Superman as he pulled survivors from the wreckage and carried them to safety. From the other cars, passengers stumbled out, some limping, some clutching at their heads or sides. The bright stains of blood against skin and paler clothes were vivid on camera. From the studio Lois saw the lead anchor introduce the live footage before they cut to it.
"It's on LNN," she said hurriedly. "Train derailment, just outside Metropolis, I think—"
"That bastard Richardson better be checking his pager," Perry growled before they hung up.
"Did he already—" a voice rose above the increased hum of excitement filling her ears.
The room was thrumming with tension; Lois's heart was beating hard against her ribs. Superman decoupled the car he had been evacuating and Lois distantly heard a voice shout to cut to the ground crew. Superman seemed to fill the screen in the next frame, the red-and-gold S emblem on his chest familiar as the Planet logo to Lois now, and his strong arms straightened nearly effortlessly as he lifted the train car over his head. He rocketed off the ground and the cameraman could barely keep up with his speed-blurred trajectory as he ascended into the atmosphere, until he was out of sight.
"Must have been a bomb."
Lois nodded in absent agreement, even though she was sure the guy wasn't talking to her. The fingertips of one hand were lingering at her throat, and she swallowed hard. He had saved a damn space mission. A paltry bomb on a train car would barely make him break a sweat. But she still couldn't really breathe until Superman reappeared, landing lightly on his red boots, and reported to the gathered crowd and news crew that the bomb had successfully, harmlessly, detonated. He nodded to a handcuffed, surly-looking man he must have apprehended before the cameras arrived, and gave the crowd a tight smile before he lifted off.
The intern Lois had been grilling had gone elsewhere, but Lois grabbed another woman who looked quasi-confident. Her thick caramel-blonde hair was pulled back into a bun and her shirt wasn't cut low enough to expose her bra, so Lois was vaguely optimistic.
"Oh, him?" the woman said, after Lois had described the dark-haired guy. "Started here two or three weeks ago... and he should be here... ah! Yeah, there he is. James something."
Lois turned to follow the blonde woman's gaze. James was walking into the newsroom adjusting the collar of his shirt. Lois's eyes narrowed. By all appearances he had taken advantage of the distraction of the rescue to sneak off. Maybe he'd been digging through confidential files; maybe he was banging one of the other interns. Lois didn't see any telltale lipstick stains on his collar, but that just meant they'd been careful, or they hadn't been clothed for long.
James's dark-eyed gaze swept the newsroom from behind his glasses, and Lois averted her own gaze, but she could swear she sensed it when he spotted her—and that he knew she was at least a little out of place. She took the opportunity to glance at her watch, cursing under her breath. If she didn't get a move on and place the dinner order, it would be a total bitch to get anything at all out of Bobby Bigmouth, and she needed him for the Friday lead.
On her way out Lois glanced over at James. He wouldn't look half-bad with a better haircut, but he moved with an easy, efficient grace, and his olive skin was a nice change from the usual sallow cubicle dwellers she generally saw in news offices. His white button-down was tucked into his slacks and there was no hint of a potbelly over his waistband; in fact, she had a feeling that he was solid muscle underneath—
Lois swallowed hard and pressed the elevator call button, studying her watch again as James turned, probably from sensing her gaze. Lois chastised herself. She was about to marry a damn billionaire, for God's sake, and she was practically drooling over a lowly research assistant at his company. Clearly she needed to schedule another date with Lex, or stock up on the double fudge crunch bars. Or both.
Lois made a face as she stepped into the elevator and spotted the glass eye of the camera mounted in the corner, remembering belatedly Lex's mania for security. He would probably ask her why she had come by, and she needed to have an explanation in place.
Well, she would come up with something, she was sure. And they would have a great date and some champagne and she would remind herself that Lex was a great guy, regardless of his political aspirations.
Ugh. Lois dared anyone to question her reporting credentials—and she knew they would, when—not if; Lex was, if anything, totally unaccustomed to failure—she was married to a congressman. She would have to be extra hard on him, but given his fortuitous investments, his efforts to help the unfortunate in Metropolis and America at large, she couldn't imagine that he would get his hands into anything suspicious—especially if he had been planning this run for a while. And Lex never seemed to do anything without thinking four or five steps ahead. Including dating her.
So what the hell was James investigating?
She was definitely going to have to talk to him, one-on-one...
And Lois's heels sounded viciously on the asphalt as she crossed to her Jeep. Clearly it had been too long since she had gotten laid, that was all. Lex had been understanding when she had announced her intention to wait. Her body was one of the few things she knew he wanted that she could control, and, she had to admit, she was a little gun-shy about getting intimate with anyone she gave a damn about after that disastrous relationship with Claude. Or, come to think of it, any of the others. It was refreshing to have a relationship that wasn't entirely clouded with the complication of sex.
And Lex, God, the way his eyes glittered when he talked about their wedding night. He had so much money that women practically stripped naked when they approached him, salivating at the chance of bedding the incredibly handsome and powerful man at Lois's side. She was sure he'd had his pick of any woman he wanted, and while that galvanized every competitive bone in her body, she was still determined to hold out.
And, besides, she could dangle the prospect of a night alone together as leverage... if she dared.
It was just her frustrated libido talking, when she looked at James. That was all. That and the reminder of that little crush she'd had on Superman.
The prospect of confronting James made her jittery all through her meeting with Bobby and the half-hour she was able to spend in the Planet after. Richardson was crowing about having landed the lead, and that rankled, Lois had to admit. If Superman was back in Metropolis for any significant length of time, as he had been a few times, Lois found herself glancing all too often to the window he had carried her through, remembering the euphoria of flying in his arms.
Okay. She gave herself a strict prescription of catching up on Ivory Tower when she got home, complete with half a container of chocolate ice cream. Maybe that would stop the damn awareness she kept feeling.
Lois was leaning forward against her Jeep's steering wheel, careful to keep away from the horn, her attention wandering a little, when she spotted James walking out of the LNN building. "Bingo," she said triumphantly to herself, putting her hand on the ignition.
And she could swear that he sensed her gaze almost immediately. His chin jerked up when the last syllable was barely past her lips, and he scanned his surroundings. She tried to act like she was searching for a map, cautiously sneaking a glance back at him, and she saw a faint smile lingering on his lips as he looked down again, his hands in his pockets.
It wasn't that he looked particularly defenseless, but she was half bemused, half alarmed when he bypassed the taxi stand and subway entrance. He was planning on walking home, and they weren't in what she would call the best part of town. He walked up the stairs outside a rundown motel frequented by long-term transients and down-on-their-luck businessmen, and Lois chewed her lip for a second, hoping that he hadn't caught her tailing him and just ducked through. Then she would never find him.
She waited as long as she dared, then dashed into the motel's lobby. The man behind the desk, his chin bristled with a few days' worth of stubble, glanced up at her when she leaned on the desk, panting a little.
"Please, you have to help me," she said breathlessly, running her fingers through her hair. "The guy who just came up—dark hair, glasses? I was just in a hit and run, some asshole in a white van rear-ended me and left, and I just—I need him so I can file a police report—"
The clerk was gazing at her—in sympathy or suspicion, Lois couldn't quite tell. "Well, if he just got here he should be up in his room—let me call and see if he wants to come down."
Lois leaned over and watched him dial so she'd know his room number, then leaned back and tried for an impatient, thankful smile. "You're a lifesaver," she told him, swallowing.
The clerk waited about thirty seconds, then frowned. "Hmm, not answering. Weird. You can leave a message for him, if you want."
Lois scribbled something on a sheet of paper and left it for him, then headed out. As soon as the clerk's face was directed back to the newspaper crossword he had been doing, Lois took a sharp left and dashed up the stairs, unbending a hairpin on the way.
His room opened to the outer corridor, and the locks were flimsy, just as she was expecting. Lois put her ear to the door, listening for any sign of movement, and when she heard none, she risked a knock. No answer. At least she would be able to search his room, but he would probably be back any second.
Lois shook her head and decided to go for it.
When she was in, she flipped on the lights and was startled to see his clothes laid out on the bed, socks and shoes just below the edge of the counterpane. Immediately she glanced at the bathroom, but the door was open, the lights off. Even so she went in, going so far as to check the shower, but no naked research assistant waited behind the curtain. A toothbrush and toothpaste were neatly arranged on the bathroom counter.
Maybe he was just getting ice. Lois hurriedly scanned the room, but the ice bucket was still on the dresser. A suitcase was in the closet, but no James.
Lois frowned, then crossed the room to the bed and checked the pants pockets. The first yielded only a few coins; in the second, she hit pay dirt. A fat leather wallet. She immediately flipped it open.
A plain-looking LNN badge identifying James Martin greeted her. In the sleeve behind it, she fished out another ID—
Clark Kent. Washington Post.
Lois stared at the press pass, her eyes wide, but her surprise quickly gave way to fury. So he did work for another newspaper, and one in Washington, no less. She would have expected this kind of backstabbing from the Star, but the Post? And Kent...
The coin finally dropped. She had spent a few days with the president during the hostage crisis five or six months ago, and Kent had been there, at the press briefings. His questions had been well-phrased, polite, but firm. He'd had the same awful haircut, and even more abysmal taste in ties. At least his frames looked better.
But she had never spoken to Kent—the president's itinerary had been insanely busy and hers equally so—and seeing him outside the context of a press conference had made her lower her guard a little. Claude and a few other mistakes she had made since had convinced her that coworkers were always a bad idea when it came to dates, and she had made a habit of dismissing them as nothing more than networking possibilities, information sources who could be carefully cultivated and then possibly burned if the necessity arose.
Clark fucking Kent. Lois gave his ID a grim smile as she slipped it back into his wallet, the wallet back into his pocket, then scanned the room. If he was keeping notes on what he was working on, the notes would be here or with him; he wouldn't risk leaving them at LNN where they might be discovered. Her quick search yielded nothing, though, and she couldn't shake the feeling that he would be back any second.
Well, the Planet kept file copies of the Post. She could at least get an idea of what Kent had been working on lately; get some ammunition to confront him. Because she was definitely going to confront him.
"I've got your number now, Kent," she murmured as she locked the door behind her.
He was in black the next time she saw him. Lois was parked outside the LNN building, and by the time he had come almost even with her, she was leaning back against the Jeep, her arms crossed, her lips turned up just a little in a sarcastic smile. Clark was reaching for his glasses, pushing them up the bridge of his nose, his head cocked.
"Mind telling me what you're doing on my turf, Ke—"
Lois had only said the first syllable of his last name, but the fierce frown on his face, and the speed with which he approached her, made her cut herself off. His dark eyes were almost glowing with intensity. "Keep your voice down," he told her gruffly.
Lois tilted her head. "Not unless you're willing to talk," she told him. "All I have to do is make one phone call and you're out on your ass. And boy, are you far from home."
Clark's jaw tightened and he glanced up. "You aren't gonna leave me alone, are you," he murmured, and he sounded almost, almost amused, but mostly irritated.
Lois shook her head. "Nope."
He sighed. "I have an errand to run. Meet me at McGinley's in... forty-five minutes?"
Lois pursed her lips. "Fine, but if you don't show?"
Clark shook his head wearily. "I get it, and I'll be there. I might be a few minutes late, but I'll be there, okay?"
He was at least ten minutes late, and that meant she was at the bar long enough to temporarily overrule her better judgment and order a martini. She didn't know why she didn't call Lex when Kent was late; for all she knew, he was dressed in black because he had every intention of breaking into Lex's private files and publishing whatever he found. But she doubted that he was, and she doubted that he would find anything, even if he tried... and she was too curious to call his bluff and have him thrown out before he told her what he was doing.
Clark was running a hand through his thick, dark hair when he slid into the booth opposite her. It was the kind of place she usually selected to meet skittish sources, because it met all their requirements: noisy, dim, cheap beer, even cheaper fake-leather booths. The bottle-blonde waitress, who had been borderline surly when waiting on Lois, rushed over as soon as Clark joined her, and he sounded almost infinitely weary as he ordered a beer. When the waitress asked as an afterthought whether Lois wanted another martini, she shook her head and ordered a diet soda. The alcohol was already making her feel just a little fuzzy, and she definitely needed to be on her game if she was going to get the truth out of the man sitting opposite her.
She couldn't believe how amazing he looked in black.
Shut the fuck up, she ordered her internal dialogue. It definitely didn't matter how he looked in anything, or nothing...
Lois cleared her throat as her gaze rose to Clark's. "So, Mr. Kent."
Clark raised an eyebrow. "I don't think we've ever been formally introduced," he admitted. "Clark Kent, Washington Post." He extended his hand.
"You're not even going to bother denying it," she said incredulously, shaking her head as she shook his hand.
He shrugged. "Let's just say I have more confidence than that in your abilities, Miss Lane."
Damn him. Damn him for trying to knock her off her guard by playing it this way. She was better than his ridiculous flirting, or the tingle that shot straight down from her hand through her arm to her spine when their skin touched. "So what are you doing at LNN?" she asked, leaning forward. "All the stories you've filed since you've been here have been the standard political grip-and-grin bullshit interviews—"
Clark's eyebrows went up again. "Hey," he objected mildly.
Lois shrugged. "Which brings me back to my original question."
The waitress brought their drinks, giving Clark a lingering smile, and he took a long swig of his beer before answering. "I'm working on a lead," he said. "And, given how curious you already are, I think that's all I'm gonna say."
Lois tilted her head. "Did you forget that all I have to do is call Lex, say who you are, and your lead is gone?"
Clark's brown eyes searched hers for a moment. "You could," he admitted. "You could do that. But I'm betting that you won't."
Clark just grinned back at her, taking another sip of his beer.
Lois glared fiercely back at him. "I read your bio, you know," she told him. "Farm boy from Kansas who came in all righteous, ready to singlehandedly clean up all the corruption in Washington. Trust me, I love watching some crooked politician get taken down like any other red-blooded American, but that still doesn't explain why you're here." She frowned. "Does it have something to do with Superman?"
Clark quickly swallowed his sip of beer. "Why would it have anything to do with Superman?"
Lois shrugged. "He's been pretty active in Metropolis the last few weeks, and everyone knows your paper has a special relationship with him."
Clark shook his head. "Guess things have just been kind of boring for him in Washington or something."
Lois hated that she had to ask, but she did. She took a sip of her soda, but the question was still there, at the tip of her tongue. "So... have you met him?"
Clark put his beer down, and he almost seemed to sigh silently before he nodded. "Yeah, I've met him," he said.
Lois shook her head. "I've met him too... and I wish I knew what you guys did, to get the exclusives. I know you generally aren't the guy interviewing him..."
Clark chuckled. "What, do you scour every issue hoping for a Superman mention?"
Lois shrugged a little. The truth was that she did, of course she did. Since he'd arrived on the scene she had been fascinated with him, above that damned schoolgirl crush. "He's a hero," she said. "I don't know how much traveling you did while you were reporting for the Smallville Corncob Gazette or whatever, but Americans kind of had a bad rap before he became the goodwill ambassador—"
Clark held up a palm. "Okay, first off, Corncob Gazette?"
"Or whatever," Lois said dismissively.
"Second, uh, exactly how much research did you do on me? Interview my second-grade teacher, my college girlfriends?"
Lois tossed her hair. "I like to know who I'm dealing with."
Clark snorted and took a sip of his beer, and Lois continued. "Anyway. He represents all that's good about—well, not just America, but humanity—even though he's not one of us, and I think there's something poetic and noble about that."
"Wow. You sound like the leader of the Superman Fan Club."
Lois definitely wasn't going to mention her set of Superman pajamas, the ones she was sure she'd have to hide after she and Lex were married and living together. "I take it you're not."
Clark shrugged. His beer was empty, and when the waitress approached, her eyes glowing, he nodded at her offer of another. "Well, he puts himself between harm and innocent people all the time—but he can afford to do that. Bullets bounce off his skin. There's no real risk in it, for him. But it's the people like you or me, asking the tough questions, exposing corruption and vaunting the unsung heroes, who actually put ourselves in danger. And yet he's the one you go nuts over. Because he looks good in tights?"
Lois propped her chin on her hand. "Okay, points for trying to butter me up and distract me," she said, her tone clearly saying the opposite. "You don't know the trick, huh. No S-symbol light in the sky..."
Clark waited until his beer arrived and the waitress took away his empty one, to speak. "Well, Lois, guess you'll just have to find out his pager number."
Her eyes widened, then narrowed. "Like Superman has a pager," she said disdainfully. "Okay, if it's not Superman, then what are you doing here?"
Clark shook his head, and then his dark-eyed gaze locked to hers, and her heart—her heart was in her throat. She ignored the sensation. "You know, I'd love to tell you," he said, his jaw tight. "And maybe I spent too much time on the Smallville Corncob, but you really seemed like a great reporter. Practically fearless and occasionally brilliant."
"Occasionally?" she asked, and she was only slightly mocking.
"Why do you think I'm here?"
"I think," she replied, "that you have a wildly off-base idea that you're going to find anything on Lex. That you're here trying to torpedo his campaign."
"Bingo." Clark sat back, his beer half-finished.
"He's—the number of philanthropic projects he's been involved in, all the good his company has done—"
"Is to hide what he really is," Clark interrupted her, and the intense glow in his eyes, fuck, would be enough to get her wet if he wasn't both investigating her fiancé and trying to knuckle in on what was clearly her territory. If there was anything to his crazy accusations. Which there wasn't. "And clearly he's done a good job of that if you're still with him. Unless, of course, the bed of blood money he sleeps in is all you're interested in."
Lois flushed and would have slapped him if she'd had even a swallow more alcohol. "How dare you," she said angrily. "Fuck you for even suggesting that."
"So I'm wrong," Clark said, and picked up his beer, and her blood was way too damn high to see him so much calmer.
"Of course you're wrong," she said, more loudly than she intended. She lowered her voice a little. "Look, I don't know what personal vendetta you have against him—"
"Because that's the only thing that could make me go after him."
"Well, yes. You're just stuck in dirty-politician mode, and you can't believe that he's one of the last good guys in Washington. Or in Metropolis, for that matter."
Clark nodded grimly. "Okay, Lois. I'll make you a deal—and give you the benefit of the doubt, since I didn't want to believe the Planet's star reporter could be this naive. Ask him about Carforth Instruments. Ask him about Prometheus."
"The space station?" Lois interrupted quickly. She was still angry, but she intended to follow every single lead he gave her—just for the satisfaction of proving him wrong.
Clark nodded. "There's more, but you can start there. And be careful. If he sees you're poking around..."
"We're getting married in a month," Lois told him. "You really think he'd be pouring all this effort and planning into our wedding and, what, make me disappear?"
He held her gaze and nodded slowly. "I know he would. And you're way too damn close to having any sort of objectivity on this..."
"Oh, really?" Lois knew her eyes were burning. "During the course of this conversation you've basically accused me of being a sentimental idiotic gold-digging female who's had the wool pulled over her eyes for months now. You. Have the gall. To say that to me."
He shook his head. "That isn't what I said—"
"You want me to play the tape back?"
Clark's gaze drifted over her jacket, then her purse. "Should've known," he chuckled humorlessly to himself, and she furrowed her brow when he slid his glasses down, as though to see better. He pushed them back up a second later. "I'd ask if I can trust you not to let Lex listen to that tape..."
"I'm surprised you wouldn't make me swear a blood oath, given how much of a monster he apparently is."
Clark growled in frustration. "You think you're being cute right now, but if you knew... I know you're angry, but for God's sake, be careful."
"And when I come up with incontrovertible proof that he's not this—this super-villain you seem to think he is, how do I reach you to call off this stupid witch hunt? It would look strange if I called the LNN bullpen looking for you."
Clark fished a business card out of his pocket, handing it over as he finished his beer. "Use the pager number, obviously—it'll get to me before the voice message you'd leave at the office."
Lois nodded, slipping the card into her purse, and thought she detected the scent of something acrid in the air. She shrugged it off. "And if you need to find me—"
Clark was already sliding out of the booth. "Then I'll find you," he said, his gaze locking to hers one more time. "You can trust me on that."
He left a few bills with the waitress on the way out, and once Clark was gone, Lois stared thoughtfully at the door. Her temper was still up, but the wheels in her head were already turning. She had set out to get a rise out of him, and he'd managed to get one out of her in turn, to make her want to prove to him that she wasn't the idiot he seemed to suspect she might be.
She didn't give a damn what he thought of her, she told herself, even though she was very, very aware of how big a lie that was. But the very real prospect of a smear campaign against her fiancé in the Post, that disturbed her.
It would be hard to prove a negative, but she would start with the leads he had given her—and blow him and his crackpot theories right out of the water. And then he would be back in Washington and out of her life for good.
And that really needed to happen, sooner rather than later. He made her feel strange, unbalanced, lost in her own skin, and she needed to be focusing on the wedding, not the faint scent of his aftershave as it lingered in the air.
Lois went up to the bar to pay her tab, digging in her purse for her wallet. The waitress shook her head. "He got yours, hon."
And damn his good luck. When she was back in her apartment, she pulled the tape recorder out of her purse, and the unit was smoking slightly. Replacing the batteries didn't make it any less dead. And the damn thing had somehow managed to burn two tiny holes into the side of her purse, clear through to the outside. She frowned and dumped the whole thing out on the couch, then began to transfer everything to another purse.
She had been using tape recorders for years. Never in her life had one died quite so dramatically.
She shook her head and grabbed one of her emergency double fudge caramel bars. Without the tape, she needed to get to the Planet and start her research while she could still remember anything Clark had told her. Besides, the sooner she proved him wrong, the better.
Five hours later, Lois was at a standstill, and a small part of her was glad. It had been a long time since she'd needed to do her own research, but given the sensitivity of what she was doing, it was better to have her own hands and eyes on it instead of someone else's.
At first glance, she had to admit, she wouldn't have seen anything wrong—and Lois, in her weaker moments, was able to find suspicious coincidences in the migratory patterns of birds, for God's sake. On paper, Lex Luthor was everything he had appeared to be since his rise to influence and fame. On paper, he was the catch of a lifetime.
It was between the lines, absent from the press releases, exactly where she'd always known to look for it, that the small inconsistencies began to crop up.
And Lex was never involved—never directly involved, anyway. His hands were clean.
Prometheus, of course, Lois remembered—the troubled space mission had been one of Superman's first major appearances. She pulled the file and went through the clippings just to help her recollection, and hit one blurb that had been buried in the B section of the paper. Scientist murdered--killer still at large. She had taken some notes of her own at the time, and she dug those out, refreshing her memory about the case.
There was something strange about the case. Nothing quite directly about Lex.
Until she looked at the paper trail on the other side of the case. Employment records showed that he had worked for a subsidiary of a larger corporation, and that one, through the tangle of shell corporations, unwound to a part of Lex Corp.
The murdered scientist had known something. She just wasn't sure what.
The Carforth lead was harder to track down, because the Post back issues had been sent to the microfilm service, a year's worth starting four months before. What surprised Lois was that the byline on the Carforth stories were the same as the ones on the majority of the Superman stories. K.C. Johnston.
On a hunch, Lois flipped back through, scanning for the same byline. Johnston's stories on Superman were occasionally critical, but never blindly adoring. This guy—or woman, Lois corrected herself—wasn't about to get snowed under, and she could imagine that he'd be the first to jump all over Superman for any suspected legal or moral infraction. That critical eye was balanced by the letters to the editor printed on the opinion pages. Everyday citizens, congressmen and women, senators, praised and criticized Superman on the opinion pages, for his successful rescues and for the triage decisions he made, for all the good he did and all the good he could do. For some of them he couldn't do anything right, and for some of them he clearly could do no wrong.
Lois shook her head and went back to the leads she was actually investigating. Johnston's stories were usually passed to another reporter when the unnamed sources coalesced into official press releases and plausible deniability and search warrants. Sometimes that reporter was Kent; more often it was one of the more seasoned staffers at the Post. Kent hadn't been at the Post so long yet—to Lois's recollection he had been there less than a year—but in that time he had been making a name for himself. Starting reporters were often overzealous, often leapt before they did their fact-checking, and often got their publishers in trouble. Kent hadn't, but Lois knew it was only a matter of time, and that this issue he had with Lex might very well be the magic bullet.
Allegations of illegal practices multiply at Maryland biological firm
The dateline... the dateline was ringing a bell. Lois went to the Planet archives for that, and it had been three weeks before the Carforth story, during the gap in the Post archive. A spate of erratic behavior by Superman had been blamed on a clone. Most of the clone's activity had been in Metropolis.
Lois, her hair gathered in a messy ponytail, a pencil between her teeth, absently glanced at the high window through which Superman had carried her. Effortlessly, not a hint of strain in his body. Maybe Clark had just never been in the superhero's aura. Whenever she had seen him in person, Lois had felt spellbound by Superman. He represented the realization of every disappointment she had ever felt, a man who was almost pure good, who would willingly put himself between any human being and whatever danger was threatening regardless to the peril he himself could be facing. He protected everyone, even those who didn't really deserve it, and then turned the culprits over to the police instead of meting out his own justice.
She kind of envied that about him. Inspector Henderson wasn't so bad, but most of her experience with cops had been disappointing or frustrating. Evidence that could be used to condemn the guilty in the court of public opinion often wasn't the smoking gun the police wanted.
Lois glanced up at the window again, then stared hard. She could have sworn that she had seen a flash of red. She really, really needed to get some rest.
Before she headed home for a nap before the morning press conference at STAR Labs, Lois decided to look up Johnston's phone number so she could contact the reporter for more information.
She couldn't find any.
And that didn't make any sense. Lois tried a few alternate combinations, then gave up. Freelancer, maybe? She hadn't had enough coffee in the past few hours to puzzle her way through it.
The STAR Labs conference, as far as Lois knew, wasn't going to be particularly interesting. Usually the exciting conferences at STAR Labs came a few months after, when the science was actually demonstrated, the space shuttle deployed, the sick children made well through clinical trials. Lois, sipping a mocha latte, was absently hoping for full-flavor no-calorie chocolate as the next STAR Labs big idea. Or personal jetpacks. Or flying cars.
Precisely a minute before it was to begin, Dr. Bernard Klein came through the front doors, accompanied by—
Accompanied by Superman.
Lois almost dropped her backup tape recorder in surprise, blaming her exhaustion. Damn if he didn't look a thousand times better in the flesh than he had on the television screen at LNN. His muscular arms were folded, and his dark-eyed gaze swept the crowd as he and Dr. Klein climbed the podium. Lois told herself she was imagining the slight quirk to his lips when he scanned the front row and saw her there.
Dr. Klein made the opening remarks, stammering through the more exciting bits in his usual way. STAR Labs was pleased to announce a new project, et cetera, et cetera. Lois found that her attention and gaze kept wandering to Superman, who was continually scanning the perimeter of the crowd and those members of the press corps assembled before him.
"The United States signed an agreement last year to move away from the waste of conventional fuels, toward a clean energy initiative," Superman said, once Dr. Klein turned to him to make the announcement. "I am pleased to announce that Dr. Bernard Klein and the rest of the amazing team at STAR Labs are currently working on a new system to provide clean energy, and that if all projections are accurate, Metropolis could switch the majority of its utilities over to that source within the next ten years."
Some of the reporters around her made suitably appreciative noises. While Lois was fairly aware of the importance of the announcement, she wished she had managed to snag the science reporter to accompany her, trusting that her tape recorder would pick up the highlights of the speech. Afterward, Superman answered a few questions, but when the Times science correspondent turned the discussion toward logistics and cost projections, Superman began to edge away from the podium, still keeping an eye on the crowd.
Lois was the first to move toward him. He saw her, and she saw in his eyes that he was considering making his exit anyway, but he turned toward her with a neutral, if cautious, expression on his handsome face.
And he was handsome, damned handsome, and Lois couldn't find a bit of her that felt guilty for thinking it. It was just an objective fact. He was an incredibly handsome man.
Except that he wasn't. He wasn't a man. And yet he was the best one she had ever known.
"Superman, are you here helping Clark Kent with his investigation into Lex Corp?" Lois asked, and while she didn't quite whisper, she did keep her voice down.
She saw the barest flinch get through his poker face before he was impassive again. "I'm afraid I can't comment on that; you would have to ask Mr. Kent."
"You can't, or you won't?" she pressed.
"Miss Lane." Superman shook his head and they were standing close now, too close. She breathed in, and over the persistent smell of Metropolis, car exhaust and smoke and the general aroma of humanity, she could smell him, and her brow furrowed just a little. "I have been in contact with Mr. Kent, but I have to assure you, his investigation is entirely his own. I'm not in the business of reporting."
"Does Carforth Instruments mean anything to you?" she asked, when he began to turn away. "Is that the lab where your clone was created?"
His jaw was set when he turned back to her. "I cannot comment on that," he said, but there was just something in his eyes. "Now, if you will excuse me, I can hear a fire alarm..."
"You don't by chance have a pager, do you?" she asked hurriedly as he began to stride away.
Superman chuckled. He actually chuckled.
"In case I need to get in touch with you."
He shook his head. "Don't need one," he pointed out, tapping his ear. "If you need me, Mr. Kent can get in touch with me, and I'm never very far away."
His gaze connected with hers one last time before he took off, and Lois shook her head, reaching into her purse to click her tape recorder off, making sure it wasn't smoking.
Lois was about to give up when Kent finally returned her page. She snatched the pay phone off the cradle, barking her "Hello?" impatiently.
"I'm returning your page?"
"This is Lois," she said, rolling her eyes. "Okay, we need to get together over this whole Carforth thing—I'm going to try to call the original reporter on it today, there's a gap in our morgue coverage, and—"
Clark interrupted her. "I can tell you what you need to know, but don't use your phone at the office."
Lois snorted. "What are you trying to say? You think my office is bugged? Because that's—"
"It is bugged. Your apartment, too."
"And you know that how?" she asked indignantly.
"I—I'm sure they are," he backtracked hastily.
"By who? And if you say Lex..."
Clark was quiet on the other end of the line.
"You said not to say it. Unless you've made some other highly influential enemies."
"You don't even know," she said dismissively.
"They won't be in the usual places," he said.
And they weren't. They weren't in the usual places.
She went fuming home after work. She had turned her notes over to the science correspondent, and decided to take the laptop home. As soon as she made sure Kent was full of shit, trying to scare her off—for all she knew he'd planted the things himself—
She remembered those nights Lex had been at her place, the way his eye roamed over everything, telling her that after they were married she would live in the opulence he swore she deserved, and she had made herself laugh that off. Living in such luxury wasn't her idea of the perfect life, but giving back, through her work, through whatever she could give, that appealed to her.
Lex wouldn't want any wife of his working. Not for long, anyway.
No. He was only joking when he said he would call Perry.
She eliminated the phones immediately, but when she opened the wall panel, she found a small transmitter, a red blinking light on it. Her blood went cold.
Kent hadn't planted it. She traced the faint patterns in the dust.
She turned on an exercise video, very loudly, and when she went into her bedroom, her eyes wide open as she gazed at the ceiling, she thought she saw the small glass button of a camera eye in the crown molding, giving whoever was watching a great view of the bed.
It was after work. And she hadn't really checked her desk for bugs, and knowing that her entire place was under surveillance, she couldn't stay.
Lex called when Lois was just fishing her keys out of her purse, securely locked into her Jeep, when she had just begun to wonder if her Jeep was safe. "How are you, my love?"
"A little busy," she admitted, smiling when she found her keys. "I'm working on a couple of leads. How was your day?"
"Challenging," he admitted. "But I have every confidence I shall arise the victor once more. Maybe I could have the chef prepare something, and we could do some brainstorming for your story?"
"Uh... that does sound tempting," she said, sandwiching the phone between her shoulder and ear as she pulled out into traffic. "But it's all vague so far, and I'd hate to waste your time. I know I keep saying this, but, raincheck?"
Lex chuckled. "For all these rainchecks I'll insist on having you all to myself for a year after our wedding," he told her.
"And now you are trying to distract me," she told him. "I love you. I'll talk to you tomorrow."
"Be careful, my love, and don't get home too late."
A small cold shiver passed over her at the words. But she was being ridiculous. "I'll do my best," she said lightly.
Lois hated how paranoid she was feeling, but when she walked into the bullpen and saw Jimmy just grabbing his coat, she gestured him over, shutting her purse into the lower drawer of her desk. "You've seen my cell phone before," she said, leading him over toward the supply closet. Jimmy nodded. "Could someone track me using it?"
"Yeah," he said. "I mean, it'd be a little tricky for me to do it, but it's just a matter of the right computer and knowing which phone is yours. You see, you can triangulate using cell phone towers—"
Lois nodded impatiently. "Okay, okay, I get it. And if I turn my phone off?"
"Then I'd just see the last place you had it on."
She nodded a goodbye to Jimmy when he left, then headed back to the morgue for a few hours, but her anxiety made it tough to make much headway. She traced some of the Carforth financials back to see if any part of Carforth had been involved with the Prometheus project, but she only had one real option, and she knew it.
She hated being exposed on the street, but she walked down to an all-night hot dog stand a few blocks from the Planet building, then paged Clark again. While she waited she finished off her hot dog, leaning against the side of the pay phone, her gaze up. She wondered where Superman was, what he was doing... and if he'd done Clark the favor of flying by her apartment, if he had seen a bug in the ceiling of her bedroom. She flushed just a little, swallowing the last bite of her hot dog.
Clark sounded a little out of breath when he called her back. "Lois?"
"So where can we go with no bugs?" she asked in a low voice. "I'm assuming you've swept your place for bugs..."
"There are no bugs here," he confirmed, "but my room might still be under surveillance."
"Well, you promised me some leads."
Clark was quiet for a moment. "I know a place we could go," he said. "It's a little out of the way."
"I can do that."
She was about to hang up the phone when Clark called her name again. "Look, be careful, all right? I mean it."
"If you're so concerned about me, why don't you get your best friend Superman to pick me up," she suggested.
"That's not a bad idea," he said. "If he's not busy."
Lois snorted. "I was joking."
"But I'm not. Like I said, be careful. I'll be there soon, or he will. If you see anything suspicious, anything suspicious at all, stay out of sight."
"And you'll find me—"
"I'll find you," he confirmed.
It took Lois some time to get back to the Planet, to gather all her notes. She glanced down at her purse. She didn't know if anyone was using her cell phone to track her, but if they were—
She didn't let herself think it. She wasn't going to think it; she didn't want to give Clark the satisfaction, not until she had incontrovertible proof.
Superman must have been waiting for her. As soon as she let herself out through the emergency door onto the Planet roof, he swooped down, and when her gaze rose to his face, she felt a familiar little skip to her heart. And some mild impatience. She needed to find out what Clark knew, and Superman couldn't help her with that.
"Clark wasn't joking, huh."
Superman shook his head. "And please don't try to grill me on the way," he told her, unfolding his arms. "You won't get anything out of it."
"You really haven't learned how to do this," she chastised him. "That phrase is practically like a red flag to a bull."
"Maybe to you." He had a very faint smile on his face when he swept her into his arms, and she kept a firm grip on her briefcase, sliding her other arm around the back of his neck. "Hold tight."
She nodded. "I remember how this works," she told him, and when she felt him lift off, she couldn't deny the exhilaration she felt. Flying with him was like nothing else she had ever experienced.
Superman took her to a small motel on the outskirts of the city, and she made a face when she looked up at him. "Really?"
Superman nodded. "He'll be here soon," he said, and handed her a key, the fob attached bearing the room number. "You can head inside and wait."
"And you're still going to try to tell me that you're not in the business of reporting," she said, closing her fingers around the key.
Superman shook his head. "I'm not. Just doing a favor for a friend."
"And how exactly does one become Superman's friend?"
His lips quirked up just a little. "The same way one gets his pager number."
"I thought you..." She trailed off as he took off, her eyes widening. Slowly, unseeing, she walked to the room, the briefcase clutched protectively to her chest, and she had been so damn close to him that the scent of his cologne had been inescapable, unmistakable, and that expression—
Clark tapped twice on the door before he used his key and walked in, and as soon as he did Lois rose from the bed, grabbing him by his collar. She buried her face against his shirt, and when she pulled back, her eyes alight, and reached for his glasses, he immediately grabbed her wrist, his grip like iron.
"You smell the same," she said. "You smell the same as him. You..."
Clark didn't even look, when she lifted her other hand, quickly, to reach for his glasses again. He captured her other wrist, holding her immobile in his strong grip. "You don't know what you're talking about. So maybe we wear the same cologne."
She shook her head. "It's more than that," she said firmly. "The bugs, the pager comment... You want to prove it to me? Take off your glasses."
Clark paused, then shook his head, slowly. "No," he said softly.
She began to struggle, and though she knew for sure that he didn't have to, he let her go. She stumbled a few steps backward, then took a deep breath, crossing her arms.
"You're him," she said quietly. "You're Superman."
There wasn't a doubt or a question in her voice. Clark sighed and took a seat in the cheap desk chair, crossing his own arms.
"I'm Clark Kent," he said, his voice low and firm and so like his that she fought the urge to shiver. "I'm a reporter for the Washington Post. I grew up in Kansas. I'm—"
"Johnston," she said, shaking her head. "Jonathan's son. Your initials reversed. Of course you're the one who always interviews Superman." She sat down at the foot of the bed, facing him.
Clark reached up and took his glasses off, and even though she had known, she still felt a little thrill at the confirmation. "How is it you can figure this out, but you're still with Lex," he said quietly.
She shook her head. "And no one else has figured it out."
He raised his head. "My parents know who I am," he said, and rubbed the bridge of his nose before he put the glasses back on. "My editor at the Post. But that's it."
"I thought all you did was save people and go on peacekeeping missions," she said. "I had no idea you held down a nine-to-five like the rest of us."
He chuckled. "You know as well as I that this work of ours isn't exactly nine to five," he pointed out.
"So why be a reporter? Out of everything..."
"Because this," he said, holding up his fist, "is one thing, and exposing those secret crimes and atrocities that we commit against each other, is entirely different."
We. She filed that away for later. "So what your might can't do, you use your reporting to do."
"Something like that," he nodded slightly. "I've seen it in your eyes, though, Lois. You do this for the same reason I do. Because there are things people need to know, wrongs that need to be corrected."
"Like what happened at Carforth."
Clark stood. "This is gonna take a while. You want something to drink, to eat, before we start?"
"Are pizza and beer an option?"
Before he left he made her promise to lock herself in and not answer the door, and though she rolled her eyes, she did ask he asked. If Lex managed to find her here, alone in a hotel room with "James," the research guy...
Then she imagined how exactly he would be able to find her here, at the edge of the city, and shook her head. That wasn't a pleasant mental image at all.
Clark came back in with two pizzas and a case of beer, and she looked at them in amusement. "What, did you forget you weren't on your way to a frat party?" she asked, rising to put the pizzas on the desk, still reeling just a little at the knowledge that Superman was standing before her in a button-down and slacks, a case of beer in his hand.
Clark shook his head, locking the door behind him. "I was working at LNN because I had a source there," he said, putting the beer down. "I just went by her apartment—she left work early today. She's not there."
"So, some vacation time...?"
He shook his head. "I found her a few blocks away," he said. "They made it look like a mugging."
"Made it look like..." Lois's eyes widened. "Clark, what the hell is going on?"
He began his story and they flipped open the pizza boxes, eating their slices off paper towels, washing it down with the beer. She nursed hers and noticed that the alcohol didn't seem to affect him at all.
Clark had first started looking into Lex's activities after the sabotage of the shuttle. He couldn't quite prove that Lex was behind the scientist's murder, but he was morally certain of it, and based on everything else he had found, murder wouldn't make Lex Luthor lose a wink of sleep.
He brought out the documentation, everything she would have found given more time and access to the Post archives. The East Coast heat wave that Lex had been so quick to blame on Superman was due to preexisting conditions at his own energy facilities. Clark had found Lex Corp payments laundered through subsidiaries, ultimately paying off soon after key figures in underworld organizations had been eliminated.
"He absolutely hates Superman," Clark told her, as she finished off her second beer. "Mostly because he has no control over Superman. Creating the clone was his attempt to both discredit Superman and to gain control over that kind of power."
Lois put the bottle down on the floor. "You. He hates you. He wanted your power."
Clark shook his head.
"You're talking about yourself in the third person."
Clark shook his head. "I'm Clark," he repeated. "Superman... is just something I can do."
Lois shook her head too. "I'm not going to debate this with you," she said, rubbing her forehead. "Look, just let me wash my face and we can go over what I've already found..."
She shut herself into the bathroom and washed her face thoroughly, just a little off balance from the beer, and when she walked back in, she saw an overnight bag she definitely hadn't packed sitting on the foot of the bed. "And what is this?"
"Just... in case you wanted to get comfortable," he said, ducking his head. Lois glanced down at her suit and heels, then snatched the bag off the bed, returning a few minutes later in a pair of loose sweatpants and a black tank top. He'd even packed her damn toothbrush and toothpaste.
"Is there a camera in my bedroom, back at my apartment?" she asked him, folding her arms.
Clark nodded. "Yeah."
"And you just..."
He made a motion with his hand, a sort of swooping arc with his fingers. "I... kind of look like a glitch on surveillance film," he admitted.
Lois swallowed. "Is there any evidence of who planted those bugs in my place," she said softly. "I found... a few, maybe not all of them, but I didn't want to move them, give away that I'd found them..."
"Are you asking me if..."
She shrugged. "I thought you might have planted them just to make me nervous, but you don't need bugs, do you?"
"Not really," he said. "X-ray vision and super hearing."
"And heat vision," she remembered. "You fucking sabotaged my tape recorder!"
Clark coughed. "Lois, given how Lex feels about me, you having any kind of evidence that you or I have suspicions about him..."
"Well, you didn't have to fucking sabotage my recorder!"
"It seemed easier."
"You do that a lot, don't you," she said, walking toward him, and it was easier to feel angry than the sense of total and utter betrayal and revulsion she felt knowing anyone had a camera in her bedroom. She flushed anew at the thought.
"Lex... Lex wouldn't put bugs in my apartment," she said, under her breath. "He wouldn't. He wouldn't do that."
Clark stood. His shirt sleeves were rolled up his forearms and his brown eyes were sympathetic. "Lois... I know it's hard, but... if he were anyone else. He started dating you soon after the campaign started, right?"
She nodded. "When he announced his intention to run."
"And what better way to keep a handle on what the media was saying." His voice was gentle.
Lois shook her head. "He couldn't be like that. Besides, I'm not even the political reporter..."
"But you are the most fearless reporter on the Planet staff," he pointed out. "You are the best. And if he wanted to head off any speculation, what better way? To convince you that he's this guy, this amazing guy, until there's no way you would even consider he could be a monster... And if he could pull the wool over your eyes, who else would consider it either?"
Lois shook her head. "You still haven't shown me incontrovertible proof," she said.
"Then let me," Clark said firmly, pushing his glasses up.
When he delivered her to her apartment building's door the next morning, Lois felt like she was in a daze. She walked up to her apartment, glad she had taken a shower while she was still in the motel room—she hadn't asked if there was any surveillance in her bathroom, and part of her really didn't want to know.
Her fiancé. The charming billionaire who had managed to get past her defenses and make her love him, for who he was—he wasn't that man at all. He was a monster. And she had fallen for it.
Lois had lain awake for a long time the night before, even after the alcohol had worn off. Clark had given her the whole bed, explaining that he needed to patrol anyway, and when she had seen the faintest question in his eyes, she had assured him that his secret was safe with her. Besides, given all the evidence they were planning on using against the man whose ring she still wore, who the hell would believe anything she said after Lex was revealed to be a total sociopath?
The assistant Clark had found murdered the night before had nearly found the code for Lex's backup server. Once Clark was able to gain access, he would be able to track down all the evidence they needed, he was sure. A few hours. All she had to do was sit tight for a few hours.
At least at the Planet she would feel some degree of safety. She shuddered as she put on one of her favorite suits, more quickly than usual.
She felt like such a fool.
But a small part of her, inexplicably, felt relief. The idea of being Mrs. Lex Luthor, of having a cushy anchor job provided by her husband, of no longer having to work for the success she had—that idea had become repugnant to her before she had even become aware of what Lex was. She would be by herself again, and somehow, slowly, impervious again. She would make her defenses even stronger this time, and she would never, ever, ever be fooled again.
She looked down at the ring, but until she had a chance to throw it in Lex's face, she didn't want to take it off. Not quite yet.
A dozen red roses in a crystal vase were waiting for her when she arrived at the Planet. I miss you, my love. Call me when you get in.
Lois stuck the card back into the plastic holder, then went over to the coffeepot. Once she worked up the nerve to check her cell phone, she saw she had eight missed calls.
He hadn't liked not knowing where she was.
"Lois!" Perry bellowed from the doorway of his office. "C'mere!"
"Coming, Chief," she called back, taking a long sip of her coffee. She followed it with some extra-strength painkiller and chased that with more coffee. The beer the night before had been a bad idea, but she had needed it, to deal with reality.
And, she didn't quite admit to herself, to try to dampen that awareness her entire body seemed to thrum with when she was around Clark.
"Just got a call," Perry told her, when she walked into his office. "Dr. Klein, from the press conference? Has a follow-up from yesterday."
"And you didn't want to send Jones—"
"Well, I'd love to send Jones, but they insisted on you. Guess they just want the best," Perry shrugged. "Hurry back, we have a busy day today."
Lois nodded. Her skin felt almost thinner than usual; she blamed exhaustion and the trauma of the night before, and she didn't feel quite equal to being alone yet. "Mind if I take Jimmy so he can get some photo experience? I think all we had was filed for the last story..."
Jimmy was practically bouncing up and down with excitement when she asked him to accompany her down to STAR Labs, and when he ran back to his desk to grab a camera, she glanced at the roses on her desk and shrugged. She didn't trust herself to call Lex back and actually hold a normal conversation, not yet.
"Clean energy, huh?" Jimmy asked, adjusting his camera bag strap on his shoulder. "Sounds like it could win some awards, doesn't it?"
"It might," Lois replied, with the faintest amusement, "but at this point it's all at the theoretical stage. But Superman's a kind of liaison on the project, so maybe you'll get lucky."
The elevator reached the lobby, and Lois took a step forward, blinking when the car continued downward. "Huh," she mumbled. "Must have hit the wrong button." When she glanced over, though, the parking garage button was lit.
"I thought you usually parked on the street."
"I do," Lois replied, and her stomach clenched. She hadn't grabbed her cell phone; she was afraid Lex was still using it to track her, and those eight missed calls had practically drained the battery anyway.
When the elevator doors opened, Lois pressed the lobby button again, stabbing it a few times for good measure. The doors had just begun to close when a hand shot through the gap between, and Lois immediately fell back, her eyes wide.
"I believe I asked you to call me, love," Lex said, that faintly mocking tone in his voice, and she had never thought it was sinister, not until that moment. A tall, burly man stepped through the opening doors and dragged both Lois and Jimmy out, and as soon as Lois saw Lex's face, she had no doubt that everything Clark had told her the night before was true.
And she had no doubt that Lex didn't intend on either of them walking away from this. Clark would find their bodies in the corner, victims of another apparent mugging.
Lois shook off the thug's grip, and the ease with which he released her told Lois that he had no expectation she would get away. "You could have called," she said.
"I could have," Lex agreed. "But, given the morning I've had, that would have been a mistake. Would you care to tell me where you were last night?"
Clark, Lois thought, almost agonized, but he was safe. He was Superman, for God's sake. If he wasn't safe, none of them were.
"Working on a story," Lois said, pressing her thumb against the band of her engagement ring. "Like I told you."
Lex tilted his head. "A story about Carforth Instruments, maybe?"
Lois kept her expression impassive. "I don't know—"
"You asked Superman about it yesterday."
At the press conference. Lois took a few steps toward Lex. "They're being investigated for illegal practices," she pointed out. "And, given everything else—"
"Given everything else I would think you would find more pressing matters to report on."
"Are you trying to tell me what's worth my time and what isn't?" Lois asked, anger sparking in her. "Because you seem to be doing that a lot lately and I really don't care for it." She jerked the engagement ring off her finger and threw it at him, feeling the faintest satisfied pang as it bounced off his immaculately-clad chest.
Lex glanced down at it, then up at her face. "Kill him," he ordered the thug, who immediately began to move toward Jimmy. "Love, I did not wish to cage you, you must know that, but this curious streak you have simply must be curtailed."
He said it so reasonably. Lois crossed her arms. "Look, Jimmy—"
"Has no part in this," Superman finished, as the henchman hit the floor. Lois glanced over at Superman, surprised, and he looked back at her, his dark eyes concerned, before he whipped back to face Lex. "Give up. Clark Kent has everything he needs now to bury you in maximum security prison for the rest of your life."
Lex shook his head, reaching into his pocket. "I have no intention of going to prison," he snarled, and Lois saw Superman's brow furrow before Lex opened the box.
A small chunk of glowing green rock was inside.
Superman's hands rose to his head, and he winced, staggering back a few steps. Lois had never seen the look of malicious glee that crossed Lex's face at the sight.
"Lois, the car is waiting," Lex said, taking another step toward the superhero, and Superman fell backward, slumping down against a pillar as Lex advanced on him. "Now."
"Lex, please, please, stop it," Lois begged.
"If you want him to live? You'll get in the car!" His voice was so ugly, the light in his eyes so wicked.
Lois glanced at the waiting car. The driver had a gun in his hand.
"Hey!" Jimmy, clearly panicked, was trying to distract Lex. When the shout didn't draw his attention, Jimmy threw his heavy camera bag, with as much force as he could muster, directly at the billionaire's chest. The bag hit Lex and the driver shot at Jimmy, and the photographer flinched, taking cover behind the pillar.
The camera bag did its work, though. Lex glanced up and Lois jammed the point of her heel into his calf, snatching the small box, the glowing rock still inside, out of his hand. They struggled over it for a moment, but as soon as Lois snapped the box shut, Superman's head came back up again. Lex grabbed her by the hair, his expression dark with rage, and when Lex scrabbled for the box, Lois threw it as hard as she could, as far as she could. Her hand swung around to claw at his hard grip, and the driver tried again. The next shot chipped the wall near the elevator.
When Lex managed to get his hand to her throat, Lois gasped, bringing her knee up. He didn't close his hand or try to choke her, though, and past the fury in Lex's gaze, Lois was shocked to see something else.
He loved her. He actually did love her. This man, this terrible corrupt man, did love her.
Superman grasped Lois's wrist, yanking her out of the way as the driver tried for another shot, and stunned Lex with a single punch to the jaw. Lex slumped to the ground, still breathing, and the driver only managed to get four feet before Superman had him out of the car, disarmed and tied up.
Superman staggered a little when he returned to Lois, but he had a smile on his face. "So I think I know what the front of the late edition's going to be," he said.
"Yeah, me too," Lois said, and only then did she realize the adrenaline was making her hands shake.
Jimmy groaned. "Son of a bitch! Perry is gonna kill me." He was gazing down at the cracked lens on his camera.
Lois patted his arm as they headed for the elevator. "I think he'll understand," she said.
A Daily Planet/Washington Post Exclusive
By Lois Lane & Clark Kent
Perry had shown her the paste-ups of the front page before they had finally left. The past day still felt like a fucking dream. Lex Luthor's damn mug shot on the front page. The story she and Clark had managed to bang out just before deadline—they had literally uploaded the story with thirty seconds to spare—was just the tip of the fucking iceberg, but before she and Clark could go through all the evidence he had found on the server, Lois needed a solid ten hours of sleep. And a bottle of bourbon. And some modicum of safety.
Clark didn't speak, not as they went out to her Jeep and climbed in. Both of them were bone-tired, but she wondered how much of it was feigned on his part. She had tasked Jimmy with running the green rock over to STAR Labs for analysis, and Clark had taken a little break from their story just to make sure he made it there and back with no complications.
Lois ran a hand through her already-mussed hair. "You okay?" she asked him. "God, I feel like I just ran a fucking marathon."
Clark nodded. "I can drive," he pointed out.
She shook her head. "No, it's okay," she said softly. "Look, I know... there's probably no one on the other end of the... bugs now, but would you mind helping me get rid of them?"
Lois sat on her couch and watched him move quickly through her apartment, carefully removing switch plates and molding, taking each bug in his strong fist and crushing it to powder before moving to the next. While he was in her bedroom she went to the kitchen and pulled out a bottle of bourbon, coughing after she tipped back the first shot.
Clark walked out of her bedroom pushing his glasses back up the bridge of his nose. "Got them all," he reported, his handsome face grim. "There were—"
She waved her hand in the air, then realized that during his x-ray sweep of the room, he had most likely seen what was in the lowest drawer of her dresser—but then, so had whoever was watching the surveillance feed from her room. "I don't want to know," she said. "I don't. I just... I just want to forget I was ever so fucking naive..."
Clark walked over to her, waiting a beat before he cupped her cheek, his palm so warm against her skin. "He was charming," Clark said, searching her eyes. "You weren't the only person he had fooled, not by far."
"But..." She shook her head, letting her fist fall harmlessly against his broad chest. "I thought he was a good guy," she admitted, closing her eyes. "I thought he was someone like you."
Clark shook his head. "At least you found out now," he pointed out quietly.
Lois's eyes flew open. "Oh God. Oh my God. What if I'd married..." She shook her head rapidly and grabbed the bourbon again, pouring herself a stiff slug and swallowing it quickly, her face twisting at the taste. "Oh God. What if I'd slept with him?..."
Clark's eyebrows rose. Clearly he was surprised that she hadn't. She offered him the bourbon and he shook his head.
"You're sure there's none of those fucking things left," she asked, and he nodded. Lois wrapped her arms around her waist. "God. He was watching me..." She shook her head. "Clark, even there, at the end? When I thought he was two seconds away from killing me? He looked at me and—and he loved me—"
Clark shook his head, his jaw set. "He might have thought he did," he said, "but he wanted to control you, wanted to put you in a cage, and that's not love..."
Lois's heart was speeding as she held his intense gaze. "And it would have been worse than him killing me," she whispered. "You saved my life today."
Clark swallowed. "And you saved mine."
Her gaze dropped from his own to his full lips, and her heart was beating so hard her entire body seemed to tremble with it as her fingers threaded into his hair, as his mouth touched hers.
He lifted her into his arms and carried her effortlessly to her bedroom, and she boosted herself up, her skirt bunching up at her waist, her hips matched to his. He certainly felt no anatomically different from any other man she'd slept with, though she felt herself clench a little in anticipation. He was Superman, after all, and even through their clothes he felt well above average.
He deposited her on her bed and immediately she took her jacket off, unbuttoning her shirt just enough to pull it over her head, watching as he did the same. "So how many women has Superman taken to bed," she asked, rising to shimmy out of her skirt, and began to inch down her pantyhose.
He made a face at her, and she threw him an apologetic glance. "You don't turn it off, do you," he said ruefully, but he was smiling. "Superman hasn't taken any woman to bed. Clark has."
"So you've never been able to be yourself, in bed," she murmured, pulling back the covers. "No little super-powered toddlers running around? No... wife, back home?"
Clark shook his head, and Lois's mouth went dry at the sight of his broad, bare chest. God. He left his boxers on but she immediately began to push them down, when he slid onto the bed with her.
"Oh? If I'm naked it's only fair..."
She blinked and shivered a little. She hadn't seen him move, but suddenly she was naked and he was pushing his underwear down. She opened her legs to him as he slipped back onto the bed, reaching up to take his glasses off.
"And none of them ever figured it out?" she asked, gazing up at him. Only a fool wouldn't be able to see it, when he was like this.
Clark gave her a small smile. "No one had ever pointed out to me before, about the cologne thing," he told her. "Guess that was what it took. And always making sure it was dark."
She cupped his cheek in her palm. "You look so..." She trailed off. She almost never found herself at a loss for words, but now she was.
Clark smiled at her. "You too," he murmured. "I don't know what it was, but from the first damn second I saw you..."
She nodded. "It was like that for me too," she admitted, flushing a little.
"I know," he whispered, brushing his lips against hers, and he was smiling a little. "I could hear your heart."
She opened her mouth to protest, but then his lips closed around her nipple, his hand cupping the join of her thighs, and she tipped her head back, letting out a long, pleased sigh. She ran her fingers through his hair as he suckled against her breast, and when she slipped her other hand down, feeling the hard muscle of his shoulders, she opened her legs even wider to him. He stroked one fingertip up and down the slit of her sex and she shivered in anticipation. God, she was already so incredibly wet.
He switched to her other breast and slipped one finger up between her thighs and she let out a soft fluttering cry, her nails digging into his skin. She chuckled a little, panting. "I'd ask if I'm hurting you—"
"A little," he admitted, then dragged the tip of his tongue around her nipple, "but it feels good... it's okay, you can dig as hard as you want."
She lifted her head to look down at him in concern, rubbing a small circle against his shoulder. "Is it normal that I'd be able to hurt you?"
He shook his head. "The kryptonite," he explained, and then his thumb found her clit and she arched under him, sobbing in pleasure.
And oh God, what he was able to do to her. He rubbed his thumb around her clit so fast he was practically vibrating, but it felt a hundred times better than any vibrator she'd ever tried. He listened to her moans and when she was just beginning to tremble with arousal, her hips grinding against his hand, he would find another rhythm, and soon she was pulsing around his fingers, her eyes rolled back, jerking against him as she came. She sobbed, pleading, and finally forced herself to meet his gaze. His olive skin was just faintly gleaming with exertion, and when she reached down, brushing her fingertips over the head of his cock, he trembled a little.
"Holy fuck," she panted, rocking back and forth, and God, she hadn't come like this in—in ever. "Please, Clark, oh my God, please get inside me."
He kept stroking her clit, letting out a little groan as he just began to push inside her. "You feel so good," he breathed, and she was flushed, slick with sweat, and it had been so fucking long since she had slept with anyone, and God, his cock felt amazing as he pushed the hot, hard length of it deeper into her, filling her, stretching her in gentle strokes as he kept working her clit.
Lois reached up to pull him down to her, and as he sank down she pulled her knees back, trying a move she hadn't done since she was in college. She folded her legs over his shoulders, tipping her head back again, and he groaned. God, he was huge, and this way he felt so fucking tight against her inner flesh.
"God," she squealed, gasping for breath as he finally pushed his full length inside her, his hips flush to hers. "Oh holy fuck that feels so fucking good."
She had thought her orgasm was intense before.
Then he began to stroke in and out of her, in long even thrusts, and then his lips closed around her nipple again—
She began to cry out, her entire body shaking with his every thrust, muffling herself against the pillow. Oh God, what if it took him hours to come, what if he didn't stop—
What if he did stop?
Her inner flesh pulsed around his cock as her orgasm rose even higher, and she had no idea what she was saying, if she was even breathing anymore, if there was anything outside the two of them and the rapid stroke of his cock between her thighs. She raked her nails against his back and he surged against her. "Come, come," she heard, and she realized it was her own voice, hoarse, begging him.
He stroked inside her rapidly a few more times and she shuddered under him, unable to move when he finally pulled out of her. She heard him stroke himself a few times, his cock slick with her arousal, and then let out a stuttering groan as he finally came.
"Shit," Lois breathed, panting. "Oh my God."
Clark chuckled as her legs fell down from his shoulders, limply onto the bed. "So that was good?"
She lazily opened her eyes, nodding, wondering if she was going to be worth anything at all the next day. She felt like she wasn't going to be able to move for a good forty-eight hours. "You didn't have to pull out," she murmured. "I have condoms..."
"Yeah, uh... those don't actually... work, for me," he admitted.
He nodded. "Plus, I have no idea what would happen if I... didn't pull out."
She nodded, reaching for him, and he gently cleaned them up before settling down to her, pulling her to his chest. She closed her eyes, trying to remember the last time she had felt so damn content after sex, willing to stay naked and draped around each other, and realized she couldn't.
Clark stroked his hand over her hair. "That was amazing," he whispered.
"Yeah, it's never been like that for me either," she whispered.
He pulled the covers up over them and she relaxed against him, drifting off far sooner than she wanted, feeling secure for the first time in days.
After that night—and she was eternally grateful to Perry for giving them half the next day off, because they woke each other up more than a few times that night, losing themselves in the pleasure of each other's bodies—as though by mutual consent, they didn't have sex again. They spent almost all their waking hours working at the Planet, and at night, while she slept in his arms, she was aware that soon he would be leaving for Washington again. A few times she wanted to ask if they could keep seeing each other, if he would mind spending his off hours in Metropolis with her, but he was a reporter, same as she, and a superhero on top of that. He had no off hours. More than a few times she had opened her eyes in the dark to find him gone, a note promising his return on his pillow.
Besides, she told herself sternly, he was Superman. She couldn't have picked worse relationship material if she tried. He didn't just have a demanding job; he had the most demanding job ever.
When the last story was done, she followed him to the roof. They were both caffeinated, almost giddy with delight over having it finished—but her heart was sinking. She didn't want to see him go. For as long as he had been around to hold her, the shock and betrayal of what had happened with Lex had seemed manageable. Without him, having to sleep alone in that bed again... she didn't know how she would sleep.
But she was Lois Lane. He would fly off into the sunset and she would be strong again, without him.
Even so, he turned to her and she wrapped her arms around him, burying her face against his shoulder. He slipped his arms tight around her in return, just holding her for a long moment, and neither of them spoke.
"I wish you didn't have to go."
Clark hooked a finger under her chin and tilted her face up so he could look into her eyes. "I wish I didn't either," he murmured.
"I'll see you again?" she said.
He nodded. "Definitely," he replied, and when he brushed his lips over hers, she slipped her arms around his neck and held him tight. They clung together until he finally pulled back.
"You mean you don't want to get rid of me just yet?"
She shook her head. "You're not a half-bad writer," she admitted. "Guess the Smallville Corncob isn't totally useless."
He kissed the tip of her nose. "Don't tell me you've already given it a nickname."
Lois actually blushed faintly, swiping at him. "Okay, if it had a nickname, it definitely wouldn't be that," she told him. "Although I have to say that you've spoiled me for anyone else. You know that, right?"
"Same here," he murmured, and kissed her again. "Okay. I'll see you again soon."
Lois nodded, making herself smile. "You'd better," she said lightly, managing to hold herself that way until he vanished into the distance.
But he was Superman. Lois couldn't believe she'd thought she would see him again, anytime soon. Oh, every now and then she would glance to the window and see a flash of red or blue, but as the days passed, she told herself she was imagining it. He would see her, if he could. Unless it had been sex for him and nothing more.
But it hadn't felt like just sex.
The Monday morning editorial meeting had been full of assignments about the dismantling of Lex Corp, the aftermath of Lex's arrest, trial coverage, in the weeks since the debacle. Lois wasn't looking forward to it, and she had the largest coffee available at her elbow as she sat down.
Perry was laughing at something as he walked into the conference room, which was a nice change. Lois glanced down at her notes, then up at Perry.
Then her heart stopped.
"First order of business," Perry announced loudly, over the din of the room. "I'd like to introduce our newest reporter, here from the Washington Post. Lois, I trust you two will still play well together? Everyone, this is Clark Kent."
Clark reached up to adjust his glasses as he scanned the room, and the grin on his face softened a little when he finally reached Lois.
I thought I'd never really see you again.
Lois shook herself a little, smiling back at him in return. "We'll try, Chief."