by Talya Firedancer

It's like she's finally realized five years have gone by and she hasn't seen him in all that time.

"Coffee, Clark?"

He looks up from his desk in slow motion, needing that much time to register on all levels that Lois is standing there, that her eyes are fixed on him, the words she uttered were aimed in his direction, and she does in fact expect a response from him, Clark Kent. She doesn't have a paper cup in her hand and from this he draws an inference.

"You...want me to go get you some?" He moves as if to get up from his chair.

Her foot taps once, twice. "No, Clark, you asked me the other week if I wanted to go and get some coffee with you." She hikes her purse strap higher on her shoulder, casting him an exasperated look. "Here I am."

Try six months ago, he thinks, but wisely keeps to himself.

"Okay," he says slowly, looking around for the joke, or the camera, then it dawns on him. "Lois, if you want me to look after Jason--"

She brushes hair out of her face. "Clark! He's with Richard. He's fine. You, me, coffee. Come on, this offer expires in about thirty seconds, let's go."

He hastily extracts himself from his chair and stands, unsure whether he should move from where he's rooted, but she's already moving. With an internal sigh he squares his shoulders, palms his pocket to ensure his wallet is where he left it, and follows.

Not so long ago, it was sweet torture riding the edge of 'what if she finds out' but it would have been a relief, after all, if she had - even if any moments thereafter were unscripted. Now all he can think beyond 'what if she finds out' is crystallized in the terror of not wanting her to. There are questions she would want answered, rightfully so, and he can't stand the thought of her face crumpling in betrayal.

Any ending where he tells her will end badly. She has to find out on her own.

They're silent in the elevator, but for once it's a comfortable silence. He isn't expecting her to say anything, and she doesn't, so it works out. They step out to a Beanery down the street and he waits in line while she picks a table, then he delivers the goods: a double-tall sugar free nonfat latte for her and a venti mocha frappuccino for him, because growing boys need the supplement as Richard often tells him.

"How's it going, Clark?" Lois asks him, with a smile that his best scrutiny can only interpret as friendly. It takes him off guard, because he was expecting bullet-fired questions or perhaps a favor levied.

"Um, great, I guess," he says, giving her a sheepish, slightly doofy smile. It's this kind of behavior exactly that sets her on edge, keeps her on arm's length from him, and it's worked before so why wouldn't it now?

She turns a shrewd look on him in exchange, and says nothing for so long it makes him uncomfortable. His lip peels up from his teeth in an awkward not-quite-grin and he looks away.

"You know, Clark, I thought you had a crush on me for the longest time." The matter-of-fact statement throttles his expectation and he glances back in her direction, startled and eyes wide to show for it. She smiles at him, an innocent twitch of her lips.

"I, uh, well...what?" he finishes helplessly.

She waves a hand. "Sorry, it's got nothing to do with anything, I guess," she says lightly. "I just, I suppose, well I wasn't expecting you to get together with Richard, of all people."

He blinks, shapes a few abortive words, and leans back from the table, framing his drink with both hands. "I - I didn't..." He can't finish that one, 'I didn't take him from you.' He shakes his head, then his mouth firms. His mind plots the first of several answers, weighs the outcomes, offers up the least offensive prospect. "Uh, neither was I."

"What do you see in him?" she asks, and he can hear the real question beneath. What does he see in you? He looks at her with a slice of amazement then directs his attention to the coffee beverage between his hands before she can realize the full weight of his gaze.

"More to the point, maybe it's because he sees me," Clark mutters to the lid of his coffee before taking a sip, looking out the window and if it's unfair because he knows there's no way she could have heard that, too bad. He sorts through and discards a half-dozen responses before settling on, "Well, I can talk to him about anything."

She leans forward a bit, almost seeming to peer through him. "Clark, friends can do that." A credulous smile tugs at her mouth.

Clark bends an ironic look on her. "You didn't specify any particular quality, Lois, and surely you didn't think I'd satisfy that sort of prurience? You didn't want to compare notes, did you? Or, were you wondering what a man would find most attractive in him versus--"

Lois flushes and looks away. "Uh, never mind."

Clark hides a tiny grin with the act of taking another sip from his coffee. She did not expect him to be that direct.

She's looking out the window, and her hands are gripping the edge of the table, white-knuckled. She wants to ask him something. He can sense the question forming in the air between him. Her throat works, but she keeps her mouth shut, lips compressed in an unhappy line.

"The first time I had any sort of inkling," Clark said gently, keeping the words pitched low into the space between them, "was shortly after Richard started sleeping on my couch."

Her head lifts and her eyes widen. She straightens, brushing hair out of her face again, shaking her head at him a bit and grimacing before reaching for her untouched coffee again. "Oh...oh, I wasn't...I mean, I didn't think..." she falters, and breaks off to give him a relieved smile, and they'll both pretend that's true.

Clark slurps at his drink and looks at the passing traffic and he's strangely grateful that there are no calls for duty. "Coffee break is about over," he offers up.


They head back for the office and it's not until they're waiting for the elevator that she speaks up again, puncturing the peaceable bubble that formed in the interim.

"I don't get it," she says, fretful. "We were together for five years. I should have known... he should have said... I mean, men like Richard just don't up and turn gay overnight, you know!"

Clark blinks, glancing at her from the corner of his eye. Lois's jaw is set and she gazes grimly forward.

"And's weird, you know? I would have expected after Richard and I broke up that you'd be asking me out to dinner, not my ex-fiancÚ!" Now a trace of hurt enters the bewilderment.

It's perhaps one of the cruelest things she could have said, he thinks, and clinically he wonders why the barb fails to catch him. That one statement is an acknowledgment that on some level she's been aware of his feelings and continued with her strategy of utter disregard in between plying him for favors. He shifts uncomfortably from one foot to the other, saying at last, "Look, you are going to have to let this go."

Her head jerks and he knows she's looking at him, eyes wide.

"Maybe I did have a crush on you," he continues, and gives her a fraction of a smile. "But I was gone a long time, and things changed. I moved on." He steps forward as the doors to the elevator part.

They face one another and her eyes seek him out, dazed, somewhat shocked. There's a realization surfacing there. She shakes her head and backs up, taking slow steps away from him.

He closes his eyes, swallows, and presses the button for the bullpen's floor. "Goodbye, Lois." The doors snap shut.