Present Tension

by Andariel

Jess requested the following: "Lex + Lois, friendship: bumping into each other at an unlikely place". RWR (Clark/Lex implied) future fic. Many thanks to Wendi for the beta.

This time of year always snuck up on Lois. She wasn't sure if it was the universe playing games with her head, or if it was some sort of mental defense mechanism because she hated this. Hated it with a passion, yet here she was again with a mere two hours left before she had to be back at the Planet with quarry in hand.

Kent's birthday sucked for Lois, no two ways about it.

It wasn't like she could outright ignore it. Clark had made sure of that the first year they'd worked together, by buying her a present when her birthday had rolled around. She hadn't told him when it was for a reason, but he'd somehow found out on his own. Lois still blamed Jimmy for blabbing, though he'd sworn on his Nikon that he hadn't. While she had little patience for social niceties, it never made sense to irritate your working partner. Besides, those damn puppy eyes of Clark's made her very uncomfortable, so she avoided provoking them unless it was necessary. Made shopping seem like a small price to pay.

Until she actually had to do it, that is. She'd already combed through several stores in the Metropolis Galleria, and she'd had zero luck in finding anything appropriate. It would help if she had the first clue what she was looking for, but she'd bought him a pen and pencil set last year, and she reserved restaurant gift certificates for Christmas. Lois approached the Rhyland Designs counter and picked up the tail of a tie colored charcoal gray with splashes of yellow and blue across it. Clark wore a lot of gray suits, so this would probably work.

When the fabric was pulled from her fingers, Lois turned with a ready glare and a cutting remark on the tip of her tongue, but she never got around to speaking. She simply stared with her mouth frozen in a slight gape. "Nice tie. One hundred percent silk, name designer." The fabric fluttered a bit when he released it. "Clark will never wear that."

Lois's jaw snapped shut with a quiet clack. She'd never have guessed that she'd have to sue Ito's for food poisoning, but that seemed more likely than the alternative. "Bad sushi..." she mumbled under her breath.

"Sorry, what was that?"

Lois shook her head, thinking the hallucination might go away, but there he still stood. "I said, 'bad sushi'. I must have had some last night, because there's no way on earth I'm actually seeing Lex Luthor shopping in a mall."

Lex raised a brow at her. "Cute." He'd apparently mistaken her genuine shock for wit -- yay, team Lane. "Slight correction. I'm not shopping in a mall. I'm shopping for a mall."

The hallucination theory smashed to pieces, Lois gathered herself. Mike Branson's water cooler talk at the Planet recalled the relevant information -- pending acquisition of Davenport Industries by LexCorp; Davenport's large portfolio of local real estate. Lois turned to face Lex and sighed melodramatically. "If you're buying Clark this entire mall for his birthday, I'm going to have to find somewhere else to shop."

Lex chuckled quietly. "You're on a roll today." He walked around her, leaving Lois to fall into step next to him. "Actually, I arranged Clark's present several weeks ago. Some of us don't leave things to the last minute."

Lois rolled her eyes. "Some of us don't live with Clark. Makes it a little more difficult to figure out what to get for a guy whose boyfriend can buy him anything." The minute the words left her lips, an idea popped into Lois's head. She wielded her most ingratiating smile and slipped a hand into the crook of Lex's elbow. "Don't suppose you could give me some tips on that score?"

Lex glanced down at her hand on his arm, then looked back up at her. "I don't see why not." A quick glimpse at his watch, and he angled his head toward the exit doors. "It'll have to be over lunch."

Lois stopped, using her hold on Lex's arm to halt him as well. She bit back a wicked grin and pasted an innocent expression on her face. "We can do that here. You should check out the food court."

Lex visibly winced. "I came here to scrutinize an investment, not subject myself to salmonella."

"Come on, Lex. You haven't lived until you've had one of those giant cinnamon rolls as a meal."

"I suspect many people don't live long after having one. I feel my arteries hardening just thinking about it." Lex retrieved a cell phone from his suit pocket and dialed. "Yes, this is Lex Luthor. Reservation for two in, say, fifteen minutes. Thank you." He closed the phone and turned for the doors again. "It's settled. We're eating at La Crique."

Lois smirked at his back and followed. "You sure you don't want to try The Chilidog Palace? They have-"

"No. I won't eat at that place for Clark, so I'm certainly not going there with you. And if you don't stop ruining my appetite, I won't buy you lunch."

Lois skipped a few steps to catch up to Lex and turned a dazzling grin on him. "Why didn't you say it was your treat in the first place?"

Lois ran her fingernail along the lip of her wineglass, wishing that Lex would finish ordering so the waiter would leave. She needed information fast, and burning an hour on lunch wasn't helping her shopping stratagem at all. She wouldn't put it past Lex to torment her during the process of discussing Clark's gift. He seemed to enjoy making her squirm, regardless of whether their conversation entailed news stories or not. Lois often wondered how he and Clark managed to stay together, let alone live together, given Lex's inherent distrust of reporters. She had no doubt whatsoever that she and Lex wouldn't be friendly at all if Clark weren't her partner.

Owing Clark for that had never sat well with her, but she had to admit gratitude for it if it got her through this birthday nightmare relatively unscathed.

When the waiter finally departed, Lois didn't give Lex a chance to derail her with small talk. "So, Clark's gift?"

Lex chuckled, taking a sip of his Scotch before replying. "I see the art of directness is not lost on you."

Lois didn't bother being affronted. She knew that coming from Lex it was a compliment. "It's what makes me a good reporter. Come on, Lex, spill." When nothing explicit was forthcoming, Lois decided that a circuitous route might work better. "What did you get him?"

Lex leaned back in his chair, studying her like a particularly fascinating social experiment. "Something Clark has been wanting for a long time."

Lois opened her mouth to prod for further details, but she noticed the glint in Lex's eyes and paused. He looked way too self-satisfied, almost daring her without words to push him. "This isn't some sex thing, is it?" Picturing Clark having sex was only one step less creepy than thinking about her mom and dad doing it. Not that Clark wasn't good looking. Even the hideous glasses and messy hair couldn't mar his appearance enough to make Clark anything less than gorgeous. It's just... he seemed so white bread and awkward, though Lois had to believe he had something going for him since he'd kept Lex Luthor faithful for over ten years. Hidden depths.

Very, very hidden.

Lex laughed out loud, and Lois could only imagine what her expression looked like to get that reaction from him. "Not directly. It's a vacation."

Vacation? Where could Clark have wanted to go that Lex wouldn't have already taken him? And, more importantly, how was it going to help Lois with her birthday present dilemma? More than a little aggravated with this game of twenty questions, Lois snarked at him. "You finally agreed to attend the national tractor pulling championships, huh? I'm sure Clark is thrilled."

Rather than irritating him, she seemed to have merely managed to amuse Lex more. Jerk. "It's not where we're going, it's the conditions of the vacation that Clark requested. No business contact for a full week. The cell phone and laptop stay at home, and the only people with our number will be Clark's parents, just in case of an actual emergency."

Considering what a workaholic Lex was, Lois couldn't help being impressed and just a little bit touched. "I'm sure we'll have to peel Clark off the ceiling when he finds out." It occurred to her that no peeling had been necessary so far, and that led to the logical conclusion, "You haven't told him yet, have you?"

"No, I haven't. I'm telling him tonight, so keep this between us."

A vague threat hummed underneath the words, and Lois found the whole thing increasingly sweet. However, telling Lex she thought his behavior was cute would be the death of any future exclusives, so she gave him an earnest expression and nodded. "My lips are sealed."

Just then, the waiter arrived with their salads, and Lois abruptly recalled why she'd asked about Lex's gift to Clark in the first place. She had to be back at work in less than and hour and she still had no idea what to buy Clark for his birthday. She picked up her fork and waited for the server to depart. Skewering an olive, she held it up, using it to gesture at her dining companion. "Enough about you. What am I going to buy Clark for his birthday?"

Lex paused with a tomato halfway between his plate and his mouth. He smirked at her. "I have a few ideas." He stripped the food from the fork tines with his teeth and chewed slowly, so Lois ate her olive and waited for him to finish. "First, I have a question."

Lois swallowed an impatient groan along with her food. "Are you aiming for my job, Lex? It's a simple question that really doesn't require an interview."

Lex shrugged as he chewed another mouthful of salad. "Blame it on my inquisitive nature. What do you know about Clark?"

Lois reminded herself that this would ultimately be more effective than wandering through random stores with no idea what she was looking for. It helped suppress the urge to scream. "Raised in Hicksville, Kansas. Lives with you. Has terrible taste in eyewear and types faster than anyone else I know. Has a bad habit of disappearing just before a big story breaks but is otherwise a skilled reporter."

Lex nodded, completely unsurprised by her response from all appearances. "What about hobbies?"

The conversation was beginning to rankle her, and she allowed a note of irritation to slip into her voice. "Other than annoying the crap out of me and obsessively balancing his checkbook every month, I have no idea what Clark does for fun."

Lex raised a brow at her and took another bite of his salad. Making her wait for reasons only known to him, but it didn't help shore up her patience at all when he took a sip of water and wiped his mouth on a napkin before replying. "Clark is an astronomy buff."

Finally, something she could use. Lois sighed with relief and relaxed into her chair. "Why didn't you say so in the first place?"

Lex shrugged. "Maybe because I assumed you already knew."

Lex Luthor, master of the subtle reprimand. Lois felt her spine stiffen, so she took a sip of wine to ease the tension. "Clark and I don't talk about those types of things."

"Why is that, do you think?"

Lois blinked. "I don't follow you."

Lex's eyes bored into hers, as though he were trying to figure out what she wasn't saying. "You've worked together for nearly three years, and you've never talked about anything but the stories you're following?"

Lois snorted. "Of course not! We talk about..." She searched her memory for a more personal conversation between herself and Clark, something beyond small talk and investigations. She came up with very little -- discussions of Clark's family reunion last June; her search for a new apartment when the old one got too cramped. The scarcity of incidents shocked her a little, but she refused to feel guilty over it. "I guess we don't really talk that much."

"And that's the way you want it."

Lois thought about that statement, the way Lex hadn't phrased it as a question. She had wanted it that way at first, she admitted to herself. She'd been furious with Perry for assigning her a partner; especially a green kid whom she'd believed would only slow her down. She'd purposely taken her displeasure out on Clark, and thinking back on it, she could trace the decreasing interest Clark took in her as a person back to those first months. His enthusiasm for obtaining her friendship had gradually waned with every sarcastic comment she'd made. By the time Lois had gotten over her bitterness and had come to appreciate Clark's abilities as a partner, they'd already settled into the roles of coworkers who communicated at the level of acquaintances.

A frown line formed between Lois's eyes. It did seem pretty farcical that she didn't have more than a few sentences to say about someone she'd worked with every day for almost three years. Even more ironic that she didn't know enough about him to buy him a birthday present without help. "It's a little late to change things now."

Lex studied her silently. She could almost hear him gauging her response for sincerity. "Not unless you want it to be. Clark is extremely stubborn at times, but he's also very forgiving. Believe me, he's had to be."

Lois wondered what put that knowing undertone in Lex's voice. It obviously alluded to unspoken things in Lex's past, particularly his past with Clark, but it was none of her concern, really. She shrugged, trying to return the conversation to a casual level. "Maybe we're better off this way."

Lex set his fork down and folded his hands together on the table, leaning toward her. "Perhaps. You'll have to determine that for yourself. All I can give you is the benefit of my experience -- it's much less work to let Clark in than to keep him out. And I've never regretted the decision to trust him."

Before Lois could answer, the waiter arrived with their entrees. Using the excuse to think instead of talking about uncomfortable things, she picked up her dinner fork and started eating her pasta.

Two days later, Lois walked up to Clark's desk with a wrapped package hidden behind her back. "Hey Kent."

Clark glanced up over the top of his glasses and removed the pencil from his mouth. "I'm almost done with the copy on Senator Gordon. Did you get anything from Detective Lewis on that serial mugger?"

"Christ, Clark. Don't you think about anything but work?" She softened the rebuke with a grin and dropped the gift on Clark's desk. "Happy birthday. Sorry it's a little late."

Clark grinned, tossing his pencil down and grabbing the package. "I thought you forgot."

Lois snickered, settling her hip against the edge of Clark's desk. "Like that was possible with the cake and streamers. It just took me some time to find it." Clark looked up at her with a puzzled expression, and she felt a slight twinge in her stomach. "Well, go on! Open it."

Clark ripped off the paper, and his eyes went wide. "A first edition of Asimov's Comets and Meteors. This book has been out of print for years! How did you find it?"

Lois thought Clark might bounce out of his seat with the amount of excitement he was displaying. She got a little surge of shared glee from his reaction. "You know me, Kent. I got connections. Open the cover."

Clark complied, and his eyes got impossibly wider. "Autographed? This is... wow, Lois. I can't believe you did this. How did you know?"

A wide smile spread across Lois's lips. It felt genuine and natural, so she didn't try to fight it. "Like I said, connections."

Clark shook his head bemusedly and stood up. Lois straightened so he wouldn't tower over her so much. "It's a great gift. Thank you." Clark made a stuttering movement forward, and before Lois could determine what he was on about, he clasped his arms around her in a hug.

It felt strange, but not bad, so she lightly hugged him back.

When Clark released her, Lois gave him an uncertain smile. "You're welcome, Clark." She rubbed her hands on her thighs to rid them of the nervous sweat and went back to her own desk. Sitting down allowed her to regain her composure, and she pointed a finger at him. "I'm reserving you for lunch tomorrow. My treat."

Clark grinned widely at her, the smile seeming to light him up from the inside until he glowed with it. Lois was beginning to understand what Lex saw in him. "Great! Where are we going?"

Lois gave him a look like he'd just asked the most stupid question ever.

"The Chilidog Palace, of course."

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