Fear of Flying

By Yvonne Connell <Yvonne@yconnell.fsnet.co.uk>

Rated G

Submitted July 1998

Summary: Arianna Carlin's plan for revenge has a surprising emotional impact on the lives of Lois, Clark, and Superman.

*This is my first attempt at fanfic, so please be kind to my fragile ego! Any comments/criticisms are welcome, as long as they're flattering (only joking). The story is a bit of a personal indulgence, so apologies if the plot's a bit thin - I don't think I'm very good at writing villians. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.*

***

The gates of Metropolis State Penitentiary rolled open, and Arianna Carlin stepped out into the sunshine. So good to be out of that place. What a waste of a person's time, she thought. It was about time they came up with something more imaginative for dealing with society's 'alternative thinkers', as she liked to call what others referred to as criminals. No matter, at least she could resume where she'd left off before she was incarcerated. She hadn't allowed herself to think about future plans while she'd been inside; instead she'd concentrated on 'playing the game' so that she could get out as soon as possible. Now, she had to start some research into her old adversaries, Superman and Lois Lane. Superman had refused to die previously when shot by her kryptonite bullet, and he had ruined her plan for Lois Lane's demise. This would now be rectified. Superman would be destroyed, and when he was out of the way, Lois Lane would be easy prey to whatever method of destruction Arianna finally settled on.

***

Clark Kent whistled tunelessly to himself as he sat at the breakfast table reading the sports section of the Daily Planet.

"Clark, if you don't stop that right now, I'll tell the world that Superman can't carry a tune," warned Lois as she pushed the refrigerator door shut with her hip.

"Sorry honey, I didn't realise I was doing it," Clark said. "Besides, I think the world has better things to worry about than Superman's musical abilities."

"Yes, like this," said Lois, pointing to an article on the front page by one of their colleagues.

Under the headline "Lex Luthor's Ex-Wife Released", it told how Arianna Carlin had just been released from prison, and recounted the story of how she had tried to turn the world against Superman by the use of subliminal messages, and how she had tried to implicate Lois in the affair.

"Lois, plenty of people we helped put behind bars get released, and we never hear from them again."

"I know, I wasn't saying we should be worried, I was just agreeing it's more newsworthy than your inability to carry a tune."

"But do you still love me despite my disability?" Clark asked, smiling broadly.

Lois pulled the paper away and kissed him. "Yeah, there's one or two other areas where you score A-plus," she said, looking at him mischievously.

"Oh, and which would those be?" he asked, pulling her onto his lap.

"Sorry, it would take too long to list them."

His eyebrows shot up.

"Come on, loverboy, we've got to get to work." She jumped up and started clearing up the breakfast things.

***

Arianna sat at a table by the window of her room in the cheap hotel she'd chosen to stay in. She congratulated herself on the successful execution of the next stage in her plan - assembling the tools for Superman's destruction. How appropriate they were!

The love of her life, Lex Luthor, had adopted the airs and graces of an English country gentleman, and took a lively interest in the pastimes and sports of that set. During their marriage, he'd introduced her to some of his favourite sports, and while she'd been hopeless at clay-pigeon shooting, and fencing seemed pointless without real swords, she was surprised to discover that she had a natural talent for archery and the crossbow. For her birthday one year, he had given her a beautifully ornate bow; really an antique more than a weapon, which she had treasured ever since.

While she was in prison, it had been kept secure in her safe-deposit box, along with the small amount of kryptonite she'd had left over from making that bullet which Superman somehow survived. Retrieving both items had been easy - the bank staff assumed the bow was for ornamental purposes only, and their security systems weren't designed to detect kryptonite. She hadn't even needed a lead-lined container to remove it.

Now she picked up the fruit of her most recent labours and twirled it around in her fingers. It caught the sunlight, and she reflected on how beautiful it looked - the shaft of turned wood with its green-tinted arrowhead casting points of light around the room as it moved. Such a shame to have to lose such a fine piece of craftsmanship, but never mind, the end result would be worth the loss.

***

Lois and Clark spent an uneventful day at work, and returned home with Lois threatening Clark with another of her cooking experiments. Just lately, she'd been trying to master the still-elusive art of cookery, with mixed results. Her lasagna still seemed to turn out more Cajun than Italian, but she was finding that simple pasta-and-sauce dishes were usually more hit than miss, and had amazed Clark with her own invention using marscapone cheese and sun-dried tomato paste. She was hoping for another success tonight with some tomatoes and a bottle of red wine. Clark, on the other hand, was beginning to tire of pasta (he was starting to regret that remark about pasta and 'what it did for him'). He was secretly relieved when her latest attempt proved to be more soup than sauce, and they had to resort to the local Chinese.

After dinner, Lois broached the subject that had been preying on her mind for a while.

"How are we going to make sure my Mom doesn't tell anyone?"

"What? Sorry, Lois, you've lost me"

"When we tell her, I mean. How are we going to make sure she doesn't tell?"

"Tell what?"

"Do you mean, what are we going to tell her, or how do we make sure she doesn't tell?"

"I haven't a clue. You tell me."

"I mean, it's not like she's well-known for keeping secrets. There was that time Daddy bought me a new bike for my birthday as a surprise, and she'd managed to tell me even before he got back from hiding it in Mrs. Belcanto's garage. Maybe we shouldn't tell her at all. But then, how do we explain the flying? We could tell them not to when she's around, but then that would make them think she'd not trustworthy, and that wouldn't be -"

"LOIS!"

"Clark?"

"You're doing that babbling thing again - not that I don't love you for it, but I'd really like to understand what it is that's bothering you."

"I don't babble, I just think and talk faster than average."

"OK, so could you slow down a bit for us mere mortals?"

"Honey, you're definitely not 'mere', and we're not even sure how mortal you are. Anyway, what I meant was, I think we're going to have to tell Mom about the Superman thing when our kids start growing up, and I'm worried that she'll find it hard to keep the secret."

"Lois, we don't even know if we can have kids yet. Let's worry about that for a while longer before we start on your Mom."

"Well, yes, but I like to think ahead."

Clark nearly made a remark about that claim, but thought the better of it. Instead he yawned, stretched, and said, "Race you upstairs?"

"OK, but you have to hop backwards with your eyes shut."

This was a game they'd been playing on and off since they'd moved out of their apartments into the brownstone. It was one of those small, silly things that made Clark grateful he'd been so lucky to find Lois - they were so different in many ways, she the headstrong, "leap before you look" one (despite her recent apparent change of heart), he the cautious one, always anxious to make sure everyone was taken care of. Yet they shared many things - the same sense of humour, the deep sense of right and wrong, and right now, a playfulness which Clark would find hard to explain to an outsider. After all, why should two mature adults race each other upstairs, especially when the result was always a foregone conclusion. But Lois thought she'd come up with a winner tonight. It must be years since he last hopped anywhere (probably at school races), and I bet he's never tried it at superspeed, she thought to herself. And he might be blessed with supervision, but he can't use it when his eyes are shut, *and* he's got to remember the layout of the house in reverse. So why was he at the top of the stairs before she was?

"It's not fair, when you go at superspeed, I can't even tell if you're cheating or not, " she protested.

"Superman doesn't cheat," he chided.

She rolled her eyes at him. "Well, just for that, I'm first in the bathroom tonight."

They finally flopped into bed, laughing at the prospect of her Mom trying to race after a room full of levitating infants.

Lois snuggled up close to Clark. "Love you."

"Love you too, and I really *don't* cheat."

A few hours later, Clark was jerked awake by a familiar cry. He crept out of bed, trying not to disturb Lois, and was soon out on one of his regular patrols interrupting the best efforts of Metropolis' criminal element. After finishing up at a crime-scene in the Hobbs Bay area, he flew away slowly, thinking hard about what one of the police officers had said.

"Sometimes I think my kids are convinced I'm Santa Claus - Christmas is about the only time I see them for any length of time." Will I be like that, Clark wondered. How am I going to make sure any kids Lois and I have don't end up just reading about me in the newspapers? Maybe they'll think they've got two Dads - one who rushes out the door in the morning in a business suit, and another who flies out the window at night in tights…

Something hit him in the side. All of a sudden, he was falling. Oh god, the pain…he couldn't think…got to stop…stop falling…his arm hit something…he tried to grab it but it was gone. Then he was crashing through something…green…leaves, branches hitting him, slowing his fall. But not enough…can't stop…got to stop…he hit the ground and lay dazed for a moment, too shocked to feel anything.

What…what happened? - he was almost too frightened to think, breathe, move, anything. After what seemed like an eternity, his mind started to catch up with his situation, and he began to realise what had happened. He must have been hit by something made of kryptonite in mid-flight, and now he was lying somewhere…he felt grass under his hand. Must be a park…he remembered crashing through the branches of a tree. As his wits slowly returned, so did sensation, and he became aware of the intense pain spreading out over his whole body. It seemed worst on his right side, and when he finally dared to move, to try and locate the source of the pain, the agony was unbearable. It was making it difficult to breathe, and the harder he fought for breath, the more painful it became. He began to feel desperate - how could he help himself if he couldn't even move, could hardly breathe? Lois, he thought, I need you, please help me.

Lois awoke with a start. What was that, she thought, and lay still for a minute, listening. She thought maybe someone had shouted out in the street outside, but she couldn't hear anything now. She turned over, and reached out an arm to wrap around Clark. Her hand dropped through thin air to the coverlet. Saving the world again, she thought fuzzily in her half-asleep state. How's this going to work out when we've got kids? Her mind batted that thought around for a bit, until she dropped back to sleep.

Clark was in agony. He'd tried calling for help, but couldn't summon up the energy for more than a whisper. Desperately, he had tried to reach Lois through that special link they seemed to share, but had no idea if it had worked. He seemed to have been lying there forever, and his whole universe had shrunk to just the small patch of grass that he was lying on, the occasional rustle of wildlife in the undergrowth, and his constant battle to breathe against the pain which was engulfing him. He was growing so weak that he had even begun to stop feeling frightened, he just wanted it all to end. He felt himself fading away, until consciousness finally disappeared altogether.

The alarm rang loudly, announcing the start of a new day and bringing Lois awake. She groaned in protest, hoping Clark would shut it up and give her a bit longer to savour that delicious limbo between sleep and wakefulness. It kept on ringing, so she mumbled, "Clark, kill it with your vision-thing or something." Still it rang, so she abandoned all hope of a gentle awakening and sat up abruptly.

"Clark - " she started, and then stopped when she realised that he wasn't there. She remembered he'd been gone when she woke up in the middle of the night. But he doesn't usually spend all night out, she thought. She turned on the TV to see if there were any major catastrophes he might have been involved with, but the biggest news story seemed to be about the Spice Girls break-up.

A small seed of panic started to rise up at the back of her mind, but she pushed it away and concentrated on getting ready for work. He'll be there before me, waiting with some story of an incredible rescue, or a touching account of a lonely old lady he just had to stay with after her apartment was burgled.

By the time she reached work, she'd come up with a hundred different plausible reasons why he was missing - all of them quite safe, reasonable things involving absolutely no risk to life or limb, of course.

"Lois, where's that husband of yours?" Perry interrupted her reverie. "I've got a heart-warming piece that's right up his street."

"Oh, he's…had to go to the dentist." How many times had he 'gone to the dentist' this year, she thought, studying Perry for signs of incredulity.

"Well, good, we should all take better care of our teeth," said Perry, wincing at the memory of his last visit. "Make sure he comes and sees me as soon as he's back, though."

Lois sat at her desk, the feeling of panic growing stronger by the minute. Where was he? Maybe she could track his activities last night…she dialed her police contact.

"Hi, John! Kind of a slow news day today - got any good Superman stories for me?"

"Not really, Lois, just your typical run-of-the-mill crime-busting stuff."

"Like what?" she asked, trying not to sound too desperate.

"Oh, I think he was down around Hobbs Bay last night, helping us with the usual band of low-life that keeps us busy there."

"Where, specifically?" she asked, abandoning all pretence of the professional reporter hungry for news.

"Jeez, Lois, the Daily Planet must be really stuck for news. Well, I think the last place he was at was near Kerrigan's Bar, on the corner of 5th and 9th. But you really won't find anything much there for a story."

"Well, thanks anyway," she said, hanging up.

She drove to the bar, looking frantically around her as she went. She wasn't sure what she was looking for, but at least this was better than sitting in the newsroom waiting for him to turn up. She parked and got out, holding firmly onto the panic alarm in her pocket. This wasn't an area she relished walking around alone in, especially when she wasn't wearing some sort of disguise to help her blend into the surroundings.

"Hey, lady, chauffeur have the day off?" shouted someone from the other side of street. She continued walking quickly, suddenly finding herself at the corner of a rundown little square with a couple of trees and a park bench.

She sank onto the bench, tears forming at the back of her eyes. She leant her elbows on her knees, closed her eyes, and put her face in her hands.

"Where are you, Clark?" she whispered.

After a minute, she opened her eyes. Something caught the corner of her eye. She looked across, and saw a small piece of red fabric on the grass near her. Her breath caught in her throat. Running over, she picked it up - it was part of Clark's cape. Now her eyes were everywhere, scanning the area for more clues. There was something under the furthest-away tree - it might be a person. Don't get your hopes up, she told herself as she forced herself to walk rather than run over. It's probably just a drunk. As she got closer, she could see the blue of his suit -

"Oh god, Clark!"

She dropped to her knees beside him. She was glad she'd found him, but what had happened to him, was he alive, please make him be alive - the thoughts tumbled through her mind as she leant over him. She touched his face - still warm, thank God.

"Clark…Clark, can you hear me?"

Was he breathing? She listened, watching his chest. She heard rasping sounds - yes he was. OK, next - she shook his shoulder gently.

"Clark, please wake up," she pleaded. "Please talk to me."

What was she going to do next if he didn't wake up? He was Superman, so she couldn't call an ambulance, they'd find out everything. What to do? Panic was beginning to talk hold of her, but then -

"Lois…"

It was barely a whisper, but he had said it.

"Lois," he said again.

"Clark, it's OK, I'm here," she said, and hugged his shoulder lightly to reassure him.

He gave a sharp intake of breath, as if in pain.

"I'm sorry, Clark, did I hurt you?"

"Side hurts," he said.

"Where?" she asked, her eyes searching around his body for clues .

"Side," he said again, trying to lift up his right hand to show her.

She leaned over him, and gasped at what she saw. An arrow was protruding from his side, and blood was seeping down the side of his suit, staining the grass an odd shade of greenish-red. She drew a deep breath.

"OK, Clark, everything's going to be all right, you'll be fine soon."

She had to stay calm for his sake. All of a sudden, her panic was gone, and she knew what to do. He had to get to a hospital, and whether they found out the truth or not didn't matter, his health was more important than The Secret. She pulled out her cell phone, and dialed 911.

The ambulance drew to a halt at the corner of the park, and the EMTs came running up to Lois and Clark. They did a double take when they realised that their casualty really was Superman - they always received a few calls for 'Supermen' who needed medical attention, and had assumed that this was just another those calls.

"What happened?" asked one of them.

"I'm not sure, but I think he must have fallen while he was in mid-flight. Someone shot him with an arrow - here." Lois replied, trying to stay calm enough to give useful information. "He can't breathe very well - I think that might be because the arrow is made of kryptonite - it usually affects him that way."

"An *arrow*? Well, that's a change from the usual bullet. Let's take a look."

The EMTs worked on Clark for a while, giving him oxygen to help his breathing, and checking for other injuries.

"Looks like he's been pretty lucky, Miss. Apart from the arrow, I mean. We can't find any evidence of any other major injuries. The bad news is that we'll have to cut the shaft of the arrow off before we can safely move him. We'll try to keep it as still as possible, but there's a good chance this is going to hurt."

"Can't you remove the arrow now? The longer he's exposed to the kryptonite the more dangerous it gets, and I'm sure it would help his respiration if the kryptonite was taken away from him," Lois asked.

"I'm sorry, but we just can't risk that here; we don't have the facilities they have at the hospital to do that sort of thing. OK, the sooner we do this the better."

He took out some cutters, and Lois moved around to sit by Clark's head. She picked up his hand and held it tight.

"They're going to cut the end of the arrow off now. Just hold on to me."

Their eyes met and locked. He nodded slightly, and gripped her hand as hard as he could. His eyes closed in pain as the EMT took hold of the arrow, and his whole body convulsed when the action of cutting the arrow made it judder at the point where it entered his side. Lois stroked his forehead, wishing she could somehow transfer some of his pain to herself.

Now the EMTs could move Clark onto a stretcher, and they bundled him into the ambulance. Lois followed the ambulance in her car as it sped to the hospital. As soon as they arrived, Clark was whisked away into the ER. Lois tried to follow him, but was stopped by an orderly who said she should wait outside, as there wasn't any more she could do for him right now, and the medics were doing their very best for him.

She slumped down in a chair, suddenly exhausted from the morning's events. There was a pay-phone in a corner of the room, and she realised that she should call Clark's parents to let them know what had happened to him. She needed privacy though; she couldn't afford for anyone to overhear what she would say, so she pulled out her phone and walked around until she found a quiet spot near some vending machines.

She dialed the number, and listened to it ringing. How was she going to tell them? She imagined them at home in Smallville, a normal day for them. Jonathan was probably around the farm somewhere, and Martha was most likely in the kitchen baking, or working on one of her sculptures. Lois was going to have to shatter their peaceful, safe world.

"Hello?" Martha had picked up the phone.

Lois tried to speak, but the words got stuck.

"Hello, is there anyone there?" Martha asked again.

"Martha, it's Lois," Lois said in a small, strangled voice.

"Lois! This is a surprise. Jonathan and I were just talking about you. What's up?"

"I…Clark…" Lois couldn't manage to say anything more before her emotions took hold of her and she began to sob.

"Lois, what is it?" Martha asked, but Lois couldn't stop the tears. "Lois, dear, it's all right, just take your time. Has something happened?"

"Clark…he's…he's been shot," Lois managed to get out between sobs.

"Oh no! Lois, is he - ?" Martha didn't want to ask the question.

Lois swallowed a few times and managed to gain some more control of her voice. "He's in the hospital. I found him at Hobbs' Bay. It's an arrow - kryptonite arrow. I don't know much more, because he's in the ER and they won't let me in."

"Lois, you just hang on. We'll be there just as soon as we can. Is it Metropolis General?"

"Yes. I'll be here."

They hung up and Lois was alone again with her living nightmare.

She went back to her seat in the waiting room. A doctor came out of the ER and walked towards her. Was she Ms Lane, the lady who had found Superman? Yes, she was - how was he? The doctor told her that Superman needed emergency surgery to remove the arrowhead, but that they were faced with a dilemma. As Lois was the nearest thing Superman had to a relative, they felt that it was appropriate to ask her to make a difficult decision on his behalf.

The doctor explained that because Superman was not human, they had no information as to how his body would react to their drugs, specifically any anesthetics they would need to use. Superman was obviously in danger while the arrow was still inside him, but he also faced possible danger if they went ahead with the surgery. Lois looked at the doctor in despair.

"How can I make that decision for him?"

"I'm sorry, Ms Lane, but someone has to. Would you like a minute or two to think about it?"

"OK, " said Lois, thinking, I must reach the Kents before they leave for the airport. "Can you give me a minute alone?"

She went back to the vending machines and rang the Kent farm. Thankfully, the Kents hadn't left, and Jonathan picked up the phone. Lois explained the situation to him.

"Lois, I think there's only really one answer here. We have to risk the surgery, for Clark will surely die if we don't."

"Jonathan, are you sure? We might just end up making things worse, not better."

"Didn't Clark once say something about risk-taking? I think if he was able to make the decision, he would want us to try."

"You're right, I suppose."

"Lois, I'm sorry you'll have to face this without us there to support you and Clark, but you're a strong lady. Your love for Clark will get you through this, and Clark knows you're there for him. Try to get some rest, and if you can, eat something. Clark's going to need you to stay strong for him, and you can't do that if you're not taking care of yourself." Jonathan knew that Lois was living on her nerves right now, and probably hadn't eaten all day.

"Jonathan, you're right, I'll try, " said Lois, but she didn't think she could face any food right now.

"Try chocolate - that's what you like, isn't it?"

Lois smiled slightly. "I suppose Clark told you that, " she said.

Jonathan heard the smile in her voice, and knew he'd managed to ease her just a little out of her despair.

"Take care, and we'll see you very soon, " he said and hung up.

Lois found the doctor and told him her decision.

"Can I stay with him until you take him into the OR?" she asked. She wanted to spend as much time with him as possible, in case…She didn't want to finish the thought, thinking in some crazy way that if she even thought about what could happen, it might turn out to be reality.

The doctor replied, "Yes, that's fine. By the way, my name's Dr. Green."

"Thank you. Call me Lois, I think we'll be getting to know each other pretty well soon."

Lois suddenly had an idea. "Dr. Green, one of the research scientists at Star Labs may be able to help you - he has some data about Superman and the way his body works. His name's Dr. Klein."

"I've heard of Dr. Klein - he's very well respected in his field. Any information would be better than what we've got at the moment. I'll give him a ring."

Dr. Green rang Dr. Klein, who was immediately concerned for Superman's health.

"Trouble is, though, Superman was always very reluctant to let me make tests on him - I don't think he enjoyed the feeling of being studied like some strange specimen on a lab bench. I've got some basic data which might be of some use - I'll get it couriered over to you right away. Let me know how things go, will you?"

"Of course, Dr. Klein, and thanks for your help," said Dr. Green.

Lois walked into the room where they were getting Clark ready for his surgery. He looked so different, so pale. Even though he wasn't wearing his Superman suit anymore, and his hair was all messed up, there certainly wasn't any risk that the staff at the hospital were going to recognise him as Clark Kent, star reporter for the Daily Planet. She pulled up a chair, sat down beside him and held his hand again. He stirred slightly, and opened his eyes to look at her.

"Sorry, Lois, " he said.

"Don't be silly, farmboy, " she said. "Nothing to be sorry for."

"This must be terrible for you. Have you told them about S- "

"Shhh…don't worry." She didn't want to say more, in fact she wondered what the staff had made of that 'farmboy' that had just slipped out. She looked around, but they seemed to be too busy to listen to the conversation.

"Superman, we're ready to start giving you the anesthetic now. OK?"

Lois mouthed the words 'I love you' to him, and so the process began. She stayed by him until he lost consciousness completely, and then they rolled him away to the OR while she sat in her chair, tears running down her cheeks. One of the nurses took her hand, and led her away to a quiet room where she could wait during the surgery. The nurse was very kind, and offered to bring her some coffee, but she declined, saying she thought she'd try to get some sleep instead.

About two hours later, there was a knock at the door of the waiting room, and in walked Dr. Green. He came and sat down beside her - Lois just looked at him, not daring to ask all the questions that filled her mind. He ran his hand through his hair, in a gesture that reminded her of Clark when he was tired and trying to the find the right words to express what he meant.

"We removed the arrow successfully, and established that it didn't pass through any major organs. His vital signs remained fairly stable throughout the procedure, which is a good sign - it means that there's a good chance that his body didn't react badly to the anesthetic. There was some blood loss, but we did what we could do to minimise this. He's in the recovery room now, and we're monitoring him very closely for signs of returning consciousness."

"How soon should he wake up?" Lois asked.

"Well, normally, we would expect him to recover consciousness in about an hour, but of course we have no idea how his body will behave. You shouldn't jump to any conclusions if he takes longer to wake up than usual."

"You mentioned blood loss - just how much?"

"Again, we don't know how much blood he lost before you found him, but I'm guessing that overall, his blood loss could be quite significant. I'm afraid that from now on, we just have to play a waiting game. With so little information to go on about what's normal for Superman, we have nothing to compare his current state with. Here, let me take you to him."

They walked into the recovery room where Clark lay, hooked up to monitors which filled the room with bleeps and clicks, imparting more information about Superman's body than had probably ever been available before.

Dr. Green found a chair for her, parked it next to Clark's bed, and she sank into it, ready to continue her watch over him.

"Isn't there someone you'd like to call, to be with you?" he asked her, thinking how incredibly dedicated to this man she was. There had been rumours a while back that she'd been having an affair with him, but they'd been proven to be false. Nevertheless, he wondered where her husband was now.

"Um, Clark's out of town on assignment. I called his parents and they're on their way over now. The Kents are the closest thing Superman has to parents of his own," Lois replied. She knew the excuse about Clark was thin, but she really didn't have the mental energy to come up with anything more convincing. She needed Clark's parents to be here soon, so that they could help shoulder the burden of maintaining the secret. Dr. Green seemed to accept her explanation though, and left her, with instructions that she should try to get some sleep.

Lois sighed heavily; everyone seemed to want her to sleep, but nobody had any useful suggestions on how she was supposed to when her husband lay critically ill next to her. Her mind wandered to all the times he had saved her from danger, always seeming so completely confident of his ability to rescue her.

He was like a rock that you could cling to when everything was crumbling around you, and like a rock, his defences were almost impenetrable. As she had grown to love him over the years, she had begun to understand how his physical invulnerability was only a small part of his strength; he was strong in so many other ways. He had his self-doubts like any other person, but there was a solid foundation which always brought him through any personal crisis. She knew that his parents were responsible for a lot of his strength, but she thought that maybe some of it came from his Kryptonian parents, who must have had great courage to send their son out into the universe with little knowledge of where he would end up. Now she hoped that this background would help him win the battle to regain his health.

She leaned over and carefully laid her head next to Clark, putting her hands lightly on his arm. "Clark, wake up soon, " she whispered. "We all want you back." Her eyes slowly closed, and she was soon in a light sleep.

A hand touched her shoulder and she blinked awake.

"Hello, Lois." It was Martha, looking tired and worried.

Lois stood up, and wrapped her arms around Martha. "Thank god you're here," she said, clinging onto Martha as if she was frightened Martha might leave again

Jonathan put his hand on her shoulder, and the three of them just stood there, drawing comfort from each other's embrace. After a couple of minutes, they drew apart and sat on some chairs that one of the nurses had kindly provided for them. Lois told them what had happened so far, and what Clark's current condition was.

"It looks like we're going to be here awhile," Jonathan said. "Lois, why don't you go and find some food for us all." He thought she could do with a break from her vigil, and giving her something else to think about might stop her worrying herself sick. "Martha and I had a snack on the airplane, so a roll or sandwich would be fine for us." Actually, he had never felt less like eating, and he was sure Martha felt the same, but he wasn't going to admit this to Lois.

"Jonathan, I can't. What if he wakes up?"

"If he wakes up, we'll call you right away on your cell phone - now go and find us some food." Jonathan knew he was being a bit rough on her, but it had the desired effect. She got up and went off to find out what the hospital had to offer in the way of sustenance.

A little later she came hurrying back in with an armful of rolls and cups of coffee. They sat around Clark's bed, each of them trying to force down mouthfuls of bread and cheese that tasted like a mixture of cotton wool and cardboard.

Lois was just putting her coffee down when she heard a sound from Clark. She rushed up to him, oblivious of the coffee spilling all over the hospital floor. His eyelids were beginning to flicker, and the monitor beeping away in time to his heartbeat was speeding up slightly. Martha rushed out to find Dr. Green, while Lois and Jonathan stood on either side of Clark, watching him wake up.

Dr. Green came in with Martha just as Clark finally opened his eyes fully and focused blurrily on Lois.

"Cl-Superman, you're going to be fine. You're in a hospital, and you've just woken up from surgery," Lois said, just catching herself in time before she gave the game away.

"Lois?" Clark couldn't quite make sense of what she was saying just yet, but the comforting tones of her voice left him in no doubt that he was safe.

"Yes, it's me, " said Lois, suddenly overcome with emotion. Martha eased her away in order to let Dr. Green check Clark out.

After a few minutes, he said, "Well, I think our gamble paid off; it looks like there's been no adverse effects from the anesthetic. We'll leave the monitors on him for now, just in case, but I reckon we'll be able to switch them off sometime tomorrow. Why don't you all go home now, get some rest and come back in the morning."

"I'd like to stay with him a while longer - is that OK?" Lois asked.

"As long as you don't tire him out. He needs plenty of rest now." Dr. Green left, with a parting reminder to Lois to get some sleep.

Just then, Lois' mobile phone started ringing, and she answered it with a sudden premonition of who would be on the other end.

"Lois, where the heck are you?" Perry was on the warpath. "And where's Clark - don't tell me he's still at the dentist."

"Perry! I…he…" Lois' mind was blank. What should she say? This was it, this was finally the time when she ran out of excuses.

Jonathan took the phone from Lois. "Perry, this is Jonathan Kent. Lois found Superman this morning - he'd been shot with a kryptonite arrow, and she saved his life by getting him to hospital. She's been with him all day. Clark had to go home after the dentist - he was in a lot of pain following the work he had done on his teeth."

"Judas Priest, this is incredible! A kryptonite arrow? What will these people think of next? Well, you tell Lois to stay with the story, and phone in her copy when she's ready."

"Ah, Perry, I don't think that's a good idea. You know how Superman has become such a beacon of hope for everyone - do you really want to rob them of that?"

"Are you suggesting I quash one of the biggest stories this year? I run a newspaper here, not a social service." Perry's newspaperman instincts were getting the better of him.

"Yes, I am, and I think if you give yourself time to think about it, you'll agree with me. Also, you'd be making Superman's job twice as hard, if word got out in the criminal community that he could be seriously hurt."

"I guess you've got a point there, Jonathan. But I can't ignore this completely. Everyone's going to be wondering where he is. I guess I can put in some speculative stuff about where he might be."

"OK, Perry, and thanks. There's one other thing, though. Lois and Clark will probably be looking after Superman for a few days, and I believe they've got some leave due to them. Would it be all right if they took some days off? I think you'd agree they deserve it?"

"Jonathan, you're a very persuasive guy, and I wouldn't do this for just anyone, but OK. Tell Lois to take good care of the big guy for us all," Perry said, hanging up.

Lois put her arms around Jonathan and hugged him close. "Thank you, thank you so much," she said, unable to express just how grateful she was for all that he'd just done. He hugged her back, saying gruffly that it was nothing, he was just trying to do the best for his son and daughter-in-law.

They went and joined Martha sitting at Clark's bed, all of them relieved that he was out of immediate danger. Clark was feeling a bit more alert now, but along with that came awareness of how horrible he felt. Every part of his body seemed to hurt, and worst of all was his side where they'd removed the arrow, which throbbed continuously. At least he could breathe easily, he thought, trying to count his blessings.

"Lois, Mom, Dad - I'm sorry you had to go through this for me," he said.

"Clark, don't be silly," said Martha. "That's what parents and wives are for, isn't it Lois?"

"Yes, but don't start enjoying this too much, big guy. I'm not planning on making a habit of rescuing you - that's your job," Lois teased him. But she immediately realised she'd said the wrong thing. A cloud came over Clark's face, and he suddenly looked very vulnerable.

"If I can still do my job," he said quietly, looking away from them.

"Clark, you can't afford to worry about that now, " said Jonathan. "It's hard, but you've got to concentrate on getting your health back first. I know you're scared that your powers might not return, but try to take small steps. Think how far you've come already since you were lying under that tree." Jonathan put his hand on his son's shoulder and looked into his eyes. He could tell that Clark hadn't really taken in what he had just said, but he hoped he might have sowed the seeds of something more positive in Clark's mind.

"I'll try, Dad," Clark said, as his eyelids began to droop. Everyone realised that he was on his way back to sleep, so said their goodbyes and left for home.

Clark was falling. The branches of the trees parted as he fell through them, seemingly doing their best to aid his descent. He tried to grab the branches as he fell, but they were always just out of reach, and still he fell. He'd been falling for ever. And it hurt, everywhere it hurt. Why did it hurt, why couldn't he stop falling? He tried again to grab the branches, but all he got were handfuls of leaves…

He jerked awake, gasping for breath. Where was he? For a moment he was completely lost, until his ears picked up the faint beep from one of the monitors. Hospital, he remembered. He felt hot and sweaty, but when he tried to move to find a cooler position to lie in, his whole body screamed in agony.

Dr. Green had explained to him that they were afraid to give him any pain medication because of the unknown effects it might have on him; he felt they'd taken enough risks with the anesthetic. At the time, Clark didn't think that was so bad; he hurt, but he was still drowsy after the operation and thought he could cope. Now things seemed different. Every nerve-ending in his body seemed to be on fire, and nothing he could do would help him escape from the pain.

He suddenly felt very alone and defenceless, and tears began to well up in his eyes and spill out over the pillow. This wasn't him, this wasn't how things were supposed to be. He was Superman, the invulnerable hero, not a weakling in a hospital bed unable to move. A distant part of him looked on and couldn't believe how low he'd sunk, how he was wallowing in his own emotions. But he couldn't help himself, the feelings and sensations were so unfamiliar he didn't know how to deal with them. He opened his eyes to try and fix on something, anything to escape from himself. As he turned his head from one side to the other, he noticed a sheet of paper stuck to the side of one of the pieces of equipment beside his bed. In the dim light, he could just make out what it said.

"We all love you. See you in the morning, Lois"

He realised she'd had to be careful what she wrote, and knew how much lay behind those simple words. It was enough to pull him out of the emotional nose-dive he'd been going into, and remind him that he wasn't alone. He had a loving family who would support him and care for him during his sickness.

He started to think back to happier times, trying to remember every detail of events to take his mind off his current problems. There was that time he'd sat on a windowsill, watching Lois standing in the light streaming in through the window of their new house. It was a perfect moment, and he remembered how content he'd felt. Everything he'd dreamed of was coming true; he had a real, normal life, a house to put down roots in, and most of all, a wife who was his complete soulmate - his best friend, his partner, his lover. What had she been wearing that day? One of her dark suits, he thought, with a short skirt. He was trying to recall which shoes she had on as he slipped back to sleep, released at last from the pain of his ordeal.

The next morning Lois and the Kents crept into Clark's room to find him sitting up eating breakfast.

"Got any for me?" Lois asked, delighted to see such positive signs of recovery.

"No, 'fraid not, it's all mine. I didn't think I was hungry, but the nurses insisted I give it a try, and they were right," said Clark, guarding his food jealously with his left arm. Lois reached round and stole a piece of toast anyway.

"Hey, you're not supposed to do that to a sick man!" he protested.

"How do you feel?" asked Martha, pulling up a chair to sit next to her son.

"Well, everything aches from the kryptonite exposure, and my side still hurts quite a bit. But the good news is, Dr. Green took a blood sample, and says there's no evidence of kryptonite in my blood stream."

"Clark, that's wonderful," said Martha. She looked around. "I see they've taken away the monitors too."

"Yes, they were beginning to drive me crazy. Dr. Green thinks I can be out of here in a couple of days."

"He'll have to take it easy for a while after that, though," said Dr. Green, striding into the room. "Is there anyone who can take care of you at home, Superman?" he asked, not even sure if Superman had a home like regular folks had.

"Clark and I can take care of him at our house," said Lois.

"And we can lend a hand if you need us, Lois," added Jonathan.

"That's fine, then," said Dr. Green. "By the way, I thought you'd like to know. I've had a word with all the staff, and they've all agreed not to tell anyone you're here, Superman. They're a good bunch of people, so you can trust them not to let anything slip. We all thought it was better that way, so you can have time to recuperate and we don't have a media circus to deal with."

"Thank you, Dr. Green. I really appreciate your thoughtfulness," said Clark.

"That's OK. I'll come by later to check on you again," said Dr. Green. "Have to go save a few more lives now."

They chatted a while longer, and then Martha and Jonathan left to do some shopping. Lois had noticed that Clark was looking tired and his conversation was becoming monosyllabic.

"Do you want to lie down?" she asked. He nodded, so she took away his breakfast tray and helped him to lie back down. It obviously hurt him quite a lot to move, and he lay with his eyes shut for a bit.

She sat beside him and stroked his forehead. It felt hot and clammy. Her poor husband, how strange and frightening this must be for him. He looked so vulnerable lying in his hospital bed, sicker than he'd ever been in his life before.

"How about I sing to you," she suggested. He nodded again, so she sang quietly, a slow ballad that was a favourite of theirs. She held his hand until his breathing deepened and he was asleep again. She leaned over and kissed him. "Get well soon, love," she whispered.

***

Two days later, Arianna was feeling pretty pleased with herself. No-one had seen or heard Superman since she had shot him, and she felt confident that she'd finally managed to get rid of him. Strange that there hadn't been any reports of his death in the press, not even the Daily Planet, but she thought that was probably because no-one had found his body. So now the way was clear to deal with the woman who drove Lex to his death, Lois Lane.

She'd had a few ideas about how to kill her, but none of them seemed quite right. No matter, she would take her time to work out the perfect plan. Perhaps it would be a good idea to study her prey for a while - one obvious way was to read Lois' columns in the Daily Planet. Arianna resolved to visit a library and study some back issues of the Daily Planet.

***

Martha looked anxiously at Clark. "Are you sure you're ready for this, honey?" He was preparing to leave the hospital, yet he still looked terribly pale, and wasn't moving at all easily.

"Yes, Mom. They've done all they can for me here. It's time to go home and start getting back to normal." He picked up some jeans, and leaned over to put them on.

Seeing how it hurt him, Jonathan said, "Here, let me help you son." He took the jeans from Clark, and helped him sit on the side of the bed. Jonathan held the jeans so Clark could step into them, pulled them up and handed them to Clark. Then he helped Clark stand up again so he could fasten them. Clark wasn't really enjoying this situation. It embarrassed him that he needed such a lot of help, but he didn't have a choice, so he tried to tell himself he was lucky to have family to help him.

They'd debated what to do about clothes when he left the hospital; he couldn't wear the suit he'd arrived in because it was cut to pieces in the ER, and anyway he didn't want to risk being seen as Superman leaving the hospital. He also couldn't wear his own clothes, because he'd look too much like himself. So they decided that Jonathan should lend him some of his clothes, the theory being that he'd look so awful in them that no-one would recognise him.

He finished dressing and together they walked out of the hospital, Jonathan holding onto Clark's arm to support him.

Martha drove them back to Lois and Clark's home, where Lois was waiting for them. Once inside, Clark sat down gingerly on the sofa and laid his head back on the cushions.

"You OK, honey?" asked Lois anxiously.

"The journey just tired me out a bit. I'll be fine, Lois, don't worry," replied Clark.

Lois detected a very slight hint of irritation in his voice, and realised she had to stop fussing over him. He wanted things as normal as possible, so she decided to give him some peace and quiet, and went into the kitchen to help Martha prepare lunch. Jonathan picked up a magazine and started to read.

After a while, Clark said, "What was that, Dad?"

Jonathan looked up from his magazine, and said, "Sorry Clark, I didn't say anything."

"I thought you said, 'shall we have rye or sourdough?' "

"No, I didn't say - "

They both looked at each other. Jonathan got up and hurried into the kitchen.

"What did you just say?" he demanded.

Lois and Martha looked at him as if he were crazy.

"I was just asking Lois what kind of bread we should have," said Martha.

Clark appeared in the doorway, holding onto the door jamb. "I heard you all! I heard everything you said."

Lois hugged him. "Oh Clark, you got your superhearing back!" she cried into his shoulder.

***

Arianna was starting to put together the beginnings of a plan. From her study of the Daily Planet, she had begun to realise how much Lois worked with her husband, and probably relied on him a great deal professionally as well as emotionally. It seemed to Arianna that Lois deserved to see Clark Kent fall to his death just as she, Arianna, had been made to suffer the same fate for her husband, Lex Luthor. She still thought of him as her husband, even though he had divorced her years ago.

That cruise in the Caribbean had been one of the most magical times in her life, and when it culminated in her marriage to Lex, she felt her life was complete. Now that her beloved had been driven to his death by Lois and Superman, she was alone, with not even the hope that she might be reunited with Lex to sustain her. But her determination to succeed drove her on.

She wasn't going to kill Lois' that would be too easy. No, she was going to place Lois in mental and emotional anguish, and ruin her professionally by taking away her writing partner and husband. Now, how to arrange things…

***

Clark was falling again. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn't reach the branches to break his fall. And people were calling, crying out for his help…how could he help them, when he couldn't help himself? Someone was even calling his other name…

"Clark, Clark, honey, wake up!"

He opened his eyes with a gasp, to see Lois leaning over him with lines of worry etched on her face.

"You were having a nightmare again," she said.

"Sorry I woke you," he replied.

"It's OK, I was just worried about you."

"I'm fine, it's over now. Why don't you go back to sleep?"

"No, I can't, I'm awake now. Why don't I go fix us a midnight snack? Milk and cookies OK?"

"Yes, all right," said Clark, pulling himself up to sit up straighter in bed.

Lois wrapped herself in a bathrobe and went downstairs to fetch their snack. She was worried about Clark. He just didn't seem to be recovering as fast as she would have expected him to. He was still weak, although he tried to hide it from her, and his superpowers were hardly back at all. He had his hearing, and some of his visual capabilities, but neither were 100% reliable, and she'd yet to see him flying. Worst of all were these nightmares he kept having. He wouldn't tell her what happened in them, and that worried her even more. Well tonight, she thought as she poured out two glasses of milk, I'm going to find out what's troubling him.

Clark sat in bed, trying to see through the wall. Sometimes he would get through and catch a glimpse of the room next door, but it was all very hazy and the effort was beginning to give him a headache. He closed his eyes and concentrated instead on listening to Lois moving around the kitchen. At least he could do that pretty easily. He was frightened about what was happening to him.

He had begun to think that maybe he was losing his superpowers, that perhaps his lengthy kryptonite exposure had finally taken its toll, and he would be just a normal man. He thought he could probably cope with that; he would just try to be the best normal person he possibly could, but there was this weakness, this general feeling of unwellness that he just couldn't shake. And the wound in his side just wouldn't heal properly. He hadn't told Lois about that in case she got worried, and he did his best to hide his weakness from her, although he knew he was probably only half-successful in doing so. Maybe the kryptonite and the arrow had damaged him beyond reducing him to normality. How would they cope with that?

Lois came back into their bedroom carrying a tray. She put it down on the bed and handed him a glass.

"How's the supervision coming?" she asked.

"How did you - "

"I'm your wife, I know everything," she said, although actually she'd just been playing a hunch. "So tell me?"

"Well, I could definitely see the dresser next door," he said, "although I couldn't quite see that scratch where you dropped the scissors."

"I did not drop them, they fell off the pile of books I was carrying, " Lois replied indignantly.

"Well, anyway, I think it's getting better," he said, trying to keep things up-beat, "and my superhearing is just fine - I could hear everything you were doing in the kitchen."

I hope you couldn't hear my thoughts, mused Lois. "What was the dream about?" she asked, cutting straight to the point.

"Nothing really," said Clark evasively, "I can't really remember details."

"Give me generalities then."

"It's…I…," Clark fumbled for a reply.

"Clark, honey, tell me. You can't keep hiding this away."

"It's just … I don't like to talk about it. Makes it seem more real."

"It's real enough already. It keeps waking you up in the night." Lois knew she was pushing him, but she wanted to help him, to understand his problems. "Clark, you always want to hide things away, pretend they're not a problem. But the more you hide, the bigger the problem gets. I love you, and I want to help you."

Clark was silent for a bit, and she thought he was going to clam up again. Then she heard him mutter, "I'm falling." She waited for more.

He got out of bed and crossed over to the window. Leaning against the windowsill and staring at the floor, he said, "It's like I can't stop. I'm falling through the branches and I try to grab them, but they always move just out of reach. It's so frightening - I've never been so scared. I've been flying since I was eighteen and now I can't, I just fall faster and faster. And there are voices. People crying for Superman, shouting for help."

Lois got out of bed and went over to hug him. Tears were running down his cheeks as he continued in a shaky voice choked with emotion, "I can't help them, Lois. I can hear them in trouble, but I can't do anything. I'm just falling, out of control, can't stop, and it hurts - it hurts so much I can't breathe…" He couldn't say any more, he just broke down and sobbed. All his fears, all his terrors that had been bottled up since his attack seemed to pour out of him all at once, and he clung onto Lois as if he were falling off the edge of the world.

"Shhh, it's OK, it's all right, I'm here. Shhh." Lois held him tight while he cried himself out. Gradually, his sobs subsided to the occasional involuntary sniff.

Between sniffs he said, "What if I'm stuck like this, Lois? Neither superman nor normal, just something in between?"

"Then you'll make the best of it you can, just like you always do. Clark, you have so many strengths, not just physical. You'll find a way to be superhuman, even if it's not by stopping runaway trains single-handed, or catching bullets in your bare hands. And I'll always love you, whatever sort of man you are."

She kissed him tenderly, and led him back to bed, the midnight snack forgotten. They talked awhile before going to sleep about Clark's nightmare, Lois thinking that the more he talked it through, the less frightening it would seem. She thought about the person who had shot him and made him suffer like this, and wondered who could possibly want to inflict this on him. She decided she was going to find them whatever it took and bring them to justice.

The next day, Lois went out saying she had some shopping to do, while Clark stayed in and practised his superpowers some more. He thought he would take a shot at flying today, so he stood in the middle of the room and tried to raise himself just a couple of inches off the carpet. After a couple of tries, he wasn't having much success, so he thought maybe it might be easier from a sitting position, since he wouldn't be using up so much energy before he tried to rise upwards.

He sat on the sofa, took a couple of deep breaths, and - he was off! Just an inch or so, but it was a start. He came back down to catch his breath, and then tried again. This time he was up a couple of feet. He hovered around for a minute and then returned to the sofa. It was hard work, but he had managed it. He went up once more, and then came back down again. The effort was making him a little dizzy, so he thought he'd stop there and wait for Lois to come home.

Lois opened the door, laden down with bags of groceries. After struggling through the door, she called out, "Clark, give me hand with this, honey? I'm kind of loaded down here." When he didn't respond, she dumped everything down on the floor, and marched into the living room in frustration.

"Cl - ," the word stuck in her throat. He was in the air. About a foot high over the sofa. With a huge grin on his face.

"Hi Lois, " he said triumphantly. "How do you like my latest trick?"

As she watched, he rose higher until he was level with the top of the door. But then the expression on his face changed. He looked panicky, and started looking around the room as if trying to find something to grab onto, before plummeting back down to the couch. He sat with his head in his hands, his breath coming in great gasps.

Lois went over to his side, sat down and put her hand on his back without saying anything. She rubbed her hand up and down his back, trying to help him recover from whatever had just happened to him. When he had regained control a little, he lay back on the sofa with his eyes closed.

"Guess I overdid things a little," he said.

"What happened?" asked Lois.

"I started to feel dizzy and then I just couldn't stay up there." He didn't add that he suddenly felt just too high, that everything seemed to be falling away from him, that he couldn't bear the feeling of having nothing under him to support him. He wasn't ready to admit to himself that he felt like that, let alone tell Lois. She was worried enough about him, he knew, without adding to her concerns.

Lois knew he wasn't telling her everything - that look of panic on his face told her more than his words gave away. But what could she do?

"Clark, you were flying! Isn't that wonderful? OK, so you overdid it to impress me," Clark glanced at her as if to say, caught me again, "but this is great progress. Look how far you've come since your fall." She pulled closer to him and stroked his forehead. Was it her imagination, or did he feel a little warm? "You feeling OK, honey? Your head feels a little hot."

"Just a bit shaky. I think I'll lie down for a while," he said.

"Why don't you do that while I fix us some lunch. You going to stay here or go upstairs?"

"Here's fine," he said, shifting to lie down on the sofa as she got up. He noticed the piles of shopping beside the door. "I'm sorry, I should help you with all that."

"Don't worry, I'll take care of it. You just rest awhile."

Clark lay on the sofa, reliving the moment when he suddenly panicked about the height he'd reached. He felt shaky, his whole body trembled as he thought about what had happened. The floor had seemed to drop away from him and he felt almost sick with fear at the danger he felt he was in. You just tried too hard, he told himself over and over again. You tried to show off to Lois, and you paid the price. Take things easy and you'll be fine. The feeling of panic came to him again but he pushed it away, trying to steady himself with slow, deep breaths. He felt hot and a little achy, but that was because he'd over-exerted himself, he thought. At least he was flying again.

"Lunch is served," announced Lois, putting down a tray of food on the coffee table. Clark pushed himself up into a sitting position to take the glass of water Lois was handing to him. Lois watched his hand tremble slightly as he grasped the glass.

"I was thinking," she began, "maybe we should go visit your parents in Smallville for a couple of days. You know, kind of a 'get away from it all' thing. You'd have peace and quiet to practise your superpowers with no-one to see you." And maybe Jonathan and Martha could help me to help you get your confidence back, she thought.

"I don't know, Lois. I *am* getting better, and I think we should really start trying to find out who shot me," Clark replied. And I don't like flying 'normally', which is how we'd have to get there, he thought to himself.

Lois knew when she was being side-tracked, but since she was pleased that he was starting to look beyond his immediate problems, she decided to go with the flow.

"Well, I know who I'd put top of the list," she said. Clark looked like a light bulb had just gone on inside his head.

"Arianna Carlin! " he exclaimed.

"Yes, and I've already started to do some digging, as it happens. I found out that she's got the skills to fire an arrow at you, and that one of the first things she did when she got out was go visit her safe-deposit box. Maybe she had some kryptonite left over from the bullet she shot you with."

"Why didn't you tell me this before?" Clark asked, surprised that she was so far ahead of him.

"I've only just got most of today, and you've had other things on your mind. This is the first time you've been interested in who shot you."

"I guess so. We should try to find out where she is now."

"Not having much luck there. It looks like she's covered herself pretty well - no-one knows where she is," said Lois.

"Maybe I can call in a few favours," said Clark, reaching for the phone.

He felt glad to be doing something useful, and working on Arianna's whereabouts would take his mind off his own problems. They spent the rest of the day phoning all the contacts they could think of, trying to piece small bits of information together. She was traceable as far as a hotel in the Hobbs Bay area, further strengthening their suspicions about her, but there the trail ran dry. She had left the hotel a few days ago, and no-one knew where she was now. Clark found out that she'd been a model prisoner while inside, and had in fact been released early. Lois thought that sounded typical Arianna, who was a long-term planner and could easily have put on an act to fool her jailers. Clark thought she may even have put her knowledge of subliminal messaging to good use, but Lois said she thought he was reaching a bit, and eventually they gave up for the day and retired to bed.

Clark jerked awake from the too-familiar falling nightmare with the echo of people's cries for help still with him. As he lay in the darkness, he realised that the cry he could hear was real - it sounded like a small child, and it was very close. The child sounded desperately frightened, so he slipped out of bed and pulled on a sweatshirt and pants.

Looking out the window, he couldn't see anything, so he went downstairs, outside, and jogged around the corner to where he thought the sound was coming from. He was just in time to see a small girl topple off the edge of the window ledge she'd been clinging to and start to plummet to the ground.

He went to launch himself up to catch her in mid-air, as he'd done hundreds of times before, but found he couldn't move. He was rooted to the spot, and could only watch helplessly as the girl fell. Just when he thought it was all over, she landed on a striped awning which broke her fall, and then she slid off the awning onto the ground. Clark came to his senses and rushed over to her. She was screaming loudly, which he thought was a good sign, and she didn't seem to have any serious injuries. He ran to the pay phone on the corner and called an ambulance.

Lois heard the siren of an ambulance in her sleep and came awake immediately. Clark was missing, and she knew instinctively that the siren had something to do with him.

She got up, put on a bathrobe and went out to find out what had happened. The siren had stopped close by, and as she reached the street, she could see the lights of the ambulance flashing from around the corner. Frightened by what she might find, she ran around the corner to see two EMTs bending over a small child, the mother hovering close by in tears. Clark was standing a little apart from the scene, seemingly staring intently at the group.

Lois walked up to him and asked, "What happened?"

He didn't answer, so she put her hand on his arm and shook it gently.

"Clark, honey, what happened?" she asked again.

"I couldn't save her," he whispered, still staring at the scene.

"What do you mean?"

"She fell, and I couldn't save her," he repeated.

Lois looked into his eyes, but they were completely glazed over, and there was a slight sheen of sweat on his forehead. She felt his hands, which were icy cold. Shock, she thought.

She went over to the EMTs. "How is she?" she asked them.

"She's a very lucky little lady. Just cuts and bruises - we'll take her in overnight just in case, but she'll be fine. Who are you?"

"I'm Mr. Kent's wife. Do you need him anymore?"

"Oh no, we've got all we need from him. Thank him again for calling us, will you?"

Lois went back to Clark, took his face in her hands and turned it towards hers. Looking straight at him, she said firmly, "The little girl is going to be just fine, Clark. Let's go home now."

He seemed to acknowledge what she had said, so she put her arm round his waist and steered him back into their house. She took him into the kitchen and sat him down, taking off her bathrobe and wrapping it around him for extra warmth. Then she made a cup of hot, sweet coffee and made him drink it. She sat down opposite him.

"Do you feel like telling me what happened?" she asked gently.

"Not really," he said, looking into his mug of coffee. "I just froze. I saw her falling, and I couldn't fly up and catch her. That's all." His voice was very flat, as if he had no emotion, or had so much welling up inside him that it was easier to be emotionless.

She wanted to say so much, to tell him it wasn't his fault, the girl was fine, he shouldn't have tried to save her in his present condition, but she knew that right now, it would fall on deaf ears. Instead she moved to sit beside him and pulled him close so that his head was resting on her shoulder, all the time making soft, comforting noises.

He was so cold and stiff, despite the extra robe she had draped around him, and he was shaking slightly. They sat together for a long time, not wanting or needing to say anything, until gradually his body relaxed, and she knew he was ready to go back to bed.

She led him upstairs and left him to undress and get into bed while she closed the curtains again. She got into bed beside him and stroked his head and forehead until he fell asleep, all the time thinking about recent events and what they must do next.

Clark awoke the next morning to find Lois already up and packing suitcases.

"Lois, what are you doing?" he asked.

"I'm taking you to Smallville. You need a change of scenery, and we both need the rest. I've already phoned your parents, and they're looking forward to seeing us. They're picking us up from the airport. Flight's in a couple of hours."

"But what about Arianna?"

"Arianna can wait. This is more important."

"I really think we should stay here and try to find her, Lois."

Lois stopped in mid-flow and put her hands on her hips. "Why is it you don't want to go to Smallville? You're usually so happy to visit your parents."

"It's not that I don't want to go to Smallville," Clark replied.

"What is it then?"

"Nothing."

"It must be something." Lois watched Clark twisting the bedclothes around with his hands. Then it dawned on her. "Oh Clark, I know you don't like to fly 'normally', but it's only a short flight."

"I know, and it doesn't usually bother me that much, but now…" his voice trailed off.

"Clark, you'll be fine. Don't start cutting things out because you're not sure about them. You can't let your problems rule your life. Now shake a leg, we haven't got long before the flight."

Lois was determined that they were going, and her forceful words seemed to work. Clark was out of bed and getting ready for the journey.

They arrived in Smallville in the afternoon, Martha and Jonathan having picked them up from the airport. Lois had been right; apart from his initial anxiety, Clark had been absolutely fine during the flight.

They spent the next couple of days relaxing around the farm. Lois set herself the task of learning some basic cooking skills from Martha, while Clark continued to practise and exercise his superpowers. But no matter how he tried, nothing except his superhearing was completely reliable. Any attempt to fly left him weak and dizzy, and he was frightened to go higher than about a foot off the ground.

One day, he climbed up to the hayloft in one of the barns, thinking that maybe if he stepped off from a height, he might be OK. But when he stood at the edge, it seemed as if he was standing at the edge of a precipice, and everything swayed about him sickeningly. It was all he could do to stagger back from the edge and not topple over onto the floor below. That evening at dinner, Clark was very quiet.

"Clark, honey, are you all right? You've hardly touched your food," asked Martha anxiously.

"No, I'm not all right," he snapped. Martha recoiled in surprise, and the other two stopped eating. His words hung in the air for a moment. Jonathan was the first to recover.

"Don't talk to your mother like that, young man," he said.

"I'm not - " Clark started to retort, and then all the tension suddenly left him.

"I'm sorry," he said, "I don't know what's happening to me. I seem to be turning into some selfish, grumpy misfit who only cares about himself." He picked up his fork and started pushing his food aimlessly around his plate. "Maybe I should give up the superpowers thing and just concentrate on trying to be normal."

"Oh, Clark, you're not a misfit - don't you ever start thinking of yourself like that," said Martha, putting her hand on his.

"And it's too early to give up your superpowers. You're not a quitter, Clark, so don't start now," added Lois.

"Maybe you'd like to help me with some of the chores around the farm. Kind of take your mind off things," suggested Jonathan.

Clark wasn't sure if that was such a good idea, he didn't feel fit enough to be of much use, but he kept his thoughts to himself and said he'd give it a try.

The next day, Clark went out with his father to repair one of the fences on the farm. Jonathan held a new post steady, ready for Clark to start hammering it into the ground. Clark picked up the mallet and swung at the post. He felt a pulling sensation in his side, but decided to ignore it - he was just plain fed up with giving in to his weaknesses.

They finished the post, Clark feeling pretty winded but determined to pull his weight. They went on to the next post, and repeated the procedure. After a couple of swings, Clark began to feel as if everything was swaying around him again, and he rested the mallet on the ground. Jonathan looked up at him.

"OK?" he asked.

"Bit dizzy. Do you mind if we stop for a minute?" Clark replied.

"Sure, Clark. Here, let me take that." Jonathan reached over to pick up the mallet, just as Clark staggered towards him. Jonathan lurched forward to catch him by the shoulders.

"Whoa son, watch it there." Jonathan looked at Clark with concerned eyes. "Do you want to sit down?"

Clark was looking at the ground, desperately trying to regain his equilibrium. He nodded slightly.

Jonathan put an arm around his waist, guided him to a nearby tree stump, and lowered him gently down. He squatted down beside Clark and put a hand on his shoulder.

"Just take your time, we can sit here as long as you like," he said encouragingly. Clark just nodded; he felt so sick and dizzy he didn't feel like saying anything.

Jonathan noticed his hand felt sticky and pulled it away from Clark's shoulder. It was covered in blood. Shocked, he scanned Clark quickly and noticed a bloody stain on his right side.

"Clark, you're bleeding! Is that where the arrow hit you?"

Clark nodded again.

"I think we'd better get you back to the house, don't you?" Not waiting for an answer, he continued, "I'm just going to go get the pickup truck and bring it nearer." He got up, trotted down the track to where they'd left the truck, and drove it back up as near to Clark as he could get.

"OK, it's just a couple of steps. Here we go," he said, helping Clark up again. Together they walked slowly up to the truck, and Clark climbed awkwardly into the passenger side. Jonathan went around to the driver's side and started up the truck.

"Be home soon now. Tell me if you need me to stop - if the ride's too rocky or anything." Jonathan kept up a steady stream of one-sided conversation, trying to reassure Clark with his ramblings.

Clark concentrated on his father's commentary, as if it would give him an anchor to steady himself with. And gradually things did seem to become more bearable, so that by the time they reached the house, he was feeling much better. Jonathan pulled up outside just as Lois was coming out the front door.

"Hi guys, you're back early. All done?" she asked breezily.

Jonathan got out of the truck and walked round to Clark's side.

"Clark felt a little tired so we came home early," he replied, not wanting to alarm Lois too much. But he had forgotten the blood stain on Clark's clothes.

"Clark, what happened?" Lois cried.

Jonathan started to help Clark out of the truck and into the house.

"I think his arrow wound opened up again," he said.

"But I thought it was all healed up," protested Lois, as she followed them inside.

"Lois, I'm sorry, I didn't want to worry you," said Clark.

"Oh Clark!" Lois was exasperated and worried for him at the same time. When would he ever realise that not telling her things just made it worse in the long run. When would he stop trying to protect her, and instead lean on her as a husband should be able to.

Jonathan took Clark into his and Lois' bedroom and sat him down on the bed. "Lois, see if you can find some bandages and stuff while I help Clark off with his shirt. We'd better see if we can dress this wound."

Lois went on her search while Jonathan helped Clark take his shirt off and then made him lie on his left side on the bed. Clark had obviously been dressing the wound himself, as there was an old bandage in place, now soaked in blood. Jonathan started to remove the bandage gently, so as not to hurt Clark too much. Lois came back with Martha in tow.

"What's happening?" asked Martha.

"Oh nothing," said Lois sarcastically. "It's just Clark doing his usual 'I'm fine, don't worry about me' act while he bleeds to death."

"I'm not bleeding to death," said Clark.

"Oh well what do you call it then? Just seeping away gradually?"

"I thought it was getting better…"

"Will the two of you stop!" Martha interrupted. "Let's just deal with this and talk later." With that, she took the new bandages from Lois and began to tend to Clark's wound.

Lois saw that she wasn't making things any easier, and retreated to make them all some tea.

Martha finished tidying up Clark's side, and he rolled over onto his back. She sat on the edge of the bed and looked at him.

"My poor baby, I know you were just trying to smooth things over, but you can see you've only made things worse, can't you?"

"Yes, Mom, and I guess I was also trying to fool myself into thinking everything was OK. Lois must think I don't care about her,"

"Clark, Lois loves you and knows you love her. She's just a bit frustrated by you at the moment; she'll be fine. Now, how are you, really?" Martha looked searchingly at her son.

"Feeling a bit wobbly, bit weak, and actually a bit achy too."

She put her hand on his forehead. "Your head feels a little hot too. Why don't you rest here for a little while and then we'll see how you are?"

Martha drew the curtains to give Clark some shade, and closed the door behind her.

Jonathan, Martha and Lois sat around the kitchen table drinking tea and talking about Clark. They were all terribly worried about him; he patently wasn't getting any healthier, and in some ways actually seemed to be getting worse. This latest revelation about his wound was particularly frightening, as they really couldn't find an explanation for it.

Martha wondered if his exposures to kryptonite were in some way cumulative, and this latest episode had been the final straw. Perhaps it had destroyed his body's defenses to the point where he couldn't recover properly.

Lois objected to this, not the least because it was such a threatening idea, but also because she thought that there wasn't much evidence to support the idea. There wasn't anything to suggest that his previous exposures had been getting steadily more serious; they tended to vary more according to how long he was exposed at any one time.

They pondered that for a while, then Jonathan said, "Maybe there's still some kryptonite still left inside him."

The other two looked at him. It seemed like the germ of a good idea.

"Just now he said he was feeling achy, and he's got a slight fever. That sounds like a mild version of what happens when he gets near kryptonite, doesn't it Lois?"

"Yes, and in fact, I noticed his head feeling hot before. It seems to happen when he over-exerts himself, or gets very stressed."

"I think we should phone Dr. Green about this, see what he thinks," said Martha.

"Shouldn't we tell Clark first?" suggested Lois.

"Tell me what?" asked Clark, walking into the room. He was wearing an old dressing gown with sleeves that were too long for him, and he looked very pale again. Lois almost cried at the sight of him, he looked so unlike his normal healthy self. She wanted him whole again, she wanted him to be able to enjoy life like he used to. She forgot her earlier irritation with him and got up to hug him tight, being careful not to hurt his side.

"We think we should phone Dr. Green to get his opinion - Jonathan thinks the reason you're feeling so bad is that you've still got some kryptonite inside you."

"I suppose that could explain things," he said, pondering the new idea. The more he considered it, the better sense it seemed to make. He agreed to phone Dr. Green, but when he rang, Dr. Green was busy, so he left a message for him to call back.

A short while later, Dr. Green returned the call and Martha was the first person to answer the phone. She explained Clark's symptoms, and Jonathan's theory, and Dr. Green said he would confer with Dr. Klein and get back to them. He rang back again after a couple of hours to say that Dr. Klein also agreed, and then announced that he was coming to Smallville to examine Superman himself.

"Oh, Dr. Green, that's too good of you. Surely you're too busy?" protested Martha.

"Actually, I'm not working tomorrow here, so it's not a problem."

They discussed travel arrangements for a while, and then hung up.

"Well, that's settled then, " said Martha.

The next day, Clark prepared for Dr. Green's visit. He always kept a couple of spare Superman suits at the farmhouse, so he was able to dress appropriately. Just as he was finishing, they heard a car draw up outside, and knew it must be Dr. Green.

Martha went to the front door and they heard her welcome him inside. The two of them came into the living room with Martha trying to ply Dr. Green with refreshments after his long journey.

"No really, Martha," he said, "you're very kind, but I'm anxious to see Superman."

Clark stood up stiffly and held out his hand to Dr. Green. "Hello, Dr. Green. Thank you for taking the trouble to come all the way out here to see me, especially on your day off."

"That's perfectly OK. Now, is there somewhere we can use for an 'examining room'? And Lois, would you mind joining us - in case I need a little help."

"That sounds a bit ominous," said Clark, but Dr. Green reassured him not to worry.

Once inside, Dr. Green had Clark sit on the side of the bed, and pulled up a chair to sit near to him. Lois sat near Clark on the bed, feeling slightly like a spare part.

"Superman, I'm sorry to hear you're still not fully recovered from your attack. How about you tell me what problems you've been having while I check out some basics?"

Dr. Green took Clark's pulse, temperature and blood pressure while Clark began to relate events since his discharge from the hospital. He told how weak he still felt, and how his superpowers hardly worked at all, and when they did, they were very unreliable.

"Martha told me you sometimes feel achy, and mentioned a slight temperature."

"Yes, I seem to get like that when I'm really tired."

"Or when he's stressed out," interjected Lois.

"Have you managed to fly at all?"

"Not much, only a couple of feet off the ground," Clark avoided looking in Lois' direction. He knew he wasn't admitting everything about his flying problems.

"I'd like to have a listen to your chest, and then we'll take a look at the old arrow wound. I need you out of that suit first, though."

Lois helped Clark take the suit off so that Dr. Green could check out his respiration.

"Sounds fairly clear. Have you noticed any shortness of breath, any tight feeling?"

Clark looked away for a second. It was really hard, having to answer all these probing questions. He was used to keeping his problems to himself, not spilling them out into the open. He looked back at Dr. Green, again avoiding Lois' look.

"Again, yes, when I try too hard at something. But everyone - everyone normal anyway - runs out of breath when they exert themselves."

"Of course, but I get the feeling your breathing problems tend to last longer than the average, don't they? You don't need to feel defensive about this, you know, I'm just trying to get all the facts so I can help."

"I'm sorry, it's just not something I'm used to, that's all. Yes, I suppose you're right, it usually takes me quite a while to recover my breath."

Next, Dr. Green had Clark lie down on the bed on his left side, as Martha had done before. He removed the bandage, and then started to probe around near the wound with his hands.

"Tell me if this hurts," he said, but Clark wasn't finding things too uncomfortable. Dr. Green fished around in his bag for some instruments. "I'm going to have a quick look around inside the wound - I'll try to be as gentle as I can, but it's probably going to hurt a little."

He looked pointedly at Lois, who took the hint and clasped her hands around Clark's. Dr. Green put on some odd-looking glasses, explaining that they would help him see more closely; he was looking for traces of kryptonite and would remove them if he could. That sounded like a fair trade-off for a little pain, but Clark still gave a sharp intake of breath as Dr. Green began his examination, and clutched Lois' hands tightly.

"Just a little longer, you're doing fine," said Dr. Green encouragingly. He poked around for what seemed like an eternity to Clark, and finally leaned back and took the glasses off.

"I can't see anything superficially," he reported, rummaging in his bag again. His voice sounded as though it was coming from a long way off to Clark - things were starting to swim around in front of his eyes and he was beginning to feel queasy.

Lois noticed him swallowing hard and screwing his eyes up, and asked, "Superman, are you OK?"

Dr. Green leaned across to look at his face and felt his forehead. "It's OK, Superman, just take deep breaths. You'll be all right in a minute." Clark did as he was told, and things began to settle down again. They waited until he opened his eyes again.

"Feeling better?" asked Dr. Green. "Sorry that was so unpleasant, but it was worth a try." Clark nodded.

"There's just one final thing I need to do, and then we'll talk about what options are open to us. I'm going to take a couple of blood samples for analysis, one near the site of the wound, and one from your arm. I want to find out if there's any trace of kryptonite in your blood, or anything else that shouldn't be there, for that matter."

He took the two samples, and then left to wash his hands while Clark got dressed again.

Clark was feeling a little unsteady after Dr. Green's examination, but managed to walk unaided back into the room with Lois where Jonathan and Martha were sitting. He was lowering himself gingerly into a chair as Dr. Green came back into the room and sat down with them.

"OK. I think what I've seen leads me to agree with Jonathan's theory, that there's a strong possibility you still have some traces of kryptonite left inside you. Your temperature and pulse are both a little high, and the symptoms you've described are certainly consistent with kryptonite poisoning. Furthermore, the arrow wound is much less well-healed than I would have expected, even in a normal person, although the good news is that the wound is very clean - there's absolutely no sign of infection. I'll get those blood samples analysed for kryptonite, but in the meantime the question is, what do we do next." He looked around his audience, who had a mixture of emotions on their faces.

"Does this mean another operation?" asked Jonathan, voicing the question at the top of everyone's minds.

"Possibly. First, more good news - I spoke to Dr. Klein before I came out, and he said he's got a prototype scanner which he thinks would be around 90% efficient at finding small traces of embedded kryptonite. I think our best option is to conduct an exploratory operation under general anesthetic at Wichita Medical Center - I've got a few favours I can call in to arrange the OR facilities. The problem is maintaining your privacy - it was easy to do with my own team, but it won't be so easy with a new team."

For everyone in the room, the prospect of another operation was quite frightening. It had seemed such a risky, last-ditch thing last time that they couldn't dream of facing the same prospect again. They were all silent as they each dealt with their fears. Dr. Green tried to lessen the blow, by reminding them that they now knew that Superman could be given anesthetic without danger, that this was the main risk facing them the first time around.

"Why not Metropolis General?" asked Jonathan.

"How would you get there, Superman? You can't fly yourself, and I know what you feel about 'normal' flying. Right now I don't think it's a good idea to put you under any extra strain."

"How do you know about Superman's dislike of airplanes?" asked Lois incredulously.

"We got talking one day at Met General, " explained Clark.

Just then Dr. Green's cell phone rang. "Hi Bob…yes, I'm with Superman now…It looks like what we thought it was…yeah, I know, it's not often we make a mistake like that…are you sure?…well, it would sure solve a problem for us here…OK, I'll ring you later to confirm things."

Dr. Green looked pleased and a little stunned. "That was Bob Carlson, the anesthesiologist at Superman's operation. He said he and the rest of the team feel bad that we might have missed some kryptonite first time around, and he'd like to come out to Wichita to assist if we'd like him to."

"Dr. Green, are you sure? It's too much to ask, isn't it?" asked Martha.

"He volunteered, you know. He's like me, he likes to make things right, doesn't like to leave things half-done. But I could really do with another pair of hands at this operation. Do you think you could persuade Dr. Klein to come out and assist me?"

"I'll talk to him," volunteered Lois, "I can usually get him to do what I want." She went over to the phone to call him up.

Meanwhile, Clark was beginning to feel like things were moving too quickly. He wasn't sure he was ready to face another operation so soon after the first. What if they were all wrong - maybe his illness was nothing to do with kryptonite, maybe it was the effects of the anesthetic that was making him the way he was. Maybe it was something no-one had thought of - after all, what did they really know about Kryptonian physiology and Kryptonian ailments?

Martha came and sat beside him. "Don't worry so. You'll have three experts looking after you who know more about you than anyone else in the world - you'll be in good hands."

She put an arm around his shoulder and squeezed it. Dr. Green looked slightly surprised at this display of affection towards Superman, but realised that he'd spent quite a long time with the Kents by now, and they were probably all quite close.

Lois came off the phone, reporting that Dr. Klein would be 'honoured' to assist at Superman's operation, and that Dr. Green should liaise with him to finalise things.

***

Arianna was about ready to put her plan in action - she had finally managed to collect together all the equipment she needed. But the Kents weren't where they should be, so she had to track them down and modify the plan accordingly. She phoned the Daily Planet and spoke to the receptionist.

"Hi, I'm a huge fan of Lane & Kent and I've noticed in the last few days there haven't been any stories by them in your newspaper. They haven't moved on to another paper, have they?"

"Oh no, they still work here, they're just having some time off."

"Anywhere nice? I love holidays in the sun, don't you?"

"Yes, my favourite's California. But actually I think they're just at Mr. Kent's folks' home."

"Oh, where's that?"

"I don't think I'd better tell you. I think maybe I've told you more than I should already."

"That's OK, I promise I won't tell anyone."

It was a simple matter for Arianna to find out that Clark's parents lived in Smallville.

***

Jonathan, Martha and Lois were sitting in the waiting room outside the ER at Wichita Medical Center. It all seemed so horribly familiar. Jonathan made an effort to lighten the atmosphere.

"Well, here we all are again," he tried. The other two looked at him witheringly and he fell quiet again.

The door opened and in walked Dr. Green and Dr. Klein. Dr. Klein reported that they felt that the operation had been very successful - they had found several tiny slivers of kryptonite buried in Superman's arrow wound, and had used A scanner to ensure that there was nothing else left behind.

"Of course, the scanner is only 90% effective, so he's going to require careful monitoring over the next few days to make absolutely sure he's completely free of kryptonite." he explained. "The blood samples I took before showed that there are in fact very, very small traces of kryptonite in Superman's blood, more so near the site of the wound, so what we need to do is to keep taking blood samples until they are clear," added Dr. Green.

"The final proof will be when you can't get a needle in him anymore, I guess," said Jonathan.

"Yes, but that could be a while away, and I think you'll agree we'd all like to know that things are progressing in the right direction. Now, I think Superman will probably be well enough to go home with you by tomorrow, so that means that ideally we need one of you to keep taking the samples."

"I can do it, " said Martha. "When Jonathan hurt his back, I realised that one of us ought to have some basic medical skills, being as how we live so far from anyone. I'm a little rusty, so you'll have to give me a quick refresher course."

Lois looked at Martha in amazement. She never ceased to be surprised by Martha - so often she managed to pull something unexpected out of the hat, like the time Lois started explaining what a fax machine was, only to find that Martha and Jonathan had one in the farmhouse.

"Let's go see Superman - is that OK, Dr. Green?" suggested Lois.

"Yes, fine, but remember that like last time, it's going to be quite awhile before he's conscious."

They took it in turns to sit by Clark's bed while waiting for him to wake up. At last, while Lois was taking her turn again, reading a cookbook, she heard little snuffling sounds from Clark, and got up to lean over him.

"Clark, " she whispered, not wanting to jerk him awake too rudely.

"Mmm."

"Clark, honey, you ready to wake up?"

His eyes fluttered and opened, and he focused blearily on her face. "Hi," he said a little croakily.

"Welcome back."

"Nice to be back."

"How do you feel?"

"I don't know - you tell me."

"They found some tiny pieces of kryptonite in you, but they think they've all been removed now. You've still got very low traces of it in your bloodstream, but Dr. Green says that should disappear gradually as your body heals itself."

"So I'm not going to be lifting satellite rockets just yet."

"No, but you will be soon. They want to keep you in overnight, but you should be able to come home tomorrow. I guess I ought to tell the others you're awake now - they'll want to check you over."

The following day, Martha joined Lois and Dr. Green in Clark's room. Dr. Green had explained to Clark about the need for regular blood samples, and now Martha was going to practise while Dr. Green supervised.

"Superman, come and sit at this table, and Martha, you come and sit next to him."

Martha was beginning to regret her earlier enthusiasm for this job; she was feeling quite nervous about the idea now. Clark could see her anxiety, and although he wasn't feeling that great about the situation either, knew it was something that just had to be done.

"Don't worry, Martha, you'll do just fine. And I'm getting quite used to pain these days, so I'm sure a little pin-prick isn't going to bother me." I'm also getting quite good at hiding pain, so if it does hurt I'm sure I can pretend it's OK, he thought.

Martha took a deep breath, slid the needle in, drew the blood and pulled it out again. She was so intent on getting things right that she didn't notice the carefully blank expression Clark pasted on his face.

"That was great, Martha. I think you're ready to go solo now," said Dr. Green.

"Yes, I didn't feel a thing," said Clark.

Martha looked at him sceptically, but didn't say anything. Instead, she suggested it was time for them to go back to Smallville again, and they packed up everything, including supplies for the blood samples, and drove home.

Later that day Clark sat on the porch of his parent's house, soaking up as much sunshine as he could. He'd been practically ordered out by Lois, who wanted him to use every means possible to ensure a speedy recovery. He already felt quite different after this latest operation than he had after the last - not a lot stronger, and not much in the way of superpowers, but just a general feeling of well-being.

He leaned back in the rocking chair and closed his eyes, feeling the sunshine bathe him in a glorious warm glow. Things were definitely going to improve now. At the back of his mind was the knowledge that he still had to deal with his flying problem - OK, Kent, call it what it is, a fear of flying, he told himself. But right now, he wanted to concentrate on positive things. He heard a phone ringing somewhere inside the house, but tuned it out of his consciousness. He concentrated on the sounds of the farm and countryside around him instead, it was all so peaceful. The door opened and Lois came out onto the porch.

"Hi, honey, how's it going?" she asked.

"Just fine. The sun is shining, the birds are singing, and I have no bits of kryptonite left inside me."

"That's not very poetic, you know."

"Just be glad I didn't sing it to you."

"Thank you for sparing me. I came out to say, I'm going into town - I just remembered it's my Mom's birthday soon, and I've got to find a present for her."

"Do you want me to help you?"

"No, you just relax here. Mom isn't the easiest person to buy presents for, and it usually takes me ages to decide. You don't want to drag around the shops with me. Of course, I hope she likes agricultural implements, because I don't suppose there's much else to buy in Smallville."

"Lois, we do more than 'worship' corn here, you know."

"Oh yeah, well we'll see."

"See you for dinner."

"OK."

Dinnertime arrived, but Lois wasn't back from town.

"Lois must be finding it really tough to find her Mom a present," said Martha.

"She can't be shopping anymore now, all the stores will be closed," commented Jonathan.

"I'm sorry, Mom and Dad. Lois isn't usually late for a meal."

The phone rang, and Clark picked it up, glad that Lois was calling to tell them where she was. But as Martha and Jonathan watched him expectantly, he turned very pale and clutched the receiver so tight they thought he would crush it to powder. He listened in silence to whoever was on the other end of the phone, and after several agonising seconds, put the receiver down and stared at it.

"What is it?" asked Jonathan.

"I have to go out."

"Who was that, Clark? What did they say?"

"Sorry about dinner, Mom, but I have to leave right now." He started towards the door, but Jonathan stepped in front of him and held his shoulders.

"Clark, who was it?"

"She's got Lois, and I have to go get her back."

"Who's got Lois?"

"Arianna. At the old water tower near Wayne Irig's farm."

"Clark, let's call the police. They can handle it."

"No, she wants me. I have to go. There's no time."

"Clark, you're not being rational. The police will deal with it better than we could."

"Dad, I've got to go." Clark pushed past his father, went outside to the pickup truck and started it up. Jonathan called out to him,

"Clark, don't be a fool, you're not strong enough yet to do this on your own."

Clark hesitated, and looked back to his father. "OK, call the police, but I have to do this."

With that, he disappeared down the track in a cloud of dust.

Clark arrived at the water tower and got out of the truck. He looked quickly up, and could just see Lois tied up somehow right at the top of the ladder that went up the side. He was sure that there must be a trap, that he was meant to try and bring her back down so that Arianna could spring another hidden danger on them, but he also knew that he was going to fetch Lois anyway. He tried to scan the tower with his supervision, which wasn't working very well, but couldn't see anything unusual.

Meanwhile, in a nearby barn, Arianna was just beginning to enjoy things tremendously. Her plan was working out beautifully. She was standing in front of a huge screen which showed the water tower and its immediate surroundings.

"Enjoying the show, Lois?" she asked over her shoulder.

Lois was standing a little behind Arianna, tied up to one of the barn's support posts. She couldn't answer, she was transfixed by the scene on the screen in front of her. She could see Clark at the bottom of the tower, and guessed as he looked slowly up it that he was trying to inspect it for tricks with his supervision. Clark, please don't try to climb the tower or fly up to the top, she begged him silently. She knew he would find it almost impossible right now.

"What, nothing to say? I hope hubby is feeling fit. It's quite a few steps up that ladder, isn't it?" Arianna continued to taunt Lois.

Lois stayed silent, praying that Clark wouldn't attempt the climb, but knowing in her heart that she could expect no less of her brave, strong husband.

Clark's heart was thumping as he looked up at the height of the tower; this was no time to be afraid of heights or flying. He launched himself upwards, but he'd only reached a height of about 10 feet when everything started swimming in front of his eyes. In desperation, he moved closer to the tower and landed on the ladder. For ages it seemed, he clung to the ladder, trying to regain some of his composure.

Don't look down, he told himself, just look at the rungs in front of you. But could he ever move from the rung he had reached? - he felt himself beginning to freeze to the spot. His palms were sweaty and they felt slippery as they held on to the rungs of the ladder. His legs felt like jelly, his shoes didn't feel as though they had enough grip to stay on the rungs. Come on, Kent, think of Lois. Lois, Lois, Lois…He began to set up a kind of rhythm to her name, and after a couple of deep breaths, started to climb up the ladder, one rung to each chant of her name. He became a machine with only one task, nothing else mattered except the next rung of the ladder.

When it seemed as if he'd been climbing for ever, he stopped to rest. His chest was heaving, and it felt as if his heart would explode, it was beating so loudly. Spots were beginning to dance before his eyes as he wrapped his arms around the ladder to give his hands some respite. Deep breaths, Kent, you can do it. Lois, Lois…he started upwards again.

Lois saw him stop, and held her breath. Had he run out of energy? It was only this morning he was in the hospital, how was he going to make it up there? Don't stop now, Clark. She let out a sigh of relief as she saw him start up again.

Suddenly his hand reached up for the next rung to find only thin air. That nearly caused him to lose his balance, but he managed to cling back on again. But where was Lois? She'd been at the top of the ladder, but now she wasn't. Just as he came to the realisation that she must have been a projection of some sort, he heard an odd sound, like a muffled explosion, and the ladder disintegrated beneath him.

"Now comes the best bit," said Arianna gleefully.

Clark was falling again, but this time it was for real. He had to stop, he knew he could, he could fly if he wanted to, if he really wanted to. The ground was coming up to meet him, he had to stop soon. Lois, I love you…something clicked inside his mind, and all of a sudden he knew he could do it. He could fly as high as he wanted to, just so long as he had the strength. His fear was gone. He slowed his rate of descent so that he was able to land on both feet, and started to look around to find the source of the projection.

"How…What happened? He should be dead." Arianne couldn't understand what had gone wrong.

"Well, he's not," said Lois flatly. "What are you going to do now - jump off the tower yourself? Lex would be so proud."

"You have no idea what Lex would think. You never understood him like I did."

"Yeah, you understood him so much he divorced you. Why was that - was it that you were too unstable, even for him?"

"He was going through a bad patch in his life. He would have come back to me, if you hadn't driven him to his death."

"Excuse me, I think he did that himself. Actually, he didn't drive so much as take a running jump."

"At least I've got rid of Superman, the superhero who only saves you if he likes you."

"Actually, I think you'll find you got that wrong, too," muttered Lois under her breath.

Arianna was so caught up in her anger at Lois that she didn't notice Clark slip into the barn with the police.

"Arianna Carlin, I am arresting you on suspicion of attempted murder," announced one of the policeman, and suddenly it was all over for Arianna.

***

Two days later, Martha was standing in the kitchen calling out to Clark,

"Clark, sweetie, I'm waiting for you. I need to take today's sample."

Clark was in the bedroom with Lois, indulging in a long, slow kiss.

Lois pulled away a little. "You'd better go - mustn't keep your Mom waiting."

Clark pulled a face. Martha hadn't been getting any better with her technique, and staying here with Lois seemed a much better, and more comfortable, proposition.

"Go on, don't be such a baby!"

Clark got up and walked into the kitchen, rolling up his sleeve.

"OK, Mom. See if you can find some without any kryptonite in it today. I'm starting to feel like a pincushion."

"Don't be such a baby," chided Martha.

"Not you too!" Clark complained.

Martha started to slide the needle in, but somehow couldn't seem to get it right.

"I'm sorry. I don't know why, but I'm messing up today."

"It's OK, it didn't hurt." For once, his statement was true, it really didn't hurt.

Martha tried again. "It just won't go."

They look at each other as it dawned on them.

Clark jumped up, picked up a pan and handed it to Martha. "Hit me with it," he asked.

"Oh Clark, I can't."

"Well, stamp on my foot or something."

Martha baulked - she couldn't deliberately strike her own son.

Clark strode into the bedroom and commanded Lois, "Lois, stamp on my foot."

Lois looked momentarily dumbfounded, and then the light dawned.

She walked over and without hesitation came down heavily on her husband's foot. She was wearing heels while he was still padding around in socks, so this was going to be a good test.

Clark pulled off his sock and they both examined his foot. No marks. And it certainly hadn't hurt him.

"I think - "

"- you're cured! Oh, honey, I'm so glad!" Lois flung her arms around him and hugged him close.

A little later, Clark teased Lois. "There wasn't much hesitation back there when I asked you to hit me."

"Well, I considered it payment in advance. There's bound to be something you deserve a gentle thwack for in the future."

"Lois, that was *not* a 'gentle thwack'."

"Well, you *are* Superman."

"I guess I am."

THE END