Fear of the Unknown

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

Rated PG

Submitted October 1998

Summary: Following an accident, Clark has difficulty coming to terms with the consequences of his actions. Can Lois convince him that as long as they are together, they can overcome any obstacle?

Dear reader(s): One of the limitations of a one-hour plot is that everything has to be wrapped up in double-quick time. I thought that Clark got off a little too easily with his amnesia episode compared with poor old Lois, so I wrote my own amnesia story. There's a little action, a lot of relationship stuff, and only an eensie-weensie bit of humour - memory-loss is a serious business, you know ;) By the way, a huge thanks to those who took the time to tell me what they thought of my last fanfic. Once again, comments are very welcome - it's the only way I'm going to get any better at this.

***

Superman flew down to prop up yet another crane that threatened to topple over and crash to the ground. The fire had been raging for hours now, and just when he and the fire-fighters thought they'd got it under control, another warehouse would flare up again. The cause of their problems was the vast array of substances in storage in the docks area where they were working; there was timber, clothing, paper stocks, oil and most dangerous of all, many different flammable chemicals which produced toxic fumes as well as lethal flames. Time and time again, Superman blew away the fumes or inhaled them in order to expel them again high into the atmosphere. He worked constantly to catch falling machinery, collapsing walls, or to snatch workers out of harm's way. The work was exhausting, and with the additional handicap of a brief encounter with kryptonite (which he'd suffered earlier in the evening), even Superman was reaching the edge of his limits. Landing beside the fire chief as he surveyed the scene, he enquired,

"How's it looking now, chief?"

"Better, actually. I don't think there's much else left to go up now - everything that could catch fire already has done. And thanks to you, I think we're putting out more fires than are starting, at last."

But just as he finished, some flames leapt out of the window of one of the buildings the fire fighters were working in. Superman flew over into the next street in order to get closer, and drew a deep breath.

"Superman, no!" cried the firechief, but he was too late.

Superman cooled the flames with his superbreath, but as he was turning to fly away again, he heard a faint cracking sound, and looked back just in time to see the wall of the building crash inwards, on top of the fire-fighters.

Time stood still. He watched, rooted to the spot in shock, as the dust and debris from the crash flew up into the air, and the screams of the trapped fire-fighters echoed around him. What had he done? How could he have misjudged things so badly? He felt sick with fear at the disaster he had just caused. He didn't hear the fire chief screaming at him,

"Superman, get out of the way!"

All he could hear were the cries of the men trapped under the rubble he had created with his own carelessness. He didn't hear the second crack as another building started to collapse, didn't hear the whistling sound as the girders flew through the air towards him, didn't hear the sound of the gigantic piece of steel hitting his head and knocking him unconscious.

Lois awoke with a start as the phone rang beside the bed. Reaching up blindly with a hand, she grabbed the receiver and pulled it towards her under the bedclothes.

"This better be good," she mumbled to whoever was on the other end.

"Ah, Ms Lane?" asked a nervous male voice.

"Maybe."

"Ms Lane, I'm very sorry to disturb you so late, but we thought you might be able to help us with a problem that we have."

"I doubt it."

"Oh…the thing is, you seem to know Superman pretty well, so we thought you'd be the best choice to-"

"Who's we?"

"Oh, sorry. I'm Dr Carter, from Metropolis General ER. We have Superman here-"

"Superman!?"

Lois was wide awake now. She was aware that Clark was out on 'Super-business', and if he was at the hospital, she wanted to know why.

"Yes, but he's acting a little strangely, and like I said, you seem to know him pretty well, so we thought maybe you could come out and-"

"I'll be right there."

She leapt out of bed, threw on some clothes, and was walking into the ER 15 minutes later.

She asked at reception for Dr Carter, and was directed towards a harassed young man in a white coat as he emerged from one of the exam rooms.

"Where's Superman?" she demanded.

"He's in here," he replied, showing her over to another cubicle. "But I have to warn you, I don't think he's quite himself."

"What do you mean?" asked Lois, trying not to show her increasing agitation.

"Well, physically, he seems fine. The rescue workers who brought him here said they thought he might have been hit in the head by some of the falling debris, but we've checked him out thoroughly and there doesn't seem to be any permanent damage. He says his head hurts, but I don't think it's anything serious. But he seems a little confused, as if he's not sure of his identity, or where he is and why. That's why we called you in - we need to ask him questions about himself to check him out, but we don't know enough about him to ask the right questions."

"Oh." Lois' mind was racing. How could she pull this off without revealing too much, and what on earth had happened to her poor, dear husband? She'd have to improvise on the spot, as usual.

"One other thing," said Dr Carter just before they stepped inside.

"He doesn't like it when you call him Superman."

Lois walked inside to find Clark half-sitting, half-lying on an examination table with his eyes closed. She walked softly to his side and put a hand gently on his arm. His body jerked in surprise, his eyes shot open and he turned to her with a startled, frightened look. Lois was a little shocked at his extreme response, but rallied round.

"Hello, I'm sorry if I took you by surprise."

"Th-that's OK. I was just dozing."

"How do you feel?"

"I'm all right. My head hurts a bit, but they tell me it's only temporary."

"That's good. They asked me to ask you a few questions - is that OK with you?"

"Yes, I guess. Although I'm not sure what I can tell you, everything's a bit jumbled at the moment."

"Can you remember your name?"

Lois crossed her fingers behind her back, hoping he wouldn't say the wrong thing.

"S-S-Super-. They told me it, but I can't - I don't like - it's not me. It's not my name. I mean, what kind of a name is that? It should be John Smith, or Bill Jones, or James…David…something normal…" he trailed off.

"Well, it's kind of a nickname of yours. Do you remember where you come from?"

"What do you mean?"

"Where were you born?"

"I don't know."

"What about your parents - can you remember your father's name?"

He frowned and stared at the floor while straining to recall.

"Jor-" Lois prompted.

"Jor?" He shook his head. "I don't remember."

"How about the year you were born?"

He put his face in his hands and repeated.

"I can't remember. I don't know."

Dr Carter hear the rising panic in Clark's voice and stepped forward to put his hand lightly on Lois' shoulder.

"I think that's enough," he said.

But Lois wanted to ask one more question.

"Do you know who I am?"

"No." He looked up at her sad face. "I'm sorry if I should."

Lois wanted to cry and put her arms around him and say "I'm your wife!", but instead she re-introduced herself, patted his arm and told him not to worry.

"I think it's pretty clear that your memory has developed a few holes," began Dr Carter.

"A few! I can't remember anything!"

"Yes, you can. What's the capital of France?"

"Paris."

"What's five times seven?"

"Thirty-five."

"What year was President Kennedy shot?"

"Sixty-three."

"What do we commemorate on the 4th of July?"

"Independence Day. And Christmas Day is 25th of December. What's your point?"

"You've retained all your general knowledge. It's only information relating to your own identity that you've lost."

"Great, so I'm a walking encyclopaedia, but I can't find my way home."

"In a nutshell."

"So what do I do, and when will my memory come back?"

"It's impossible to predict. But most amnesia sufferers regain their memory eventually. You need to take time out, rest, and surround yourself with the normal, everyday things and people in you life."

"How do I do that when I don't know what they are?"

"I can help you there," butted in Lois quickly. "My husband and I are your closest friends, so you could stay with us for a while until you recover."

"I think that's an excellent plan," said Dr Carter.

"Well, OK, that's very generous of you, Ms Lane."

Lois' heart leapt at his stiff formality.

"Call me Lois, you always call me Lois," she said quietly.

"There's one thing you should both understand about Sup-his condition," added Dr Carter. "Amnesia is often caused by a traumatic incident, something so unpleasant that the mind prefers to shut out anything related to the event - a sort of fail-safe mechanism. So be prepared for a rocky road to recovery as your memory returns. I'll give you a couple of contacts in case you need advice, counselling or just a sympathetic ear during this time. I'd strongly advise you to make use of them rather than try to battle on alone."

Lois and Clark digested this information for a moment, and then Clark spoke up.

"You mean who I am is related to this trauma, don't you? Maybe I did something bad, something illegal?"

"You couldn't possibly do anything like that, trust me," said Lois emphatically. "You're a *good* person."

"Yes, everyone knows that," agreed Dr Carter.

"Everyone? You mean I'm famous?"

"Just a bit."

"Oh. Maybe I should change out of this stupid outfit then," he said, looking down in disgust at his blue spandex-clad legs. "Do you have any spare clothes?"

"I think we could rustle something up," replied Dr Carter.

They arrived back at Lois and Clark's house half-an-hour later. Lois unlocked the door and invited Clark to precede her inside. She watched him as he walked into their house, hopeful for signs of familiarity. He walked hesitantly around the lounge, eyeing the contents of the room as if for the first time. He sighed and looked at her.

"Have I been here before?"

She couldn't bear to look at him. She turned quickly towards the kitchen.

"Quite a lot. Would you like a drink?"

She dove into the kitchen without waiting for his reply, tears streaming down her face. What do I do? What do I tell him? How can I even begin to explain our complicated, danger-filled lives? She fumbled blindly for a couple of glasses and filled them up with milk. After standing over the sink for what seemed like an eternity, she told herself to 'get a grip' and cleaned herself up as best she could. Picking up the glasses, she walked back into the lounge, but was halted in her tracks when she saw Clark. He was standing by the mantelpiece, studying a framed photograph.

"This is you with your husband, isn't it?"

"Yes." She held her breath.

"He looks so familiar. He - I know, he looks like…oh God."

He sat down heavily on one of the sofas.

"It's me. He's me. I mean, I'm your-" he stopped and looked up at her in shock.

"Yes."

"Oh, Lois, I don't know what to say."

"It's all right. I'm sorry I didn't tell you before."

"It's not all right. You must have been going through hell."

That was her Clark, always putting himself in other's shoes, thinking about their problems before his own. In a way, it was encouraging.

"We're both going through hell. We're in this together," she told him.

"You have to tell me everything, who I am, what I do, who you are."

"OK, but I have to warn you, it's complicated."

She began by telling him that he was brought up in Kansas, the son of two very loving parents, and that after travelling the world for a few years, had come back to the USA to settle in Metropolis as a reporter for the Daily Planet. There he had met her, and after working together as partners, they had fallen in love and got married. His parents still lived in Smallville, but he saw them on a regular basis. She also told him his name, Clark Kent.

Clark frowned.

"So why did that doctor call me…something else?"

Lois hesitated. She wasn't sure if Clark was ready to learn about the rest of his identity, so adverse had been his reaction to his other name, Superman.

"And why was I wearing that ridiculous outfit?"

"I'm sorry, Clark. I'm not sure if I should tell you all this yet. You were pretty confused at the hospital - I don't want to upset you."

"I'm already upset, things can't get much worse."

Lois studied her husband, and decided he had definitely had enough shocks for one night. His face was pale and he was holding onto the arm of the sofa a little too tightly.

"I think we both need to get some sleep. We can talk about this some more in the morning."

"Lois!"

"Come on Clark, come to bed."

He followed her reluctantly upstairs, but hesitated at the door to their bedroom. He felt so awkward, like an intruder in someone's private space, and it just didn't feel right to insinuate himself into a stranger's bedroom. Lois turned, saw his hesitation, and took his hand in hers and led him inside.

"Lois, I can't."

"Yes, you can. Remember what Dr Carter said about familiar things."

"It doesn't seem right. I don't know you."

"Yes, you do, you've just forgotten."

He stood awkwardly in the middle of the room while she started to get ready for bed.

"Please, Clark. Stay with me. If not for yourself, for me. I need you with me."

"I'm sorry, I just can't. I'll sleep in that spare room down the hall."

He bolted from the room before she could stop him.

"Oh Clark," she sobbed.

The next morning, Lois came down to the kitchen to find that Clark was already up and had breakfast ready for her.

"The least I could do after getting you up in the middle of the night," he explained.

He looked strained, as if he hadn't slept all night. Lois wanted to hug him, to soothe away the worry, but after last night, she knew he wasn't ready for such intimacy. He gestured at the trashcan.

"I'm sorry, I broke one of your- one of the glasses. It just seemed to crumble in my hand."

"That's OK. Is that coffee I see?"

"Yes." He picked up a mug, and jumped back as that too disintegrated in his hand. He stared at the pieces on the floor and at his hand for a while before asking,

"Do we always keep a lot of faulty crockery around?"

"Noooo…" Lois began to realise what was happening. It was time to tell him the rest of his story before any real damage got done. Filling two mugs with coffee, she sat down at the table with him. This was going to be hard. She took his hand in hers.

"The first thing to tell you is, you're adopted."

Clark digested this information inwardly and tried to gauge how he felt about it. A little scared and lost, but also curious.

"Do I know who my real parents are?"

"Yes, and they were very loving parents, but had to give you up for a very special reason."

"Were? So, they're…" he faltered. "They're dead?"

"Yes, they both died in a tragic disaster when you were still a baby."

Lois felt his hand tense under hers.

"Do I have any other relatives?"

"Not blood relatives, no."

"So I'm alone."

She kneaded his hand gently as it grew even more tense.

"No, you have me, you have your adoptive parents, and you have a number of friends, some of them very close. Clark, you are anything *but* alone."

"Where do I come from - where did my parents come from, I mean?"

Lois hesitated. How could she break it to him?

"They're from someplace far away," she started.

"Abroad, you mean?"

"Kind of."

"Well, where exactly?"

Lois took a deep breath and looked at him squarely.

"Krypton."

"Krypton? Where's that?"

"It's a planet."

He looked at her incredulously. "A planet?"

She continued to look at him steadily. "Yes."

"A planet. Of course. Are you trying so say I'm an-" he snatched his hand away from her and shot out of his chair.

"This is ridiculous! You must be crazy! Do you really think I'd believe - an alien? This must be some kind of sick joke, either that or a really, really bad dream. Maybe if I pinch myself I'll wake up. Little green men? Come on!"

He was right over the other side of the kitchen now, as far away from her as he could get.

"Clark, it's true."

"Oh yes, and I suppose Father Christmas and the tooth fairy are real too."

"I'm sorry. I know it must be hard to accept, but I swear it's all true."

"Why are you doing this to me? Is this some weird experiment you're conducting with that Dr Carter? Confuse subject completely, tell him he's an alien, and stand back to watch the results?"

"Clark, please. Don't make this harder than it is already." She got up and walked up to him, ignoring the way he shied away from her. She put her hands on his shoulders and looked straight at him.

"Do I look like I'm lying? Do I look like I'm the kind of person who would make up something like this?"

"I don't know. No. Yes. Maybe - I don't know."

"Look at me. Would I lie?"

He stared into her eyes for a long time, searching for the person behind them. Eventually he said,

"No. No, you wouldn't lie to me."

He moved away from her again, this time over to the sink where he picked up a glass gingerly and filled it with water from the tap.

"What am I?" he asked in a tense voice with his back to her.

"You're a Kryptonian. Your parents sent you to Earth because they knew you would fit in so well here - your physiology is very close to ours."

"Almost but not quite human. An alien. A freak." His voice was shaking now, and the glass rattled as he placed it on the counter.

"No! A very special person that a lot of people love very much."

Lois moved closer to him and he started to move away again. She grasped his arms to prevent his escape.

"Stop it, Clark. Stop avoiding me. You belong, you're not an outsider. We belong to each other."

She could fell his body trembling beneath her hands, but at least he wasn't trying to get away from her. She put her arms deliberately around him and hugged him close.

"This is how we belong. Together."

At first, he stood like a trembling leaf in the wind, but then he slowly put his arms around her and returned the embrace. With the release of tension came a sudden realisation of how exhausted he felt, and he staggered against her slightly.

"Clark?"

"Sorry, I'm a little tired. I didn't sleep at all last night."

"Why don't you lie down on one of the sofas in the living room. I need to phone Perry anyway."

"Who's Perry?"

"He's our boss. I need to tell him where we are."

"What will you tell him?"

"Oh, probably that you've got the flu badly and I need to look after you. He probably won't believe me, because you're usually so disgustingly healthy, but he trusts me, so it'll do for now. Now go lie down and get some sleep."

Clark did as he was told while Lois made her phone call. She could tell by the sound of Perry's voice that she was right about his scepticism, but he didn't challenge her need to stay home with Clark for a few days. She wasn't sure what she was going to do if Clark's amnesia lasted longer than that - apart from anything else, Clark probably needed to visit the Daily Planet as part of his therapy. How was she going to explain it all to the staff there? And then, there were his parents - should she tell them now, or leave it a couple of days? At times like this, she thought she must have been crazy to marry into such a complicated lifestyle - chasing down villains was child's play compared to coping with the demands placed on her by being married to such a complex man. But that's precisely why you married him, she reminded herself, because you love him; love all the different facets of his personality, love the fact that you're one of the few people in the world who can truly know him. She felt an enormous privilege that he loved her so much that he could reveal his true self to her, something that only two other people were lucky enough to see.

Clark lay on the sofa, half listening to Lois as she spoke to Perry. Sleep continued to elude him as his mind replayed snippets of conversation from last night and this morning. At the same time, he could faintly hear the sounds of traffic, police sirens, alarm bells and building works going on outside, as the world continued its hectic pace of living. Actually, now he thought about it, he could hear a lot of it very clearly; the more he listened, the louder it got. Must be some quirk of the building, he thought. It was quite incredible how much he could hear.

Lois walked into the lounge, and could see straight away that he wasn't asleep yet. She thought maybe some quiet music might be soothing, so she switched on the radio. Very loud rock music blared out of the speakers before she could grab the dial and turn it down. Damn! She turned to apologise to Clark, and discovered him curled up in a tight ball, his hands over his ears, and his eyes wide open in shock.

"Clark, I'm so sorry!" she cried, rushing over to sit on the floor beside him. In his panic, he was breathing hard, as if he'd just finished a race. She put a hand on his heaving shoulder.

"Clark, it's all right. It's safe."

But Clark could hardly hear her amid the cacophony assailing him. It was as if he could hear every sound in the city, every siren, every ambulance, every car crash, every bank alarm. And every cry of distress. People stuck in lifts, trapped in cars, children falling - people suffering all around him. It was terrifying, and it was made worse by his heightened alarm caused by Lois' mistake with the radio. What was happening to him, was he going crazy? He pressed his hands even harder over his ears.

Lois guessed correctly that his superhearing had just kicked unexpectedly in, and realised abruptly that she'd again failed to tell him about his superpowers. He must be going through agony! Somehow she had to pull him back, get him to switch off his superhearing, and slow down his breathing. She tried to pull his hands away from his ears, but he was too strong for her. Instead, she lay down beside him as best she could on the sofa, and wrapped her arms around him.

"Listen to me, Clark. Concentrate on my voice and ignore everything else," she said loudly and firmly.

Clark dimly heard her voice in the background, but then came the cry,

"Help Superman!" and his world dissolved.

"Clark! Clark!"

His body had gone limp and his eyes were closed. At least his breathing was calmer, but now she couldn't rouse him at all. She shook his shoulder.

"Clark?"

She brushed the hair from his face, then moved her hand around to the back of his head, running her fingers through his hair. Such thick, dark hair - not for the first time, she wondered if all Kryptonians had hair like his.

"Clark, come back to me."

His eyelids fluttered and opened.

"Wha-what?" he said uncertainly.

"Thank God. Are you OK?"

"I think so."

"You kind of disappeared for a second there. Are you sure you're OK?"

He sat up slowly as she rose from the sofa to make room for him.

"Fairly sure. My head aches a little - could I have some water?"

"Sure."

When she came back from the kitchen, he was sitting up straighter and his colour was better. Handing him the glass, she sat down beside him.

"What do you think happened?"

"I don't know. One minute I was lying on the sofa trying to fall asleep, and the next minute there was this terrible noise all around me. It sounded like everyone in the city who was in trouble, all shouting and screaming at me." He took a shaky breath. "It was terrifying, Lois. I could hear you very dimly in the background, but I couldn't hear what you were saying." He looked at her a little desperately. "Am I crazy?"

"No. In fact, you're the sanest person I know. There's a very good reason for what happened to you, but first tell me, what happened at the end?"

"I'm not sure. All I remember is you shaking my shoulder to wake me up."

"You don't remember how the noise stopped?"

"No - why?"

"You suddenly went completely limp, as if you'd shut down or something. I think maybe something you heard made you do that."

"I don't remember. You say you know why I heard all that stuff?"

"Yes." Lois studied him. She wasn't sure how many more revelations he could take, yet she had to tell him for his own peace of mind and maybe even his safety.

"OK, this next bit is weird, but *nice* weird. Incredible weird, really."

He felt his pulse quicken.

"You have some very special gifts. You're amazingly strong, so strong you can lift satellites into orbit. You can hear things no-one else can, and you can see further than anyone. You also have x-ray and laser vision. You're so fast you can catch bullets. And you can fly."

"Fly?"

"Yes."

"Doesn't that break some law of physics?"

"I don't know. All I know is you can do it, and you love it too. When you take me flying I can see how much you enjoy it, how free and easy you feel up there."

"I take you? That must be nice."

"It's wonderful."

"So the reason I heard all that noise - it was my special hearing?"

"Yes, so don't for one minute think you're crazy."

She looked at him, how tired he was, how confused and frightened he still was despite her best efforts to make it all sound positive. He needed break, a diversion from the intensity.

"Clark, do you feel up to a short walk?"

"You mean outside?"

"Yes, we could go for a walk in the park. Feed the ducks. Go boating on the lake."

He looked doubtful.

"We'll take things nice and slow. Come on, the fresh air will do you good. Maybe even help you sleep."

"Well, OK."

So they set off for the park. Just as she was locking the door behind her, Lois suddenly remembered something.

"Hold on, I'll be back in a minute."

She came back with a pair of glasses and handed them to him.

"Put these on."

"What for, I can see fine."

"Clark, just trust me on this. I'll explain later."

He looked bemused, but complied with her instructions.

They had a peaceful walk in the park, with thankfully no interruptions from Clark's wayward superpowers. As promised, Lois took things nice and slowly, with plenty of pauses on park benches along the route. The most exciting thing they encountered was two male ducks squabbling over one female, and they had a good laugh when the female got the better of both suitors and escaped amid a loud chorus of quacks. Their conversation kept carefully to neutral topics or to tall tales from Lois' childhood and early years as a green reporter. By the time they reached home again, Clark was feeling more relaxed than he had done all day, and was beginning to understand why he had chosen Lois Lane as his wife. She was bright and funny, and he could tell that she had a strong will and a lot of unconventional, firmly-held opinions. He thought that even if he never regained his memory, he would probably fall in love with this woman all over again.

That night, Lois deliberately went up to bed first, leaving Clark to decide where he was going to sleep. She was delighted and relieved when he appeared shyly at the doorway to their bedroom, trying to hide his uncertainty with the comment,

"This bed looks more comfortable than the one next door - I thought I might sleep better."

To Lois, this was a definite sign of improvement, and for the first time she thought she could see light at the end of the very long tunnel she'd been staring down.

Two days later, she had revised her thoughts. After that first day, Clark had gradually become more and more withdrawn, and she was at a loss as to what do about it. Everything had started to go wrong when she finally got around to telling him why he was wearing the Suit when she had picked him up at the hospital. She had been very careful to avoid references to Superman, since the name still appeared to upset him terribly. But despite her care, he had immediately gone very quiet, and all but walked out on her up to the bedroom. Since then he had hardly spoken a word to her, especially when she tried to raise the subject of what had happened that first night. She now knew that he'd been fighting a fire; this much she'd learned from the news, but she couldn't get him to tell her anything about the event. He said he wasn't interested - he wanted to get on with the rest of his life now - and he had avoided all the news on the TV and in the newspapers.

She knew that he still wasn't sleeping much, and she was getting worried about his physical condition. His superpowers meant that he was able to manage on less sleep than anyone else, but even *he* had his limits. He got up late in the mornings, and didn't even bother to get dressed properly, but wandered about the house in his dressing gown. His appetite was poor, and his face looked drawn and strained. Soon, Lois thought, he wouldn't even need his glasses to go out, he looked so little like his super alter ego. Not that he ever did go out, in fact he refused point blank because he said it was too dangerous. His superpowers continued to plague him. It was as if he'd forgotten how to control them, and they would switch themselves on and off at random. Luckily, he hadn't managed to hurt either of them yet, but there were a couple of scorch marks on the furniture when his laser vision had kicked in. Whenever something like that happened, he usually muttered, "Sorry," and bolted from the room.

Worst of all for Lois was the way he avoided physical contact with her. He still came to bed with her, but kept resolutely to his side of the bed, and whenever she tried to touch him, he would almost flinch away from her. When she finally challenged him about this again, he said it was for her own safety - he didn't want to hurt her. Little did he realise just how much he was indeed hurting her, albeit in a different way.

On the morning of the third day, Lois came downstairs dressed for going out. Clark was, as usual by now, slouched on the sofa in his dressing gown drinking a mug of coffee.

"I have to go out to buy some more food," she announced. When no reply was forthcoming, she continued,

"Do you want to come with me?"

Still no reply.

"Clark?"

"No, thanks."

"You could pick up some magazines to read," she tried, although Clark had never been a big magazine-reader.

"I'm fine, thanks."

"Well, good. Would you like me to bring anything back for you?"

"No."

"OK, I won't be out long. You'll be all right?"

"Yes."

On impulse, Lois bent down and gave him a quick peck on the cheek.

"Bye, honey," she said, as if everything were completely normal.

As the door shut behind her, Clark sighed heavily. He knew he was behaving badly, but he just couldn't shake himself out of the habit. In one way, he felt as if he were living on a knife-edge, never knowing when one of his powers would assert itself and frighten him almost to the point of panic. On the other hand, it seemed as if he were cut-off from the rest of the world by a glass partition. Nothing was important anymore, and Lois' efforts to rouse him, to make him interested in things only made him pull further away. He could sense that there was something very important that he had lost, perhaps something he was avoiding, but he couldn't bring himself to go anywhere near it. He preferred this state of limbo he'd found; at least it was safe.

The doorbell rang, and Clark pulled himself reluctantly up from the sofa to find that a small padded envelope had been thrust through the letterbox. As he collected the package he began to feel a little queasy, but opened it, and immediately felt ten times worse. Not realising the cause of his distress, he reached inside the envelope and found a strange-looking rock with a green glow. By now, he was finding it difficult to breath, and there was terrible pain and nausea enveloping him. He staggered towards the sofa to sit down, but didn't quite make it, and fell, dropping the green rock so that it landed underneath him. He tried to pull himself towards the phone to call for help, but it was too difficult and he was rapidly losing consciousness. His last thought was for Lois and the shock she would get on her return.

Twenty minutes later, Lois opened the front door. She was worried about leaving Clark alone for any length of time in his present state of mind, so she had sped around the store as fast as she could. As soon as she walked in, she saw Clark lying on the carpet. Her heart leapt as she ran to his side. What had he done, what had happened to him? She bent down close to him and was relieved to find him still breathing, albeit in a very laboured fashion. His face was flushed, and when she felt his forehead, it was burning hot. His condition looked exactly like kryptonite poisoning, but she couldn't image how he could have come in contact with the stuff in their living room. The fact that he was still unconscious meant that the kryptonite must still be around somewhere. She dashed around the room, searching everywhere, but came up blank. Getting desperate, she pulled all the cushions off the sofas and thrust her hands down the backs and sides, dragged all the furniture around with a strength she didn't know she had, pulled out drawers, even checked inside lampshades, but to no avail.

"Come on, girl, think!" she shouted to herself.

If she couldn't find the kryptonite, then she had to move Clark away from it. Summoning all her strength, she took hold of his wrists and dragged him slowly across the floor towards the kitchen. It was back-breaking work, but she would do anything to save her husband's life. As he moved across the floor, the kryptonite and the padded envelope gradually appeared from under him, and as soon as she saw them, she let go of Clark's wrists, grabbed both items and ran outside to the jeep, thinking this was as far as she could possibly go to get them away from him, short of just throwing the things as far as she could. That didn't seem like a good idea, as they might fall into the wrong hands again; at least if she had them, she could keep control of them and find out where they came from.

She ran back inside again to Clark, who was still unconscious, but breathing more easily. She pulled him into a more comfortable position and put one of the cushions from one of the sofas under his head. As she did this, his eyes fluttered and opened. He looked blankly at her for a second, then his face cleared as he remembered who she was.

"It's OK, Clark, you're going to be just fine," Lois reassured him.

"What happened to me?"

"Not what, more who, I'd say. It looks like someone posted kryptonite through our door."

"What's kryptonite?"

"The only thing that can hurt you. It's a rock that comes from your home planet, and when you're exposed to it you get sick, like now. You've always recovered from previous exposures, so don't be scared."

He closed his eyes again, as if trying to block out some of the sensations he was feeling.

"It felt terrible, Lois. Actually, it still feels pretty horrible, although at least I can breath now."

Lois felt his forehead. His face was still flushed and his skin felt clammy when she touched it.

"You still feel feverish. And you'll find your powers won't work for a while. Do you think you could manage to get up and move onto the sofa - it'll be more comfortable there."

"I'll try, but I think you'll need to help me."

She helped him first sit up and then slowly stand, holding on to him tightly when he swayed and threatened to topple back down again. Never mind special powers, he thought, I don't feel like I've got any strength at all right now. He moved on shaky legs to the sofa, where he collapsed thankfully onto the soft cushions. Lois dashed upstairs for something while he curled up on the sofa, trembling from the effort of picking himself off the floor. She came back with a pillow for his head, and a blanket to cover him with.

"Thanks, Lois."

"You just rest easy. Would you like a drink, or something to eat?"

"No, I still feel a little queasy."

He closed his eyes and pulled the blanket up around him.

"Call if you need anything. I'll be in the kitchen putting the shopping away."

As Lois put the groceries away, she wondered who had posted the kryptonite through their door, and why. And there was the problem of how to get rid of it from the jeep without leaving Clark alone for too long. They'd sometimes talked in the past of investing in a lead container to quarantine kryptonite in, and now she wished they had done just that. She toyed with phoning up Jimmy, asking him to buy a lead box and deliver it to them, but there were too many complications - like where would he find a lead box, and how would she cope with his curiosity and his natural effusiveness? He would be brimming full of questions, and she didn't feel up to answering them right now. Perry was an even worse choice, which left her parents (NO!), or Dr Klein. He was the strongest contender; he wouldn't ask questions, and wouldn't readily tell others what he'd been up to. Having made her decision, she walked back into the living room to check on Clark and make the phone call.

She crouched down in front of the huddled-up form on the sofa and put a hand lightly on his shoulder. He opened his eyes and focused on her slowly.

"Feeling any better?"

He shook his head slightly.

"Are you sure you wouldn't be more comfortable upstairs in bed?"

He shook his head again and closed his eyes.

"OK." She patted his shoulder in a comforting gesture and got up again. He was obviously going to take some time to recover from this exposure, probably because of his run-down condition. She decided to leave him in peace, and collecting her cell-phone from her coat pocket, made her phone call to Dr Klein back in the kitchen. He arrived a short while later, and she led him to the jeep.

"Why would anyone send you and Clark kryptonite?" he asked.

"I don't know…" she picked up the padded envelope and noticed a sheet of paper tucked inside it. Pulling it out, she read,

'TELL YOUR FRIEND IN BLUE TIGHTS THERE'S PLENTY MORE WHERE THIS CAME FROM. TELL HIM TO LEAVE US ALL ALONE.'

"Leave us all alone? What does that mean?" asked Dr Klein, reading over her shoulder.

"I don't know that either, but I'm going to find out."

"Would you like me to take this all back to the lab and have it analysed?"

"Yes, thanks, Dr Klein." She moved as if to bid him goodbye.

"Uh, Lois?"

"Dr Klein?"

"Why were you keeping the kryptonite out here in the jeep?"

Jeez, she thought, I picked you because you weren't supposed to ask awkward questions.

"Um, I…I was going to drive it over to you, and then I thought that I should stay with Clark - he's got the flu - so I just left it in the jeep."

"Ohhhh. I see. OK. I'll take this over to the labs then."

"Yes."

"Right."

"Well, bye."

"Yes. Bye, Lois."

At last he was gone, and she went back inside to make another two phone calls, one to a travel agent, and the other to Smallville. Clark's parents already knew he was sick, because she'd phoned them previously - she had decided they had a right to know what was happening to their son. At first, they'd wanted to come straightaway to Metropolis, but she had persuaded them not to, mainly for their own sakes. They weren't getting any younger, and she didn't think a last-minute dash to the big city would do them any good. But now Clark needed a safe haven, somewhere where it wouldn't matter if his powers caught him unawares, somewhere he could practice controlling his powers. His parents had helped him learn to live with his strange abilities once, so they were probably the best equipped to do so again. She also hoped that the old familiar surroundings might jog his memory.

The next day, she broke the news to Clark.

"Clark, I'm taking you to Smallville."

He eyed her a little fearfully.

"You need peace and quiet, and somewhere safe to try out your powers. We both need a break, and your parents are itching to see you."

He looked away from her.

"Well? Clark, what do you think?"

"I think it's a really bad idea."

"Why not?"

"You know why. I *can't* go outside like this."

"Clark, I think that exposure to kryptonite was a blessing in disguise. Your powers won't be working at all right now, so you'll be perfectly safe."

"How do I know they won't suddenly come back again?"

"OK, I can't guarantee that, but judging from how you look, you're still not feeling that great, are you?"

"No."

"So, this might seem crazy, but as long as you feel that way, I think you can be pretty sure your powers are gone."

He couldn't help himself, he had to smile slightly at the irony of the situation. Lois knew she had won the argument when she saw his face.

"The flight's this afternoon, so why don't you go upstairs and put some clothes on while I pack."

By the evening of the same day, when they finally drew up outside the Kent's farmhouse, Lois was starting to question whether the trip had been a good idea. She had expected the journey to be tough on Clark, but hadn't realised just how bad it would be for him. As soon as they left their house, he was tense as he braced himself against the onslaught of the outside world. Sudden noises made him jump, and he moved as if walking on eggshells all the time, his eyes cast downwards to avoid direct contact with anyone or anything. As they boarded the plane, there was a moment when Lois thought he was going to refuse to go any further, and then he spent the whole of the flight with his eyes closed. It dawned on her that he was absolutely terrified that his laser vision would cut a hole through the skin of the plane and cause the cabin to decompress, even though none of his powers had manifest themselves for over a day. When they went to pick up a hire car at Wichita airport, there had been a long queue, and the salesman had tried to sell them lots of extra insurance they didn't need, incurring Lois' wrath, which in turn brought them a lot of unwanted attention from Clark's point-of-view. He hadn't spoken a single word throughout the drive to Smallville.

Jonathan and Martha came out of the farmhouse to greet them as Lois got out of the car. Clark remained sitting in the passenger seat, his eyes closed with his head leaning back against the headrest. Lois and Martha embraced briefly, while Jonathan went up to Clark's door and opened it.

"Hello, son. Welcome home."

Clark opened his eyes and turned to see a slightly portly man with a ruddy complexion reminiscent of the outdoors looking at him with a kind, somewhat worried, expression on his face.

Jonathan saw his son, or a shadow of his son, looking back at him. There were dark circles under his eyes, his features were drawn, and he looked tense, as if he were wound up like a tight coil.

"Welcome home," repeated Jonathan, as Clark finally got out of the car and stood awkwardly before his father. He held out his hand hesitantly, and Jonathan took it but pulled him into a close hug.

"It's good to have you back," said Jonathan. He could feel the tension in his son's body, and the way his muscles bunched up against the unexpected closeness of another person. At the same time, he seemed somehow smaller, as if he had shrunk in on himself.

"Let's get the cases inside," Jonathan suggested gruffly, his voice rough with emotion.

Martha eyed Clark as he carried the cases inside with Jonathan. She too was shocked by the change that had come over him. She had been prepared for him to look sick and tired, but not for the uncertainty in his movements, the lack of self-confidence, the way he shied away from close contact with people either physically or with his eyes. Clark usually carried himself so easily, his actions deft and sure-footed; his natural strength made everything easy for him. Now he looked…vulnerable was the best word to describe him, Martha thought.

"He looks so thin," she murmured to Lois.

"I try to get him to eat more, but…and he hasn't been outside for days. I think he's running on some sort of internal reserve, except I think it's running out."

"Well, all of that's changing right now." Martha strode inside, Lois following in her wake. "Who'd like some of my apple pie?" she asked the three of them.

"Martha, that's all right, we had something to eat on-"

Martha silenced her daughter-in-law with a glare, and addressed her son.

"Clark, you'd like a slice, wouldn't you?"

Clark looked bewildered. He started to shake his head.

"Good, I thought you would. Jonathan, you'll have some too, won't you?"

Jonathan thought to himself, not really, we just finished dinner.

"I suppose I could manage-" he started.

"Clark, you come and help me in the kitchen. Jonathan, find us some plates will you?"

Martha walked into the kitchen, but turned when she sensed Clark was still rooted to the spot.

"Come on Clark, I can't manage on my own," she commanded.

Clark found he had to comply, so forceful was this woman's personality. He followed her into the kitchen in a daze, where she kept up a continuous series of commands so that he didn't have time to even think about refusing.

The four sat down around the table to eat Martha's largely unwanted apple pie and drink tea.

"How was your journey?" asked Martha, looking at Clark.

There was an awkward pause as Clark looked mutely back at his mother. He hadn't said anything for so long now that silence had become a habit. Lois tried to fill the void.

"Not too bad-"

"Thank you Lois, but I was asking Clark," interrupted Martha pointedly, continuing to look at her son.

"Not great," he replied eventually.

"Oh, why was that?"

"It was just…long."

"Long…you mean it took longer than you thought, or it was tiring?"

"Tiring, I suppose."

"And why do you think that was?"

"I didn't…I couldn't…I was scared," he finally blurted out.

"What scared you?"

Clark wasn't able to say more. Lois, who had been listening to the stilted, painful exchange whilst pretending to eat her pie, couldn't stand it any longer. Putting her hand over her husband's, she explained,

"He was worried his powers would kick in at the wrong-"

"Excuse me," said Clark abruptly, got up hurriedly and walked into their bedroom. Lois started to get up to follow him, but Martha stopped her.

"Let me try," she said.

Martha found Clark sitting on a seat by the window, staring pensively outside. She pulled another chair up beside him and sat down.

"The land looks beautiful this time of night, doesn't it?" she commented.

He nodded.

"You always said you missed the sunsets we get out here in the country. It's not the same in Metropolis, is it?"

He muttered something too low for her to hear.

"Sorry, Clark?"

He cleared his throat. "I said, I wouldn't know," he replied.

"No, I suppose you wouldn't. Not right now. Clark, is that what's bothering you - your memory?"

He laughed ironically. "Just a bit."

"Tell me about it."

He was silent again.

"Clark, you can't keep this up. You have to let us in, tell us why you're hurting. What made the trip so bad?"

"Everything. Everything made it bad."

"It was too noisy, was it?"

"It was noisy, there were too many people. Things made me jump, I couldn't think straight, I couldn't look at anything in case…the aeroplane could have - they could have died, I could have killed them - " he stopped short and took in a sharp breath.

"Clark?"

"I could have killed them," he whispered again, staring out of the window.

"But nothing like that could have happened, your powers aren't working," Martha pointed out. He didn't respond, but continued to stare, trance-like into the distance. "Clark?" She shook his shoulder gently.

"Something…something happened," he said distantly.

"Are you remembering something?" She waited anxiously for his reply, but after a second, he turned back to her, his eyes blank.

"It's gone. I lost it."

Martha could see that he had nearly remembered something, but it was still just out of reach. She continued her questioning, determined to break down his barriers.

"What else made the trip so terrible?"

"I still ache all over from the kryptonite yesterday…it hurt so much, I couldn't breathe, it made me feel sick…and everyone was staring at us at the carhire place…why did she have to pick an argument, why couldn't she just buy the stupid insurance? It's not like we're broke, at least I don't think we are, we live in a nice house, we seem to have nice clothes, she buys loads of food. Everyone was staring at us like we were crazy, I had to look at the carpet, I couldn't look anywhere but at the carpet…it had holes in it, like someone had caught something on it, although I couldn't work out how they'd done that, maybe they'd had a fight with the salesman too, like we had, maybe he tries to sell extra insurance to everyone and they always have an argument, maybe it's a spectator sport for the staff there."

He was out of the chair now and pacing up and down the room, his voice rising as he relived the events of the day.

"He kept asking *me* questions too, as if I could help. What could I do, I'm no use to anyone, I'm just some jerk who doesn't know who he is. I'm so tired of it all, I just want to lie down and sleep - maybe if I sleep long enough, I'll wake up normal again. Maybe this is all a very bad dream - no, I tried that before when she told me I was an alien…"

Martha was relieved that he'd finally relinquished control over his pent-up emotions, but alarmed at the same time at what she was hearing - this wasn't *her* Clark giving vent to his feelings. She got up and grabbed his arms, stopping him in mid-pace.

"Honey, this 'she' is your wife. Don't you dare talk about her as if she were a stranger."

"But that's just it. She *is* a stranger. You all are."

"No, we are not! Clark, would we take you into our homes if we were strangers, would Lois show you the love she has for you if she was a stranger? Would we feed you, look after you when you're sick if we were strangers? Frankly, would we put up with you right now if we were strangers? Clark, all of us love you with all our hearts. No-one is a stranger here."

He looked down at her kind, loving face, and suddenly realised just how hard she was trying to build a bridge over to him.

"I guess you're not. I'm sorry."

"Don't say it to me, tell Lois, she's the one who's had to put up with you these past few days. Go back in there, apologise to Lois, and finish your pie."

"OK, Mom." The words were out of his mouth before he realised what he'd said. She smiled and patted his back.

They returned to the table, where Lois and Jonathan had been trying to make small talk to each other whilst pretending that neither was straining to hear the conversation in the other room. Clark followed his mother's instructions to the letter, and when they had tidied up after the snack, Lois smothered a yawn and declared herself ready for bed. The others followed her example soon afterwards, and the house was quiet again.

Jonathan was up early the next day as usual, ready to tend to the morning chores around the farm before breakfast. However, on this day, he made a detour round to Lois and Clark's bedroom before starting work. Banging loudly on their door, he called out,

"Clark, time to get up! I need your help!"

Lois, who had been expecting this, having arranged it last night with Jonathan, nevertheless groaned to herself in protest. She had expected an early call, but this was the middle of the night! But she had to play her part in the plot, so she gave Clark a good shove to rouse him, and said loudly in his ear,

"Come on Clark, get up. Your father needs you."

"Manages fine on his own any other time," muttered Clark into his pillow.

"Clark, I've been waiting for you to come home - it's a heavy lifting job!"

"Go on, Clark, help your father." Lois gave him another shove.

"Why now, of all times?" protested Clark.

"Clark, I haven't got all day. There's plenty of other stuff needs doing around the farm." Jonathan banged on the door again. "Clark!"

"He's coming!" called back Lois, who then pulled all the bedclothes off Clark. "Now get up and go!"

"OK, OK." He gave in to their collective haranguing and pulled himself out of bed. Lois gave a silent cheer of victory to herself. At last, he was up early, getting dressed, and stepping outside. Three successes in one hit - the journey had been worth it just for this.

After breakfast, Lois set forth her plan of action for the next couple of days. Clark would spend most of the time practising control over his powers, particularly the more destructive ones. The rest of his time would be devoted to the normal, everyday things he used to do when he was living at home, the hope being that these familiar actions would stimulate his memory into returning. She and Martha had also discussed his physical condition, although she didn't tell Clark this. They reckoned that if they kept him active, his appetite would build again, and since a lot of his time would be spent outside, he would also begin to build up his strength from exposure to the sun. The trick in all this was, of course, to get Clark's co-operation, and their main tactic here was to play mercilessly on his in-built sense of duty and desire to help those less able than himself. Even at his most introspective, Clark never lost these qualities entirely. Hence Jonathan's appeal for help before breakfast, which worked splendidly. Lois almost felt guilty at the manipulation, but reminded herself that it was for Clark's own good.

Over the next couple of days, the tactics proved their worth, and Clark gradually emerged from his protective shell. More of his old personality emerged, his health improved, and best of all, he regained control of his strength and his heat vision. He still retained an air of vulnerability which would show itself in unguarded moments, in a look or a glance that wasn't meant to be observed, but at least he had lost the painful, almost aggressive, self-inflicted solitude he had arrived with.

These were all positive signs, but unfortunately his memory showed no sign of returning. He resisted attempts to probe into the fire-fighting incident, and resented direct questions about whether he remembered this or that. Discussions about Superman, who still remained unnamed, were strictly off-limits - when Clark had accidentally come across a newspaper clipping about one of Superman's exploits, he had withdrawn into his shell for the rest of the day. Lois was beginning to worry that he would never confront these particular demons, and looking back on events much later, thought that perhaps she had unconsciously forced the next chapter in Clark's recovery.

Jonathan had mentioned that it was about time he got rid of various tree-trimmings and old packaging by setting up a bonfire, and Lois was immediately enthusiastic about the project. She said how much she liked bonfires, the smell of the woodsmoke and the lovely crackling sound they made as they burnt. Clark was less sure, but was trying hard at the time not to behave negatively by complaining or objecting, so remained quiet. They gathered everything together into a large pile at the back of the farmhouse, and Jonathan fetched some matches.

Clark watched as Jonathan set fire to the bonfire, the feeling of unease he had felt before becoming more persistent. He eyed the tiny flames as they played at the base of the fire, and unconsciously stepped back a little further. As the flames grew bigger, he found himself mesmerised by their play, whilst at the same time the desire to recoil got stronger. Suddenly, he was short of breath. He was sucking in air as hard as he could, pulling at his collar in a futile attempt to gather breath, but there was never enough. The fire seemed to be raging all around him now, but he couldn't drag himself away as the flames licked at his body, taunting him as they denied him the air he so desperately needed. He could hear his father calling to him in the distance, but the roar of the fire was too loud for him to hear what was being said. He felt himself being manhandled away from the bonfire, and was grateful for the help, but was unable to lend assistance. He was scared, scared that he couldn't breathe, that he was suffocating, that he was dying from asphyxiation. He felt himself tumble out of control as the world slid away from him and everything went black.

Clark could hear whispering, but he couldn't make sense of it yet. It sounded like his family's voices, and that was reassuring. The noises coalesced into something more meaningful.

"But it was just like kryptonite poisoning."

"Maybe, but Clark helped you build the bonfire. He would have felt it."

"It doesn't matter what it was. I just want to know my boy is going to be all right."

Clark cleared his throat in an attempt to reassure his mother he was fine, but this just brought on a coughing fit which made him sit upright abruptly. Someone put a glass of water in his hand, and he took a few sips. When the fit had subsided, he took in his surroundings. He was sitting on the sofa in the living room, with his parents and wife crouched around him all with anxious expressions on their faces. He tried again.

"I'm fine," he croaked. After taking a few more sips of water, he repeated in a more normal voice, "I'm fine. Really." He gave a quick smile to prove his point.

Lois recognised one of Clark's defensive 'don't worry about me' smiles, and knew that he was covering something up.

"What happened, honey?" she asked him.

"I'm not sure. All of a sudden I couldn't catch my breath. It felt like I was suffocating, fighting for air."

"Kind of like that time with Baron Sunday?"

"Baron who?"

"I'm sorry, he was…never mind, I'll tell you some other time. Was it a feeling like you were being shut in?"

"Not really…anyway, whatever it was, I'm fine now."

"No you're not. I can tell it's still bothering you."

"Lois, please." Clark looked at her pleadingly, willing her not to push it further.

"So it wasn't kryptonite?" asked Jonathan.

"No, definitely not."

"Well, that's a relief. I thought for a moment there we might have some on the farm somewhere."

"Sweetie, are you sure you're OK? Your father had to practically carry you inside."

"Yes, Mom, really. It was just a…a bad turn."

"Clark, young men in their thirties don't have 'bad turns'."

"Guys, I don't know what it was, but I'm OK. Quit worrying about me." He got off the sofa and walked a little unsteadily over to the front door. "How about we finish up the farm chores, Dad?"

Jonathan followed him outside, as Lois called after him,

"Clark, you can't keep running away from this!"

Clark and his father carried out the familiar tasks in stony silence. Now and again their eyes would meet, and Jonathan would be on the verge of asking a question, but then Clark would break the link abruptly and turn away.

"She's right, you know," said Jonathan eventually.

Clark glanced at his father but didn't say anything.

"You have to face your fears sooner or later. We all do."

His son maintained his wall of silence, his face grimly set. Jonathan persisted.

"You can't keep avoiding this."

"Why is that?" Clark exploded. "Everyone tells me that - 'you have to face your fears, Clark', 'you've got to admit there's a problem, Clark' - but why exactly do I have to? What good does it do to rake up the past? Isn't it better to build on what I have, live for the future? Now that I've met you and gotten to know you again, I know what a great family I have - isn't that enough? Why do I have to dwell on something that does me no good, maybe even does harm to me or to those who know me?"

"Because it's eating you alive. Every day we have to watch you suffer, see you shrink in on yourself. You talk of living for the future, but you can't do that when you're only half the person you should be. We know the real you, and we want that back - not just for ourselves, but for you as well. Believe me, son, you are a much bigger man than the one I see before me today. Let yourself find that person again."

Clark turned back to the feed he was mixing. He wanted to tell his father, but it was so difficult to bring things out into the open, to find the words to express himself without losing control.

More quietly, he said, "What makes you think there's anything to tell anyway? I lost my memory, remember?"

"Son, you might not have all your memory back, but something happened to you today, and you know why it happened. That's obvious. If you explain it to us, maybe we can help you make sense of it."

"There *is* no sense. Just craziness."

Jonathan walked up behind his son and gently turned him around to look into his face. He saw a lost soul, someone frightened of their own identity, adrift in a world of unfamiliar, strange things.

"Perhaps you should call one of those people the hospital told you about, if you can't talk to us," he suggested.

"What, and tell them, 'excuse me, I'm an extraterrestrial but I seem to have misplaced my memory - can you find it for me please'? I don't think so."

"We could find a way to get around that. Clark, you need help!"

Clark pulled away from his father's grasp.

"I don't need help, I just need to be left alone," he said, and walked out of the barn.

Jonathan finished up the chores and returned to the house alone. Lois asked where Clark was, and when they looked out the window, they could see him sitting with his back to them on a tree stump near the remains of the now dormant bonfire. Lois grabbed the matches Jonathan had used earlier to ignite the fire, and marched outside. Martha and Jonathan watched, horrified, as she stood in front of Clark, lit a match and held it close up to his face. He flinched and turned away from her, so she lit another and held that up. Martha moved to go outside, but Jonathan held her back. "Wait," he said. Lois lit a third match and held it up over the bonfire remains.

"Lois, don't!" cried Clark.

"Why not, Clark? Don't you like the fire? Is that what happened - is that why you fainted?" The match blew out and she lit another.

"Please," Clark begged her.

"Tell me why, Clark. Why don't you want me to light the bonfire? Are you afraid of the fire? It's just a few flames."

"Lois!"

"Apparently you're all right. You don't need help, you're just fine. So you won't mind if I finish off the bonfire, will you?"

"Lois, why are you doing this?"

"Because I love you! Here, why don't you light the fire?" She offered him the box of matches.

"No," he gasped, getting up to turn away from her. She dropped the matches on the ground and walked around to face him. There were tears in his eyes.

"Tell me, Clark." She put her arms around him and repeated, "Tell me." She could feel his body trembling with emotion as he fought for control.

"It's-" his voice choked and he had to try again. "You're right," he said finally. "It was the fire. It terrified me. The flames were all around me - they burned my skin and sucked the air away. I couldn't breathe, and the smoke was so dense I couldn't see properly. I was so tired, I couldn't think straight. There was this terrible weight on my chest that stopped me catching my breath, there was no air, just *no* air. I thought I was dying, I was so scared."

She pulled away slightly from him and brushed a stray lock of hair from his forehead. His face was awash with emotion as he relived the experience, one tear escaping his eye and rolling slowly down his cheek.

"But Clark, it was only a bonfire. It wasn't going to hurt you."

"It didn't feel like that. I was scared and I couldn't breathe. It was crushing me and I couldn't breathe. I just couldn't -" his voice failed him again as he drew in a sharp breath on a half-sob. "Couldn't…breathe," he finished in a small, strangled tone.

She pulled him close again as his tears flowed freely now, all attempts to maintain control having been abandoned as a futile gesture against the stronger emotions of fright and physical distress. Lois felt tears pricking at her own eyes as she listened to her man express the deep hurt inside him in the most basic of human expressions, the wordless cry of a soul in torment.

Inside the house, Jonathan had abandoned the window when he saw how upset Clark was; he couldn't bear to watch his son suffer, and occupying himself with work was his way of dealing with the pain. Martha remained forlornly at the window, watching her daughter-in-law comfort Clark in his distress. She knew that something truly terrible must have happened to her son to cause such grief and hurt, and part of her was frightened to discover the reason. Could she support her son when the truth was finally discovered? Did she have the strength to help him through this crisis? They had come through so much together, this small but close family, but this might be one challenge too far. And she had to be strong for Jonathan as well; she knew that she was the more resilient of them when it came to emotional crises. This much was evident in the way he had disappeared to bury himself in work rather than deal with the problem head-on. Much like her son, she realised abruptly. Neither man laid bare their emotions easily, preferring to protect the feelings of those around them by maintaining an outward appearance of normality. Which made Clark's outburst all the more frightening. She glanced out the window again, to see Lois and Clark coming slowly up to the house, arm in arm. They came through the door and sat down together on the sofa.

"Martha, Clark has something he wants to tell you," announced Lois, putting a protective hand on Clark's knee.

Clark took a deep, slightly shaky breath and let it out slowly.

"Mom, I'm sorry I scared you and Dad back there."

"Oh, that's all right, honey. Your father and I can stand a little excitement now and then - we're made of strong stuff, you know."

"I know. But I wanted to tell you why what happened…happened. Or at least, why I think it happened." He looked at her for encouragement, and she nodded her support.

"I was frightened by the fire. More than frightened. I-I was actually physically terrified of it, so much so that it seemed to be all around me, consuming me." He paused to take a few calming breaths while Lois moved her hand up around his shoulders. "Lois thinks it has something to do with the fire I helped fight before she found me. Maybe something happened during it that made me lose my memory."

"So we need to find out what really happened there," Lois continued. "I'm going to go back to Metropolis to speak to the fire chief and anyone else who was involved in the fire. I also need to talk to Dr Klein about that kryptonite we got through the post - he should have finished analysing it by now."

"Lois, are you sure? Doesn't Clark need your support even more now?"

"Mom, Lois has been great, but she's right. I have to find out what happened, so I can start to put this behind me, and she's the only one who can do it."

"I guess so, honey, but don't take too long Lois. We all need each other right now."

"Martha, it shouldn't take more than a day to sort out. Anyone who thinks they're too busy to talk to Lois Lane when she's batting for her husband is in for a surprise."

Clark and Martha gaped slightly at Lois' fighting talk.

"Well, it *is* what I do. Investigate. Seek the facts. Get the low-down. Reveal the truth behind the lies," she said defensively.

"Lois, they're firemen, not criminals," pointed out Clark.

"OK, so I'll use the subtle approach. I can be subtle."

"Oh yes."

Lois walked out of the fire chief's office in a daze, not knowing what to do with the information she had uncovered. The chief had remembered the night quite clearly, and had related in vivid terms how difficult the fires had been to tackle, and how Superman had worked tirelessly to help the fire-fighting teams. Many lives had been saved that night, and much of the credit went to Superman for rescuing those people. But the chief also remembered what happened just before Superman was knocked unconscious, how his superbreath had caused one of the building walls to collapse on top some of his fire-fighters. Worst of all, he confirmed that one man had died in the accident, and one other was still recovering from his wounds in hospital.

"I hope Superman isn't taking it too badly," he said. "I haven't seen him around lately."

"I think he is a little upset," replied Lois, thinking what a gross understatement that was.

"He saved so many lives that night, many more than were lost. He shouldn't feel bad."

If only he knew, she thought as she continued on to Star Labs to meet with Dr Klein.

Back in Smallville, Martha was trying to gather in her menfolk for lunch. At last, Jonathan came in and ambled over to the sink in the kitchen to wash his hands.

"Where's Clark?" she asked him.

Jonathan shrugged his shoulders. "I don't know, I haven't seen him since we finished overhauling the tractor."

Martha walked to the front door and said conversationally, "Clark, lunch is ready."

One good thing about having a son with superhearing was not having to yell at the top of your voice to summon him at mealtimes. Yet her call didn't produce the desired result. Maybe he hadn't gotten back into the swing of using his special powers for domestic purposes.

"Clark, lunch is ready!!!" she yelled at the top of her voice.

Still no Clark. Feeling a little irritated, she decided Clark could do without lunch, so she and Jonathan sat down to eat alone. After a couple of mouthfuls, Jonathan put his fork down.

"I'm sorry, Martha, I have to go look for him."

Martha nodded - she felt the same way. "Go," she said.

On a hunch, Jonathan went straight to Clark's old tree-house, and sure enough, as he climbed inside, there was his son, sitting on the floor.

"Clark?"

He looked up.

"Hi." He forced a quick, mirthless smile.

Jonathan moved over to sit beside his son.

"What's up, son?"

"Did I miss lunch?"

"I think your mother kept something for you."

"That was kind of her."

Jonathan noticed that Clark was trembling.

"What's the matter?"

"The matter? Oh. I-I'm not sure. Well, yes, I *am* sure. I mean, I know what happened, but I don't - it doesn't make sense…" he trailed off.

"What do you mean, you know what happened?"

Clark glanced at his father and looked quickly away again at the floor.

"One minute I was fine, and the next minute it was all around me again. The flames reaching out to me, almost taunting me. It was raging all around me, and I could feel its heat against my skin. It didn't hurt me, but the smoke was thick and dense, and I was really tired. But there was more this time, I think I was helping put the fire out. I think I was carrying people to safety, and even trying to blow the flames out."

He looked at Jonathan, expecting to see an expression of incredulity, but instead Jonathan was nodding, as if trying to blow out a major fire with one's breath was the most natural thing in the world.

"And then suddenly I couldn't breathe. There was a great weight on my chest, pinning me down and stopping me from breathing. I nearly fainted again."

"Oh Clark." Jonathan was upset that he hadn't been nearby to help his son.

"But then I heard Mom calling, and that was enough to pull me back. I'm sorry I didn't come down straightaway, but I wasn't sure I could make it when she called."

Jonathan put an arm around Clark's shoulders.

"Do you think you could manage now?"

Father and son struggled up together, but a wave of dizziness washed over Clark and he clung to Jonathan for support.

"Sorry."

"That's OK," replied Jonathan, lowering Clark back down to the floor again. "You just take it easy - I'll be back in 5 minutes."

Five minutes later, his mother's head appeared at the top of the ladder, followed by a hamper which she dumped on the floor before climbing the rest of the way inside.

"Mom?"

"This is your dream come true - you always wanted us to have a picnic together in your treehouse, so here we are. Jonathan, where's that tablecloth?"

So Clark finally sat down to lunch with his parents in his treehouse, only about 20 years later than he'd planned.

Lois' meeting with Dr Klein yielded some surprising information. He told her that the kryptonite which had been sent to them was synthetic. He also told her that there were only a handful of labs in the country capable of manufacturing such a sophisticated product. She asked for a list, which he provided, but became very coy when she drew his attention to the last name on the list. It was a lab well-known in journalistic circles for it's military work, although Dr Klein denied all knowledge of this fact. She probed a little more, in order to find out what types of scientific specialist she should be searching for when she contacted the labs, and was just about to leave when an impulse made her broach a subject which had been at the back of her mind since her meeting with the fire-chief.

"Dr Klein, I have something very important to ask you, but first you have to promise not to tell anyone else about it. It's an extremely personal and private thing, and the person concerned wouldn't want anyone to know about it. I mean absolutely no-one. Do I have your promise?"

"As long as I have your guarantee that the knowledge won't compromise my position as a responsible, law-abiding member of society?"

"Absolutely not."

"Well then, I promise not to talk to another living soul."

"Good. Do you remember that time when Superman's powers went all out of control when he was exposed repeatedly to red kryptonite?"

"Yes, that was a difficult time for him, I think."

"So you'll remember how keyed up he got over it."

"I remember the trench he was beginning to wear in my lab when he came to ask me what I could do to help."

"Well, he has another personal problem facing him, but this is of a much more traumatic and intensely emotional nature. This is something which is going to bite deep into his soul, and although he is very strong in many ways, I'm worried that he's going to find this really tough to cope with. In a sense, it will be a challenge to his very existence. So I was wondering…I know this might be impossible, and maybe I'm worrying too much, but I thought you might - I thought you could maybe, well, do you think there's any chance at all you'd be able to make a sedative up for him?" she finished in a rush.

"A sedative? Oh my. I don't know, I mean - a sedative for Superman?"

"Yes, you know, something to take the edge off his nerves, maybe help him sleep more easily?"

"Lois, I'm not sure. Do you think that's really a good idea?"

"I don't know. I don't know if it's the right thing to do, but I think I would like to be able to offer it to him if I thought he really needed it."

"Well, let me see now. A normal human sedative probably wouldn't work on him on it's own, we'd need something to break down his resistance. Not kryptonite - too dangerous. What else…another substance that affects him…I've got it! - red kryptonite. If we grind it up, and just use a tiny amount, it should be enough to dull his emotions and also let the sedative work. Now we'll have to make sure we get the dosage exactly right…I think I have some data that should help us there -"

"Dr Klein, wait! Red kryptonite does terribly unpredictable things to Superman - like the incident we just talked about. How can you be sure this won't just make things worse for him?"

"As long as we keep the amount very, very small, it will work."

So Dr Klein got to work, and a short while later handed Lois a small bottle containing a slightly pinkish liquid. There were strict dosage guidelines written on it, and he added the warning that Superman should under no circumstances use the sedative if he wasn't eating much, as the concentration of red kryptonite in his system would then build up to dangerous levels.

As Dr Klein watched Lois leave, he muttered to himself,

"Who would have known? Superman has personal problems! The guy gets more and more human every day."

Lois finished her day at the Daily Planet, where her first port of call was Perry's office. It was time to explain to him why Clark was still off work, and why she was still looking after him. She had thought long and hard about what she would tell him, running through excuse after excuse, until eventually she decided that a watered-down version of the truth was the best alternative. It was a risk, because if Perry ever met up with Dr Klein and compared notes, they might just make the leap of logic necessary to tie Clark into Superman. Nevertheless, she went ahead, and told Perry that Clark had lost his memory during a traumatic accident, and was having a hard time of it while he tried to piece his life back together again. Perry was immediately concerned for Clark's health, especially since this was the second time this had happened to him, but Lois was unfortunately unable to reassure him, as she too was worried about Clark. This actually helped her case with Perry, who was more than willing to give them both the time off they needed to help Clark recover. Lois also requested that he not tell the staff about Clark's amnesia yet, because she thought that when he was finally able to return to work, it would not be helpful to have lots of people asking him about it, or treating him any different to usual.

After leaving Perry's office, Lois spent some time phoning around the list of labs which Dr Klein had supplied. Her investigations confirmed her suspicions: that the most likely contender for the manufacture of synthetic kryptonite was indeed the military. She wanted to pursue this further, but she had run out of time, and she had to dash back to the airport to catch her flight back to Smallville.

After lunch, Clark went for a long walk around the farm to blow away the lingering memories of the fire. He had just returned home and settled down to read the paper when there was a knock at the door.

"Clark, can you get that, honey, I'm all covered in flour here," called Martha.

Clark put down the paper and looked at the front door. He wasn't too sure about answering the door on his own. Whoever was outside was getting impatient, and banged again loudly.

"Anyone in?" asked a gruff, male voice.

"Clark, please." called Martha again.

Clark pushed himself off the sofa and edged over to the front door. Opening it gingerly, he was confronted by an elderly man with a heavily lined face wearing working clothes. The man looked surprised.

"Clark! I didn't know you were visiting your folks. How are you?"

"F-Fine, I guess," stuttered Clark. He was obviously supposed to know this man, yet he hadn't a clue who he was or how he should react to him. This was scary.

"How's life at that newspaper of yours - by the way, I read that story you did about crop dusting. How did you find out about that pilot?"

"I-I'm not sure."

"What do you mean?"

"Well, I - it was luck, I guess." Please Mom, come and rescue me soon, he thought frantically.

"Luck? I think you're being modest Clark. It would take more than luck to uncover that size of a scam. I hope he got a long jail sentence for what he did?"

Clark wanted to run and hide. So far, he had got away without having to deal with people who knew him well, but now this man was drawing him into a conversation he stood little chance of making any kind of sensible response to. He felt embarrassed and deeply ashamed that he had to act so stupidly.

"Probably."

"You mean you don't know? Don't you follow up on these stories you write?"

"We get so busy…excuse me, I think my mother needs some help in the kitchen."

Such a flimsy excuse, and so rude to leave a visitor just standing in the middle of the living room. But he had to escape. He went into the kitchen to find Martha just finishing cleaning up.

"Mom, please! He knows me and I don't know him. I don't know what to say! I need your help," he hissed at her.

"Oh Clark, I'm sorry. I totally forgot!" She hurried out into the living room, while Clark remained in the kitchen, listening to the ensuing conversation.

"Wayne, how nice to see you. What brings you around?"

"I came to return that plough Jonathan lent me last month. Where is he?"

"I think you'll find him out in the barn."

Clark heard the front door open again.

"By the way, what's up with Clark? He seemed kind of…distant."

"He's been sick with the 'flu - he came out here to recuperate. He's not quite himself yet."

"Sorry to hear that - he's usually such a fit young man. I hope he gets better soon."

"I'll tell him you asked after him. You'll find Jonathan over there. Bye now."

"Bye Martha."

Martha went back into the kitchen to talk things over with Clark, but he'd disappeared. She scolded herself for being so insensitive, and wanted to seek him out to apologise, but her baking demanded attention first - smoke was appearing from around the oven door.

Meanwhile, Clark had retreated to his bedroom and closed the door. He sat on the bed with his head in his hands, turning over recent events in his mind. The depression which he had managed to push away the past day or so pressed down on him once more, and he felt completely defeated. His parents had made him feel so welcome, and made him such a part of routine life that he had managed to pretend for a time that everything was normal. Yet here was reality, slapping him in the face, reminding him that he was nobody, a person without a past or a future, drifting aimlessly through other people's lives. He felt like he had been acting a part in a play, where everyone was word-perfect except him; he was the only one fluffing his lines and being prompted from behind the scenes. Who had that Wayne-person been - had he been a close friend, someone he had known all his life? Or was he just an acquaintance of his parents? Did the family like him? - he seemed pleasant enough. What must he be thinking about Clark now? Did he think him rude, or just plain crazy? Did he buy the 'flu story - it sounded an unlikely explanation to Clark. Clark lay back on the bed, curled himself up and pulled the coverlet around him. He wanted a break from the world; he wanted it to give him a rest from the act.

Martha finished scraping the last of her burnt cookies into the trashcan and went in search of her son. The closed door to his bedroom was a sure sign he was inside, so she knocked on the door.

"Clark, can I come in, honey?"

Receiving no answer, she knocked a bit harder and repeated her question. There was still no reply, so after warning him that she was coming in anyway, she opened the door and stepped softly inside. He was lying on the bed, all tangled up with the coverlet. She touched what she thought was probably his shoulder, saying,

"I know you're not asleep, sweetie. We need to talk."

He rolled over onto his back and pulled the coverlet aside to look at her.

"I'm no good at talking - I keep getting the lines wrong."

"You're doing fine. It was all my fault for not coming out to talk to Wayne myself."

"I was trying so hard to fit in, to play the part right. But I forgot about the real world out there - they don't know I'm play-acting. He must have thought I was crazy."

"He didn't think you were crazy, he was just concerned for you. He says he hopes you get better soon."

"I heard. So do I. It's so hard, pretending all the time."

"I don't think you're pretending, you're learning. You're learning who you are, re-learning to be yourself again. And these 'episodes' you're experiencing - I know they're frightening and you wish they'd stop, but it means your memory is slowly returning."

"If that's what my memory holds, then I think I'd rather do without it."

"Honey, there's a lot more than one fire in your past. A lot to be proud of, a lot to cherish, lots to laugh about. Don't fight these memories - they're what's going to make you whole again."

Clark was quiet for a moment while he digested her words.

"Who was he, anyway?"

"Wayne? He owns the next farm to ours. He lives alone, and he's a bit eccentric, but we love him anyway. He doesn't understand much beyond the world of farms and farmers. When he found that kryptonite on his farm - well, that's a story for another day. Clark, why don't you come and help me in the kitchen - stop me ruining another batch of cookies?"

"You ruined cookies?"

"Yes, I don't know what got into me. But you're a good cook, so you can make sure I get it right this time."

"I'm a good cook?"

"Yes, did I forget to tell you? Come on, I'll prove it to you."

Late that evening, Lois returned from Smallville, and managed to arrange a brief conference with Jonathan and Martha while Clark prepared for bed. They were appalled when she told them what she had learned from the fire-chief, and were even more worried than she had been about Clark's reaction if he ever regained this particular memory. Not that there was much doubt about that anymore; his recent experiences demonstrated that his memory was beginning to return, and it was only a matter of time before the storm finally broke. They discussed telling him anyway, but all agreed that it was better that he remember it for himself, even if it was a tougher course to follow. They would have to play a waiting game from now on.

Lois sat up in bed, watching Clark toss and turn in the throes of a terrible nightmare. She couldn't decide whether to try and wake him or not. The nightmare was obviously to do with the fire, judging from the snatches of conversation he muttered out loud, and she thought that on balance, it was probably better to let him live through the experience, in case it helped him regain his memory. Her eyes strayed to the drawer where she had put Dr Klein's sedative, and she reflected on what a bleak cross-roads Clark was approaching; either to remain as he was and build a life on almost non-existent foundations, or to regain his memory and live through a waking nightmare until his inevitable guilt could be assuaged, if ever. Sedatives probably weren't the answer, and she didn't generally believe in using artificial props to deal with an emotional crisis, but she was so scared for Clark's sanity that she was prepared to consider anything to help him.

His mutterings had been getting gradually louder, and she was on the point of rescinding her decision not to wake him up, when he screamed, "NO!", his eyes flew open and he sat bolt upright in bed. She leaned over to put a hand over his, and he turned to gaze at her with wild eyes, the shock making him pant as if he'd been holding his breath.

"NO!" he screamed at her again. She tried to put her arms around him to envelop him in a protective hug, but he pushed her away, scrambled off the bed and staggered blindly out the bedroom door. She leapt up to follow him, but by the time she'd reached the corridor, he had opened the front door to the house and run out into the night.

Martha and Jonathan came rushing out, still putting on their dressing gowns, to find out what was happening.

"He knows!" Lois told them.

"Lois, you didn't tell-" exclaimed Martha.

"No, he remembered. I have to go after him."

"We'll come with you."

Martha and Lois rushed outside and peered into the darkness.

"He could be anywhere. Clark!" called Lois.

"Clark, sweetie, come back to us!" joined in Martha.

Jonathan came through the door carrying a strong flashlight. He cast it around the yard, but Clark was nowhere in sight. The three of them ran to every corner of the farm buildings, calling out his name in an increasingly futile effort.

"With his speed, he could be miles away by now," said Jonathan finally.

"We can't stop looking now, we have to find him. *I* have to find him." Lois ran to Jonathan's truck and got in behind the wheel. She fumbled around in the dark. "Where are the keys?"

"Lois, where are you going to go?" objected Jonathan.

"I don't know, just give me the keys."

Jonathan and Martha exchanged glances, then Martha ducked inside while Jonathan walked up beside Lois. "Move over, I'll drive." Martha returned with the keys, and then climbed in beside Lois. Jonathan started up the jeep and drove to the gate.

"Which way?" he asked Lois.

Lois closed her eyes for a split second and then pointed with her finger.

They drove up and down roads and farm tracks, sometimes doubling back on themselves, sometimes hitting dead-ends, with Lois always choosing the next direction with a seemingly unshakeable certainty. When they had been going for half-an-hour, Jonathan stopped the truck.

"This is hopeless. We'll never find him."

"No! I know he's here. Please, Jonathan, just a bit further." Lois looked at him pleadingly.

"How do you know?"

"I just do. Please," she repeated.

Martha leaned over to look at her husband. "I think we can keep going a little longer, Jonathan honey."

Jonathan started the engine without a word and drove onwards. After another twenty minutes, they caught sight of a figure in the headlights walking away from them. Jonathan sped up to catch up with him, but the figure continued to trudge along the road, oblivious to the truck just behind him. They stopped the truck and all three ran up to Clark. He was still dressed only in his sleepshorts and his feet were bare, caked in dirt and mud from his flight through the countryside. His hair was plastered down over his head and he was making a strange wailing, sobbing sound as tears streamed down his face. He didn't stop walking until the three of them surrounded him in a kind of communal bear hug, and even then he stared straight past them.

"Clark, come home, honey," said Lois softly. She put her hands either side of his face and turned it towards her gently. "Come home with us. We need you at home. We love you."

He stopped sobbing and looked at her with sad, bloodshot eyes.

"Why?" he whispered.

"Because we always have, and we always will. Our love is unconditional, and unshakeable." She said this with as much firmness as she could muster, although her voice was quavering slightly. "Come home to your family, to warmth and safety."

"Ohhhh…" They caught him as his legs gave way. Jonathan took off his own dressing gown and wrapped it around his son, and together they eased him into the truck. Lois got in beside Clark and cradled him in her arms, while Martha clambered into the back for a somewhat uncomfortable ride home.

By the time they reached the farmhouse, Clark was shaking uncontrollably in Lois' arms. She supported him as he got out of the truck and walked like an old man into the house, sinking down onto the sofa in the living room. Martha brought in bowls of water and washed the grime off his feet and bathed his face, and then they bundled him back into bed, still wearing Jonathan's dressing gown. Martha beckoned Lois to join her and Jonathan at the bedroom door.

"Will you be all right with him?" she asked Lois quietly. "I could sit with him too, if you like?"

"Thanks, Martha, but you two need your sleep. I'll be fine."

"Do you think you should-" she indicated the drawer with the medicine.

"Not yet. I want to see how he manages without first."

"Well, don't hesitate to call us if you need anything."

"Thanks, and thank you Jonathan, for all your help tonight."

"That's OK, Lois."

"Goodnight."

Martha reached up and kissed her daughter-in-law on the forehead.

"Goodnight sweetheart."

Clark was lying huddled up on his side with the blankets pulled up high over his body into a protective cocoon. Lois perched on top of the bedclothes on his side of the bed and put a hand on his shoulder. He had lost the worst of his shakes, although she could feel that he was still trembling a little.

"No-one's said it yet," he said in a low voice.

"Said what?"

"I killed those men."

"No-one's said it because it's not true. You saved men's lives that night. You didn't kill anyone."

"You all knew, didn't you?"

"We thought it was better that you found out for yourself. It had to be real to you, not just a story told to you."

"It's real all right. Very real. *This* is the memory you wanted me to have?"

"It's a journey to better things. You have to know the bad as well as the good."

"I killed people. I don't want this in my head."

"Clark, listen to me. You did not kill anyone."

"I heard them die. I heard their screams. I did that. I made the wall fall onto them."

"It was an accident. The wall might have fallen anyway. Clark, I talked to the fire-chief, and he told me that the wall was so badly weakened by the fire, it could have gone at any time."

"Then I should have been rescuing them before it collapsed, not blowing it down."

"You can't be everywhere all at the same time. You can't always know exactly the right thing to do every time. Clark, you're not perfect, you wouldn't be human if you were perfect."

"Well, I'm not, am I? Human, I mean."

"Clark, please! Stop hurting yourself. I hate to see you like this."

He looked up at her tear-stained face, and realised he was hurting her as much as he was hurting himself.

"I'm sorry."

"You have to try and get some sleep. Do you think you could do that for me?"

"I'll try."

She bent and kissed his cheek, and then walked around the bed and got in beside him. After a few minutes, he turned over and whispered,

"Hold me."

So she slipped an arm under the dressing gown he was still wearing and pulled him close to her. Eventually, she fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.

Lois awoke to the grey light of dawn and the sound of her husband crying softly in his sleep. Oh, Clark! she thought to herself. How can I smooth away the pain for you? How can I make you believe it wasn't your fault? There was a quiet knock on the door, and she eased out of the bed so as not to disturb Clark. She found Jonathan waiting outside for her.

"Lois, I hope I didn't wake you?"

"No, I was awake anyway."

"How is he?"

"See for yourself."

Jonathan stepped inside to see his son sobbing quietly to himself whilst still asleep.

"Oh, my poor boy!" he exclaimed softly. He turned back to Lois. "You don't look as though you've had hardly enough sleep yet. Why don't you lie down in our bed for a few hours. We'll look after him for you."

"Oh Jonathan, I couldn't. What about you and Martha?"

"We're too much creatures of habit. We've always got up at this time of day, and we couldn't possibly stay in bed any longer."

Lois could see he meant what he said, so she accepted his offer. Maybe if she got some more sleep, she'd be better equipped to help Clark later on.

He was in a twilight world, neither dark nor light, neither awake or asleep. Around about him, the soft sounds of an awakening world created a pleasing backdrop of colour, but nothing was so loud that it demanded his attention. There was comfort in the warmth and familiarity of his surroundings, of which he was dimly aware, but at the same time he was aware of a great sadness present within him. The cause of his sadness was unknown, although he knew that it had been with him for a very long time. He felt the feeling grow into a widening chasm as he emerged from the protection of sleep, until it exploded into the blinding, cold light of day. Now he knew everything, every detail of his actions that terrible night. He knew about the rest of his life with his family and friends, but drew no comfort from this knowledge. The cold fact was that his carelessness and his arrogance had caused the death of men - fathers, husbands, sons, close friends. He had to live with this burden, but they had no life at all. He had blighted the lives of so many.

Somehow, he knew he had to begin the rest of his life, starting with this first day. It was almost impossible to imagine how he would face the world, a world which expected him to perform the varied roles of husband, son and co-worker with at least the veneer of normality, when he ached so badly inside. In the end, it was his innate sense of duty which made him open his eyes onto the new day and start down the lonely road of unassuageable guilt.

He heard the sound of movement on his right, and turned his head to find his father sitting in a chair next to the bed, looking down at him with kind but troubled eyes.

"Morning, son."

"Hi."

"How do you feel?" Jonathan knew it was a stupid question as soon as he asked it, but it had just popped out automatically. It received the automatic answer it deserved.

"OK."

"Your mother has some breakfast ready for you, I think. Would you like it in here?"

"No, I'll come out there." He pushed the bedclothes aside. "Just let me freshen up a bit first."

He pushed himself wearily off the bed, and noticed for the first time that Lois was missing.

"Where's Lois?"

"She's having a lie-in in our bed. I thought she could do with the extra sleep."

"Oh."

"I'll see you in the kitchen, all right?"

"Yes."

Fifteen minutes later, Clark appeared in the kitchen in one of his own robes and sat quietly down at the table. Martha put a mug of coffee and some blueberry pancakes in front of him, and both parents joined him at the table. He picked at the pancakes without enthusiasm for a while before putting his fork down and cupping both hands around the coffee instead.

"I remember everything now," he announced to the mug of coffee in a depressed voice. "I know, I mean really *know*, who I am and who you and Lois are. I remember Perry, Jimmy, the Daily Planet, even Ralph and that strange woman in circulation."

"That's great, Clark," said Martha.

"Is it? I guess it is. At least I won't be making people like Wayne Irig think I'm crazy."

"Honey, he didn't think you were crazy."

"Just recovering from the 'flu - I know."

The mug rattled against the table as he picked it up to take a drink. Some of the liquid spilled out as he set the mug down again and he wiped at it with his fingers.

"I'm sorry about last night."

Martha collected a cloth from the sink and cleaned up the spilt coffee.

"Clark, we were just glad that we found you. How Lois knew which way to go, I'll never understand."

"Neither will I, but I think she may have saved my life."

"Well, you've saved her life on enough occasions," reminded Jonathan.

Clark's eyes retreated back down to the mug of coffee again in silence. His parents exchanged worried glances, their hands reaching out to each other across the table for support.

"Hold on to that fact, Clark. You've saved so many lives since you became Superman. Don't let what happened in that fire cancel out all that you've achieved," added Martha. "I know it must be hard right now, but in time you have to remember how much of a difference you've made to people's lives, how you've given them hope and something to aim for."

He screwed up his eyes as fresh tears threatened to spill out.

"Please don't," he whispered.

"Sweetie?"

"You just make it h-harder when you - when you say those things."

"Why?"

"I-I don't know why, it just is, OK?" He pulled in a sharp breath on a sob. "Can't we talk about something else?" He was trying so very hard not to lose control, to avoid another crying fit in front of his parents. He didn't want to frighten them with his fragility, especially after they had spent all night running around the countryside after him. After all, hadn't he decided this morning that he had to get on with the rest of his life, and crying at the slightest provocation wasn't going to help much. He took in a deep lungful of air.

"How's the tractor been since we overhauled it, Dad?"

After the slightest of pauses, Jonathan recovered from Clark's abrupt change of subject.

"Ah, much better. I think she's got a few more years in her now. We can use the money we saved on that to fix the roof on the barn."

"And buy me some new pans," reminded Martha.

Jonathan smiled at his wife.

"And buy your mother some new kitchen utensils. Got to keep the cook happy, eh Clark?"

"I guess so."

Later that day, after Lois had been up for a while, she arranged things with Jonathan and Martha so that she had the living room to herself with Clark. They sat together on the sofa and she put an arm around his shoulders, pulling him tight up against her.

"Clark, I want to tell you what happened that night."

He tried to pull away from her, but she held him in check with her other hand.

"I want you to listen very carefully to what I tell you, because it's the truth. OK?"

He nodded.

"The firechief told me that you were directly responsible for saving five men's lives during the fire. Think about that. There are five families in Metropolis who still have a father, or a son, or a husband. Five families that didn't have to go through the pain and misery of a bereavement, all because of what you did. Think about those people, think about what their lives might have been like if you hadn't been there, and be proud. Your parents are proud of you, I'm proud of you, and you should be too. You should also be grateful. Grateful that you are able to help people the way you do, and grateful in the knowledge that you make a positive contribution to this world - not everyone has that luxury."

He laid his head on her shoulder while she moved her hand down to hold his.

"The chief also told me that a man died that night. One man. He died because a wall which had been seriously weakened by the fire collapsed on top of him. Another man is still in hospital from the same accident, but they expect him to make a full recovery. And that's it. Everyone else escaped unscathed, and have been fighting other fires for the city ever since."

"You make it sound so little, but it's not. A human life was lost, and I was responsible. I don't care if you say the wall had been weakened - I blew it down. If I hadn't blown at it, if I had been more careful, it might not have fallen down at all."

"Clark, you said it yourself. 'Might' not have fallen down - you don't know for certain."

"I should have taken more care. I should have known better."

"You were exhausted."

"Then I should have slowed down, taken a break. But I was too arrogant, I thought I could do anything."

"No you didn't, you were doing your very best for those men. It wasn't arrogance, it was care for your fellow human being that made you push yourself to the edge of your abilities. You don't have an arrogant bone in your body, Clark. And don't you dare say anything about not being human, because you're as human as the rest of us."

Clark closed his eyes as a fresh wave of emotions washed over him. There was frustration that he couldn't seem to make her understand what a terrible thing he had done, and how he could never be the same person again. There was great fear and a feeling of vulnerability at the enormity of what had happened; that he, Clark Kent, had caused the loss of life. Every time he thought about it anew, it made him tremble and want to hide himself away from the cold, insistent reality. And then there was the crushing guilt, made somehow worse by the kindness his family was treating him with. It was almost as if he would feel better if they castigated him for his actions, instead of telling him he hadn't done anything wrong. He felt Lois stroking his arm and shoulder while she waited for him to gather his thoughts together, and wished she really could soothe away the pain away with just her touch. He lifted his head from her shoulder to look at her.

"Lois, I know you're trying to make me feel better about myself, but it just won't work. My carelessness caused one person to lose their life, and another to be so badly injured they're still in hospital. So I've decided. It's time to stop playing the boyscout."

"What do you mean?" She was pretty sure she knew what he was going to say next, but was also hoping that she was wrong.

"I'm giving up Superman. For a while it was great, but now it's time to grow up. I've gotten careless, and besides, I may have family of my own to consider one day, so it's time to stop before I do any more damage."

"Oh Clark. Don't do this. It's too soon. Don't go rushing into a decision when you haven't even given yourself time to come to terms with what's happened."

"I think I've had plenty of time-"

"What I mean is, you've only just recovered your memory. Give yourself time and space to adjust to that before you make such an important decision."

"I've never been more sure of anything in my life."

Sometime in the middle of the night, Lois woke up to find Clark missing from the bed. Concerned and a little apprehensive, she got up to find him. Walking into the kitchen, she was confronted by a disturbing sight. Clark was sitting at the kitchen table holding a box of matches. As she watched, he held a lighted match in his fingers, studying the flame intently while it burnt down to the bottom. He let the flames meet his fingers unflinchingly, and when the flames fizzled out, twirled the blackened stump around a little before dropping it onto the floor, where it joined a small pile of spent matches. Then he lit another and repeated the procedure. After he lit a third, she strode quickly over to him and grasped his wrist hard.

"Stop that," she commanded sharply. He looked at the hand holding his wrist for a second, and was distracted long enough for her to be able to take away the box of matches from his other hand and stuff them into a pocket. The match spluttered and died as he gazed at it.

"Dead again," he remarked.

"Clark?"

"I was just testing my fire-resistance. It's great, but the matches keep dying on me."

He wasn't making much sense. She crouched down beside him, still keeping hold of his wrist and looked up into his face. There was a faint sheen of sweat on his forehead which alarmed her (he never usually sweated), and when she shifted her hand around to feel his pulse, she found that it was racing.

"Clark, snap out of it," she said sharply again. He looked at her in confusion.

"What?"

"You're making yourself sick. Stop it."

"I'm OK." His body betrayed him though, as a great shudder passed through him.

"Come back to bed and try to get some sleep."

"I don't feel like sleeping right now. It's OK, I'll just sit here and read a book."

Lois didn't think that was a good idea at all. He wouldn't sit and read, he would wind himself up further and further until he was really ill. She got up from the floor, fetched Dr Klein's sedative from their bedroom and mixed it with some milk in a glass.

"Here, drink this."

He eyed the glass suspiciously. "What is it?"

"Milk. And something to help you relax."

He looked at her with a mildly incredulous expression.

"It's a sedative. I had Dr Klein make it for you in case you needed it."

"Lois? A sedative? Isn't that a little extreme? I'm fine, just a bit restless."

"Clark, you are anything but fine. You're trembling, your pulse is going so fast I can't keep up to count it, and you're sweating. I find you sitting here, lighting matches for no reason and babbling about them dying on you. You're so wound up you haven't even noticed the mess you're making of your mother's floor, and you can't sleep. Does this sound like someone who is fine? No, I don't think so. Does that sound like someone who is just a bit restless? I think there's a lot more to it than that. You're struggling with unfamiliar, frightening emotions, and they're taking their toll on you, so no, a sedative isn't extreme at all. It's essential to your mental and physical health. So either you take that sedative, or we find some other way of relaxing you, because I'm not going to sit back and let you play with matches and drive yourself into a - a - a nervous breakdown!"

He recoiled at her strong words, which hung in the air in the sudden silence following her outburst. Looking at the pile of matches on the floor, he said in a dejected tone,

"Do you really think that's what's happening to me?"

She reached over to take his hand in hers.

"Of course not. I just want to make sure it doesn't happen."

He played with her hand while he digested what she had said.

"You're sure this is OK?" He smiled ironically. "It's not got kryptonite in it, or anything?"

She winced. "Well, actually is has - but only a very tiny amount of red kryptonite. Dr Klein says it should be just enough to relax you and help the rest of the sedative take effect."

"I wish I hadn't asked…well, all right, I'll give it a try."

He drank half the milk, screwed up his face in disgust, but managed to finish it off.

"If I try this again, I'll take it straight. That was the strangest tasting milk I've ever had."

After clearing up the mess of matches, they returned to bed. Clark lay on his back, trying to monitor the effects of the medicine on himself, but he couldn't really tell if anything was happening, either good or bad. Lois snuggled up close to him and began stroking his arm whilst whispering soft, soothing nonsense words to him, and after a while, he stopped trying to test himself and instead found himself relaxing into her arms. Soon he was sinking into a deep, deep sleep, and Lois joined him shortly afterwards.

Lois walked into the bedroom the next afternoon after lunch to find Clark packing bags. When she asked him what he was doing, he told her he thought it was time to go back to Metropolis and start picking up the pieces of his life again. Lois argued that he wasn't ready for such a big step, and when she elicited his parents opinion, they agreed. However, Clark was adamant about leaving, and had played Lois' favourite trick of booking their return tickets in order to force the issue. They flew back home, and the next day, Clark insisted on returning to work.

They stood together in the elevator at the Daily Planet, waiting for it to reach the newsroom floor. Lois glanced at Clark. A muscle was jumping along the line of his jaw, and he was tapping nervously on the wall of the elevator. She knew it was too soon for him, but he wouldn't listen, he was determined to plunge back into his work despite the strain he was under. She patted his back.

"Are you OK with this, honey?"

"Yes, fine," he answered tightly.

"Because we can always go home again if you want. You don't *have* to do this."

"Lois, I'm fine."

The elevator door opened, and they were suddenly into the hubbub of daily life at the Planet. Clark had forgotten how fast the pace could get at work. People were shouting to each other across the newsroom, phones rang constantly, and messengers came and went in all directions. Jimmy came dashing across the room towards them, screeching to a halt to greet Clark with uncharacteristic caution. All the staff had been told that Clark was returning after a seriously debilitating illness, but didn't want any fuss made or questions asked. This left Jimmy stuck for words - all he could think of to say were all the things he wasn't supposed to. He finally settled on a neutral "Welcome back, CK," and rushed off again.

Lois and Clark just made it to their desks when Perry appeared and summoned them into his office.

"First of all," he started, addressing Clark, "it's great to have you back. Lois has told me some of the hell you've been through, and I'm mighty pleased to see you ready to climb back into the saddle again. Second, I want you to know that I don't expect you to be firing on all cylinders just yet, and if you need to take a break or leave early, that's fine by me. I'd like you to shadow Lois for the next day or two, and then we'll see about giving you some work of your own. Now, how does that sound?" Perry felt pretty pleased with himself for being so understanding.

"Chief, that's really kind of you, but I'm fine. And I already have something I'd like to work on with Lois, if it's OK with you?"

"Oh." Perry felt a little deflated that his grand gesture had been rejected, but adjusted his thinking quickly. "Well, if you're sure. What is it?"

"Someone sent us kryptonite through the post. I'd like to find out why - it looks as though there might be military connections."

"Great shades of Elvis, son, that sounds like a great story! Why don't you get straight on with it."

"Thanks, chief."

Clark left to start work on the story, while Lois hung back to talk to Perry some more.

"He sure didn't waste any time getting back into the swing of things," exclaimed Perry. "You must have been taking very good care of him, Lois."

"Perry, he's not ready for something like this. He does a good act of looking as though he is, but there's still a lot of stuff he hasn't dealt with yet. Can't you give him something easier to start with?"

"Why did you let him come to work if you didn't think he was ready?"

"He made me."

"Lois, Clark made you do something? That's a tad unusual, wouldn't you say? Shows some spirit, I'd say. I'd hate to disappoint him now - why don't you just keep a close eye on him. And what I said before still stands - if he needs to work shorter hours for a while, that's fine."

Lois sighed - she had managed to destroy her own argument. Now she would have to do as Perry said, and hope Clark could cope with the consequences.

Later that morning, Lois stood behind Clark, reading the screen over his shoulder.

"Clark, you can't send this to Perry."

"Why not?"

"It's too woolly. There's no punchline, nothing to keep the readers' attention. You wrote the same sentence twice there," she pointed at the screen, "and you use the same sentence construction all the way through this paragraph."

"Oh. I thought it read OK."

"Well trust me, Perry wouldn't touch it with a bargepole. Don't worry, honey, I'll help you re-touch it."

"OK, thanks." Suddenly, his eyes took on the old, familiar, far-away look. Something akin to pain passed over his face, and then it was gone and he was up and out of his chair.

"Want some coffee?" he asked across his shoulder.

"Clark…"

"Don't," he hissed, still with his back to her. "I'll see if there's any decaf," he continued in a louder, more normal voice, and strode quickly away from her.

Lois sank down into Clark's chair, staring at the screen but not really seeing anything. This was just the start. How was he going to get through day after day of this? Hearing cries for help and the sounds of accidents and crime being committed was too deeply ingrained in him to be merely switched off. He would have to keep ignoring the demands for attention for days, perhaps months before he learned to adjust the habits of years.

A polystyrene cup appeared in front of her, startling her out of her reverie.

"Here, they still had some decaf."

"Thanks." She pulled herself up straighter in the chair. "Why don't you use my terminal for a while, and I'll fix this piece for you."

"OK."

It was Clark's turn to stare blankly at the screen. That had been hard, harder than he expected. He had blotted out the cry for help, but hadn't managed to suppress the sound of metal hitting metal when the two cars hit each other. He couldn't tell if anyone had been hurt - he prayed not. Maybe he could do a quick scout around just to make sure…except he wasn't wearing the Suit, so he couldn't fly anywhere. It was probably a bad idea anyway - he couldn't run out every time something happened, so he would just have to get used to not knowing. In time, he would be able to tune out things like this and it wouldn't be so hard to cope. Better try and concentrate on work - that should help.

He started a search on the Internet to see if he could find out any more about the lab with military connections. Not surprisingly, there wasn't much to be found, although he did come across a website belonging to someone claiming to be an ex-employee of the lab. The guy sounded like something of a conspiracy freak, but he alluded to a top-secret project involving national security and aliens. It could have been straight out of a science-fiction show, except that he mentioned the synthesis of 'certain substances'. That was enough to pique Clark's curiosity, but he knew that Jimmy was better at ferreting out the kind of information they needed to pursue the lead, so he e-mailed everything to him, and got up to see how Lois was getting on with her make-over on his story. She hadn't finished, so he picked up the large pile of unopened mail on his desk and started to plough through it all.

As he slit open envelopes and discarded most of the contents in the trash, his mind kept wandering back to the crash. He replayed the sound of the cars colliding again and again in his mind, trying to analyse every nuance for evidence that no-one had been hurt. But there was no comfort to be found there; the crash obliterated any other noise. He was so wrapped up in his thoughts that it wasn't until he'd been staring at the sheet of paper in his hand for some time that he realised what it said. It was from the fireman still in hospital - he was asking Superman to come and visit so he could thank the superhero for saving his fellow workers the night of the fire. Clark felt a fresh stab of guilt, knowing that the man would be disappointed not to meet Superman, but it was out of the question as far as Clark was concerned. As he was wondering what to do about the request, Lois called him over to read the re-vamped story, so he got up to join her, leaving the letter behind him on the desk.

By mid-afternoon, Jimmy had tracked down an address for the ex-employee, so they set out to pay him a visit in the Jeep. They were almost there when Clark suddenly stiffened in his seat, his knuckles turning white as he gripped the buckle on his seatbelt.

"Let's listen to the radio," he said a little too loudly, and tuned it into a loud rock station.

"Let's not," replied Lois and turned it off again. "That's not the answer, honey. If you're going to go through with this, you have to get used to hearing stuff you wish you hadn't."

He shot her an angry look, and they finished the journey in silence.

It was hard work trying to extract anything meaningful from the ex-employee as they talked to him. He rambled on about government conspiracies, implying all kinds of wild theories but never talking in specifics. When he suggested that President Kennedy was shot by aliens, Lois had heard enough and began packing up to leave.

"Don't go, I haven't told you the good part yet," the man protested.

"Oh, I think you have," replied Lois.

"No, you don't understand. The good news is, they're going to get back at the aliens for shooting Kennedy."

"And how are they going to do that?" asked Clark.

"By hitting them with kryptonite, of course! They're making it in vat-loads at the lab, ready to zap 'em all. Good news, eh?"

"Depends on your point of view. Are you sure about this?"

"Of course I am, man. I was the one who invented the process for synthesising the kryptonite."

Lois and Clark looked at each other sceptically. It didn't seem likely that this man was capable of advanced scientific methodology.

"I know what you're thinking," the man said.

"Oh no-I mean, I'm sure you're quite capable-" stuttered Lois, embarrassed at being caught out so easily.

"You're thinking, how do they know the synthetic stuff works? Well, they did a test, of course. On Superman."

Alarm bells were starting to ring in Clark's mind.

"When was this test?"

"Let's see now, it would have been a couple of weeks ago, or so. They handed some out to a small-time thief and then watched the results. Poor Superman, he didn't know what had hit him."

"You don't know exactly when it was, do you?"

"No, my memory's not so hot, you know? Although…there was a big fire…yeah, it was the night of that bad fire down by the docks."

Clark's eyes widened in shock and sudden understanding.

"Did I say something wrong?" asked the man.

Lois looked at Clark, who had acquired a glazed look as he thought back in time.

"No, you did fine. Thank you very much for your help. We should leave now. Clark?"

She put a hand on his knee and squeezed lightly to gain his attention. He blinked and came back to the present day.

"Yes, honey, we should go. Thanks again for your help."

"It's true, isn't it," asked Lois as they drove home. "They tested kryptonite on you that night?"

"Yes."

"Why didn't you mention it before?"

"I'd forgotten about it, what with everything else that's happened."

"But Clark, don't you see what this means? Their tests on you made you weak even before you started fighting the fire. So, you weren't responsible for your actions."

"Lois, that won't work. I may have been weak, but I wasn't stupid. I knew my limitations, I should have stuck to them."

"You may not realise this, because it doesn't happen to you very often, but people don't always think straight when they're sick. Think about that. Clark, I'm tired of arguing with you about this, so we're going to drop the subject now, but I want you to think hard about what I just said."

"But-"

"No buts, just think."

Once again, silence descended on the vehicle while they both retreated into themselves.

Back home, Clark prepared dinner while Lois laid the table. When she was finished, she walked into the kitchen to find him leaning forward on both hands over the counter with his head down. She hurried over to him.

"Honey, are you OK?"

He straightened quickly and turned his back on her to attend to the food.

"Fine."

"What did you hear?"

He didn't answer.

"Clark?"

A hand went up to his face, the heel of it brushing against his eye.

"Do you want parmesan on yours?" he asked.

"No, thanks…tell me, honey."

"This is ready. Excuse me." He picked up the plates and brushed past her to the door.

"Clark!"

He stopped at the door, still with his back to her.

"I heard something, it's over now, I'm fine. This is getting cold, shall we eat?"

"OK, if you insist…" Insist on shutting me out, she thought, I'll play along for now.

After dinner, Clark settled down to watch Lethal Weapon 3 for the umpteenth time, but his eyes kept straying to the drawer where Lois had stored his sedative.

"Clark! Don't you dare even think that!" Lois had noticed where he was looking. She leapt off the sofa and snatched the bottle from the drawer. "Come on." Taking his hand, she pulled him into the kitchen with her, where she emptied the contents down the sink and rinsed out the bottle.

"Lois, I don't know what I was thinking-"

"I don't care what you were or weren't thinking. You're not thinking it any more. And while we're on the subject, " she disappeared for a moment and reappeared holding out the fireman's letter, "what were you going to do about this?"

"I-"

"Because you can't ignore it. According to your rules, you've already hurt this man once. You can't hurt him again by not visiting him. It's the very least you can do to make things right."

"I-I can't!"

"Oh yes you can. All you have to do is put the suit on, go to the hospital, and listen to the man say nice things about you. What could be easier?"

Her logic was unarguable. Yet, she was asking the impossible. How could he face a man who had nearly lost his life because of Clark's carelessness?

"Lois, how can I let him thank me when I know I don't deserve it?"

"You can't *not* do it. You can't live with yourself as it is - don't make it worse by adding to your guilt. I don't want to spend every day watching you obsess about what happened that night, and how you couldn't even face the man who only wanted to express his gratitude to you from his hospital bed. We'll go there first thing tomorrow morning, before you've had time to think twice about it."

She came closer to him and put her arms around his waist.

"Do this for us, honey. We need to put it behind us."

He looked down at her sad face and knew she was right again. For his beloved Lois, he would do just about anything rather than risk a rift in their marriage.

Lois and Superman walked into the fireman's room to find a woman already sitting by his bedside. She turned when she heard them come in, her expression quickly changing from curiosity to hostility.

"You!" she spat, getting up to face them with her hands on her hips.

"I'm sorry, Mr Walker, we didn't realise you already had-"

"What are *you* doing here, Mr Not-so-superhero?" the woman demanded.

Lois put her hand lightly on Superman's shoulder to lend him her support while trying not to appear too familiar.

"We'll come back," she suggested to Mr Walker.

"Don't bother!" retorted the woman.

"It's OK, Elizabeth was just leaving, weren't you Elizabeth?" said Mr Walker from the bed.

"John, you don't want to talk to pretty Mr Bluetights." The woman continued her verbal assault. "He's a waste of space."

"Yes, I do, I invited him here. Please, let me talk to him in peace."

She stomped past Lois and Superman to the door, letting off a parting shot before leaving: "Why can't you just leave us alone!"

A bell rang in the dark recesses of Lois' mind, but she was distracted by her concern for Clark after the woman's venomous attack.

"Don't pay any attention to Elizabeth," apologised Mr Walker. "She's not herself right now."

"Who is she?" asked Lois.

"Elizabeth Jordan. She's Mike Jordan's widow - the guy who died in the fire. She's blaming everyone and everything for what happened at the moment. So like I say, don't pay any attention to what she said."

"I'm sorry she's so unhappy," said Superman.

"Yeah, so am I. But I didn't ask you here talk about her. I wanted to thank you personally for saving my buddies that night. And for all the other times you've helped us firemen - you make our job just that little bit easier to do. I just wish I could walk into a fire the way you do - do you feel anything at all?"

"It tickles a little. Sometimes it might sting very slightly, if the heat is especially intense."

"And what about the flying? How does that work?"

"I'm not actually sure myself. I decide I want to fly, and I just do."

"Wow. And the x-ray vision?"

"The same. But, tell me, Mr Walker-"

"Please, call me John."

"John. How are you? I was sorry to hear that you were still in hospital."

"Oh, I'm fine. Actually, I'll be going home tomorrow, so it's lucky you came today, otherwise you'd have missed me. I tell you, I'm real glad I met you - my daughter Tracy will love hearing about you when I see her tomorrow. She thinks you're just great."

"You're very kind, John. And say hello to Tracy for me, will you."

"I sure will, Superman."

As they walked through the hospital corridors back to the exit, Lois whispered to Clark,

"See? That wasn't so bad, now was it?"

"Except for that Elizabeth," Clark whispered back.

"I have a funny feeling about her. I think I'll do some checking up on her."

"Lois, you can't do that! The poor woman has just lost her husband."

"Hi, Superman," interrupted a passing nurse.

"Hello, Ms-" he used his supervision to read her nametag, "Swanson."

"How did you…oh!" She put her hand over the tag and smiled a little coyly. "Bye Superman."

Lois rolled her eyes. Save me from swooning females, she thought.

When they reached the exit, a young traffic cop came rushing up to them.

"Superman, I'm so glad you're here! There's been a major pile-up on the freeway - they could really use your help."

Clark tried to maintain his composure, but inside he was shaking. A jumble of thoughts passed through his mind: this was his worst nightmare come true, he *knew* he shouldn't have come here, how could he get out of this, he wasn't going to get out of this, how was he going to get through this, what if he messed up again…

Lois could sense Clark's panic, and his hesitation was becoming too obvious. She had to come up with something to fill the void and get him moving at the same time.

"It looks like you won't be going to that charity auction anymore, Superman." She willed him with her eyes to pick up her lead. He stared at her for a split second before recovering.

"Uh, no, Ms Lane. Please convey my apologies to the organiser."

"I'm sure they'll understand," she called to him as he took off into the air. Please be all right, she thought intensely to herself.

Lois decided to go back to the Planet while Clark was dealing with the pile-up, even though it was getting late. That way, she could do some research on Elizabeth Jordan, stop herself worrying about how he was coping, and at the same time, catch any updates on the disaster. On an impulse, she set the computer up to search for connections between Elizabeth Jordan, the lab ex-employee, and the military. While it processed the request, she wandered over to the bank of TVs, flicking around the channels until she found one covering the freeway pile-up. There was Clark, lifting up broken vehicles so that the emergency services could rescue people trapped inside, pulling cars aside to let ambulances through, carrying a child to its parents, all done with his usual air of confidence and competence. As far as she could tell from his body language, it wasn't just an act, but Lois longed for a close-up to see how he was truly coping with the situation.

Her wishes weren't going to be granted straightaway, so she turned back to her PC to find out how it was getting on with the search. To her delight, it had pointed up a stunning link: Elizabeth Jordan's brother was a colonel in the army, and also had a doctorate in chemistry. Glancing up now and then at the TV channel, she tried to find a further link to the lab, but there was no more to be found down that particular route. Instead, she tried the other angle - why would the military be funding kryptonite synthesis in a big way? She was beginning to build up a picture, when on one of her glances up to the TV, she caught a shot of Clark's face. The camera panned in for a close-up of his face - the camera-man had very cleverly managed to catch him standing a little way apart from the rest of the rescue workers while he surveyed the scene before him. It was a very personal shot, and Lois was filled with relief and joy when she saw his face. Her old Clark was back, the one with the quiet inner confidence, the one who always put others before himself, the one who would use every ounce of the great gifts he had been given to make the world an easier place for everyone to live in.

She was still gazing at the TV when she felt a familiar hand on her shoulder. She turned, to find Clark standing next to her, dressed in his business suit again. It was one of her favourites, a dark charcoal grey with, for once, a 'normal' tie and a gorgeous black shirt.

"You did it," she said. "You saved them all."

"Yes."

"With confidence. I could tell."

"Yes."

"Without messing up."

"Yes."

"Clark, are you going to say 'yes' to everything?"

"Yes."

"Clark!"

"Yes?"

"Stop it!"

"Yes."

He pulled her abruptly into a close embrace and kissed her tenderly.

"Mmmm…welcome back," she murmured.

"Nice to *be* back," he replied.

Lois pulled away slightly.

"I think I know who sent the kryptonite," she announced.

"Elizabeth Jordan?"

"How did you know?"

"Something she said at the hospital - it was the same as the note we got."

"When did you think of that?"

"Funnily enough, while I was helping at the crash site. Something just clicked."

"OK, but I bet you don't know where she got the kryptonite from."

"She's connected to the military, and they were funding the synthesis of kryptonite at that lab?"

"You're getting too smart for your own good. So why were the military funding the research?"

"Ah, that would be because they wanted to build up a stock-pile in case of another invasion from New Krypton."

"You're just guessing all this, aren't you?"

"No," he said innocently.

She pulled away even further from him, and realised that he was reading her screen with his supervision.

"Clark!" She hit him playfully on the shoulder. "You fraud!"

"Who, me?"

"Yes, Mr I'm-an-innocent-farmboy-from-Kansas. You can't fool me with that act any more."

"I think I just did."

"No you didn't, I was just letting you think you were getting the better of me. For your self-esteem."

"My self-esteem is just fine now, thank you. How's yours?"

"Never better."

"Well, good. Let's go home and see if we can put all this self-esteem to good use."

"Mr Kent, are you suggesting what I think you're suggesting?"

"I certainly am."

"Well, let's go!"

Later that evening…

"*Definitely* not innocent, Mr Kent," said a muffled voice from underneath the blankets with a giggle.

"Why, Mrs Kent, what *do* you think you're doing…"

THE END