Growing Pains

By Ann McBride <Aerm1@aol.com>

Rated PG-13

Submitted October 2000

Summary: This rewrite of the episode "Top Copy" is a sequel to the author's "A Triangle Built for Two" and takes place about three months after "Triangle." It finds Lois and Clark working out a few of the details of their relationship while dealing with the threat that Diana Stride poses to Clark and Superman.

Author's note: I'd like to thank Nan and Adam for their invaluable assistance about certain medical procedures, and I'd like to thank Wendy Richards for her occasional comments on the story as it progressed. There are no words to express my gratitude to LabRat, beta-reader extraordinaire, without whose advice and encouragement Growing Pains would have never seen the light of day.

All usual disclaimers apply.

***

"Thanks, Bobby. We'll see you then." Lois Lane hung up the phone and turned to face her partner's desk. The clear surface on it informed her that Clark had yet to come in to work. "Where is he?" she wondered. "Is he out doing Superman things?"

Ever since he had let her in on his secret, she had been able to not take it personally when he ran out on her. But knowledge didn't always prevent frustration. It seemed as if lately, every time she really needed to talk to him, he was nowhere to be found. And right now, she had to let him know about the meeting she'd just set up with their favorite informant. Sighing heavily, she turned her attention to the television monitors on the other side of the newsroom. Maybe she'd catch a glimpse of him on a news channel.

LNN was showing a report of a horrific accident on the beltway. A chain-reaction accident involving a dozen cars was, in fact, keeping Superman extremely busy. There appeared to be a high number of serious injuries. Lois gasped as she saw the grim expression on Superman's face. He only ever got that detached, hard-jawed look when what he was dealing with was too horrible to contemplate. Later, he would obsess for hours about what he could have done differently to save more people. At least, now that she knew that the Man of Steel was really Clark Kent, she could try to help him deal with the emotional aftermath of a less than perfect appearance as the Superhero. Once again, Lois marveled at how Clark had been able to carry on as Superman before he had been able to vent his emotions with her.

A quick look at the clock showed Lois that the morning budget meeting was due to start in five minutes. Somehow she didn't think Clark would make it on time. From the looks of the accident, he was likely to be tied up for quite a while longer. She wondered what excuse she should give this time when Perry noticed her partner's absence. What had she said the last time? Lois shrugged. She didn't mind covering for Clark, but sometimes she understood why he had often resorted to incredibly ridiculous excuses for his absences in the past. Neither one of them had much practice at not doing their homework. "Hmm," she thought. "Maybe I can say the dog ate his article, and he had to go get another one. Nah, Perry would see right through that. He knows Clark doesn't have a dog." Coming up with plausible reasons for his non-appearance was often a challenge. If she were lucky, Perry might not ask. It did seem that their editor tended to question Clark's whereabouts less often if there were a publicized Superman feat on television. Perhaps Perry had some suspicions about Clark's second job. She turned her attention away from the television monitors and gathered her notes.

"Lois, where's Clark?" Jimmy was at her elbow.

Lois jumped as the young photographer spoke. "Jimmy, don't do that to me," she replied. "It's too early in the morning to be startled like that."

Jimmy persisted. "Where's Clark? I need to talk to him."

"He's meeting a source. He'll be in later." That sounded plausible. Lois smiled to herself. "Can *I* help you?"

"Ah, no, that's okay. I just wanted to ask him something about women." He paused for effect. "I don't think you could help." Jimmy grinned, turned away, and headed for the conference room.

Lois glared at the researcher/photographer's retreating back, gathered her notes on their current investigation, and followed in his wake.

"Well, people, let's hear it. What's the status on that investigation into Intergang, Lois?" Perry White, editor-in-chief of the Daily Planet, opened the meeting. He neglected to mention the empty seat beside her at the table.

"Chief, Clark and I have an appointment with a source in a couple of hours. The source says he's got some information that could lead us to the top person in Intergang. Other than that, though, we've been coming up with dead ends since that slimy lawyer was killed."

"You mean the one Clark thought was an attorney for Intergang?"

"Yes, Martin Snell." Lois added under her breath, "The guy who worked for your friend, Bill Church."

"Well, keep on it." Perry moved on to the next reporter.

Lois was left to listen with half an ear to the conversation flowing around her and wondered whether Clark would arrive at the Planet in time to go with her to see Bobby Bigmouth. If he didn't show up, she'd have to go by herself. Not that going alone was a problem, she thought; but especially since she and Clark had gotten closer, she much preferred to work with him. Their styles were so complementary that together as a team they were infinitely better than either one of them solo. Lois hoped that he would soon have the traffic accident under control. Lois' heart skipped a beat as she felt an unobtrusive touch on her arm. She looked up from her doodling on a note pad to see Clark sliding into the chair beside her. The look in his eyes was bleak.

"Rough?" she whispered.

"Yeah. I'll tell you about it later," he replied.

"Okay."

They turned their attention back to the announcements Perry was making.

"I mean it, people. I want some results on this. Lois, Clark, if you all don't get me something concrete soon, I'm gonna pull you off the Intergang story and put you on something else. I can't afford to have you spending all your time on dead ends."

Lois sputtered. "Perry, that's not fair. You know we're working on other things as well. I know we're going to crack this case eventually."

"See that you do. That's all for today." With a peremptory nod, Perry dismissed his staff.

As the rest of the city room staff left the conference room, Clark put his hand on Lois' arm, holding her back. "Don't go. We need to talk in private." His voice was so soft, she barely heard it. Clark stepped over to the blinds and closed them.

"Okay." Turning to face Clark, she gazed into his stricken eyes. "What is it, Clark? What happened out there?" Concern written on her face, she drew him into her arms. "Tell me, sweetheart. It can't be that bad."

"Oh yes, it can. It's worse." He leaned into her embrace, seeming to draw comfort from the haven of her arms.

"Oh, god, Lois, it was terrible." His voice caught on a sob. He rested his chin on top of her shining hair. "One of the worst accidents I've ever seen."

"What happened out there? I could tell from your face on TV that it was more than just a run-of-the-mill rush hour wreck."

"Where do you want me to start? Shall I tell you how many people died immediately? How many people I couldn't save because they were dead before I even heard the squealing tires and crunching steel?" Clark's tone was depressed. "Seven people died in that accident, Lois. Three of them were children." His voice broke again.

"Oh, Clark. How awful." Lois hugged him more tightly. "It wasn't your fault, you know. You can't be everywhere. You know that."

"I know. But at times like this, what I know and what I feel are two very different things." He took a deep breath before continuing. "Lois, someone started that chain reaction on purpose. People died, all because someone had some hidden agenda."

She gasped. "What?"

"Someone started it. The driver of the first car said his tires blew out and he spun out of control. The traffic was so congested that no one else could avoid slamming into the car in front of them."

"How do you know the guy just didn't run over a nail or something?"

"Because I checked. There were bullet holes in his tires on the right side. Somebody shot the tires of the first car that crashed. I wish to God I knew who did it."

"How on earth could someone do that without being caught? Didn't anybody see them?" Lois was incredulous.

"There's a stand of trees right beside that stretch of road. All it took was a rifle and a quick getaway. What concerns me the most is, why did someone do it?" Clark stepped away from Lois and ran his hand through his hair. "It's senseless. What would be the point? The worst thing is, I didn't get there fast enough to save everyone."

Clark reached for Lois again. Pulling her into his arms, he took a deep, shuddering breath.

"Clark, you are not responsible for those deaths. Whoever caused the accident is." She squeezed him tightly. "You've got to believe me. Either some deranged person, or some criminal, is responsible. Not you." She leaned back in his arms. Lois peered worriedly at his face, noticing the glimmer of tears in his eyes. "Focus on the people you saved, okay?"

Dropping a light kiss on the top of her head, he released her. "I guess, Lois. It's just so hard, you know?

"Yes, I do, Clark. And it doesn't help that you are the kindest, most caring man in the universe." Smiling gently at him, she glanced at the wall clock. "Drat! We've got to get going. Are you better now?"

"Yes, thanks to you." He really was feeling better, Clark reflected. It had been an enormous relief, Lois knowing his secret. Being able to talk to her after difficult rescues made his life significantly easier. Sometimes he wondered how he had managed to deal with all the chaos he had seen during the first year he had been Superman. Talking out his emotions with Lois had made a tremendous difference in his emotional well-being. "Uh, Lois, where do we need to go?" he added as an afterthought.

"Bobby Bigmouth called. He says he's got a *very* hot tip. We have just enough time to pick up his payment and get to the park by the harbor."

"Did he say what it was about?" Clark straightened his tie as Lois put her hand on the door knob.

"Nope, just that it was big enough to justify a five course meal." She laughed as she preceded him out of the conference room.

"Do I even want to know what that's gonna set us back?" Clark grinned for the first time all morning.

"Probably not. I ordered it from Ralph's Pagoda."

"Geez, Lois, I thought you were trying to pay the man, not murder him."

"He likes it. What can I say?" Her laughter trilled again. "He obviously has a cast-iron stomach. I think he even ate my cooking once."

Clark shook his head at that. "I don't know, Lois. Is there anything tougher than cast-iron?" He ducked the playful swing she made at him and grabbed a notepad from his desk. "Shall we?" Placing his free hand on the small of her back he propelled her towards the elevators. "You driving?"

"You bet. I parked out front today."

At that moment the elevator doors slid open. The two reporters stepped inside and pushed the lobby button.

"Drat!" Clark's sudden exclamation startled Lois. "I forgot to talk to Jimmy before we left."

"What do you need to talk to him about?"

"I want him to find out if the police have come up with anything on the cause of that pile-up. Or if they've found any spent rifle shells in those trees."

"Hmm. You have a point." She dug her cell phone out of her purse. "So, why don't you call him?"

He took the phone from her hand just as the elevator doors opened in the lobby. He was dialing the newsroom's number before they reached the street. "Hi, Jimmy? Yeah, I need you to check on something for me." Clark quickly filled Jimmy in and cut the connection. "Okay, partner, let's get going."

***

"Ah, slippery shrimp. I love slippery shrimp." Bobby Bigmouth was stuffing the contents of several containers of take-out Chinese food into his mouth faster than Superman could have. "So, Lois, did you bring me a drink this time?"

"Yes, Bobby," she answered acerbically. "It's right here. A jumbo size cola."

"Better be the real thing. I don't want none of those off-brand colas. They just don't taste the same, you know?" Bobby grumbled.

"Yeah, I know. Now could you please cut to the chase?" Lois wondered idly why it always took Bobby longer to get to the point when he had a really *big* tip for them, than when it was just a small one.

"Sheesh, Clark. Does she talk to you like this?" Bobby shook his head in confusion. "I gotta wonder why you put up with her sometimes, you know?"

Lois stiffened her posture. "He puts up with me for any number of excellent reasons."

"Yeah, but I bet your cooking isn't one of them." Bobby couldn't resist the dig.

"I thought you liked it."

"Compared to what? Sawdust?" Bobby caught the fulminating glance she sent his way and decided to talk business. "Okay, Lois. Truce. Here's the news. You guys know that new crime syndicate that's supposedly come into town recently?"

Clark interjected, "Intergang?"

"Yeah, that's the one." The snitch wiped his mouth on his sleeve. Grabbing an egg roll, he continued, "Well, word is, they're smuggling something into Metropolis on a fairly regular basis."

"Smuggling? What are they smuggling?" Lois demanded.

"Don't know for sure. Could be almost anything, but my guess is, either drugs or illegal aliens."

"Bobby, can't you narrow it down a little? There's a pretty big difference between those two commodities." Lois was getting impatient.

"Lois, I'd tell you if I knew. All I know is, they're bringing something in through Metropolis harbor."

"Cargo ships or private boats?" Clark interposed the question. "That might give us an idea about what's being brought in."

"Cargo ships, I think. Anyway, there's some sort of meeting tonight." Bobby paused in his munching to look through the carry-out bag. "Did you bring me dessert?"

Clark rolled his eyes. "Lo…is. Give the man his dessert."

She shot a look of pure disgust at her partner, then reached under the seat, pulled out a bakery sack, and handed it to the informant.

The paper bag crackled as he pulled out its contents. "Tortes! You go, girl. I love tortes." Bobby shoved one in his mouth. "Oh yeah, this meeting … it's supposed to be at eight, at Pete's Crab Shack. Supposedly some local guy is gonna be meeting with an Intergang leader."

"And are you going to be there, to find out what the deal is ?" Lois asked.

"Me? Not on your life! These Intergang guys are not to be messed with. From what I hear, they'd as soon kill you as look at you. Nope, if you two want to know what's going down, I suggest you go there."

Usually the more rational of the two reporters, Clark again chimed in. "And how are we supposed to know who to listen to or look at?"

Bobby was gathering the remains of his meal together. "I don't know. All I know is, there's a meeting; and people who know about Intergang are supposed to be able to tell who the players are." With that he disappeared into the woods ringing the park.

The wheels in Lois' brain were churning. Secret meetings at seedy restaurants were her life's blood. Few things got her more excited than the opportunity to go undercover chasing down a lead. She turned an excited gaze on Clark. "We need to be there, Clark."

He blinked his surprise. "*We* need to be there?"

"That's what I said. Is there an echo? Don't answer that. Yes, Clark, we need to be there and see what's going on. It could be a great opportunity to finally break the Intergang story. You heard Perry this morning."

"Don't you think that if these people see you and me sitting there, that they'll figure something is up and leave?"

"Of course, they will. That's why we'll go undercover. Then no one will know that it's us." Lois was already putting together a plan in hermind.

"Undercover. *We'll* go undercover."

"Yeah, I can wear a blond wig and some trashy clothes; and you can wear that awful beard you wore to the Metro Club last year." Lois continued planning aloud. "Hmm. I wonder if there's any chance I could get a waitressing job there for the night. Then I could be in a position to hear a lot of the conversation."

At that, the tight rein Clark had tried to keep on his emotions all morning snapped. "No! I can't allow you to do that, Lois."

She snapped her head up to look at the taut lips and narrowed eyes of her boyfriend. "Excuse me? What did you just say?"

"I said I can't allow you to do that. It's too dangerous." Clark was surprised that she questioned him.

"Stop right there, buster. What makes you think you have the right to tell me that I can't do my job?"

"Honey, I love you. You know that." He rubbed the back of his head wearily. "I don't want you in danger."

Lois took a deep breath and counted to ten. When that failed to calm her temper, she counted to twenty. "The heck with it," she thought. "He needs to know I'm mad." She turned to face him directly and poked him in the chest. She ground out the words through clenched teeth. "Clark, listen to me. Just because you love me, that doesn't give you the right to tell me I can't do something. You don't own me. It isn't your place to tell me I can't do my job because you love me, any more than it's my place to tell you what to do because I love you."

Clark took her hands and laced his fingers with hers. "Don't you see a little difference here? I mean, you are a lot more likely to get hurt, you know?" He pulled her close to him. "Lois, I love you so much. If anything were to happen to you, I don't know if I could go on. Can't you see that I just want to protect you?"

She looked up at him and shook her head. "Clark, I do see that. But it doesn't change anything. I was going undercover on more dangerous assignments than this before I ever met you. I somehow managed to survive, even without super help." Lois paused to give him a squeeze. "You can't wrap me up in cotton wool, anymore than I can do it to you."

Completely baffled, Clark responded, "Why would you want to? It's not like I can get hurt. You, on the other hand, can."

Lois sighed in exasperation. "Honestly, Clark, sometimes you are so dumb. Who had to dig a bullet out of whom a few months ago?"

"Lo…is," he groaned. "That was a very unusual situation. And you know it."

"Yeah, right. Do I need to remind you about the crazy eye doctor who blinded you? Or the engineering geeks who built a cyborg that could beat you up since it just happened to have a Kryptonite battery? Or how about…"

He stopped her tirade with a kiss. "Okay. I guess you've made your point. Will you at least promise me to *try* to be careful? To look before you leap?"

She smiled up at him. "Well, I can try. But it works both ways, you know."

He looked hurt. "All right. So what's the plan?"

"I'll tell you on the way back to the Planet." She began the walk across the parking lot to her Jeep, Clark striding beside her. "It's really pretty simple. If I can get a job there for the night, you can come in as a customer. It'll be great. You'll see."

"Famous last words," he muttered as he slid into the passenger seat and fastened his seat belt.

The ride back to the newsroom was passed in a discussion of Lois' plan for surveillance of the meeting that night. As they pulled into a parking place in the garage, Lois finally remarked on Clark's silence for most of the trip. "You okay? Is something wrong?"

"Yeah, everything is fine." His tone didn't sound convincing.

"Uh huh. If everything is fine, then why do you have that hangdog look on your face? And why did you let me make all the plans for tonight?" she prodded.

Clark shifted in his seat so that he could see her better. "Do you really think I try to do that?"

"Do what?"

"Try to run your life. Try to wrap you up in cotton wool."

She was silent as she turned off the ignition. "Well," she temporized. "Yes and no." She swiveled to face him. "I don't really think you try to run my life. But, sometimes, you do try to keep me wrapped up in that stuff."

"Is it so wrong to want to protect the woman I love? To want to keep her safe?" he asked.

"No, I guess it's actually natural. It's even kind of sweet. But you have to remember that you can't always do it. And you have to accept that fact. Sometimes, I'm going to take risks to get a story. I hope my luck holds good, and nothing bad happens when I do take a chance. Or at the very least, that if something bad happens, that you're able to rescue me." She reached over and took his hand. "But, Clark, I'm not a child. And I'm not a hothouse flower. Most of the time I can take care of myself. You have to believe that, or you'll drive yourself nuts. You have to trust me."

"I do trust you, Lois. I guess it's just that the longer we're together, the more I worry that something bad could happen; that someone could hurt you. And I couldn't bear that." He raised her hand and kissed her knuckles. "Days like today, I need you so much it's almost a physical sensation. Situations like that accident this morning leave me feeling like there's this big hole inside me. And when I get back to you, your love fills the hole back in. I just don't want anything to separate us." His voice was thick with emotion. "Lois, I love you. I can't tell you that enough."

She reached across the car with her other hand and lovingly caressed his cheek. "I know, sweetheart. I love you too. I love you so much that sometimes it scares me. But I promise, *nothing* is going to change that. You are definitely stuck with me." Grinning, she changed the subject. "Now, come on. We need to get back upstairs and see what we can find out about the Crab Shack, and go over our notes on Intergang. And if you've been living right, maybe nobody will be in the elevator."

Clark smiled at that sally and exited the Jeep. As far as he knew, he *always* lived right. It might be an interesting trip to the third floor.

***

The Daily Planet's two top reporters stepped off the elevators, each wearing a very satisfied expression. Another Planet employee, waiting to go down, was puzzled upon hearing Lois murmur to Clark, "Hmm. You *are* living right."

Clark's smug, "Told you so," in reply was even more perplexing, given that Lois seemed to be finger-combing her hair; and Clark was straightening his tie. As the down elevator pinged its arrival, the observer smiled to himself and got on. Things had been pretty strange with those two lately.

"CK!" Jimmy bounded across the newsroom as Lois and Clark made their way down the ramp. "I've got that information from the police you wanted. He handed a sheaf of papers to the reporter before looking at Lois with a critical eye. "The air-conditioning go out in the Jeep? Your hair looks kind of mussed, Lois." The young reporter took off for the darkroom before she could respond.

"Somebody needs to do something about that boy before he comes to a bad end," she muttered. Upon getting no reaction from Clark, she turned in his direction. He had the same look he'd had on his arrival at the budget meeting earlier that morning. "Uh oh," she thought. "Must be more bad news."

Taking him by the arm, she pulled Clark into the deserted conference room. "Now what's made you look like that?" she asked, her voice tinged with concern. "Bad news from the MPD?"

He swallowed hard. "Yeah. One of the people I rescued from the pile-up died after he got to the hospital. God, sometimes I wonder …" Clark blinked back tears.

Lois grimaced. It was obvious to her that her partner was beginning to obsess again. She had to stop him so they could get to work on the Intergang story. "Clark, tell me something."

"What, Lois?"

"Just how many seat belts did you unfasten from dead people today? And how many of the children were in safety seats?"

"None, actually." Clark shot her a quizzical look. "What, exactly, are you trying to make me see? I seem to be pretty dense today."

"That none of those deaths had anything at all to do with you or when you arrived on the scene. On the other hand, they had everything to do with people making bad choices when they left their homes this morning. If they had been properly restrained, they'd probably still be alive. So quit obsessing right now!" Lois lessened the sting of her words with a quick hug. "Come on, partner. We've got research to do."

"You, as always, are right." He smiled at her. "Can I at least obsess to the point of asking Perry if I can write either a side-bar or an editorial about the importance of wearing seat belts?"

"Sure, as long as we get our homework done before our visit to Pete's Crab Shack tonight."

***

The rest of the day involved Clark's write-up of the freeway accident, including a pointed op-ed piece on the necessity of safety restraints in motor vehicles, and Lois' extensive research on the little that was known of Intergang. Late in an afternoon which had been punctuated by several calls on Clark's alter-ego, the two reporters met again in the conference room to discuss their plan and their suspicions.

"So, what have you got, Lois?"

"Not as much as I wish. You know, we really haven't made much headway on getting to the bottom of Intergang. I've never seen anything with so many layers hiding the truth. Even Luthor Enterprises was less convoluted than Intergang."

"I know. Let's see — Intergang shows up in towns about the same time Costmart does. Small time criminals start leaving this plane of existence if they don't cooperate with some mysterious 'boss.' The systematic takeover of almost all crime: drugs, prostitution, numbers, robbery, takes place. Political figures who call for steps to be taken against Intergang tend to get assassinated. Nice people we're dealing with."

"And no one has ever identified anyone as the head of, or even in the upper echelon, of Intergang."

"Except you, tenacious Mad Dog that you are, think that the head of Intergang is Bill Church."

"It figures, doesn't it, Clark? Or do you think I'm reaching?" she questioned her partner.

"Well, I agree that there seems to be a very strong circumstantial link between Intergang and Costmart. Hate to think that my Dad's favorite store is run by a crook, but hey." He continued, "And there is no doubt that Martin Snell was a lawyer for Intergang; he told me so himself."

"He was an attorney for Costmart, too. Mayson Drake knew him from there, remember?" Lois added.

"And just when he was about to tell the police who was in charge of Intergang, he was killed. Funny coincidence, that."

"But Bill Church had an iron-clad alibi. He was at that charity ball with half of Metropolis. Even you and I were there, Clark."

"True, but who is to say that he actually committed that murder? I have a feeling that Intergang probably employs more assassins than the KGB ever did."

Lois groaned. "If only we could find out who any of them are. I'm convinced that Bill Church is the head of Intergang; but without hard evidence, Perry isn't going to print anything. Not even to smoke him out."

Clark was appalled at the suggestion. "You can't be serious! Tell me you really wouldn't try to put anything about these people in print unless we have enough evidence for the police to arrest them before the papers hit the streets. If Church had an inkling that you were going to print that allegation, you could be his next target."

"I know. We're not dealing with people who play fair. That much is obvious." She looked at him inquiringly. "So what now?"

"We go to Pete's Crab Shack and see what happens. If we're lucky, Bill Church will come in, sit at the table next to ours and meet some known underworld figure. They'll discuss in loud voices their plans to do whatever it is they're doing at the harbor. And then they'll hand us a micro-cassette tape, along with signed affidavits admitting their guilt."

"There isn't that much luck in the world." She laughed. "So, you gonna answer my question or not?"

He turned hurt, brown, puppy dog eyes on her. "Lo…is, I did." He shook his head, bewildered. Gazing up at the ceiling, he grumbled, "She asked a question; I answered it. The woman is never satisfied."

Lois smacked his arm. "That is *so* not true. I was extremely satisfied in the elevator."

Clark smiled at her. "Yeah, that was fun, wasn't it?" He took a breath. "All kidding aside, I guess we go to the restaurant, and see what happens. I don't suppose you had any luck getting hired for the night?"

"No. On the other hand, Jimmy did find me a micro-cassette recorder that can pick up from as far as thirty feet away at Spies R Us. So we should be able to get close enough to record any conversation, *if* we can figure out whom to record."

"All right. I'll pick you up at seven. And I better not be able to recognize you. I don't want to be at that place and have Bill Church walk in and see Lois Lane and Clark Kent sitting there. I have a feeling that Pete's Crab Shack isn't the kind of place any of us would normally frequent."

"Doesn't sound like it." A thought struck her. "You do still have that beard thingy, don't you?"

"Actually, I don't. Don't worry, I'll look different." He grinned at her. "Besides, don't you want me to be able to kiss you?"

"Good grief, I've created a monster." Lois rolled her eyes at him. "You know, for someone who claimed to be inexperienced in the relationship department, you sure don't act like it."

"What can I say? I read a lot." He ducked the notepad she threw at him. "Come on, Lois. Let's get going."

They strolled out of the conference room and went to their respective desks to clear them for the night. As they were packing up, Perry called to them. "Lois, Clark! I want to see you all in here before you leave."

The pair exchanged a quick look and headed for the editor's office. "D'you think we're in trouble?" Lois whispered.

"Nah, he probably wants to know what we found out from Bobby. We never did fill him in on that."

"Oh, yeah. I guess I forgot. I was too busy convincing you I can cross the street by myself."

"Lo…is. That's a low blow. I thought we had that issue straightened out."

"Sure, until the next time. Face it, Clark, you are extremely predictable. We will have that conversation again and again."

"Wanna bet?" He stuck out his hand.

"Bet. It's like taking candy from a baby." She shook his hand on it, and they made their way into Perry's office.

After motioning them to take a seat on the plaid sofa, Perry spoke to his star reporting team. "First off, Clark, that was an excellent piece on the seat belt issue. You really do a great job with human interest issues. It'll make a nice companion to the news story on that pile up today. Maybe people will learn if they get the message enough times. Nice work on the story of the crash itself, too. When did you have a chance to talk to Superman about it? Those were some great quotes."

"We saw Superman on our way back from talking to Bobby Bigmouth. That's when we got the quotes." Lois smiled to herself. She was a lot better than Clark at coming up with glib Superman answers she decided.

"Which brings me to my question. What did you all find out from your source?" Perry looked at them pointedly. "It better be good, and you better be able to prove it."

Clark spoke for the first time since entering the office. "Bobby said that Intergang is involved in some sort of big smuggling operation. Possibly drugs or illegal aliens. He wasn't sure which." He went on, "There's supposed to be a meeting tonight of two people high up in Intergang at a seedy restaurant down by Hobb's Bay."

"So we're going to go undercover, and see what we can find out," Lois interjected. "Jimmy got us this awesome micro-recorder. We ought to be able to get the conversation on tape." Her excitement was evident. "And then we'll have them."

"Sounds like a decent plan. Just be careful that you're well disguised. You two are pretty well known. I don't want to have to break in a new investigative team." Perry's tone was gruff.

"Sure, Chief. We're always careful." Clark tried to look sincere.

"Uh huh. And Elvis sang soprano. Lois is never careful, and I think you're pickin' up her bad habits." Perry paused a minute, then went on, "Good luck. I hope you get the goods. The sooner Intergang gets blown open, the sooner the police will be able to clean up some of the crime in this town. And lots of other cities as well."

Lois spoke up. "Is that all, Chief?"

"Yeah, get on out of here. See you all tomorrow."

"Night, Chief." Clark rose and held out a hand to Lois.

She took it and stood. "Good night, Perry. See you tomorrow." Lois preceded Clark out the door. Once they were in the bullpen, she tugged on his hand and pulled him closer. Reaching up, she gave him a quick kiss. "Let's get going. We need to go transform ourselves by seven."

Returning her kiss, he squeezed her hand and released it. "I'll see you then. I'm going to go make a quick patrol of the city before I go home to change. Who knows? Maybe I'll see something important."

"All right. Be careful, sweetheart. I love you."

"I love you too. And drive carefully on the way home." He smiled, but there was an underlying note of seriousness in his voice.

She smiled at him and made her way towards the elevators. Clark took the stairs to the roof, his favorite place for Superman take-offs. He wanted to scan the harbor for any suspicious looking cargoes. Perhaps he could get some useful information before their stake-out tonight. Not for the first time, he wondered what was being brought into the country illegally. He hadn't heard of any new influx of drugs, and he certainly hadn't seen anything to indicate that people were being brought into Metropolis. He headed towards the waterfront. It would be nice to have more information tonight.

***

As Lois maneuvered her Jeep through the early evening rush hour traffic, she reflected on the events of the day. Clark had certainly been upset by the morning's accident. Although his capacity to care deeply about total strangers was one of the qualities that she loved the most about him, it also concerned her a great deal. Lois often wondered how he managed to cope with all of the trauma and death that he saw without becoming jaded and cynical.

Maybe it was true, she thought, what he had said about how her love affected him. It was definitely a fact that being in a relationship with Clark was nothing like what she had expected when she decided to forget Superman and choose her partner. Lois had believed that loving Clark would be as straightforward and uncomplicated as Clark appeared to be. In reality, though, loving Clark meant loving Superman. And that meant helping him put himself back together emotionally when his second job was as rough as it had been that morning.

"But I wouldn't trade a minute of it," she thought. Loving and being loved by Clark was unbelievable. He might think that he needed her, but Lois needed him every bit as much. "Together, we are definitely better than each of us alone."

She sighed happily. Tonight could be fun. Lois always enjoyed going undercover; it gave her the opportunity to be someone else, to be what she had wished as a child, "invisible." And if luck was with them, tonight they would get the information they needed to bring Intergang to its knees.

***

At precisely seven PM, a biker-looking type knocked on the door of Lois' apartment. His heavily pomaded hair was swept up in a pompadour, dark glasses obscured his eyes, and a black leather jacket was opened to reveal a tight white tee-shirt covering a well-muscled torso. Skin tight jeans completed his outfit. Cracking the gum he was chomping, he rapped on the door frame a second time.

The blonde who opened the door took his breath away. Long blond hair was teased high on top but hung halfway down her back. A black leather mini-skirt and bustier barely covered her decently. Her legs were encased in black fishnet stockings, and she teetered on impossible four inch heels. The only color visible was the scarlet lipstick that emphasized her pout. "So, what's up, Spike?" she asked, her posture suggestive of delights to come later.

"Nice tattoo," her visitor mumbled using a fair imitation of a New Jersey accent. "Can I come in?"

"Sure thing, love." The blonde closed the door behind him. In the privacy of her living room, Lois dissolved into giggles. "Oh, Clark," she gasped, "I don't know which of us looks worse. I don't think our own mothers could recognize us." She twisted to check out the fake tattoo on her upper left arm. "Do you really like it? Think I should get a real one?"

"Truthfully? No. I like your body just the way it is. You can't improve on perfection." Clark blushed as he heard himself speak. "I can't believe I just said that. Must be the outfit."

Lois responded happily. "Thank you, Clark. That was one of the nicest things you've ever said to me." A thought occurred to her. "Uh, Clark? Whose outfit, yours or mine?"

"Both, I guess." He swallowed twice in an effort to tamp down the feelings her appearance was engendering in him. If he couldn't control his wayward emotions, this evening might be more challenge than he was prepared to handle. "Um, I guess we better go. Do you have the recorder?"

"Yes." She patted her purse. She slanted him a sultry look. "Are your ears in good working order tonight?"

"You bet. I just hope Bobby is right, and we know the Intergang leader when we see him."

"Me too. Wanna bet it's either Bill Church, Sr. or Bill Church, Jr.?"

"I'm not taking that bet. Unless you and I have been wrong for months, it's almost gotta be one or the other."

"That's what I'm thinking. Come on, then." Lois took her keys out as they left her apartment. Five locks later, she and Clark were riding down the elevator. "I hope you aren't planning to walk, Spike."

He chuckled. "Why not, Lola? Shoes not comfortable?"

"You got it, Ace. I'd never make it a block in these things."

"Well, maybe there'll be a cab."

The elevator doors slid open, and "Lola" and "Spike" stepped out into the lobby of the apartment building. Miss Helen, an elderly neighbor of Lois,' was just coming in. As she caught sight of the leather-clad duo, she clutched her purse like a weapon.

"Hiya. We're friends of Lois Lane," Spike explained. "Know if we can get a cab anywhere around here?"

Miss Helen's heart skipped a beat. "Oh my," she murmured weakly. "There's a cab stand at the corner." She turned and scurried into the waiting refuge of the elevator. The faint sound of laughter followed her. She shook her head. That Lois Lane certainly knew some "unusual" people.

***

Luckily for Lois' feet, there were several waiting taxis at the corner. Spike and Lola gave the driver the address for Pete's Crab Shack and sat back on the naugahide-covered seat.

"So, Spike, how long do you thing it'll take to get there?" a pouting Lola asked.

"About fifteen or twenty minutes, I think." Spike cocked his head to one side to look at her. Giving her a considering glance, he continued, "Wanna neck?"

***

A quarter hour and a pleasant interlude later, the cab pulled up in front of a seedy-looking restaurant on the quay at Hobb's Bay. Smeared paint on dingy windows advertised the special of the week, while the establishment's sign hung drunkenly from one end. A neon light on the roof blinked its message: "$1 Be rs on Tu sday Nite. Ladies Welcom."

The blonde with big hair who had just crawled from the back of the cab shuddered. "Ugh. Do you suppose it's safe to eat or drink anything in there?"

"Good point, Lola. Looks like the kind of place where you should stick to bottled beer." Clark grinned at her discomfort. "Are you trying to tell me that you have never been to this type of place? Not even in college?"

"Of course I have, Spike," Lois said indignantly. "But *only* for an assignment."

Clark gave a shout of laughter. "You know, Lola, it's really all right. I won't think less of you for slumming." He hugged her shoulders. "Come on. Let's see if we can get a good table."

"Like one with a view of the kitchen? So we can count the roaches and the rats?" she muttered.

Clark grinned. "Ah, I was thinking more of a nice, dark booth, that might be near where our quarry will be. What do you think?"

"I guess." She snaked an arm around his waist. "I hope we recognize the guys we're looking for; I'd hate to spend the evening trying to avoid food poisoning and taping two guys talking about their fishing trip."

"Have a little faith, Lola. If we've been right all along, it's gonna be a piece of cake." With that reassuring comment, he escorted his "woman" into the restaurant.

As their eyes adjusted to the dimly lit interior of the Crab Shack, Lois had to smile. The clientele looked as if it had been chosen from Central Casting. Trashy brunettes vied with blowzy blondes for the attention of a motley assortment of tattooed and unshaven sailors, dock workers, and the like. Had Clark worn his "Charlie King" disguise, he'd have fit right in. As it was, he was one of the better-dressed men in the place.

"Oh yeah, this is gonna be good," she murmured; her voice so low that Clark had to use his superhearing to understand her.

The hostess, an overdone redhead, greeted them with, "So what'll it be? A table or a booth?"

"A booth, doncha think," Clark replied.

Lois nodded her assent. "Yeah, hon. A nice dark one, so's we can enjoy ourselves." She winked broadly at the hostess.

She showed them to a booth in a darkened corner and handed them several stained menus. "Ernestine's your waitress. She'll be with you in a sec." She cracked her gum as she moved off towards the entrance.

Clark scanned the dining room, looking for anyone that "people who know Intergang should know." There was a likely looking prospect at the next booth, a dark-haired man with graying temples. The dark sport coat and open collared shirt he wore did little to make him resemble a regular patron of the seafood restaurant/bar. Clark gave Lois a silent signal to be ready to start the recorder.

A brassy blonde in a skimpy uniform arrived shortly thereafter to take their order. After the waitress left for the kitchen, Lois whispered, "Please tell me I don't have to actually eat anything in here. I have a feeling that crabs aren't the only lower forms of life they serve."

"And what else do you imagine you could be eating here, 'Lola?'"

"All kinds of things: bacteria, microbes and worms come to mind. You name it; I bet they've got it. I think we need to call the Health Department next chance we get." She sent a suspicious glance in the direction of the kitchen.

Lois and Clark were pushing some dubious looking salad around their plates when Clark's superhearing picked up a new voice at the door. Barely able to conceal his excitement, he inclined his head in that direction, indicating that Lois should take a look at the latest arrival. Her heart rate quickened as she glimpsed Bill Church, Sr. beneath an old fishing hat which did little to conceal his identity. He was following the hostess to the booth behind theirs. Lois unobtrusively reached into her purse to switch on the micro-recorder as he joined the man they had noticed earlier.

Lois strained her ears to hear what the two men were saying. She glanced at her partner. His face was a study in concentration as he listened to the low-voiced conversation behind him.

***

"Good evening, Mr. Darryl." Church's voice was polite as he slid into the booth. He felt a small amount of satisfaction that he had made his companion wait. It never hurt to keep one's underlings on their toes.

"Hello, Mr. Church. What's your poison?" Mr. Darryl's tone indicated that he was a man who was accustomed to directing the conversation and was not entirely happy with the current situation.

"Beer will be fine. I think I'll pass on the food." The president of Costmart looked around the dining room and shuddered. He wondered what had possessed Darryl to choose to meet here.

"Fine." Darryl placed their order with the hovering waitress and turned his attention to this companion. "All right, Mr. Church. What is so important that you wanted to meet face to face?"

"The new import operation, of course. I want to know exactly how you think you are going to bring dozens of illegal immigrant workers into Metropolis without being stopped by either the police or Superman. I need those workers for my clothing factories; you cannot afford a slip-up."

"*I* cannot afford a slip up?" Darryl's tone was affronted.

"Exactly." The head of Intergang directed a kindly smile towards his second-in-command. "It's your head if the operation gets linked to Intergang or Costmart." He paused. "And don't forget, I mean what I say."

"Yes, sir." Suddenly his open collar felt a bit tight. Darryl remembered the fate of Martin Snell. "You have nothing to worry about, I assure you."

"Good. Now give me the details on how this is going to work."

Just then the waitress reappeared with their drinks. As she bustled about the booth, placing napkins and opening beer bottles, they changed the subject of their conversation to the prospects for the upcoming Superbowl.

***

Lois, on the other side of the booth, noticed that Clark had suddenly gotten the frozen expression that indicated he was hearing a cry for help. "What is it?" she whispered.

"Sounds like someone jumping or falling off the top of the Trade Center." He was getting out of the booth as he spoke.

"Go. I'll wait here for a while. If you're gone too long, I'll meet you at your apartment."

"Okay." A quick kiss, and he disappeared through the crowd, out into the night.

Her partner gone, Lois turned back to listen to the quiet conversation behind her.

Bill Church was speaking again. "As I said, just how are you planning to get dozens of people off a ship in the middle of Metropolis Harbor without legal difficulties? My understanding is that Superman has taken to patrolling the harbor on a regular basis, ever since that idiot with Sun Industries tried bringing in illegals."

"Ah, but as you say, Harland went about it all wrong. He tried to defeat Superman. That always makes the 'Man of Steel' angry and more resolved than ever to win. I am going to divert Superman. A much easier solution."

Lois listened with growing horror as Darryl went on to describe how well a diversion had worked that morning.

"Mr. Church, we brought in a hundred workers this morning during rush hour."

"And Superman and the police didn't notice a thing?" Church wanted to know.

"Not at all. The harbor master was tied up with a fight that broke out among some dock workers, and Superman and the police were occupied with that chain-reaction crash on the beltway."

"That was your work? Nice going." Bill Church was obviously pleased. "Superman was busy for several hours cleaning that mess up. How did you manage that?"

"It was simple. A sniper in the woods at the side of the road, a couple of shot-out tires, and voila. Instant accident. I thought it worked pretty well. Of course, we'll have to have a different diversion next time. The unexpected is always more effective. I'm thinking of a fire in a high-rise."

"That should work quite well. I'm pleased so far." Bill Church took another swallow from his beer bottle and moved the conversation on to the next topic on his agenda.

Lois stared numbly at the table as the dialogue behind her continued. It was good that the recorder was picking up the details of Intergang's smuggling operations, for she had stopped paying attention to Church and Darryl. Instead, her thoughts were focused on what they had said about the morning's pileup. Eight people had died, just to keep Superman out of the way while Intergang committed a crime. How could she tell Clark about this development? He'd be devastated and take on the burden of guilt for the deaths. But how could she not tell him? He needed to know just what he was up against, as both the reporter and the superhero. She was sickened by the two men's callous disregard for human life. She swallowed the bile rising in her throat and closed her eyes briefly.

"Hi." Lois opened her eyes to see Clark sitting back down in the booth.

"Everything O.K.?" she asked.

"Yeah, I guess. I'll tell you about it later." He nodded towards the two Intergang leaders. "Learn anything more?" he mouthed at her.

She nodded, then whispered, "Tell you later."

A couple of purely conversational remarks later, Church and Darryl rose to leave. They passed by Lois and Clark without even glancing at them. As the two criminal masterminds left the restaurant, Lois slumped in relief and pushed the stop button on the recorder.

"Let's give them a few minutes to get out of the neighborhood, and then we can leave," she said.

"Fine. I want to tell you what happened while I was gone, and I want to know what went on here, but not *here* if you know what I mean."

She smiled weakly at him. "Yeah. We need to go to your place and talk."

The two passed the next ten minutes in desultory conversation, each preoccupied with thoughts of what had happened while Clark was gone. When Clark finally indicated that it was safe to leave, Lois sighed with relief. She accompanied him to the door, teetering on her impossible heels. "I can't wait to get home," she told him.

"I thought you said you wanted to go to my place." Clark was confused.

"I do." She gave him a megawatt smile. "Home is wherever you are. Didn't you know that?"

His heart turned over. He still hadn't quite gotten used to the idea that the woman of his dreams shared his feelings. It was a heady sensation. Clark pulled her to him for a quick hug. "Have I told you lately that I love you?"

"Yes, but you can tell me again." She looked around. "Come on. There's a cab over there."

Ten minutes later they were paying the cabby in front of Clark's apartment. Clark took her hand in his and led her up the stairs.

"Want some coffee?" he asked as he opened the door.

"Coffee would be fine, but what I was really thinking about was some food. I didn't eat, remember?"

"That's right. You were worried about what the food would have for garnish." He smiled at her. "I think I can make some stir-fry. That okay?"

"That would be heavenly." Lois took her shoes off before attempting to descend the steps into his living room. "So what happened at the Trade Center?" She pulled the wig from her head and ran her fingers through her hair. "Ah, that's better."

They moved on to the kitchen, where Clark began pulling ingredients out of the refrigerator. "Can you get the wok out?" he asked.

"The wok?" Lois was perplexed. "Uh, sure, if you tell me what to look for."

Clark laughed. "It's the pan that looks like a frying pan with a rounded bottom."

"Oh, okay. Here it is. What else do you need?"

"That should do it." He absently rubbed the side of his neck.

"So tell me. What about your rescue?" Lois wanted to deal with what would probably be the simpler issue first.

"It was weird. I heard this scream for help and flew over there to find Diana Stride falling towards the ground."

"Diana Stride? From 'Top Copy?'" Lois was incredulous.

"None other. It was the strangest thing. She said she needed to go back up to the top, because her cameraman was there. They said they had gone up there to take panoramic shots for the show, when they were attacked from behind. Rolf, the cameraman was hit over the head, and Diana was pushed off the roof."

"Well, I suppose it could be true."

"Yeah, but Rolf didn't seem to have any head injury at all, not even a lump. And Diana didn't seem to be all that shaken up either." Clark went on, a puzzled frown wrinkling his brow. "Plus, there was no sign of anyone else around that could have done it." He rubbed his neck again.

"Clark, why do you keep doing that?"

"Doing what?" He was briskly chopping vegetables as they talked.

"Rubbing your neck. I've noticed you doing it several times since you got back from that rescue."

"I don't know. It feels kind of weird."

Lois peered intently at the spot he'd been rubbing. "Clark, there's something on your neck. It looks kind of sticky. Did Diana Stride rub your neck while you were carrying her?

"Maybe. I don't really remember. I don't usually pay that much attention to other women, you know."

"Well, I think we should get whatever she put on you off. It can *not* be for any good purpose."

"All right. Just let me finish cooking." He quickly stirred the food once more and turned off the gas flame.

Following her to the bathroom, he asked her what she thought Diana Stride was up to.

"I don't know. It depends on whether we can tell exactly what it was she put on your neck. Do you think you'll be able to tell if you use your vision gizmo?"

"Maybe. Let me try." He peered intently into the bathroom mirror. "Well, I'll be damned," he cursed under his breath. "There's a microscopic chip stuck on my neck in some sort of glue."

"She must be trying to track Superman, somehow. I wonder why?" Lois mused.

"I'm not sure I care why. We've got to get rid of this thing, now." Clark had a hunted expression on his face.

"I don't suppose you have any nail polish remover, do you?"

"Lo…is. What do you think?"

"Well, it's really good for removing glue, Clark. Got any rubbing alcohol? We can try that."

He pulled a bottle from the medicine chest and handed it to her wordlessly. Several hard scrubs with some saturated cotton balls later, she looked at him.

"Is it still there?"

Clark stared intently at the cotton balls. "You got it. How do you want to dispose of those?"

"Hmm. It depends. Do you want her to find the tracer, just not on you, or do you want her to lose the signal completely?"

"Probably the latter. Why?"

"Well, if you want her to find it, flush it down the drain. She'll wind up at the Metropolis Sewage Treatment Facility, a favorite place of yours, if I recall correctly. If you just want it gone, throw the cotton balls into space."

The "kindest, most caring" man in the world shot his girlfriend a wicked grin. "Let's flush it then, by all means." He followed through as she stared at him.

"I don't believe it. I've completely corrupted you," she crowed.

"In your dreams, Lois, in your dreams." Clark headed back to the kitchen. "Let's eat."

As they ate, the two reporters continued to discuss the possible motives Diana Stride might have for putting a tracing device on Superman. Neither one of them could come up with anything that sounded plausible, so they decided to table the issue for the time being. The more pressing matter was what they had discovered about Bill Church and Intergang.

After dinner they took their coffee to the living room and sat on the couch. Lois still wasn't sure how to bring up what she had heard about Intergang's plans to neutralize Superman. No matter how she put it, Clark was bound to be distressed. She wondered, not for the first time, why he insisted on shouldering the responsibility for preventing all the evil in Metropolis. The fact remained, he was just one man. A very special man, but a man, nonetheless. A man who would start obsessing all over again about the morning's loss of life when she told him why the shots had been fired, causing the multi-car crash. His soul would be torn by both grief and anger. She dreaded playing the tape even as she reached for the "play" button.

"So, what did I miss at Pete's?"

"Besides the ptomaine poisoning?"

"Yeah, as in, what did those two have to say while I was off catching Diana Stride?"

"Um, why don't we listen to the tape? I sort of stopped listening after the first thing they discussed once you left."

"Wait a minute. *You* quit listening to a conversation between what seems to be two of the top people in Intergang? I don't believe you."

"Well, Clark, believe it." She paused. How could she tell him? She hated having to be the one. "They … they, were talking about how to keep Superman and the police from catching them. It's pretty bad. You're not going to like what you hear."

She started to play the cassette. Lois snuggled up against Clark's side, hoping that her physical proximity might help once he heard about Intergang's plans. Clark listened intently to the voices of Bill Church and the mysterious Mr. Darryl. When they got to the discussion about the "diversion" created to keep Superman distracted while the illegal immigrant workers were taken from the ship in Metropolis Harbor, he froze.

"No!" His anguished cry echoed in the room. "Oh, god, Lois! Tell me I didn't just hear that. Please tell me that all those people didn't die because of me."

She touched his cheek in a gentle caress. "Sweetheart, it's not your fault. It's Intergang's responsibility."

Clark clutched her in his arms. "On an intellectual level, I understand that. But it doesn't help the way I feel, knowing that innocent people are dead, because of me." His voice was anguished.

"Shh." Lois tried to comfort him. "It's not because of you. It's because of Bill Church's greed. It's nothing to do with you." She squeezed him tightly.

"Lois, honey, how can you say that?" He rewound the tape and pushed play. "Eight people died, just to keep me out of the way."

The disembodied voice came over the air, "Superman and the police were occupied with that chain-reaction crash on the beltway… I thought it worked pretty well. Of course, we'll have to have a different diversion next time. The unexpected is always more effective. I'm thinking of a fire in a high-rise."

"See? God, Lois, I feel…I don't know. Sick, I think."

"No, Clark, I don't see." She turned in his arms to face him. "This Darryl person said, 'Superman and the police.' He'd have created the same diversion whether you existed or not. It was directed at anyone who stood in his way." She turned worried eyes on him. "Clark, you have to believe me. You … are… not … responsible for anything anyone else does."

His eyes glittered with unshed tears. Burying his face in her hair, he swallowed the lump in his throat. "All right, Lois. It's not my fault. Tell me often enough, and I may even start to believe you."

***

On top of the Metropolis Trade Center, Diana Stride purred with satisfaction as Superman flew away. "I do so love success, don't you, Rolf?"

Her cameraman eyed her warily. "But, of course, Diana. I take eet zat you managed to plant zee tracer on Monsieur Steely Pants?"

The "Top Copy" anchorwoman sighed. "Yes, Rolf. Now turn on the tracking device and see if it picks him up."

Rolf obeyed her command, pushing several buttons on a hand-held device that resembled a small video game machine. The pair watched in amazement as a small lighted blip streaked across the LCD screen and disappeared. Despite his best efforts to adjust the settings on the device, Rolf was unable to pick up the signal again.

"Why did you lose him?" Diana snapped.

"He eez too fast. And now he eez out of range." Rolf looked at his superior with an expression that clearly indicated he expected some sort of reprisal for his failure.

His face fell when her sole response was a brusque, "Never mind. We'll get him in range again, and then we'll have him." She found her purse and shot an impatient glare at him. "Come along, Rolf. We need to get going. We have a superhero to track, or had you forgotten?"

As they returned to ground level in the Trade Center's elevator, Diana outlined her plan to Rolf. "I intend to find out all there is to know about Superman: who his friends are, where he goes when he isn't saving the day, what his likes and dislikes are, who the women in his life are."

"I'd like to know heez women myself," Rolf interrupted.

"Control yourself, Rolf; if that's possible.

A knowing leer was his only reply.

Diana continued to explain her concept. "This could be the story of the century! Who knows? Maybe we could win a Pulitzer Prize. Especially if we discover his secret identity."

"What makes you zeenk he has a secret identity?"

"Oh, he must. No one ever sees him except on rescues or at official functions."

The cameraman continued to play devil's advocate. "Maybe he has some sort of secret lair. Maybe he eez a recluse, except when he eez needed."

She paused a brief moment to consider Rolf's suggestion, then rejected it . "No, he doesn't seem like the reclusive type. That man definitely would be one to seek out companionship. He has another identity. I'm sure of it."

Leaving the building, Rolf turned again to Diana. "So, what eez zee plan?"

"We are going to comb Metropolis until we pick up the signal again. And then we're going to follow it. With any luck, we'll catch him unawares and be able to film the expose tonight." An unholy gleam lit up her eyes. There was no way that Superman would be able to deny his identity when they caught up with him.

Several hours later, after the two had cruised the streets of Metropolis in increasingly larger circuits, the tracking device began to beep.

"Rolf, is it picking up the signal?" Diana could scarcely contain her excitement.

"Mais, oui, Diana. We need to follow zat road to zee left." He pointed at a dark, deserted street that went through the more industrial section of the city.

The newswoman drove carefully, able to keep her impatience in check only because she feared losing the signal if she let her concentration slip. The blip on the screen, however, and the beeping noise that the tracer made remained steady, always a mile or two in front of them. Finally, the light appeared to come to a stop.

"Aha! We've found heem!" Rolf was beginning to share Diana's elation. "He's about a mile farther down zees road."

Diana pressed down on the accelerator, her impatience almost palpable in the confines of the car. With an exultant exclamation, she pulled to a stop — in front of the gates to the Metropolis Sewage Reclamation Facility. She stared incredulously at the sign for a minute before she cursed, "Damn him!"

"What eez eet, Diana? Superman eez a garbage man?"

The fulminating glare she turned on him would have daunted a man less dense than Rolf. "No, you dolt! Superman isn't anywhere near here. The tracer is here. He must have discovered it and washed it off somehow." She pounded her fist on the steering wheel in frustration. "Damn, damn, damn." Looking back up at her cameraman, she gave a feral smile. "Well, that's that. I'll have to think of some other way." She restarted the engine. "Time to go home and go to bed, Rolf."

His face lit up. "Together?"

Rolf's enthusiasm subsided under the venomous look she gave him.

***

Clark clamped down on the emotions which threatened to overwhelm him. Grief for the people who had died warred with anger at the men who had callously caused those deaths in order to distract him and the police. There were times when he questioned his decision to create Superman. If criminals were going to injure, and in this case even kill, innocent people to get to him, was it right to continue in that guise? On days like this, those doubts would come rushing to the forefront of his consciousness. If it weren't for Lois' steadfast belief in the importance of Superman, he knew he'd be strongly tempted to quit, to leave Metropolis, and to seek some out of the way spot where criminals would leave the innocent alone. He placed a kiss on her forehead and gently pushed her far enough away to see her face.

Lois raised concerned eyes to his. "You okay?"

"No, but I will be." He kissed her again, this time on the lips, and released her from his clasp. "Thank you."

"Anytime." She smiled at her boyfriend, then reverted to the tenacious reporter. "All right, Clark. It's after ten. Let's decide on our next step and then call it a night. You look like you could use some sleep."

Clark removed his glasses and wearily rubbed the bridge of his nose. "It's been a long day." He sighed, his exhaustion obvious to Lois. "So, what do you want to do first?"

"Well, I think the first step is to play this tape for Perry. He isn't going to like it, but he needs to know."

"That his friend is the head of Intergang? Yeah, I'd say he isn't gonna like it at all."

Lois suddenly went off on a tangent. "Clark, has it ever struck you as odd — how Perry is normally extremely astute, almost omniscient at times; and yet he has managed to be completely fooled by at least two major league crooks?"

"Yeah, I see what you mean. You'd think he'd suspect something was fishy with both Harland and Church. Strange." He continued, "And if you think about it, it's a little weird how he doesn't seem to suspect anything about me. No one else disappears the way I do, but he's never said anything to me about not being in the newsroom when I should be."

Lois smiled at him. "I'm not so sure he doesn't, Clark. Since the night you told me, I've noticed that he does ask where you are, if there isn't any Superman news on TV. If there is, like this morning, he acts oblivious to your existence. If I had to bet, I'd say he suspects that you are Superman, but isn't saying anything to you."

Clark shrugged his shoulders. "You really think so? Maybe that's why he hasn't fired me. Well, if he isn't going to say anything, I'm not either." He continued, "Okay, back to our plans. We talk to Perry and then what — Henderson?"

"Clark, why should we talk to him yet? It's not like we've got any evidence that would be admissible in court."

"True, but the police may have resources that we don't; and if we give them this, then we can get Henderson to give us the exclusive." He took a deep breath, "And the police need to know what they're up against, the same as Superman. I don't really care who nails Intergang, as long as somebody does."

"Okay, Perry, then Henderson." A thought struck her. "Or should we save time and talk to both of them together?"

"That'll work. Then we need to see what we can dig up on this Mr. Darryl. Suppose it's his real name?"

"I have no idea. Maybe Jimmy can find out something about him." Lois looked intently into Clark's eyes. "And we also need to check into Diana Stride."

Clark blinked in surprise. "Diana Stride? Why?"

Lois shook her head sadly. "Clark, sometimes you can be so dumb. The woman jumped off a forty-story building just to get the opportunity to plant a tracking device on your body. I think she's up to something."

"Lois, she planted the tracer on Superman."

"Uh, do I need to remind you? *You* are Superman."

He grinned at her. "Oh, yeah. I forgot."

Her mouth twisted in a wry smile. "I'll just bet you did. At any rate, she has to have some motive." Lois was pensive for a minute. "You think that she's picked up the signal yet? I'd give my eyeteeth to know what her reaction was when she wound up at the sewage plant."

Her partner's laughter rang out. "Do you think she actually got out of her car to go look?"

"Not funny, Kent. You may think I have forgotten that, but I haven't. I still itch just thinking about it."

"I'm sorry, Lois. I really am. I tried to warn you, but you wouldn't listen, remember?" His twinkling eyes and twitching mouth belied his contrite words.

"Yeah. Right. Just don't let it happen again." She playfully slapped his arm. "And then you were so proud of yourself. I could have killed you."

"No, you couldn't have. You didn't have any Kryptonite." Clark's tone was smug.

"Ooh, do you have any idea how aggravating it is when you get that tone in your voice?"

"Yep. That's why I do it." He grinned again. The teasing banter was cheering him immensely. He enveloped Lois in a warm embrace. "Honey, I love you. I love you more than I can say." He bent his head to kiss her.

"I love you, too." She gave herself up to his kiss, reveling in the thought that this most wonderful of men loved her. Life couldn't be much better than this.

Several long minutes later, she pulled back from his gentle lips. "Clark, I think it's time for me to go."

He placed his hand on her cheek, threading his fingers through her hair. "In a minute. I need a little more of this." He slanted his lips across hers again and sighed. "Lois, please don't ever leave me."

"I won't, Clark," she promised.

Disengaging himself from their embrace, he stood and pulled her to her feet. "Want a lift?"

"Sure."

He spun into the Suit, and took her hand. "Come on." They moved to the patio. Scooping her into his arms, he took off into the night sky. In a matter of minutes, he was floating through her window. He placed her gently on the floor and kissed her again. "Goodnight, Lois."

"Goodnight, Clark. You go home and get some sleep, do you hear me?"

"Yes, ma'am." He smiled at her again and flew away.

***

Diana Stride returned to her penthouse to find the signal light buzzing. She activated the video conference apparatus to find Mr. Darryl on the other end. "What do you want?" she demanded.

"Diana, I'd think you'd be a little more polite," he chided her. "I have an assignment for you."

"Have you forgotten, I'm retired?" she replied.

"You're on hiatus. No one retires from Intergang, Diana. You know that." He smiled at her. "Besides, I think you'll like this assignment."

"Yes?" Her tone was not encouraging.

"I want you to start a fire in a high-rise office building next Thursday at precisely nine-thirty in the morning. You can choose which one."

"Whatever for?"

"Let's just say I want Superman to be busy at that time, and leave it at that."

Diana thought rapidly. "I have a better idea. Let me kill him."

Mr. Darryl was astounded. "How do you propose to do that? The man is invulnerable."

"Not completely. There was a green mineral that Lex Luthor had. Supposedly the 'Man of Steel' is not immune to its radiation. Can you get me some?"

"I can try. Then what?"

She quickly filled him in on the details of her plan. She smiled in satisfaction. Superman would never know what had hit him until it was too late.

"All right, Diana. I'll get the mineral and have it transformed into a paste. What else do you need?"

"I need a tracking device that can pick up on the Kryptonite. He won't be able to get rid of that."

"Diana, it will take a day or two. I'll contact you when everything is ready."

"Thank you. This will work. And then no one will ever have to worry about Superman's interference again."

"Good night, Diana." Darryl cut the connection.

Humming, "I'll get you under your skin," Diana went to prepare herself for sleep, a broad smile on her face. No one, not even Superman, pulled a trick on her and survived her wrath.

***

The next morning, Clark arrived at the newsroom to find Lois already hard at work, searching the Planet's database for information on Diana Stride. Dropping a white bakery sack on her desk, he leaned over and placed a light kiss on her lips.

She leaned into the kiss, then looked at the bag. "Umm. Something smells good. What's this?"

"Pain au chocolat. I thought you might have skipped breakfast when you didn't answer the phone this morning." He perched on the corner of her desk.

"I knew there was a reason I go out with you. Let me guess, from a 'little French bakery' you know?"

"But of course." He smiled at her.

"Why did you call? Has something come up?"

"I just wanted to let you know that I already talked to Henderson. He's coming over at nine to hear the tape along with Perry."

"Oh, good. That'll work. Anything else on the Diana front?"

"No. What have you come up with?"

"Check this out. She was in Army Intelligence, then suddenly appeared at a TV station in Omaha. From there she began her rise to stardom as the anchor on "Top Copy." She brought up a screen showing the pictures of six men. "Clark, what do these men have in common?"

"They're all famous."

"Powerful."

He grimaced. "Dead."

"And they were all interviewed by Diana Stride right before their deaths." Lois looked at her partner in triumph.

Clark leaned across her desk, his right arm out-stretched, his fingers straining for something. "Lois, what am I doing right now?"

"Grasping?"

He shook his head in denial.

"Stretching?" A quick look at him indicated that this, too, was not what he had in mind. "Reaching?"

Clark pulled his arm back as he replied, "Ah. And I am not the only one." His smile mitigated the sting of his words, but Lois was undeterred.

"I disagree. Clark, do you really believe that there is nothing wrong with that woman? Think about it. Last night she tried to tag Superman as if he were an animal she wanted to track. *Why* do you suppose she'd do that?"

He shrugged his shoulders. "I don't know. Maybe she wants to track him down for an interview."

"Honestly, Clark. Sometimes you can take optimism too far. If all she wanted to do was interview Superman, why not just say so? There was no need for that elaborate plan if that was all she wanted." Lois glanced up at the ceiling. "No, it's got to be something more, something big."

Clark gave Lois a helpless look. "I guess I'm not seeing it. What else could she want?"

Lois gave an exasperated sigh. "Think about it, Clark. Either, her desire to get close to Superman is purely journalistic or it's something else. If it's just for her TV show, it's still not good."

"Why?"

"Haven't you ever watched 'Top Copy?'"

"Uh, actually, no. It's on at the same time as football." Clark gave her a sheepish grin.

"It's a tabloid program. Every week they expose the dirty little secrets of the rich and famous." She paused. "Usually without the cooperation or consent of the subjects. I'd be willing to bet that if she really is doing a story, the headline will be, 'The Secret life of Superman.'"

Decidedly ill at ease, Clark asked, "And your second theory?"

"My second theory is that she's an assassin. Probably for Intergang. Most of these men stepped on Intergang's toes in some way or another. They were promptly interviewed by Diana Stride, and met with untimely 'accidental' deaths shortly thereafter. I don't know about you, but I'd really rather that not happen to Superman."

He swallowed. "Yeah, I'd have to go with you on that. Although I think I'm more worried about the first scenario."

"What?!" Lois hissed. "Clark, are you crazy?"

"I don't think so. If she is trying to find out about Superman's secret identity, then we have to prevent that."

"Well, that might be easier said than done. Think about the stunt she pulled last night. What do you suppose she'll come up with next time? And what's to stop her from trying to accomplish both scenarios?"

"Lois, calm down."

In an undertone she complained, "He tells me to calm down. How am I supposed to calm down when my whole life is about to fall apart?"

Putting a finger under her chin to lift it, he said gently, "Whose life?"

"Mine, Clark. And yours. Do you not see that whatever affects you affects me?" She choked on her words. "If anything were to happen to you, I don't think I could bear it."

"Lois, nothing is going to happen to me. Don't worry about it."

"I wish I could be so sure. I don't trust that woman, especially with what we learned about Intergang's plans last night."

Clark put a hand on Lois' shoulder. "Will it help if I promise to be careful?"

"That depends."

"On?"

"On if your promise to be careful is the same as mine." She smiled at him and patted his arm. "If it is, then no, it won't help."

"And what exactly would make a promise like yours not help? Am I hearing that you admit that you take unnecessary risks? That you jump off the cliff without seeing how far down it is? That you rush into things impulsively? And that maybe, just maybe, someone who cares about you, who loves you, might worry?"

"Fine, Clark. I'll admit that sometimes I'm a bit impulsive; and once in a while, I wind up in trouble because of it. I'll even grant you the right to worry. But then you have to agree that sometimes it works the other way."

"In what way?"

Lois rolled her eyes. "Clark, I am not the only one here who sometimes doesn't consider all the possible consequences and winds up in trouble. Need I remind you?"

He cut her off quickly. "Uh, no, Lois. I got your point. All right. I promise to try to be careful around Diana Stride. For now, though, I think we should see what we can find out about Mr. Darryl. I wouldn't mind having a little more than a name when we talk to Perry and Bill Henderson."

"Okay. I guess if we both look, we're more likely to come up with something in the next half hour." She looked him warmly. "Thanks again for my pastry."

"You're welcome." He moved to his own desk and booted up his computer.

The pair of reporters spent the next half hour researching the background of the elusive Mr. Darryl. They were interrupted by Inspector Henderson's arrival. "Lois, Clark!" They rose and went to meet him at the ramp. "What's up?"

Lois spoke first. "Come on over to Perry's office. We'll fill both of you in at the same time."

Perry looked up at his star reporters when Clark knocked on the doorjamb. "Chief, Inspector Henderson's here."

The Planet's editor rose to greet the detective. "Good mornin', Bill. Glad you could make it," he drawled.

The laconic policeman almost smiled. "Clark here said he and Lois had something I might want to hear. It better be good."

"Oh, it will be," Lois retorted. She pulled the micro-recorder out of her pocket, and after checking to see that both doors were closed, pushed the "play" button.

Silence reigned in the office as the conversation between Bill Church and the mysterious Mr. Darryl unspooled. Lois slanted a look at Clark, noticing the muscle twitching in his jaw. She reached out in silent comfort and squeezed his hand. Perry and Henderson looked appalled. When the tape ended, no one said a word for a moment.

Perry broke the silence. "Well, I'll be damned." He gave a low whistle.

"Very interesting conversation." Henderson's dour countenance gave no hint of his emotions. "Too bad that it's inadmissible in court."

Clark spoke up. "We know that, Bill. But we thought you might want to know what's going on; what the police are up against. And it gives us all a place to start looking."

"Thanks. So, what else have you and Lois got?" Henderson inclined his head in her direction.

"Well, we've managed to find out a little about this Mr. Darryl. His name is Jon Darryl. He was an officer in Army Intelligence years ago. He left the military on a general discharge about ten years ago."

Perry interjected, "Anything else?"

"He went to college with Martin Snell, so there is a possible link with Intergang," Clark replied. He glanced at Lois, wondering if she was going to bring up Diana Stride.

She did. "And, then there is his connection with Diana Stride." Lois smiled a little smugly. That was something she hadn't had time to share with Clark. "She was in Army Intelligence herself, until she left to pursue her career in journalism. And her company commander was Jon Darryl." If a look could have said, "I told you so," then the one she turned on Clark would have. "Both of them were involved in covert operations. She was an expert marksman." Lois paused a minute to let that bit of information sink in. She went on, "And then there is the extremely high number of mysterious deaths that follow her interviews."

Henderson and Perry gaped at her. "You gonna explain that?" her editor asked.

"Lois discovered that at least six world leaders have died in bizarre accidents shortly after being interviewed by Diana Stride. All of them were men who had spoken out publicly against Intergang or were trying to combat it. Lois thinks it's more than just coincidence," Clark explained.

"And don't forget what she did to Superman last night." Lois avoided Clark's gaze.

"What was that?" the detective wanted to know.

"He told us that he rescued her from a fall from the top of the Metropolis Trade Center. He later discovered that she had stuck some sort of tracer on his neck," Lois rushed to explain. "It seems awfully fishy to me. I think she's up to something."

Clark tried unsuccessfully to deflect attention away from the subject of Superman. "I doubt that the two situations are related."

"Don't be so naive, Clark. I think she's an assassin for Intergang, and Superman is her next intended victim." She turned worried eyes towards him. "Even if she can't kill him, maybe her role is to divert him. Maybe she's the one who fired those shots yesterday. Maybe she's the one who'll be setting the fire next week."

He couldn't deny that possibility. "All right, Lois. You have a point. What do you two think?" He turned to the other two men.

"Well, son," Perry drawled, "I think that you all are on to something. I also think that Bill Church has done one hell of a job coverin' his tracks for a long time. I never suspected him of anything like this." His shoulders slumped.

Henderson grimaced. "Thanks, you two. You've given me something we can work with at least. I assume that you'll be pursuing this?"

"You better believe it," Lois replied. "Here's the deal: you share what you get; we'll share what we discover."

"And we won't print anything until you say so," Clark hastened to add.

"All right. Keep in touch, and be careful. These people are extremely dangerous." Henderson's tight smile reached his eyes. "See you later." He moved towards the door.

Clark was right with him, reaching to open it for him. "Thanks, Bill. We appreciate your coming over. Lois and I really didn't want to go through that conversation twice." Clark continued on to his desk while the police inspector left the newsroom.

Lois glanced at Perry, concern evident in her face. "Chief, are you okay?"

"Sure, honey. Why wouldn't I be?"

"Uh, I just thought that finding out that your friend was the head of Intergang might have upset you."

"No, I'm all right. I'm just wondering how I could have been so blind, that's all."

Lois chuckled. "Well, at least you didn't say you'd marry him. I think I've got you beat."

Perry looked at her in surprise. It was the first time he had ever heard her even try to joke about Lex Luthor. She must really have gotten over the trauma. Chalk another point up for Clark Kent. The editor felt a sense of satisfaction about having paired the two reporters. It had turned out even better he had imagined it would. He smiled. "Yes, I guess you do have me beat. Now go on, get back to work. We've got a newspaper to put out, and right now I don't see anything that I can print."

Lois walked slowly back to her desk. She and Clark had a lot of work to do before they could prove any of their suspicions. A quick look at his desk showed he was engrossed in a file. She turned back to her computer monitor. There had to be more than just a superficial link between Darryl and Intergang. She dug back into her research.

Two hours later she looked over at her partner. He had left briefly earlier, a house fire claiming the superhero's attention. It must not have been too bad, though, because he had returned quickly, a smile on his face. She loved that smile. His whole face lit up with it. Sometimes she thought fancifully that Clark's smile must be what an angel's looked like. He positively glowed at times. And he usually smiled that way when he was looking at her. She hugged that thought to herself. He really was amazing.

Lois stretched her arms and rubbed at her neck. Her movement caught Clark's attention, and he rose and came over to her desk. Placing his large hands on her shoulders, he gently massaged them. "Hmm, that feels wonderful. Don't ever stop."

He laughed. "You don't really mean that, do you?"

"Sure I do. Why not?"

"Because if I never stop this, we'll both get fired; and you won't be able to afford chocolate."

"Ooh, that is a tough decision." She pondered the situation for a minute. "Okay. You can stop in a minute. It feels great, though."

"Always happy to help." He dropped a light kiss on the top of her head. "So, what have you found out?"

"Not enough. More circumstantial evidence linking Darryl to Church. He's a vice-president with Multiworld Communications."

"Now, *that* is very interesting. But as you say, circumstantial." He furrowed his brow in thought. Doesn't Multiworld Communications produce 'Top Copy?'"

"Yep. It's their highest rated show. And Multiworld owns the station in Omaha where Diana started."

"Which brings us to another link between Diana and Darryl."

"None of which implicates her in any crime whatsoever, Clark." Lois was a bit frustrated. Every instinct she had was shouting that Diana was in Intergang, was undoubtedly the secret assassin she'd been reading about. But nothing she had found so far had turned up one shred of proof.

Clark froze suddenly, his expression that of a deer caught in the headlights of an oncoming vehicle. He was apparently hearing something that only he could hear, and from his expression, it wasn't good. As Lois opened her mouth to speak, he reached out a hand to forestall her. "Shh. Let me listen."

Lois subsided for the moment. A minute later, Clark returned to normal. "She's here — in the building. And as much as I hate to think you're going to say you told me so, you were right."

"I was? About what?"

"About her being up to something. I just heard her tell her cameraman that she's going to track down Superman and expose him. And that nothing is going to stand in her way."

"So how do you want to deal with her?" Lois asked.

"I don't know. Got any ideas?" He looked at her with hope in his eyes.

"For starters, she can't know anything. I say, stay here as Clark. We may find out more that way."

"All right. We better put any Intergang-related material away. We don't want her to know what we suspect." He moved off to his desk to close the file he'd been working on.

Lois did the same, completing her task just as the elevator pinged, signaling its arrival. She raised her eyes and watched as Diana Stride and her cameraman swept into the newsroom. Jimmy intercepted them at the foot of the ramp.

"May I help you?" he asked them. "Uh, are you Diana Stride?"

"Yes, I am; and yes, you may. We're looking for Perry White. Is he in?" She and Rolf started to breeze right past Jimmy, but he stepped up his pace in order to keep up with her.

"Uh, yeah. Mr. White's in his office. I'll show you there." He walked with them in the direction of the editor's office.

She looked him over and smiled.

"You are just delicious, young man."

Jimmy was so astonished he almost ran into a pillar. After recovering his equilibrium, he led the two television journalists to the editor's office. Knocking on the door, he cleared his throat. "Uh, Chief? Diana Stride is here to see you."

"Well, show her in, son." Perry rose to greet the visitor. "To what do we owe the honor, Ms. Stride?"

"Please, call me Diana," she purred. "It's an honor for me to meet you."

The editor raised his brows at the blatant flattery, but said nothing. "How can I help you?" he asked.

Diana jumped into her cover story. "Top Copy is doing a tribute to Superman. We know he has lots of friends at the Daily Planet, so we thought we'd start here with some interviews. If that's all right with you," she hastened to add.

"That'd be fine, as long as people aren't disturbed as they work." Perry smiled at her genially. He was curious, himself, about her motives. After what Lois and Clark had told him, he suspected that a "tribute to Superman" was the farthest thing from her mind. "Come along then. I'll introduce you to the people who probably know him the best."

He led her out of his office, Rolf following in their wake. Clark and Lois were both at her desk, going over some copy on her monitor screen. "Lois, Clark. I want to introduce you to somebody."

They looked up at the sound of Perry's voice. "Diana Stride, this is the fella I was telling you about. Clark Kent is a pretty good friend of Superman's. And Lois, here, knows him well, too."

"I wonder why I've never met you before," she purred as she extended her hand to Clark. "But then, I've read everything you've ever written."

"Really? Even the one about the mating habits of the knob-tailed gecko?" Lois mumbled. More loudly, she said, "I didn't think television people had time to read newspapers."

Clark choked back a laugh.

"And Lois Lane. It is a pleasure." Diana's tones left no doubt that she had little interest in Lois.

"How can we help you?" Clark's voice was cool. He had noticed the TV newswoman's interested stare at him and was ill at ease under her scrutiny.

"As I was telling Perry White, 'Top Copy' is going to do a tribute to Superman. I need to find out more about him as a person. Since you two are supposed to be his closest friends, I'd like to interview you." She gave them what she hoped would be a sincere smile.

Lois jumped in quickly. "Actually, Ms. Stride, I don't know that there is anything interesting we could tell you. Superman is a pretty private person."

Diana purred again. "Oh, I'm sure that if I ask you the right questions, you'll be able to think of something about the Man of Steel. Don't you think so, Clark?"

Clark swallowed the butterflies that were crawling from his stomach up his throat. "I doubt it, Ms. Stride. He pretty much flies to a crime or accident, deals with it, and flies off. If he has a personal life, I wouldn't know about it." He shook his head sadly. "Sorry."

His partner looked at her watch. "Oh, my! Look at the time. Clark, if we're going to meet that source, we need to get going." She gave Diana Stride an apologetic smile. "Sorry we couldn't be of more help, but I'm sure you understand."

"I can't say that I'm not disappointed, but I do understand. I'll be in touch. Good-bye, Clark, Lois."

Clark smiled tightly and followed his partner from the newsroom. "Thanks, Lois. I owe you one."

She laughed gaily. "Oh, at least one. Maybe two. Then again, I didn't like the way she kept looking at you."

"What way?" Clark's confusion was obvious.

"Like she wanted you for lunch and dessert as well." Lois grinned. "Nobody but me gets to do that."

"I see." He paused, then asked, "Are we meeting a source?"

"No, but you looked like you wanted to get out of there. So, wanna go get lunch?"

"Sure." He took her hand, and they headed down the street towards their favorite deli.

***

The Daily Planet's ace reporting team spent their lunch break discussing the best direction to take in their investigation of Intergang's smuggling operation. Clark, as usual, wanted to use a methodical approach. Lois, on the other hand, was trying to push her partner into breaking into Bill Church's office at Costmart, Inc. and rifling his desk and filing cabinets. "And we need to be sure to take several diskettes, in case we find anything we want to copy from his hard-drive."

"Lo…is," Clark began to put on the brakes. "I can't go along with that at all. We'll be better off in the long run if we go about this legally."

"Cla…rk," she parroted. "You get this tone sometimes when you don't agree with me. You think I don't hear it, but I do."

He grinned ruefully. "Sorry."

"Look, we both know that we'll probably wind up in Church's office, so why not go there first?"

"Because it's dangerous? Because it's illegal? Because I'd like to be able to have some evidence we can actually use before we do anything to tip off Intergang that we're on to them?"

Lois subsided into a pensive silence. She had to hand it to Clark. He really knew how to clinch an argument at times. The idea that a little breaking and entering might be dangerous or against the law didn't bother her at all. That they might tip off Bill Church and ruin their chances to bring him down; now *that* was a point she could accept. "All right, Clark. We do it your way."

"Thank you, Lois." Another of Clark's traits: he was always gracious in victory. "I think we need to go down to the docks and see if we can find any witnesses to the removal of the illegal immigrants from the ship. If we can find out what ship they were on, we can get a copy of the cargo manifest."

"And prove that it was falsified?"

"Exactly. If nothing else, there would be evidence of violation of the immigration laws and / or some sort of fraud if the cargo manifest shows that something else was supposed to be on that ship."

"Okay. And after that?" Lois asked.

"After we check out the ship, then we need to see what we can find out about Church's clothing factories."

"Yeah, I didn't know that Costmart had its own factories, did you? No wonder their prices are so low, if they're producing their own merchandise in what I assume are sweatshops. " She laughed. "The things you learn when you go out to eat."

"So, you want to go back to Pete's Crab Shack sometime?" Clark teased. "I could tell how much you enjoyed your dinner last night."

"Oh yeah, right. And for dessert we could go to Ptomaine Tom's, I suppose. Never let it be said that Lois Lane is not a good sport."

Clark agreed, "Never. You are definitely a great sport. Why do you think I wanted to date you?"

"I always thought it was because I was so calm, and demure, and fawned over your every word. Was I wrong?"

"Yep. Completely out in left field."

She swatted his arm. "Stop with the sports metaphors already, okay?" Lois checked her watch. "I hate to cut short this incredibly romantic conversation, but I guess we ought to get moving."

Clark nodded his agreement. "True. We need to get down to the harbor." He picked up the debris from their lunch to take to the trash can while Lois gathered the notes she had been making. Those simple tasks finished, the pair headed for the parking lot and the Jeep.

Once they arrived at Metropolis Harbor, Lois and Clark strolled around the docks, casually asking people if they had noticed anything unusual the morning before. Most of the longshoremen they spoke to shrugged casually and said no, but one disreputable-looking man cast a wary glance over his shoulder and replied, "Mebbe I seen somethin'. What's it to ya?"

"We're reporters for the Daily Planet. We heard some rumors, and we're checking them out." Lois gave the man her most sincere smile.

"You ain't gonna tell nobody my name, are you?" he asked.

"Not if you don't want us to," Clark hastened to tell him. "We're just trying to find out what happened here yesterday morning around eight o'clock."

"D'you mean the fight?"

"The fight? There was a fight?" Lois' interest picked up. She wondered if this was the fight Darryl had been talking about in the restaurant last night. "What happened?"

The grizzled denizen of the harbor area continued, "It was kinda strange. Everything was pretty normal; cargoes bein' unloaded, trucks and forklifts and cranes all runnin', the usual confusion. All of a sudden, these guys over on the dock closest to the harbor master's office started yellin' and cussin'. One of 'em takes a swing at another, and the next thing I know, there's mebbe fifty guys brawlin.' Prettiest fight I seen in a coon's age. It must of took the harbor master thirty minutes to get security guards in here to break it up."

"I take it that's unusual?" Clark pursued the issue.

"You betcha. People don't fight much durin' work time. Now, nights, after they've had a few beers, that's different." He pulled out a pack of cigarettes and lit one. Taking a long drag on it, he continued, "Me, I don't fight. 'Specially over nothin'. So I just kinda sat back and took in the sights." He sucked on the cigarette again. "That's how I happened to notice that the ship over on pier 7 was unloadin' a most unusual cargo." He glanced around as if making sure that there was no one to overhear. "I seen a whole boatload of people get off that there ship. Mostly adults, but there was some kids, too."

Lois could barely contain her excitement. "Was it a cruise ship?" she prodded.

"No, ma'am. It weren't no liner. It was the 'Lady Luck.' A big freighter. Sails under a Panamanian flag."

"Don't most freighters do that?" Clark wanted to know.

"Yeah, just like the cruise ships are usually Norwegian. Anyhow, this ship ain't no ocean liner. But there was a big bunch of people gettin' off her." He paused and took another drag on his Marlboro. "They were Asians; I could tell that. Don't know where from though."

Clark prodded, "Did you see what happened to them after they got off the ship?"

The dockworker went on, "Yeah, they got herded over to some buses that were waitin' at the end of the pier. Dunno where they went."

"This is really interesting, Mr. Uh … I don't think we got your name." Lois looked at him hopefully.

"That's 'cause I didn't give it to ya," he replied. "It's Perkins, Tom Perkins. But I don't wancha usin' it."

"We won't, don't worry," Clark reassured him. "Have you ever seen anything like that before?"

"Ya mean lots of people gettin' off a freighter? Nah, never seen that before."

Lois had one more question. "Is the 'Lady Luck' still in the harbor?"

"Yes ma'am. That's her over there, pier 7. It'll be a few days before she's loaded and goes back to sea. If you want to talk to the captain, he's probably on her."

Clark put out his hand. "We appreciate your time and information, Mr. Perkins."

"No problem, man." Perkins shook his hand, and they parted company. He ambled off towards a forklift while they turned towards the harbormaster's building.

"So now what, Clark?"

"Now, we see if we can get the harbormaster's version of what happened yesterday, and try to get a copy of the 'Lady Luck's' cargo manifest from him while we're at it." Placing his hand at the small of her back, Clark guided Lois in the right direction. "I must admit, I like it when things start falling into place."

Lois turned a cynical eye on her Kansas farmboy. "Yeah? Well don't go counting your chickens or whatever it is you do out on those plains. We still have a long way to go on this."

"I know. But you have to admit, it's beginning to look like we might be able to nail Intergang this time." Clark's enthusiasm was infectious.

She moved in closer to his body and wrapped an arm around his waist. "True, very true. And nothing would give me greater pleasure —"

Clark cut her off abruptly. "Nothing? Lois, I'm crushed." He turned big, puppy dog eyes on her and stuck out a quivering lower lip.

She gave his waist a squeeze and giggled. "You know what I meant. I'm talking professionally. *You* are definitely personal."

"All right. I'll take your word for it." His eyes twinkled, a sure sign that he was enjoying their banter.

***

Forty-five minutes later, the reporters left the harbormaster's office with a sheaf of documents relating to the "Lady Luck's" cargo for its last three trips. Lois was practically dancing with excitement. "Clark, I think you're right. We are definitely gonna get them."

"Assuming, of course, that we can trace the people who got off that ship and prove they are undocumented immigrants. We need to get back to the Planet and see what we can find out about Costmart's manufacturing operations."

She nodded her agreement. "Do you want to call Jimmy and see if Diana Stride is still there? I don't know about you, but I have no desire to see that woman again today."

"Jealous?"

"Oh, yeah. That'll be the day." Lois took a breath. "No, I just want to get some work done, and I don't want her around while I do it."

"I hear you. It could be a little sticky, investigating her while she's investigating me," Clark replied.

Reaching the spot where Lois had parked the Jeep, the couple turned towards each other. Clark pulled Lois close to him and kissed her briefly. "Have I told you how much I enjoy working with you, partner?"

"Only about a million times. It's a good thing I let Perry make you my partner, isn't it?" She returned his kiss.

"Uh huh." They entered the Jeep, and as Lois started the engine, Clark reached for his cellular phone. He dialed the Planet's number, and when he was finally connected to Jimmy, he asked, "Diana Stride still there?" There was a pause, then Lois heard him say, "Right, thanks. No, we just wanted to avoid her. We'll be back in about twenty minutes. In the meantime, could you pull up whatever we've got on Costmart — financial statements, members of the board of directors, subsidiaries, you know the kind of stuff." A few more minutes of silence, then, "Yeah, we need to find out about manufacturing subsidiaries, especially. Thanks, Jimmy." He cut the connection and smiled triumphantly at his partner. "See, I am good for something."

Lois rubbed her hand on his thigh suggestively. "You're good for a number of things, Clark. Some of which are even work-related." The smoldering look she gave him sent his temperature soaring. She laughed as he ran a finger around a collar that suddenly seemed much too tight. "Like I said, Clark, you're way out of your league."

***

A large stack of printed material was sitting on Clark's desk when he and Lois returned to the newsroom. "Jimmy has outdone himself," Lois told her partner. "Look at this stuff." There certainly appeared to be a wealth of information: financial statements, annual reports, newspaper clippings, printed copies of web pages — all relating to Costmart and a number of manufacturing firms.

Clark quickly flipped through a folder containing web page downloads. He whistled softly. "Well, I'll be. Did you know that Sew-Rite Clothing is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Costmart, Lois? As is Built-Rite Tools and Buy-Rite Paper Manufacturing?"

His partner gave him a considering look. "No, I didn't. But then, why should I?"

He chuckled. "You mean you don't keep up with the business pages?"

"Not hardly." She was thumbing through Costmart's latest annual report. Buried near the back of the glossy pages was a small section devoted to the discount chain's subsidiaries. "Well, those companies are listed here, although they are barely mentioned. Church must not want people looking into them too closely."

"Probably not. I mean, think about it. If he's cutting corners to save money, it stands to reason that he wouldn't want to draw attention to them, doesn't it?"

"Yes." She had a thought. "Do you suppose he uses the legitimate businesses to launder money for Intergang, or Intergang to provide cheap labor for the legitimate companies?"

Clark pondered the question for a minute. "I'd guess some of both. Bill Church has always struck me as a man who values efficiency," he commented wryly.

"True. And it would make it even more difficult for anyone to track down the details for evidence of any criminal activity."

"Which could explain why no one has ever been able to prove anything against Intergang." Clark rubbed the back of his neck. "Is it just me, or has this been a long day?"

Lois looked up at him, concern in her gaze. "It's only five, Clark. You sure you're okay?"

"Yeah, just tired, I guess."

"Or maybe stressed? This thing with Intergang really bothers you, doesn't it? And I have a feeling that Diana Stride hasn't done much for your peace of mind."

Sometimes, Clark thought, Lois saw entirely too much. He didn't want her to worry about him but felt powerless to stop her. So occasionally he tried not to let her see how worried or tired he was. Apparently it hadn't worked this time. "Not really. As long as she doesn't catch me changing, what can she do? She doesn't have any proof of anything. Not even that Superman has another identity."

Lois sighed. "I know. But I still don't trust her. I wish we had been able to get some concrete evidence against her." She started to organize the papers they had been perusing. "Why don't we get out of here, and finish this at home? We can pick up some dinner or order something, and get this pretty much wrapped up tonight."

"Okay. And tomorrow, we can take a quick trip to the Sew-Rite factory; and see if they have any new employees."

"Yep. Sounds like we've got ourselves a plan. Come on, partner." She grabbed his hand and pulled him towards the elevator.

"Lois, were you planning on telling Perry we're leaving early?"

"Sure." She called over her shoulder, "Perry! Clark and I are leaving! See you tomorrow." She dragged him up the ramp.

Clark was forced to shake his head and follow her. "Mad Dog" Lane had a new bone to chew on, and nobody was going to get in her way.

***

Several hours and four cartons of Chinese take-out later, Lois stretched her arms high above her head. Smiling devilishly at Clark, she said, "I think that's it. I'm no accountant, but it looks to me like the only way that Costmart can be making the profits that it is, is if there's a whole lot of cost-cutting going on."

"I agree completely. I think we can start writing this up. By the time we visit Sew-Rite, we should have everything we need to get Church on running a sweatshop and bringing in illegal aliens, if nothing else." Clark grinned at his partner, his girlfriend. "Come here," he growled. "Enough work. It's time for a little play." He pulled her into his embrace, his lips raining gentle kisses on her forehead and cheeks.

Lois wrapped her arms around his waist and gave herself up to the sensations that were threatening to overwhelm her. Returning his kisses, she moaned softly. "God, Clark, to think that I made us wait a year for this. Boy, what a dope I was."

"We both were, Lois. And it doesn't matter anymore. What's important is that we're together now." He ran his fingers through her hair. "What's the advertising department calling us? The hottest team in town?"

She giggled. "Yeah, if they only knew. Think we should tell 'em?"

"Lo…is!" Clark protested. "No, I do not. It's bad enough that Jimmy and Perry keep looking at us like they can't decide whether to chaperone us or leave us undisturbed in the supply closet."

"The supply closet? You want to make-out in the supply closet?" she repeated. "You are a strange one, Clark Kent."

"Yes, and you love it."

***

The next morning, Perry looked up from the layout he was checking on his desk to see Lois and Clark at his door. "Gotta minute, Chief?" they asked in unison.

"Sure thing. You all have anything more concrete on Intergang?" He motioned to them to take a seat.

"Not sure about that, yet, Perry. But we're close. We do have a lot on Costmart, which should lead us to Intergang," Clark explained as they entered his office and handed him the story they had written up the night before. "We wanted to run it by you before we take a little trip upstate."

"Upstate?" the editor queried.

"Yes, Chief. We thought we'd take a little factory tour." Lois was almost bouncing with excitement. Her reporter's instincts were sizzling today. The Sew-Rite factory would hold the key evidence, she was certain. And then she and Clark would have all they needed to bring down Intergang, and win a Pulitzer as well.

Perry carefully scrutinized the pages they had handed him. After asking a couple of questions for clarification and making a few notes in the margins, he returned the copy to Clark. "All right, you two. Get the rest of the corroborating evidence at the factory about the workers, and I'll run this as soon as we get Henderson's okay."

"Thanks, Perry." Lois started to stand, but a glare from the editor froze her in her seat.

"There is one other thing I need to mention to you two." His expression was grim. "I realize that you are extremely suspicious of Diana Stride and her so-called 'tribute to Superman.' I also understand that the two of you are closer to Superman than anyone else in Metropolis, if not the world. So I thought I'd let you know that your show of ignorance yesterday didn't sit too well with her. She's more suspicious than ever of Superman havin' some sort of secret life." He paused for a long moment, allowing his words to sink in. "Diana and that slimy cameraman of hers were here for hours yesterday, interviewin' anyone who would talk to them. Judgin' from the questions she asked me, and the questions I heard her askin' other people, she's doin' a pretty fair job of narrowin' down her search."

The two reporters stared at their editor afraid to let their eyes meet and give something away. They listened in a silence which quickly turned to alarm as Perry continued. "If I were a bettin' man, I'd bet that Diana Stride is about to try to prove that Superman is someone at the Daily Planet."

"Who, Perry?" Lois managed to gasp.

"I'm not sure who, honey. But you and Clark might want to think about what you can tell her to keep her happy." He gave the pair a stern look. "Superman is your friend. I'm sure you all want to do what you can to protect his privacy." He smiled then. "If I were you, I'd come up with somethin' that'll satisfy her."

They continued to gape at him. "So what are you all waitin' for? I thought you had a trip to make?"

The reporters rose and took their leave. Neither one spoke a syllable as they gathered their coats, notepads, and Lois' purse. Lois was frantically thinking of ways to combat Diana's plan to expose Superman's private life to the world.

Clark, for his part, was feeling completely numb. When he had donned the disguise the year before, the last thought on his mind had been that people would react in the varied ways that they had. Clark had just wanted to use his gifts to help other people. He hadn't wanted fame or publicity or power. And he certainly didn't want to have his secret identity exposed to the world on network television. But as much as he wanted Diana Stride to fail in her quest, he had no idea how to ensure that she would. Maybe Lois would come up with a plan. She was good at that.

As they reached the Jeep, Lois handed the keys to Clark. "Want to drive?"

He stared at her in surprise. "Are you feeling okay?"

"Of course. Why?"

"Because it's your car. You always drive."

"Well, I don't want to today. I want you to drive, while I do some thinking," she explained patiently.

"Uh oh."

"What?"

"I know that look."

"What look? I'm not giving you any look."

"Yes, you are. It's your 'I'm cooking up a plan' look." He grinned at her. "The look that spells trouble for whomever is on the receiving end of your plan."

"Oh, that look." She smiled back. "Well, I guess I might be giving you *that* look. Don't you want me to come up with a plan?"

"Lois, my love, if you can come up with a plan to derail Diana Stride, I'll do anything you want."

She swatted his arm. "So, are you going to drive or not?"

He took the keys. "Sure. But let's go. It's going to take at least an hour to get there. I'd like to have plenty of time to look around and talk to people."

They rode in silence for half an hour, Clark intent on the road and the passing scenery, Lois pensive, planning and plotting the downfall of Intergang and especially that of Diana Stride.

Their route took them through rolling countryside, dotted with family farms, brown with the deadness of winter. Clark noticed the occasional cow or horse nibbling at what little grass remained in the fields. Except for the gentle hills, the bucolic landscape reminded him of home — a peaceful, safe, and serene world. Not for the first time he wondered what had caused his restlessness, his desire to leave the secure cocoon of Smallville and try to make his way in the madhouse that was Metropolis. Casting a sideways glance at the brunette whirlwind in the seat beside him, he smiled. Lois was the magnet that had unknowingly drawn him to the city and become the center of his universe. The warmth that flooded his senses when he looked upon her face was a welcome reminder of how fortunate he was to have her love, and at the moment, her partnership. If anyone could come up with a method to foil Diana Stride, it was Lois.

As if feeling his gaze upon her, Lois blinked her eyes to focus them on the darkly handsome man steering her Jeep. She gave him a wide smile. "I think I've got it," she told him.

"Got what?" He had been so intent on marveling at her beauty that he had forgotten why he was driving.

At her scathing look, he caught himself. "Oh, right. You've got a plan." It was more statement than question. From the determination etched on her features, he could tell that she not only had a plan, but had all the details lined up and organized. For a fleeting second, he almost felt sorry for Diana Stride.

"Yes. Do you want to hear it?" she teased.

"Nah, I'll let you surprise me." He laughed.

"Cute, Kent. Real cute." Her voice crept up a bit in her excitement. "First of all, we say nothing yet. If she doesn't push the issue, neither do we. I'm positive that at this point she has nothing."

"But what about what Perry was saying this morning? It sounded to me like a warning almost." Clark's voice had a hint of tension in it. "And if what we suspect about what he suspects is true, then he was definitely trying to clue us in without letting us know exactly what it is that he knows."

"Don't ever say that *I* babble again," she muttered.

"Well, you do know what I meant, don't you?" he asked defensively.

She continued. "Like I said, until Diana flat out asks us something, we don't tell her anything. Perry may think she is beginning to try to link you and Superman, but so far she has no proof."

"And we can't ever prove that I'm not Superman."

"Sure we can. I figured out how to prove that you and Superman are different people. We just have to have both of you be in the same place at the same time."

"Uh, Lois, I'm Superman, not a magician." He took a long breath. "And even if I were to try to move from one side of a room to another, I couldn't do it without people being able to tell. So I don't see how that can work." He turned a hopeful look on her face. "Do you know how to split me in two or clone me?"

"Clark Jerome Kent! If you think for a minute, you should be able to figure out how to do it. You're the one who told me." She sat back in the bucket seat and folded her hands in her lap. "If I have to tell you, you're going to feel really dumb." She smiled triumphantly at him and subsided again.

"Hmm. I told you? Let me think." Clark continued to tool the car along the winding highway as he wracked his brain for whatever it was she thought he knew. Mirrors? No, too low tech. Mirrors would never work. And then it hit him. "The holograph!" he cried. "You think my mom can use her laser stuff to make a life-size holograph of me?"

She slowly licked her index finger and made a mark in the air. "One point for Clark. Yes, that's exactly what I think. She can create your image, or rather Superman's image, with the lasers, and you can make a tape for sound."

"And when are we going to do this?"

"Well, it's only if she actually goes on record and exposes you as Superman. There's no sense telling people who don't think you are Superman that you aren't."

"Good point." He wrinkled his forehead in thought. So are you suggesting that we go ahead and get it ready?"

"Don't you think we should? There's no telling when Diana is going to pounce on her prey, so it's best to be prepared." She gave him a saucy look. "You're such a boy scout, I'd think you'd remember your motto."

"Yeah." He drove in silence for a few minutes, formulating his part of the plan. "All right. I'll go to see my folks tonight and we can get it ready. What about you?"

"What about me?"

"Want to come? Mom's a great cook."

Her tone was apologetic. "Oh, Clark, I wish I could. But tonight is my test for brown belt in Tae Kwon Do."

"It's okay. I understand. I'll miss you, but I understand. Mom and I will probably get more accomplished anyway."

"What's that supposed to mean?" she asked suspiciously.

"Well, if you aren't there, Mom won't want to spend hours regaling you with tales of my childhood."

"I *like* hearing about you when you were a kid. You were so cute."

"I thought you thought I still was."

"A kid? Sometimes." The smirk she sent his way made him laugh. Lois looked at her watch. "Are we almost there?"

"Now who sounds like a kid?" His teasing smile sent a warm tingle all through her. Being in love, and having acknowledged that love, with her partner had made life incredible. Every little thing was more intense: every feeling, every joke, every look. She hoped that it never changed.

"Fine. But shouldn't we be almost to Coopersville?"

"Yes, about five more miles, I think." He paused a second, then went on. "Do you want to talk to management first, or try to look around and then talk to the powers that be? We're early so we have time to go either way."

"Management, I think. Let's give them the opportunity to be honest. I wouldn't want anyone to think we weren't objective and fair. Plus, don't you have some tricks for telling when people are lying?"

"You remembered that? I should have known."

"Known what?"

"That you have the most retentive mind of anyone I know. How did I manage to fool you for a year?"

"*You* didn't. I managed to fool myself. And yes, I do remember you saying that Miranda's pulse rate was 135. You have to admit, that was a very weird thing to say."

"Not really. It was the truth. And if I said it now, you wouldn't think it was weird at all."

Lois rolled her eyes at him. "All right. I wouldn't, not knowing what I know. But otherwise, it's weird." Taking another look out the car window, she squealed. "Clark, look at that!"

They had come to the crest of a hill and were looking down on what could have been a tranquil valley. Instead of a pastoral scene, however, there was a bustling town, crammed with two large buildings emblazoned with the news that they were "Sew-Rite Clothing Manufacturing." There was a large Costmart store on the edge of the town, a few shops lining the main thoroughfare, and street after street of concrete block apartment buildings. Off to the east, nestled on a small hillside, were a few stately brick homes. The scene looked like nothing so much as a movie set for a film on the old company mill towns.

Clark gave a low whistle. "Where is Upton Sinclair when you need him?"

Lois punched his arm. "That's us, silly."

"I know, Lois. But still, have you ever seen anything like that outside of a movie?"

"No, not really. I didn't think that there were company towns anymore. Not on this scale." She shuddered. "I sure wouldn't want to live here."

"I know. Everything has Costmart on it. There don't seem to be any shops, other than that." He pulled his glasses down and scanned the town. "And, Lois, I don't see anything that could be a school. So if there are children, they are either having to be bused to a different town …"

"Or they aren't going to school at all." She shook her head in disbelief. "You know, Clark, this just keeps getting more and more convoluted."

"It's like you said the other day. Intergang has more layers than an onion. And every time you peel back another one, there are more." He released the brake and pressed on the accelerator. "Let's get down there. I think we're going to have some fascinating copy for Perry and the police."

"Yeah, but it looks like it'll have to be the state police as well. This town isn't in MPD's jurisdiction." She was visibly disappointed that another police department would have to be involved.

"True, but we'll let Henderson deal with that. We're just nice, friendly, investigative reporters who've stumbled onto what looks to be a fantastic exclusive."

As they descended into the town, Lois and Clark discussed the best approach to take at the clothing factory.

"What did you tell them when you called for the interview, Clark?

"Just that we were doing a feature story on Costmart and wanted some more detailed information on the manufacturing subsidiaries."

"So they may think we're doing a puff piece?"

"Yes. It didn't seem like a good idea to say, 'Oh, by the way, we're trying to find out if you are a front for Intergang and are hiring undocumented workers on the side'." Clark flashed a blinding grin at his partner.

"That's good. One thing I know, we need to get a chance to talk to some of the workers," she informed him. "I'm hoping that you'll know some of the workers' languages. Then you can talk to them without the Sew-Rite people being able to understand what you're discussing."

"Maybe. The foremen may be able to understand, though. We'll have to play that by ear."

Lois sat forward in anticipation as the factory gates loomed in front of them. She had the tingle she always got when they were about to nail a big story. And after they got the proof they needed for the story, they could get back to Metropolis, write it, talk to Henderson, and solve Clark's problem. It was going to be a very productive day.

***

"Well, that was certainly an eye-opening experience," Clark commented to Lois as they made their way to the visitors' parking lot having received a cordial good-bye from the Sew-Rite plant manager.

"What do you mean? I didn't see anything out of the ordinary." Her voice was thick with disappointment.

"That, my friend, is because *you* cannot see through walls or speak Malay or Vietnamese." Clark kept his excitement in check. "Things are definitely not what they seem here. Let's see if we can find a restaurant."

"You're hungry?" she asked, a bit surprised. "I thought you didn't need to eat."

"I don't. But you must be hungry by now. And I'd like the opportunity to talk to a nice, chatty waitress, wouldn't you?"

She nodded as she opened the car doors. "Like Maisie?"

"Absolutely. Think how much you learned from her." He flashed his megawatt smile at her again.

"Uh huh. As in 'With Clark here, what you see is what you get?' Yeah. Okay." She carefully backed out of the parking space. "I think I noticed a sign for a diner about a block into the town as we drove down that hill." Lois pulled back onto the main road and followed it into the center of the town. "We're in luck. It looks like the noon rush may be over."

Peering into the windows of the diner, Clark could see that it was nearly deserted. A lone waitress was rolling paper napkins around silverware and chatting desultorily with the only customer in the place. "Oh yeah, this could be very good."

"Hi there. Let me show you to a table." The waitress greeted them at the door with a friendly smile. Showing them to a cozy booth, she handed them menus. "Be back in a jif." She leaned forward and said conspiratorially, "The hot roast beef sandwich is to die for." With that, she disappeared into the kitchen.

"Oh, yeah. Partner, I think we may have struck gold here." Clark was jubilant. "If she isn't Maisie's twin, she ought to be."

"I'll drink to that." Lois looked around. "Or I would if I had any liquid."

Just then Maisie's "sister" reappeared, water glasses in hand. "Here you go. Have you decided yet?" She looked expectantly at Lois.

"I'll try the hot roast beef sandwich. And a pickle, dill not sweet. And a glass of diet anything too, please."

"All righty. And you, sir?"

"I'll have a burger and fries. And a Coke, please."

"Great. Let me go give your order to the cook." She bustled back to the kitchen, only to return in a few brief minutes. "Okay. My name is Sue. So, other than lunch, what can I help you with?"

"Excuse me?" Lois was somewhat taken aback. "I don't think I'm following you."

"Well, I follow the two of you." Sue's smile seemed genuine. "You're Lane and Kent from the Daily Planet."

"Why yes, we are. But what does that have to do with anything?" Clark was perplexed.

Sue looked around the dining room. The other customer had left; the place was empty except for the two reporters and her. "If the two of you are up here in Coopersville, then it's got to be because you're working on a story. People don't come here for a getaway, and we're not exactly on a main road. So, you must be working." She paused, took a deep breath, then continued, "And I'd be willing to bet it has something to do with those busloads of people that come up here every week and go to work in the factory."

"What do you know about those?" Lois asked her.

"I know that every so often, there are about two or three buses full of people that come into town. The people get off at the factory apartment buildings, and it looks like they go through some sort of processing procedure. There's always a line at a table right outside. Looks like they have to fill out a bunch of forms, and then someone takes them into one of the buildings. I guess that's to give them an apartment."

Clark encouraged her. "That's really interesting. Are all the people adults?"

"No, there are always some kids. Poor little things." Sue shook her head sadly.

"Why did you say that?" Lois prodded.

"Because every morning, the people who live in the company apartments get lined up, get back on buses, and go to work twelve hour shifts in the factory. Those children are with them."

"But what about school?" Clark thought he knew the answer, but he wanted corroboration.

"They don't go. They go to work. There are so few children in this town that there is no school. Our children go over to Danville."

"But that's, that's … illegal!" Lois sputtered.

"So are those workers, honey." Sue shook her head again. "They don't have green cards. That's how Sew-Rite keeps costs down. They don't have to pay taxes, or Social Security, or workmen's comp, or anything. As far as any government knows, those people don't exist."

Clark directed an appraising look at Sue, then made his decision. "Yes, we are on a story. Would you be willing to be quoted? And do you have any proof that those people are undocumented workers?"

"Sure, I'd do almost anything to help those children. You can quote me. I don't work for Costmart." She smiled. "Won't even shop there if I can avoid it."

"Okay. Can you prove they are illegals?" Lois pressed the issue.

"Of course. Several of them have come in here to apply for a second job. Only I can't hire them, because they don't have green cards. And I have those applications on file. Want to see a couple?"

"You bet!" Lois was ecstatic. This was the break in the case they'd been needing.

A bell dinged in the background. "Your lunch is up. Tell you what. I'll make copies of those applications while you eat."

"Thank you so much." Clark smiled in gratitude.

As she went to get their plates, Sue thought, "That Lois Lane is one lucky young woman to have a guy like that."

***

Having eaten their lunch and gotten the employment applications from their friendly waitress, Lois and Clark began their trip back to Metropolis. Five seconds after sliding into the driver's seat, she turned her attention to her partner. "Okay, Clark. Spill it."

"What ?" Clark had been flipping through the applications, checking to see that they were, in fact, proof of his suspicions. "Spill what?"

"What you meant before lunch, when you said things aren't what they seem at Sew-Rite."

"Oh, *that*." He grinned at her. "Well, while you were busy gushing to our tour guide about the high quality clothing being produced, I was checking out what was happening in the rooms he didn't take us to."

"And?"

"And there were at least two other large rooms where they had children working, running sewing machines. Some of the kids looked like they could be as young as six or seven."

Lois muttered a mild curse. "Damn! What else did you find out?"

"When I talked to some of the workers, they said that they are basically indentured servants. They are mostly Vietnamese refugees, although there are some other nationalities as well. There is a man, whose description doesn't match any suspected Intergang members, who contacts people in refugee camps in Malaysia. The people think they are being sponsored by a legitimate US organization until they get here. Then they find out that they have no entry visa, no political refugee status, and no way of knowing what they can do to change the situation. Sew-Rite's managers tell them that they have to pay for their transportation from Asia, so about a quarter of every paycheck gets deducted for that. Since they have no papers, they have to live in the Costmart housing complex and shop only in the Costmart store. Children are expected to work if they are old enough. Apparently there is some sort of daycare for the little ones, but there is no school for kids of school age."

Lois interrupted his recital. "So, essentially, these people are trapped forever?"

"Looks that way to me. They can't even learn English, except from each other, because the company doesn't provide any classes or teachers. I got the impression that management doesn't want them able to communicate with anyone on the outside."

"Of course they don't. If they could communicate, someone like us might get them shut down." She smiled in anticipation of doing exactly that. "I suppose it's too much to hope that you got anyone willing to be on the record."

"Actually, it's not. I got several people who were willing to be quoted and said that if anything came to trial, they would be willing to testify. Seems they don't see that they made a good move and want to do something about it." He waved his micro-cassette recorder at her in triumph.

"All right, then. When we get back to town, we need to talk to Henderson and Perry."

"And the INS, Lois. They can probably tell us if the FBI should be involved. I honestly don't know if any of this would be under their jurisdiction or not."

"Okay." She pursed her lips in thought. "We're about halfway there. Why don't you call Perry and see if he can set up a meeting with Henderson, the INS, him, and anyone else he or Henderson think needs to be there. That way, we'll get it all dealt with, and you can get to Smallville at a decent time."

Clark punched in the number for Perry's direct line on his cell phone and waited for the connection. Settling back into the bucket seat, he relaxed a bit for the first time in days. Things were falling into place on this investigation, Lois had come up with what appeared to be a viable plan to combat Diana Stride, and in a few hours he'd be eating his mother's cooking. Lois had her martial arts class in the evening, so he wouldn't have to worry about her while he was out of town. Yes, things were definitely looking up. "Hi, Chief? Yeah, Lois and I need you to set up a meeting if you would. In an hour and a half or so." He outlined the details to their editor, waited for his assent, then cut the connection. Turning to his partner, his eyes lit up. "Perry's gonna set it up. I think we're gonna do it, Lois!" he exulted. "We're gonna get Intergang."

"I know! I can see the headlines now." Her eyes shone with excitement.

"Which headlines, Lois? 'The Fall of Intergang' or 'Lane and Kent win Kerth Award'?" Clark teased.

"Both, of course." Lois laughed at him as she took the exit for Metropolis.

***

Twenty minutes later they strode into the conference room at the Daily Planet. Perry had already drawn the blinds, and he and Inspector Henderson were sitting at the table along with two men and a woman the reporters had never seen before.

"Lois, Clark, I'd like you to meet Agent Browne of the INS, Lieutenant Roberts of the New Troy State Police, and Special Agent McCain of the FBI," Perry introduced them to the strangers. "We are all, shall I say, very interested in hearin' what you learned up in Coopersville."

The pair of reporters greeted the agents and sat down.

"I've already brought them up to speed on what happened on your stakeout the other night," Henderson interjected. "So you can pretty much start with what you discovered today."

The law enforcement officials and the editor-in-chief of the Daily Planet listened in disgust as Lois and Clark recounted everything they had learned about Costmart/Sew-Rite and its cost-cutting production methods. The job applications which Sue had provided caused a low whistle from the INS agent, while the description of the virtual slavery of the immigrant workers elicited sotto voce imprecations from everyone in the room.

"How the hell did they pull something this big off without anybody noticing anything?" Agent Browne asked no one in particular.

"It seems to me that they have pretty good ways of diverting the attention of the authorities here in Metropolis," Clark answered dryly. "They managed to cause a multi-car accident the other day that killed a lot of people just to keep the police and Superman busy. Who knows what else they've done?"

After playing the tape he had made of the Vietnamese workers, Clark translated for the people in the room. There was something especially chilling, Lois thought, about actually hearing the situation described by the people who were living it. More than ever, she was determined to be part of the downfall of Intergang.

"All right. You two have given us more than enough to get search warrants for crimes almost too numerous to mention." Henderson gave the three journalists a hard look. "You also have enough information for one hell of a series on the inner workings of Costmart and its ties to Intergang." He paused, then continued, "And you cannot print a word until we have gotten those warrants and executed them. If anything hits the papers, I can guarantee you that by the time any of us get past the door of Costmart or Sew-Rite, there will be no undocumented workers, no children who should be in school, and nothing on any computer's hard-drive to indicate that there is one shred of truth in your allegations."

Lois broke in. "Are you telling us we have to sit on this story?"

"Lo…is," Clark put his hand on hers. "I think Bill is just reminding us not to blow it now." He looked at the detective. "He wants us to wait to print until people are in custody. Isn't that right, Bill?" he challenged.

"Listen to your partner, Lois. That's exactly what I'm trying to say. I can assure you that all of us will be filing the necessary paperwork for the warrants the minute we get back to our offices. And while I can't speak for anyone else, I promise you, you will get the exclusive from the MPD in return for your assistance in breaking this case. As soon as I have any news, you'll be the first to know."

"Thanks, Bill. We appreciate that."

"Hey, no problem, Clark. I'm not sure we'd be anywhere near this close without your efforts." Henderson gave one of his rare smiles.

The other agents hastened to say that they too would give Lane and Kent the exclusive in return for the information. Good-byes were said, hands were shaken, and the meeting broke up. As the various agents made their way to the elevators, Perry indicated to Lois and Clark that he wanted to see them in his office.

Once inside, he waved them to a seat. "Lois, Clark, that's one of the best pieces of investigative work I think I've ever seen. Why don't you all get started on writin' it up before you leave tonight?"

"We were planning to, Chief," Clark replied. "Then, when the arrests are made, we'll just add to our copy."

"Good. Now, about the Diana Stride issue."

"Yes?" Lois asked.

"She was back again today, lookin' for the two of you. I hope that if she catches up with you, you've got something more satisfyin' than 'Superman is a very private person.' She's like a dog with a bone in her teeth. She ain't gonna give up until she exposes his secret identity. You might want to warn him."

"Uh, thanks, chief. We'll see what we can do." Clark was beginning to feel hunted. It was not a feeling he enjoyed. The sooner he got to Smallville and his mother's laser, the happier he would be.

"Is that all, Perry?" Lois asked. "Because if it is, we need to start writing."

"Yes, honey. You all go on and get on it."

"Right, Chief," they said in unison as they rose and headed for the door.

***

Later that night, Clark and his parents were in the work shed at the farm. Martha was fiddling with her laser while the two men rearranged some of the heavier furniture in the place. Clark had been filling his parents in on the situation with Diana Stride. "She's closing in. Funny. I've never felt like this before." He shook his head.

"Like what?" his father wanted to know.

"Like I'm being … stalked."

Martha hit a switch, turning on her laser beam. "Well, it's sort of appropriate, if you think about it."

"Appropriate? I'm not following you, Mom."

"You know, Diana the Huntress. She stalks her prey by moonlight." She adjusted some knobs on the case and continued. "You need to be careful around that woman. I don't trust her."

"Neither does Lois."

"See? You better listen to us. We can't both be wrong." She did something else to her laser and then asked, "Well, what do you think?"

"Martha, that's terrific."

"Yeah, Mom, I think it'll work." Clark and Jonathan were staring at the corner of the shed. It appeared that Superman was there, arms crossed in his habitual stance. "It looks so real." He gave his mother a curious glance. "I never knew you had such hidden talents, Mom."

Martha just smiled. "You'd be surprised the things you don't know, Clark." Giving him a hug, she went on, "Your father and I will bring this to Metropolis tomorrow, honey. That should be time enough, shouldn't it?"

"Yes. And thank you both. I don't know what I'd do without you." He returned the hug and turned to his father. "You sure you can leave the farm for a few days?"

"Yes, Clark. Wayne Irig will look after things for a few days."

"Okay. Thanks again. I'll see you tomorrow. I wish I could take you Superman Express, but I don't think we can risk it."

"No, you can't. Now you go on home and get some rest." Martha hugged her large son again. "And give our love to Lois."

"I will." He grinned at his parents and stepped through the shed door. They heard the sonic boom that signaled his take-off and reached for each other.

"Martha, I sure hope this works. I hate to think what Clark's life will be like if she succeeds in exposing him."

"It has to work. Because if it doesn't, he won't have a life." She released her husband and stepped back to the laser, checking it one last time.

***

Five minutes later, Clark landed on the balcony of his apartment. Noticing the light blinking on his answering machine, he hit the play button. Maybe it would be Lois, he thought in pleasant anticipation. The voice that emanated from the recorder, however was not that of his partner's.

"Clark, this is Diana Stride. Could you contact Superman for me? I'd really like to spend some time with him. Tonight. One on one."

His expression hardened. So this was it. She was making her move. "You got it," he ground out. He retraced his steps to the balcony and took off for Diana's penthouse office.

On his arrival at Diana Stride's office, he first noticed Rolf, who was bending to light the candles at a dinner table set for two. Clark briefly wondered what Diana was intending to do with this setting.

"Hello, there," Rolf greeted him with an unctuous smile. "Diana will be here een just a moment. Meanwhile, can I get you some wine? Eet's not a bad Merlot."

"No, thank you, Rolf."

Rolf spoke again. "You know, while I have you here, there's something I've always wanted to ask you. When I wear my very tightest ski pants, I always get a bit… chafed. Do you find thees happens to you?" The question was accompanied by a knowing leer. His eyes swept over the blue Spandex-clad muscles.

Somewhat taken aback, Superman replied, "No. But it helps to be invulnerable." He moved several feet farther away from the table.

At that moment, Diana made her entrance, dressed in a low-cut black evening gown . Giving a speaking glance to her cameraman, she said, "Rolf, I'd like to be alone with Superman."

The Frenchman sighed and as he left the room, murmured, "Qui ne voudrait pas ša?"

"Who wouldn't want that?" Superman silently translated. Controlling a shudder and feeling a profound sense of relief that the man had left the room, Superman nodded at the television anchor. "Ms. Stride —"

Moving close to him, she purred, "Diana."

He backed away from her, and crossed his arms over his chest, his tone and expression stern. "I know your story isn't a tribute, it's an attempt to expose me."

"Expose you?" She moved in on him again and ran her fingers lightly across the "S" on his chest. "Do you have something to hide?"

"We all have something to hide. Some of us for the good of others… and some of us for our own gain. I'm here to tell you, Ms. Stride — drop this story."

"Superman…" She suddenly turned away and crossed to the table, pouring a drink. "I can't …"

He looked at her, trying to determine what she was doing. Her back was to him, hiding her expression.

"I'm going to lose my show… and it's all I have. When you want so much from life, then get more than you ever expected, thethought of having it all taken away can make you do things that you never thought you were capable of."

Superman watched her set the drink down; her shoulders shook and she lifted her hand to her face, crying. "Don't cry." He moved uncertainly towards her, not sure how to handle this abrupt shift in her behavior.

Her back still to Superman, the Intergang assassin pulled a lipstick out of her pocket and uncapped it. The lipstick glowed green in the dimly lit office. Diana dabbed it onto her lips, and continued, "That's what made me do this, or maybe it's just because I'm no damn good." As she finished making the comment, she broke a small chunk of the green substance off on to her tongue.

Completely nonplused, Superman moved to her and put a tentative hand on her shoulder. "There's good in everyone."

The instant she felt his hand, Diana turned and suddenly kissed him hard on the mouth, plunging her tongue inside. Startled, he swallowed instinctively even as he pushed her away.

"Not everyone," she said with an evil smile.

Superman touched his lips and looked at her in shock. He dropped to his knees in front of her as the first wave of pain and nausea swept over him.

"Please, Superman. Not on a first date."

Shaking his head to clear it, he struggled to his feet. "Ms. Stride, you don't want me for an enemy," he ground out.

"But I've got you."

He touched his lips again and exited the penthouse, barely able to fly.

Finding a tissue, Diana wiped her lips and laughed, studying the green smear on the tissue.

***

After what seemed like an eternity later, Clark managed to reach his apartment. As he stumbled down the stairs to his living room, the thought crossed his mind, "Lois — I've got to call Lois." He almost made it to his couch before collapsing on the floor, his hand mere inches from the telephone on the coffee table. His last conscious thought before succumbing to the Kryptonite was, "She's gonna kill me."

***

The next morning dawned clear and cold. A weak winter sun shone, raising Lois' spirits. As she drove to the Daily Planet, she hummed happily to herself. She had passed her brown belt test the evening before. Lois smiled, thinking about that accomplishment. There was one more reason for Clark to quit worrying so much about her safety. She could take care of herself in most dangerous situations. It was nice, though, to have someone care about her well-being. And today was going to be wonderful: she and Clark would be able to put the finishing touches on the Sew-Rite story; and with any luck, the authorities would complete all the legal work to make arrests. Maybe the story could make the afternoon edition.

***

The signal light flashed in Diana Stride's office. Moving quickly to activate the teleconference apparatus, she readied herself for the conversation with Mr. Darryl. Confidence oozed from her every pore. Diana spoke quickly to her handler. "The Kryptonite is in his blood stream. He should die a slow and painful death within a day or so."

Darryl was pleased. "Diana… you are the *best.*"

The assassin / anchorwoman picked up a tracking device and turned it over in her hand. "Thank the lab boys for modifying this so fast."

"You'd better hurry up and get that story on Superman. Doesn't sound like he's going to be around much longer."

"Don't worry, I'll get my story." She smiled in grim satisfaction. "Too bad that I can't tell the true story of how he died, though."

A low chuckle was Darryl's only response. Diana switched off the TV as Rolf walked into the room.

"So… we have a new way to track Monsieur Steely Pants?"

Diana hit a button on the tracker, causing it to beep.

"I made him swallow a radioactive substance."

An evil grin pasted on his visage, he responded, "I'll just bet you deed."

"And this time when we get close, he'll probably be a little too distracted to notice us." She muted the noise of the beeper, silencing it, leaving only a flashing light. The two shared a nasty laugh as they headed for the elevators.

"So, where are we going, to look for heem?" Rolf wondered.

"To the Daily Planet. I'm convinced that he either works there or that someone there knows more than they're saying."

"And eef eet doesn't go off, zee beeper? Zen what weel you do?"

A scathing glance and a disgusted sigh answered his question. "Then we'll start tracking down any employees who aren't in the office." Diana shrugged her elegant shoulders. "Don't worry, Rolf. We'll find him. And when we do, we'll have the story of the century."

***

Sitting at her desk in the newsroom, Lois was becoming increasingly irritated. There had been no news waiting for her and Clark from Inspector Henderson, the INS, the State Police, or the FBI. To her mind, no news was never good news. If the assorted law enforcement agencies didn't move quickly, there wouldn't be enough time for the story to make the afternoon edition. If she and her partner had to wait for morning, they might not scoop the competition.

Adding to her consternation was the absence of her partner. His desk showed no signs that he had been in the office since the night before. Although she knew he had been planning to go to Smallville last night, she was positive that he had planned to return by midnight. A quick look at the television monitors showed no signs of Superman.

"Where on earth can he be?" she wondered. It was not like Clark to be late unless Superman was occupied. Lois turned to her telephone and dialed his number.

Four rings later, the connection opened. "Hi, this is Clark. I can't come to the phone right now, so leave a message at the beep. I'll get back to you as soon as I can."

"Clark, this is Lois. Where are you? Call me at the Planet as soon as you get this message." She hung up the telephone, a worried frown on her face. Reaching for her Rolodex, she found the Kents' number in Smallville. Dialing as quickly as she could, she tried to calm herself. "He probably stayed overnight, and forgot the time difference. That's why he's not here. He just needs to be reminded."

Three rings later, someone picked up the phone. "Hello? Kent residence." The disembodied male voice on the other end of the line sounded vaguely familiar, but it wasn't Clark's father.

"Hi, this is Lois Lane. Are Martha or Jonathan there?"

"Oh, hi, Lois. This is Wayne Irig. No, they left a while ago for Metropolis. I was just checking on things for them."

"Metropolis? They're on their way to Metropolis?" she queried.

"Yes, seems Clark needs their help on some project or something. They should be in Wichita by now to catch the plane." He paused a second. "Is there anything I can do to help you?"

"Uh, no, Mr. Irig. That's fine. I just needed to ask them something. But if they're on their way to Metropolis, I can do it when I see them. It was nice talking to you."

"You, too, Lois. You take care."

"Thanks, Mr. Irig. You too. Good-bye." Lois cut the connection and stared blindly at the receiver in her hand. If Clark wasn't in Smallville, wasn't at work, wasn't out being Superman, and wasn't answering his phone, where *was* he? His cell phone, that was the answer. She quickly dialed the number, only to hear the insistent ring go unanswered. Panic rose in her throat like bile. Forcing it down, she tried to think. Maybe he had been in the shower. She redialed his number, but again, the only reply was the machine. She grabbed her purse and ran out of the newsroom.

***

Something was ringing — probably his alarm clock. Clark fought his way through the haze of pain and unconsciousness. It must be time to get up for work. As he tried to reach his alarm clock to shut it off, a voice rang out.

"Clark, this is Lois. I'm worried. Where are you?" She sounded frantic, but he couldn't understand why.

Shaking his head to clear it made sharp pains shoot through every inch of his body. It slowly dawned on him that he was sprawled on his living room floor, still dressed as Superman. The effort to move, to answer the phone, proved to be too much; and he let his arm fall back to the floor with a painful thud. As Clark tried to comprehend why he was on the floor as opposed to in his bed, another paroxysm of pain wracked his body. How on earth? And then he remembered — Diana Stride had called him, wanting to talk to Superman.

When he had gone to her office, she had acted very strangely, at first almost coming on to him, then sobbing that she would lose her show if she dropped the Superman expose. And then she had turned and forced a kiss on him, pushing some pasty substance into his mouth. Kryptonite! Diana Stride had managed to get Kryptonite into his system. If he somehow survived this exposure to the deadly substance, he and Lois would at least be able to put Diana in jail for attempted murder, he thought wryly. Sweating profusely, Clark doubled up in agony as another wave of nausea and cramping swept over him. He wished forlornly that he had the energy to move the six inches to the telephone, his only link with Lois. As he sank once more into oblivion, he thought, "Lois … Lois, I need you."

***

The elevator doors slid open on the third floor of the Daily Planet, and Diana and Rolf strode in. Standing on the balcony overlooking the bullpen, they scanned the newsroom. She muttered an oath as the tracking device remained blank. "He's not here. Let's see who else isn't." She turned a sly smile on her cameraman.

Perry walked up, wearing a genial expression. "Diana, I'm ready for our little …" He grinned. "… tete a tete."

Diana and Rolf exchanged a look of annoyance before Diana gave Perry an insincere smile and said, "Of course, Perry. Let's do it in your office." Taking his arm, she allowed herself to be escorted to his sanctum. Grinding his teeth in frustration, Rolf followed in their wake.

A friendly smile on his face, Perry thought he ought to be able to give Lois and Clark at least an hour's lead time. "Please, Diana, have a seat." He settled himself down for a very *long* interview. If he ran out of Superman anecdotes, there was always Elvis.

***

Lois blinked back tears as she made the drive to Clinton Street. Something had to be very wrong. Clark would never just not show up for work. Her every instinct was screaming, "Diana Stride!" It had to have something to do with the Intergang assassin. Lois wasn't sure whether to be more afraid or angry. Afraid that Clark was ill or dead; afraid that she wouldn't be able to find him or help him if she did. Angry with Diana for pursuing Superman and therefore Clark; angry with Clark for being so naive that he thought he was truly invulnerable to the woman's schemes. *He* worried about her taking foolish chances — what did he think she felt about his doing the same thing? At least she was cynical enough to not trust anyone like Diana Stride.

Pulling to a stop in front of Clark's apartment building, she jammed the gearshift lever into park and ran for the stairs. She practically flew up them, terror lending her speed. Peering through the glass in his door, she discovered Superman lying slumped on the floor near the coffee table. She pounded frantically on the door but got no response. Lois rooted in her purse for her key to no avail. Balling her coat around her fist, she smashed it through the glass pane nearest the lock. Hurriedly unlocking the door, she yanked it open and dashed down the stairs to the recumbent figure of her boyfriend.

"Clark!" she sobbed. "Wake up!" Touching his flushed face, she gasped. His skin felt as if it were on fire.

At her touch, his eyes flickered open. "Lois?" His heart turned over with relief. She was here.

"Oh, Clark, what's happened to you?" she choked out.

He struggled to speak, his voice a thready whisper. "Kryptonite. It's inside me." The effort to try to raise his head was too much; he fell back on the floor and groaned in agony. "Gotta get to a hospital."

She reached across his body for the telephone and punched in 911. She gave a terse report to the emergency dispatcher on the other end of the line. "Please hurry! I think he's dying," she sobbed as she ended the call.

Turning her attention back to her partner, she took his hand. "Clark, how did this happen?"

"Diana. She took me by surprise," he wheezed. "She forced it into my mouth, and …" he broke off as he convulsed again with pain.

"You swallowed it?" Lois asked incredulously. "Don't answer, Clark. Try to rest."

He struggled to continue. "I'm so sorry, Lois." His breath was coming in irregular gasps. "I'm … so … very … sorry." He drew a ragged breath. "I love you, Lois."

"Oh, Clark," she sobbed. "I love you, too. You know that." Lois could hear the wailing sirens in the distance. She stroked his arm to comfort him — or her — she wasn't sure which one of them. A thought struck her. "What are you sorry about?"

"Because," he paused, his breath, and therefore speech, becoming ever more difficult to manage. "Because she kissed me." His eyes drooped shut, and his body seemed to relax.

"You let her kiss you?" Incredulous, Lois filed that concept away for later. She told him, "Clark, you just have to get well." She choked back another sob, angrily dashing tears from her eyes with the back of her hand. "Because when you do … I'm gonna kill you."

A few seconds later, the ambulance crew pounded on his door. "Superman?!" one of the attendants exclaimed.

"Yes," Lois snapped. "Please hurry. He's dying." She eyed her partner worriedly. She had seen him under the influence of Kryptonite before, but she had never seen him this seriously affected by it. It must be because there was no way for him to get away from it. Lois pushed her fright back down. She had to be strong for him since he was in such a weakened condition.

She watched anxiously as paramedics inserted an IV into his no longer invulnerable arm and took his vital signs. Noticing his poor respiratory function, they placed an oxygen mask on him. Speaking rapidly into their portable radio, the emergency personnel gave the information they had to the ER at Metropolis General Hospital. "All right. ETA is ten minutes," the attendant informed the hospital. Turning to Lois, he said, "You're a friend of his, right?"

"Yes."

"We're taking him to Metropolis General. If you like, you can ride in the ambulance. The docs will probably want to speak to you about what could have caused this reaction." They were gently placing Superman on the gurney and strapping his body down.

"All right." Lois followed them from the apartment, stopping to lock the door. Later, she would wonder why she bothered. With the broken pane, the door might as well have been left ajar. She hurried down the stairs to the waiting ambulance, praying silently that, somehow, someone would be able to save his life. If the doctors at Metropolis General couldn't cure him, she might as well die too.

***

As the paramedics worked on Superman, Diana and Rolf climbed up the fire escape ladder and crept onto the terrace, following the map on the tracker. The two television journalists moved to the slanted window in time to see the emergency crew wheel Superman out of the apartment. Their eyes went wide as they realized what they were seeing.

Diana said, "Oh, my God. Clark Kent must be Superman and we've got it on film."

"Oops." Rolf looked at his camera as if it had betrayed him.

"Oops. Did you just say … *oops*?"

Rolf nodded, shamefaced. "My battery pack is dead. The camera won't work. I have to get a fresh —"

She grabbed him by the throat and snarled viciously, "Go." She threw him back and watched in disgust as he scurried over the wall and down the ladder. Diana pried at the sliding window and smiled in triumph as it opened easily.

Rolf clambered breathlessly up the ladder. Diana glared at him icily.

He began, "I'm sorry, I'm so sor —"

"Idiot!" She gave him a backhanded slap.

He reeled, then said, "I deserved that. You can do it again if you like."

"There'll be plenty of time for that later." She led him into Clark's apartment. "Let's check this out."

As Rolf filmed, Diana searched for evidence to prove her theory. Tapping walls and peering under and behind furniture, she finally heard a hollow sound behind the closet in Clark's living room. Sliding it open, she discovered Superman's spare uniforms.

"Well, well." Touching her hair, she struck a pose next to the uniforms. "I'm ready for my close up, Mr. De Mille."

As Rolf aimed the camera at her and the uniforms, she lifted the microphone to her lips.

***

The ride to the hospital seemed interminable. Lois, relegated to the passenger seat in front, clenched her teeth and balled her hands into fists to keep herself from losing control of her emotions. Clark, for his part, sank deeper and deeper into unconsciousness. His restless thrashing changed to a stillness which terrified his partner. The paramedics, in communication with the emergency room doctors, continued their efforts to treat Superman with a saline drip and oxygen.

When the ambulance finally screeched to a halt outside the doors of Metropolis General, Lois leaped from the passenger seat. A team of medical personnel met the paramedics and took over. As they wheeled the gurney through the emergency entrance to the treatment area, Lois was directed to the admitting area where she was subjected to the annoyance of filling out form after form with all the same answer: Not Available. She muttered imprecations under her breath. She didn't want to be making bureaucrats happy. She wanted to be with Superman.

Finally, she was allowed to go back to the cubicle where he lay. She gasped when she saw him. There were tubes and wires all over his body. An EKG machine beeped erratically in the background. Superman looked so pale and helpless that she was more worried than ever.

The concerned-looking physician treating the Man of Steel approached her and asked, "Do you have any idea what caused this reaction in Superman?"

"He accidentally swallowed a substance called Kryptonite. I've only ever seen it once, and then it looked like a glowing green crystal. He told me before he passed out that it was in paste form this time," Lois explained. "Every time he's come into contact with it in the past, he has had terrible pain and nausea and lost his superpowers temporarily; but I've never seen him like this before."

The doctor continued to question her. "Does he have to actually touch the substance to be affected by it?"

"No, he just has to be near it. And the closer he is, the more it hurts him." Lois shook her head. "He joked once that it was like an allergy." She caught herself. "Oh, one other thing, if the Kryptonite is shielded by lead, it doesn't affect him at all."

"Hmm. Superman may have a point. Some of his symptoms are consistent with an extremely severe allergic reaction. Others, however, are those of poisoning." The doctor rubbed the back of his neck. "The lead shield, though, indicates that the substance is radioactive." His look brightened. "None of Superman's symptoms are consistent with exposure to radiation, however."

"Is that good?" she asked.

"Yes, I believe it is." He shut Superman's chart. "Ms. Lane, I'm going to treat him for ingestion of both an allergen and a highly toxic substance." He pushed the call button for the nurses' station and issued some orders which Lois found incomprehensible.

In less than a minute, the cubicle was swarming with medical personnel. The doctor rapidly outlined his treatment plan. The team went into action. While one nurse injected epinephrine and atropine into his arm, another drew blood from his vein.

"Well, I'll be damned," the doctor said. "Take a look at this." He held the vial of blood up to the light. Tiny green flecks glowed in among the dark red liquid. "Someone get this to the lab, STAT. Tell them to check and see if this blood can be filtered to remove only the green particles."

An orderly hurried from the room.

"Ms. Lane, I'm going to have to ask you to leave the room."

She jumped on him verbally. "No, I won't leave him."

"Ms. Lane," the doctor explained patiently, "trust me. We're about to intubate him with an endotracheal tube and perform gastric lavage, as well as administer a purgative. You would not enjoy watching, and I don't think Superman would thank you later for having stayed."

She looked at the doctor, comprehension finally dawning. "You're going to pump his stomach?"

The doctor nodded grimly. "Among other things, yes. If there is any Kryptonite left in his digestive tract, we need to get it out as quickly as possible. The process isn't pleasant for anyone involved." He gently took her arm and steered her to the entrance to the cubicle. "Why don't you go get some coffee? This will take a while."

Lois acquiesced reluctantly. "All right. But I'll be nearby. If there's any …" she hesitated over her choice of words, "change, please call me."

"We will. Now go get that coffee and let us get these procedures done."

She found her way to the hospital cafeteria and purchased a cup of coffee. As she sipped the hot drink, she realized that she had run out of the newsroom without telling anyone where she was going. Reaching into her purse, she found her cell phone. Lois punched in Perry's number.

"Perry White."

"Perry, it's Lois. I just wanted to let you know that Clark and I are meeting a source, and I'm not sure how long it's going to take." What else did she need to tell Perry? She thought a second, distracted by her worry over Clark. "Oh, and Perry, has Henderson called yet?"

"Yes, darlin.' He called about a minute ago. He wants you and Clark to meet him at the precinct around two. Are you going to be able to do that?"

"I don't know, Perry. It depends on what this source has to say and how long it takes to say it."

"We…ll," he drawled, "maybe he'll be finished by then. It's only nine now. Or maybe one of you can see Henderson alone."

"We'll see. I'll try."

"All right. Leave your cell phone on in case I need to reach you." Perry started to hang up, then remembered his visitor. "By the way, Diana Stride was here again. She had some weird little machine that looked like some sort of tracking device. I think she's still looking for Superman, so you be careful, and keep an eye out for her, okay?"

"Thanks, Perry. Yeah, I'll keep my eyes open." She cut the connection and stared numbly at her phone.

Perry's mention of the assassin gave her an idea. Hurriedly, she hit the buttons for the twelfth precinct. At the dispatcher's greeting, she snapped, "This is Lois Lane. I need to talk to Inspector Henderson, now."

"Just a minute, please."

Lois heard the tell-tale click of being put on hold and ground her teeth in frustration. "Why can't they ever just say, 'He's right here'?" she wondered.

"Yeah, Lois, what do you need?" the Inspector's voice demanded. "It better be urgent."

"It is, but it's not something I want to say over a cell phone. Can you and a couple of uniformed officers come see me in the ER at Metropolis General? It really is beyond important." She tried to quell the note of hysteria she heard creeping into her own voice.

"Lois, where's that partner of yours?"

"Why?" Her voice was shrill.

"I just wanted to ask his opinion on whether your request is justified," the detective said dryly.

"Well, you can't ask him, because he's not here. He's meeting a source." She took a deep breath, and thought, "Calm, Lois, calm." Lois spoke into the telephone again, "Bill, please trust me. It's extremely important that you and a couple of uniforms get down here immediately. When you do, you'll see why."

"All right, Lois. But this better be good."

"Well, it isn't. It's terrible. But it will be worth your while," she answered.

"Fine. See you in about ten." The policeman cut the connection.

Lois pushed the "end" button on her phone and slowly rose to her feet. For a day that had begun with such promise, it had certainly declined in a hurry. As she made her way back to the Emergency Room, she glanced at a clock. The doctors had been working on Clark for at least twenty minutes. Surely whatever they were doing should be over by now. Even if it weren't, she needed to see how he was. The not knowing was killing her.

She was met at the door to the cubicle by a nurse saying, "You can't go in there, Ms. Lane."

"I need to see him. You don't understand."

The nurse came out and gently pulled Lois a few feet down the hall. "No, actually, I do understand. You're worried about your friend, and with good reason. But your presence in the room won't help him, and you could get in the way. Once we're finished with cleaning out his digestive system, we'll let you see him." The nurse smiled at her. "Trust me, we're going to do our best to help him. If it makes you feel better, as we've been working on him, his vital signs have improved."

"Is he awake?"

"Not yet. And truthfully, it's better for everyone if he doesn't wake up until we've finished this particular procedure. He'll be much happier if it's not a memory." She turned to go back to the treatment room. "I'll let you know as soon as you can come back in."

"Thanks," Lois replied. "I'll be right out here."

Inspector Henderson and two uniformed policemen arrived as she turned to look for a chair. "Lois, what's the big secret?" His manner was brusque.

"Henderson, this has to stay here, understand?"

"Maybe," he responded laconically. "You know that all depends on what it is."

Lois looked around, checking to see that they wouldn't be overheard. "Henderson, Diana Stride tried to kill Superman. She poisoned him somehow. He's in that room being treated right now. He's unconscious and barely able to breathe. According to Perry, she's out there with some sort of tracking device trying to find him. If she finds him here, she could finish the job. He's not invulnerable right now. So I want you to have the policemen guard him from her. This hospital just doesn't look like the most secure facility to me, you know?" Finally having run out of breath, Lois paused and looked at the detective expectantly.

He gave a low whistle. "Okay, Lois. You've got your bodyguards. Any idea how long it's likely to take?"

She swallowed the brick in her throat. "No, they haven't told me much of anything. They won't even let me in the room to see him right now."

Henderson looked at her through narrowed eyes. "Well, we sure don't need the public to know that Superman is incapacitated." He thought for a minute, then went on. "Clark still out chasing that lead?"

"Yes, why?"

"I thought maybe since I was here, I could fill you in on the Sew-Rite business now. Save us all the time later."

"You can do that. I'm not even sure when Clark will be back." The thought crossed her mind that her partner was fortunate that he had let her in on his secret. Otherwise, he'd be in serious trouble right now.

"All right. Let me post these guys, and then we can sit down and talk." He spoke briefly to the uniformed officers, informing them of the need to protect the patient in the next room and of the need to check the identification of anyone going in or out of it. That task finished, he returned to the reporter who had moved across the hall to some chairs.

Lois looked at him as he took a seat. "All right, Henderson. What's the deal?"

"You know, Lois, one of the things I like most about you is your gracious conversational manner."

"Very funny. I'm not in the mood. Just tell me about what you and the alphabet soup guys did after Clark and I solved the case for you." Lois heard the acerbity in her tone, but she was beyond caring. Her worry about Clark was eating away at her; she was in no mood for the subtleties of personal interaction.

Henderson gave her an odd look, but refrained from comment. He pulled some papers out of his suit coat pocket and handed them to her. "Here you go. We arrested all of the people listed here for various crimes, ranging from violation of immigration laws to child labor laws. The FBI got a warrant to search the Costmart computers, Bill Church's house, and anywhere else that he could possibly have records showing the relationship between Intergang and Costmart or him. Bill Church and Jon Darryl have already been taken into custody. The only person we haven't gotten our hands on is Diana Stride. She's been impossible to track down. She's been staying one step ahead of us all morning." He continued, "To be honest, I'd just as soon that she did come here to finish the job she started. That way we could get our hands on her."

"I guess. I hope you don't mind if I don't share your enthusiasm for that plan."

"No problem, Lois. Anyway, if you can tear yourself away from here for a while, or find that partner of yours, you can print what you have and what I've just given you as soon as you like."

"Can I say that Church is the head of Intergang?" Henderson's words had diverted her attention away from Superman.

"No, you can say that evidence strongly points to that." He shook his head and smiled tightly. "You know the drill, Lois. Whatever you do, don't do anything to blow the case when it gets to court."

Lois smiled at him. "Henderson, you wound me. You know I would *never* do that."

"Of course. Thanks again, Lois." He turned to go. "Tell Superman I hope he's better soon."

"I'll do that," she replied. "I hope I get the chance to," she thought as she watched Henderson stride down the hall towards the exit. Sending up a silent prayer, she went back to her vigil outside the treatment room.

***

The first thing that Clark was aware of as the black unconsciousness began to recede was the noise. There was a buzzing sound, occasionally punctuated by beeping; and through it all he could hear gurgling, similar to a fountain. As he tried to focus on the sounds, he noticed voices murmuring unintelligibly. The effort was too much, though, and he slipped quietly back into the darkness.

A short while later, as more of the deadly Kryptonite was removed from his system, Clark again began to regain consciousness. This time he was aware of more physical sensations beyond sound. A great weight was pressing downwards on his upper body, holding his shoulders and chest immobile. He tried feebly to move his legs, but either they, too, were restrained in some fashion, or he was too weak to budge. Clark wondered if his father's greatest fear had come to pass: if he were in a laboratory somewhere about to be "dissected like a frog." He supposed he could open his eyes to look at his surroundings, but his eyelids appeared to each weigh about fifty pounds.

Taking physical inventory seemed like a good idea. Clark decided to begin at his head and assess his condition as well as he could without moving or opening his eyes. The excruciating headache he'd had when Lois arrived at his apartment seemed to be gone, a dull throbbing left in its stead. The searing pain he'd felt earlier throughout his body had abated a bit, but he was experiencing other extremely unpleasant sensations. Clark thought wryly that it was a toss-up as to which was preferable — the pain or the gagging feeling that he currently had. He moved his lips, hoping to ask the owners of the voices what was happening, only to discover that he couldn't speak.

"Don't try to talk, Superman," a gentle voice admonished him. "There are several tubes down your throat and your trachea. You won't be able to say anything, and the motion might dislodge them. Just lie still. We're almost finished. You can talk when we remove the tubes." A cool hand touched his forehead in a comforting gesture.

Clark tried to relax, but his anxiety made it difficult. If only he could see Lois, he would know that he was safe. He wondered where she had gone; he had never felt so alone in his life as he did at that moment, lying immobile in a hospital bed, with more tubes in him than a hamster cage. Thinking clearly was still a challenge. His memories were hazy at best. He had vague images of Diana Stride, pain, and then Lois. Beyond that, he had no clue how he had gotten to whatever hospital he was in.

He lay still, hoping that whatever the medical personnel were doing to him would soon be over. He wanted to talk, he wanted to feel unfettered, he wanted to see his partner. Since he couldn't even remember what he had told Lois before he had passed out, Clark felt a strong need to see her. Somewhere in the recesses of his mind there was a niggling memory of her saying, "You've just got to get well, because then I'm going to kill you." He wondered if she had really said that. If she had, he was in deep, deep trouble.

The hand was back on his forehead. "Just lie very still. We're going to take the tubes out now." His eyelids fluttered open to see a motherly-looking nurse bending over him. "Close your eyes, Superman. It'll be easier that way."

He followed her admonition. This helplessness was almost unbearable. Although he knew that the ER staff were trying to help ease his discomfort and save his life, it was galling to feel so completely out of control of his body. Even being locked in Luthor's Kryptonite cage had been better than this. Then he had been able to save himself. This time he was totally dependent on others. It was not a position he enjoyed.

Suddenly he felt the sensation of the tube being pulled from his throat. His initial reaction was to gag, but hands pressed him back onto the bed and the nurse spoke soothingly to him. "You're doing just fine. Just try to relax. Just a minute more."

Trying to obey, Clark felt the sting of tears behind his lids. As he lay there, he could feel other tubes being slid from his body. As the final one was removed, he shuddered. The discomfort from the medical treatment gone, he felt better. Assessing his condition, Clark decided that he was definitely in better shape than he had been. He slowly opened his eyes, to look into the concerned gaze of the nurse.

"Would you like some ice chips?" she asked.

He nodded, his throat so sore he decided not to even attempt to speak.

She slipped a spoonful into his mouth. "And how about a visit from a friend?" She smiled genially at him. "That reporter, Lois Lane, has been hovering outside the door ever since you got here."

Again, he nodded. The nurse moved off to find Lois. Clark took the opportunity to survey his surroundings. There were several doctors conferring quietly in a corner of the room. An orderly was dealing with all the equipment used in the treatments they had just concluded. He sighed in relief. It looked as if he was in the ER at Metropolis General Hospital. Lois had come through for him yet again.

"Superman, are you feeling any better?" As if on cue, Lois erupted into the room. Approaching his bed, she stretched out her hand to touch his. "I was so worried." Lowering her voice to a whisper, she said, "Don't ever do this to me again, you hear?"

Unwilling to try his vocal chords, Clark nodded. He stared at her worried face. He tried to clasp her hand not realizing that his arm was immobilized.

Seeing his confusion, Lois put her hand over his. "It's all right, Superman. I think you're going to be all right."

"Thanks to you," he croaked.

"Shh. Don't try to talk yet." She turned to the doctors. "Is he going to be all right?"

The physicians came up to the side of the bed. "Superman, we've managed to remove all traces of Kryptonite from your digestive tract. But there is still a significant amount in your bloodstream. The hematology lab has just informed us that the particles are small enough to pass through the filter they use with dialysis. Our recommendation is to perform dialysis on you. If we remove the rest of the Kryptonite, you should be able to recover completely."

"Then do it," he whispered. "I don't see that there's a choice."

"Fine. I have to tell you, it will take several hours." The doctor smiled. "But I can guarantee it's more fun than the treatment you just had."

"Fine. Let's do it." Superman was all business now. Knowing that he could be successfully cured was giving his emotions a boost.

As he spoke, a technician wheeled a portable dialysis machine into the cubicle. Speaking rapidly, the doctor explained the procedure. Within minutes, Superman's blood was circulating through the machine.

Lois felt the tension in her shoulders subside for the first time since her arrival at Clark's apartment. He was going to be all right. They just had a few loose ends to tie up, like the Costmart story and Diana Stride. "Piece of cake," she thought.

"I'll turn the television on. It'll give you something to do while you're lying here." The cheerful nurse clicked on the remote control.

An announcer's voice blared: "Tonight on Top Copy! Diana Stride and the secrets of Superman!"

The scene showed a shot of Diana, saying, "Does the Man of Steel lead a secret life? Find out — tonight, only on Top Copy."

Lois and Superman stared at the television, afraid to meet each other's eyes.

***

The motherly nurse broke the silence. "Boy, those people'll do anything for ratings, won't they?" She smiled gently at Superman. "Don't worry about her. Everyone knows that most of what they have on that show is fake." The nurse bustled about the room, checking the various monitors and the dialysis machine. She nodded at the doctor and left the cubicle.

"Superman, the dialysis will take around four hours to complete. After that, your body should be free of the Kryptonite." The doctor looked at his patient, assessing his condition. "How are you feeling now?"

"Better," Superman replied. "Not great, but definitely better. The pain is more of a dull ache now. And I feel like I might actually be able to move under my own power one day." He grinned ruefully. "Thank you. You saved my life."

"You're welcome. I guess it's only fair. You've saved enough lives yourself." He regarded Superman consideringly. "Do you think that there is any truth to the theory about your powers coming from the sun?"

"Maybe, but I really don't know. Why?"

"Because if there is, after we finish the dialysis, you need to spend some time in the sun. Considering that it's winter, you can't exactly go outside. You'd freeze." The doctor continued, "We have a solarium on the third floor. I think I'll send you up there for a few hours after we finish here. If everything goes well, you can probably be released by about four or five o'clock this afternoon."

Lois broke in. "Not till then? But what about catching the person who did this to him?"

"Ms. Lane, an hour and a half ago, I wouldn't have been willing to bet money on Superman ever walking out of this hospital. He has been, and still is, extremely ill." He gave her a pointed look. "Can I quote you? 'He's dying.' You weren't far from the truth. Give the man time to heal. If I release him from the hospital before he's ready, he could be affected by any diseases he encounters. Let the police catch his assailant." The physician smiled at Lois, taking some of the sting from his words. "I understand your impatience. But he's made tremendous progress in a very short time. That's the best I can do."

He turned back to Superman. "Someone will check on you about every fifteen minutes. In the interim, if you need anything, use the call button. And keep sucking on those ice chips. You need the fluid." Snapping shut his patient's chart, he left the room, closing the door behind him.

As soon as she was sure that they were alone, Lois turned to Clark. "Oh, god, Clark. I was so scared. I really thought you were dying." She choked back a sob.

"Shh. It's okay. I'm not dying," he whispered, protecting his sore throat. Clark stretched out his one free hand to her. "Thank you."

"For what?"

"For looking for me. For getting me help." His expression was solemn. "If you hadn't, I'm very sure I'd be dead."

Her fingers clutched his convulsively. "What exactly happened?" She looked at him closely. "Do you feel like talking about it?"

Clark sighed deeply. He really didn't feel like talking about anything. His throat still hurt; he had a headache;and while he felt better without all the tubes that had been in his body, he was still uncomfortable. The electrodes attached to his chest itched, and the shunts in his veins hurt a bit. Having never been exposed to modern medical treatments in his life, Clark decided that he would be happy never to have to experience them again. Lying in the room with his eyes shut seemed like an excellent idea. "Lois, can I give you the Reader's Digest version?" he asked. "It still hurts to talk much."

His partner was immediately contrite. "Clark, I'm sorry. It's just hard to remember how bad you must feel right now. You look so much better than you did when I found you." She gave him a watery smile. "Yeah, you can give me the bare outline."

"Well, you know that I went to Smallville last night?" At her nod, he continued. "My mom figured out how to use the hologram and a tape to make it look and sound as if Superman is talking to reporters." He stopped talking and looked around for the ice chips.

"What, Clark?"

"Ice chips. The doctor said I should eat them, and maybe they'd help my throat."

She found them on the counter under the television. "Here you go." She spooned some into his mouth.

"Thanks." He sucked on them for a minute before continuing. "When I got back a little after midnight there was a message from Diana. She said she wanted to spend some time, one-on-one with Superman. So I flew over there."

"Why didn't you call me?" She glared at him.

"Lois, she said 'alone.' Besides, I had just flown past your apartment. You were already asleep. I didn't want to wake you up." It had all seemed so reasonable last night. Clark grimaced. Talking was increasing the pain in his throat.

"But you knew she was out to get you!" Lois spat at him. "Clark, how could you put yourself in that kind of danger?" Her voice shrill with remembered anxiety, she went on, "You know she's an assassin. You know Intergang wants to stop Superman. What on earth possessed you to go over there alone?" Lois stood and began to pace around the tiny treatment room.

Running his hand through his hair, Clark groaned in frustration. While he couldn't fault Lois for her logic, he did think her timing could have been better. He still felt terrible; and to make matters worse, he had yet to deal with Diana Stride's attempt to expose his secret identity on national television. He really didn't feel up to being berated by his irate partner just then, even if she was right. Her anger, justifiable though it might be, was more than he could cope with at the moment.

"Lois, I …"

A sharp knock on the door interrupted him. The cheery voice of the nurse rang out, "Can I come in? It's time to check your vital signs."

"Yes," he rasped, glad of the reprieve.

The nurse set about her tasks quickly, taking his blood pressure, pulse and respiration rate, and then checking the flow and settings on the dialysis machine. When she finished, she offered Superman some ice chips, which he accepted gratefully. Turning to Lois, she said, "Ms. Lane? Could I speak with you outside a minute? Superman, I promise I won't keep her too long."

Lois reluctantly followed her from the room. Peering at the nurse's name tag, Lois said, "Yes, Ms. O'Brien? What can I do for you?"

All traces of good humor vanished from the nurse's face, to be replaced by a stern frown. "What you can do for me, Ms. Lane, is stop upsetting my patient."

"What's *that* supposed to mean?" Lois snapped.

"It means exactly what I said. I left the two of you alone for fifteen minutes. I returned to find Superman's blood pressure elevated, his pulse racing, and his breathing more labored than when I left." She held up a hand. "And don't try to tell me that you aren't responsible. I could hear you fussing at him from halfway down the hall."

"But…" Lois tried to defend herself.

"No buts. I don't know what you were angry with him about, and I don't care. You may even be right about whatever it is. But this is neither the time nor the place to let Superman know just how stupid you think he was to wind up here."

Before Lois could open her mouth to interject a comment, Nurse O'Brien continued, "Superman has been through a terrible ordeal today, and it isn't over yet. Someone tried to kill him and nearly succeeded. Superman has had to undergo extremely unpleasant medical procedures because of that. Not once has he complained, even though he has to have been miserable. He needs peace and quiet to recover. If you can't provide that, then you'll have to leave. Is that perfectly clear?"

Lois looked into the steely eyes of the nurse turned tigress, and suddenly her face crumpled. "Oh, god, I'm doing it again, aren't I?"

"Doing what?"

"Not thinking about anyone but myself. It's just that I was so worried, and now he's all right, and I got carried away, and didn't stop to think about how he might be feeling. I mean, he seems so much better." She sniffed. "Now he probably won't want to see me again."

Nurse O'Brien regarded Lois gravely. "He is better, but he's still not well. And until the Kryptonite is completely out of his system and the effects have worn off, he's going to feel pretty awful. I can guarantee you that he has a terrible sore throat, and probably feels like he's been run over by a steam roller. Depending on how long it takes him to get his powers back, he could feel pretty uncomfortable for several days." She paused. "Don't you think you could wait until he's himself again before you chew him out?"

"Yes. You're right." Lois squared her shoulders. "Can I go back in now?"

"Of course, as long as you don't upset him. Oh! Could you get him some shorts? When we transfer him up to the solarium, I doubt he wants to be wearing a hospital gown. Plus, the more skin that can be exposed to the sun, the better, we think."

"Uh, yeah. Sure, I can do that." Lois reached for the doorknob. "Can I talk to him for a minute?"

"Of course." The nurse smiled at her and moved off.

Lois slipped quietly into the room. The hum of the machine was the only sound. Superman was lying completely still in the bed, his eyes shut. For a minute she thought he might have fallen asleep, but a twitch in his jaw betrayed him.

Mindful of his secret, she whispered, "Superman? Are you awake?"

His eyelids opened slowly, as if he was afraid of what might greet him. "Yeah," he croaked.

"I'm really sorry. I shouldn't have been yelling at you like that. Not that I don't think I have some things to say that you need to hear, but I guess it really isn't the time or the place to say them." She drew a breath. "Plus, I hadn't thought about it, which I suppose I should have, but Nurse O'Brien says that you should still feel terrible, and what I did wasn't fair. I mean if your throat is sore, then you probably don't even feel like talking. And when we do talk about this, you need to be able to talk. So anyway, I'm sorry if I made things worse. And I'm sorry that I got mad at you right now." Lois dissolved into tears. "And you probably want to break up with me now, but it's just that I was so scared and then I was relieved that you're gonna be all right, and I don't know. I'm not too good at this relationship stuff, you know?" She sobbed. "I do love you — more than anyone."

"Lois, come on. Don't cry. I can't stand it when you cry." His voice cracked. "Please, honey." Clark felt a little like crying himself. His emotions were raw, and he was increasingly frustrated with his physical weakness. "Please, come here. I can't touch you when you're over by the door."

She approached his bed and took his free hand, twining her fingers in his. "Shh, don't talk. It still hurts, doesn't it?"

He nodded. "Lois, I love you. I know you're upset, but can we please discuss it later?"

Her heart melted as she looked at him. He seemed so forlorn, lying in the hospital bed, the tubes running in and out of his veins. She smoothed his hair back. "Yes, after you're back to normal, and we've taken care of Diana and the story."

He looked at her searchingly. "The story?" And then it hit him. They still had a story to finish. He wondered idly if the police had done their part yet.

"Yes, sweetheart. *The* story. *Our* story. The one that Henderson gave me the details on when he was here earlier."

"Henderson was here?" he asked.

"Yes, when he was posting the guards on this room." She smiled at him. "I wasn't taking any chances. I don't trust Diana as far as I can throw her."

"So?" he prodded.

"So, he gave me the details, and said we can run it in this afternoon's edition. But not if we don't get it written, we can't." She took a deep breath. "Do you think you'll be okay if I leave you for a while?"

"Lo…is," he began.

"I thought I told you not to talk. I'm going to go get you some shorts to wear in the solarium and pick up my laptop. We can finish the story here, while you're lazing the day away." She looked around for her purse. "Oh, and maybe your parents will be here soon. They're coming in today, aren't they?"

Again, he nodded in assent. "But they can't come here. There's no reason for them to." He thought a minute. "Some shorts would be good. But you can bring my laptop. No need to go to both places." He really needed to stop trying to talk. It hurt too much.

"Okay. On my way. I'll probably be gone an hour or so. I've got to pick up the Jeep at your place, too." Lois leaned over and gave him a swift kiss. "Get some rest while I'm gone." In seconds she was out the door.

Clark lay back on the pillows and sighed wearily. Lois was hard enough to keep up with when he was healthy. If his powers didn't return soon, he was going to be in over his head with his beautiful partner. His eyelids closed slowly, and he sank into a restful sleep.

***

"Tweeet!" Lois' shrill whistle brought a taxi screeching to a halt beside the sidewalk in front of Metropolis General Hospital. "344 Clinton Street," she told the cab driver and settled back in the seat to not enjoy the ride.

The generalized stress of the day hit her as the cab wended its way through the city. Suddenly, Lois felt incredibly weary: physically exhausted and psychologically drained. Closing her eyes, she tried to rest. Images of Clark appeared unbidden in her mind's eye: Superman lying crumpled on the floor of his apartment, too weak to reach the telephone; the Man of Steel strapped to the gurney in the ambulance, the IV in his arm and the oxygen mask obscuring his face; her best friend and boyfriend, resting immobile in the hospital bed, tubes and wires forming a technological spider web over his body.

Lois saw herself as well. She was breaking into Clark's apartment, trying to rouse him from his Kryptonite-induced stupor. Next there was the white-knuckled ride to the hospital in the front of the ambulance, every wail of the siren another knife wound to her heart. She relived the frustration of being ejected from the treatment room and the relief of finally hearing that he would recover. Relief which she had shown by loudly berating him for his stupidity in getting close enough to the Intergang assassin to be poisoned by her.

At that thought, her eyes flew open; and Lois sat bolt upright in shock. What had she done? The nurse said she had heard Lois down the hall. Had she called him Clark or Superman? Lois felt her stomach churn as she realized that she had said "Clark" at the beginning of her tirade. She prayed fervently that she had said it quietly enough that only he had heard her. Even if the nurse hadn't heard Lois call her partner by name, what on earth must she think about the familiarity Lois had used with Superman? While Lois was known to be a friend of his, would people think that they were on good enough terms for her to chew him out like that? The thought that she might have blown Clark's secret made her feel physically ill. "Please, let that nurse not have heard too much," she implored whatever deity might be listening. Tears welling in her eyes, she willed herself to calm down.

Several minutes later, the cab pulled up in front of Clark's building. Lois paid the driver and slowly made her way up the stairs. As she looked at the broken window in the door, she thought idly that if she knew the landlord's number, she would call him to repair it. Shrugging her shoulders as she realized that only Clark had that information, Lois decided the window could wait. She let herself into the apartment and tried to determine if anyone might have broken in since they went to the hospital. His possessions all seemed to be in their places, so she sighed in relief. One less demerit on her tally for today.

Lois moved on into his bedroom in search of a pair of shorts. It had occurred to her that he might need or want to leave the hospital in something other than his Superman costume. She quickly pulled some jeans and a tee-shirt from his drawers along with a pair of blue athletic shorts. Rooting around in his closet produced a gym bag and a pair of tennis shoes. "What else would he need?" she asked herself. Ticking off the mental list as she placed the clothing in the bag she noticed what was missing. "Socks and a coat." She went back to his dresser to find the footwear. She would grab his coat on the way out. She probably ought to grab a baseball cap as well, in case Clark wanted to disguise himself a bit more.

Returning to the living room, Lois decided to use Clark's laptop to finish writing up the rough draft of the story before going back to the hospital. Relieving him of that chore seemed the least she could do under the circumstances. To her dismay, he didn't appear to have a copy of it on the hard-drive. Knowing her partner's compulsion to back everything up, Lois was sure that there had to be a disk somewhere in the apartment with the file. Once again, she went to his closet, trying to visualize which sport coat he had been wearing the day before. Plaid? Brown? Blue, that was it. His navy blue coat with a maroon shirt. She rifled his pockets in search of the diskette. It finally turned up in an inside pocket. Breathing an enormous sigh of relief, she sat back down at the laptop.

Lois typed furiously, her fingers flying over the keyboard. The satisfaction she felt as she wrote the last line of the article was immense. Bill Church and Intergang were going to be broken at last. And Clark was going to be alive to see it. The only loose ends that needed tidying were the actual capture of Diana Stride and the protection of Clark's secret identity, which, she realized yet again, she had jeopardized just as much as had Diana. Lois saved the article on the disk and shut down the computer.

A cold draft drew her attention to the broken window in the door. Maybe leaving it wasn't such a good idea. Reaching for the telephone book, she looked up the number of the nearest glazier. A quick phone call later, she had made arrangements for the repairs.

Glancing at her watch, she noticed that it was only half past noon. It seemed like a lifetime had passed in the last four hours. Clark was scheduled to be on the dialysis machine for at least another hour or so. That would give her enough time to figure out what to do about Nurse O'Brien and any suspicions she might have. Lois wandered into the kitchen area looking for some lunch. The take-out cartons in Clark's refrigerator looked interesting until she remembered that Clark didn't have a microwave oven. Lois rummaged around, pulling out a cream soda and a left-over half sandwich. She carried them back to the sofa, mulling over her options.

She could, of course, leave well enough alone, and hope that the nurse had either heard nothing more than her raised voice and accusatory tone. And if she had heard more, it was abundantly clear that Nurse O'Brien had taken a proprietary interest in the Man of Steel and would protect him as if he were her own chick. That was the path of least resistance, one that Lois Lane had never taken in her life. So, if she wasn't going to say nothing, then what was she going to say? Lois bit off another mouthful of stale hoagie and continued to think. She could take the direct approach and ask the nurse exactly what she had heard. Presumably, she would tell Lois the truth. That, of course, meant that Lois might be left with the knowledge that she, and she alone, had destroyed any chance that Clark might have of retaining his secret identity. Unless, of course, the maternal instincts of the nurse held fast and kept her from selling the story to the highest bidder.

She would have to talk to the nurse, Lois decided. Not knowing was worse than knowing. Maybe, if she was lucky, Clark would pardon her in time. She resolutely squared her shoulders, finished the travesty of a lunch, and gathered up Clark's clothing. Lois headed for the door, only to be stopped by thoughts of Martha and Jonathan. Although she didn't know when they were supposed to arrive, they would undoubtedly try to get in touch with Clark, either here or at the Planet. Lois strode over to his desk and dashed off a note, telling them to call her on her cell phone if they didn't find either Clark or her at the newsroom. This time, she managed to leave the apartment and find her Jeep.

As she drove back to the hospital, thoughts of her carelessness at the hospital tormented Lois. When she and Clark had first started dating, they had discussed how important it was to hide their feelings for each other when he was in the Suit. Lois had known it would be difficult, but until this morning, she had managed fairly well to treat Superman with a certain amount of detachment. Her fear had overridden her sense, however, and now she was terrified that she had let the secret slip out in an unguarded moment. And it didn't help her feelings of guilt to know that Clark would undoubtedly forgive her. Whether or not she'd ever be able to forgive herself was another matter entirely.

Lois was almost glad to see the parking lot of Metropolis General in front of her. At least she'd soon know if she had whistled all her chances for happiness down the wind or not. She found a spot and pulled in. Carrying Clark's gym bag, Lois entered the hospital and made her way back to the emergency department, searching for Nurse O'Brien as she walked. Finding her at the nurses' station, Lois approached her.

"Do you have a minute?" Lois asked. "I'd like to talk to you."

"Certainly," the older woman replied. "Why don't we go in there?" She motioned to an empty treatment room.

Lois followed her into the cubicle and took a deep breath. "Ms. O'Brien, when you said earlier that you could hear me 'fussing at Superman halfway down the hall,' what exactly did you mean?" She clenched her fingers tightly on the handles of the laptop and the gym bag, afraid of the answer.

"That was a bit of an exaggeration, actually," the nurse confessed. "All I really heard was your tone of voice right before I knocked on the door. As I said, it sounded like you were scolding him about something, but I didn't really hear what you said." She smiled tightly at Lois. "But when I saw how much worse his vital signs had become, I knew that you must have upset him. It seemed to me that it would take pretty strong words to get through to you at that moment." She gave Lois an apologetic look. "I'm sorry if I upset you, but I have to protect my patients."

"That's all right. I understand, really I do. I probably needed to be slapped or whatever it is you do to hysterical people. It was just such a shock to find Superman so sick, you know? And my partner, Clark, is out on assignment by himself today, so I haven't had him to keep me in line," Lois rattled on a bit nervously.

"Is that why you brought Superman in to the hospital? I must admit, I didn't know that he had any real friends until today."

"Yes, Superman and Clark are really close. I think they've known each other since Superman first arrived in Metropolis." The relief Lois felt was intense. She hadn't ruined Clark's life after all. But it had been a little too close for comfort. She made a mental note to be on her guard in the future. "Oh! I should have asked this first. How is he? Have you checked on him lately?"

"Yes, Ms. Lane. He's doing fine. His vital signs are stable again, and the dialysis seems to be working. Superman has been sleeping since you left," the nurse informed her.

"He's asleep, not unconscious?" Lois needed to be sure.

"Yes, just asleep, which is probably the best thing for him right now."

Lois looked at her sheepishly. "If I promise to be quiet, can I go back and see him?"

"Certainly. But try not to wake him. Sleep is a wonderful healer." The nurse opened the door for Lois, and the two women exited the room.

Creeping quietly into Superman's cubicle, Lois was relieved to see that his color was better; and his breathing was steadier. She gently placed his clothing and the laptop computer on the floor and sat down in the chair by his bed. Closing her own eyes, she listened to the steady drone of the dialysis machine and the beep of the EKG monitor. Lois was about to drift off to sleep herself, when she sensed him stir.

"Lois?" he whispered.

She opened her eyes and looked into his, no longer dull with pain. "Superman, are you feeling better?"

"Yes, much better, actually." He grinned ruefully. "It's amazing what having everything that can be sucked out of your body actually sucked out will do for you."

She laughed. "I can see the headline now: New medical advance sucks."

He swallowed experimentally. "Hmm. My throat even feels better."

It didn't sound better, though. Clark was still extremely hoarse in Lois' opinion. "That's great. Really great. Because you have work to do." She smiled at his bewildered expression. "The story, remember?" Lois spoke quietly, the need for discretion still uppermost in her mind. The close call she'd had with Nurse O'Brien was making her nervous. Who knew when someone would come waltzing in to check something?

Clark shook his head. "I wonder what it is about that story that makes me keep forgetting about it."

"Gee, I don't know. Maybe because you got just a little *too* involved with it?" she teased. "It's probably very Freudian."

"And what would you know about Freud?" he asked as he struggled to sit up in the hospital bed.

"You'd be surprised. I know all sorts of things." Lois moved closer to help him, plumping his pillows and adjusting the slant of the mattress. "You know, a bed like this could be kind of fun to have at home." She looked at it with interest.

Clark gave a low chuckle. "Oh, you need rails to keep you from falling out?"

"Watch it, buster. I know guys who know guys." She placed the laptop on the table by his bed and opened it. "I went ahead and finished the rough draft, but you need to look at it and see if I missed anything." Lois fished in her purse for the papers Henderson had given her. "You might want to check these out first, though."

"Okay. Give me a couple of minutes." He perused the police documents and turned to the article on the computer screen. Clark made a few suggestions about slight changes to the piece, eliciting an amused, "Are you ever *not* going to edit my copy?" from his partner.

He considered the question for a minute and then replied, "Nah. You'll always need my input if you want perfection. That's why, together, we are the best." Clark flashed a blinding grin at her.

Thrilled to have her partner back, Lois let the remark slide. "There are a couple of other things we need to discuss."

"Such as?"

"Well, for one thing, the Kents are on their way to Metropolis. Do you know if they expect Clark to meet them at the airport?"

Clark shook his head in denial. "No, I believe they said they'd get a cab."

"Okay. Then there is the matter of getting the story to Perry in time for the afternoon edition."

"I think you should take it into the office, Lois. One of us needs to be able to answer questions, and I'm in no position to leave here yet." Clark deliberately kept his voice low, although his residual hoarseness still made talking an effort.

"What about the fact that Diana Stride is still out there somewhere looking for you?"

"You don't know that. I'd be willing to bet that she isn't looking for me. Purchasing a one-way ticket to another continent is more likely."

Lois persisted. "Either way, we need to catch her."

Clark sighed. "No, *we* do not need to catch her. The police can do it. *We* need to get that article to Perry so it can make it to print today. I'm safe as long as I'm here since you got Henderson to find me some bodyguards." He took her hand. "Lois, please do this. Please forget about catching Diana and go into the Planet."

Clark's obvious agitation worried Lois; he seemed to have forgotten that he wasn't "Clark" here, but Superman. It was a good thing that the room was pretty much soundproof. Wavering under the onslaught of emotion his pleading caused, Lois tried once more. "And what about that program tonight? Have you any idea what she's going to say?"

"If she's willing to advertise as explicitly as she has, I assume that she at least thinks she has something. Then again, if it's a tabloid show…"

"What?! Go on the air with no proof?"

"Think about it, Lois. Isn't the show sort of an electronic Dirt Digger? Those people don't care about facts, just ratings. Don't worry about it."

"Don't worry about it, he says. It'll be fine, he says. This man would be optimistic if he was Noah's neighbor and it had already started raining," Lois ranted, albeit softly.

Clark smiled at her. She was so beautiful when she was impassioned. "I'm serious, Lois. My mom and I have it all figured out. Now, please, go to the Planet and turn in that article. I'm sure I'll still be here when you get back."

"No, the nurse said maybe only an hour more."

"Well," he said reasonably, "if I'm not here, I'll be wherever that solarium is." He squeezed her hand. "Now, go."

Lois reluctantly let go his fingers and gathered up the laptop and her purse. "Be careful, okay?"

"I'll see what I can do." His smile was infectious, and she grinned back at him in spite of her worry.

"See you in a while, then." She left the room, feeling much better than she had in hours.

***

Clark watched the door close behind Lois and breathed a sigh of relief. For a minute or five, he hadn't been at all sure that she was going to acquiesce and take their article to the Planet. If one of them didn't make at least a token appearance, Perry was likely to ask questions that would be difficult in the extreme to answer. Lois, however, would be able to take care of any issues that Perry might raise; Clark was certain of *that.*

Massaging his aching neck with his free hand, Clark turned his attention to his most pressing problem. Diana Stride was still at large, presumably going about her daily routine, which today just happened to include ruining his life. Once she discovered that Superman was not dead, but was, in fact, well on the road to recovery from her assassination attempt, it was likely that the Intergang operative would strike again. She had a reputation to uphold, after all, as well as her own safety to consider. Intergang's leaders were well-known for dealing harshly with inefficient operatives. The $64,000 question was: when and how would she try again?

Diana had been completely in control of the situation the night before. She had taken him by surprise, and Superman had been on her turf and too concerned about her story to be wary of her. The thought that she might also try to kill him had never occurred to him. Clark was determined not to find himself in that situation the next time he encountered the anchorwoman cum assassin — which meant he had to initiate the contact and control the setting. In his still weakened condition, he would not be able to act alone: he'd need an ally.

Clark briefly considered asking his partner to help him trap the assassin but quickly rejected the idea. The way she had lit into him about last night convinced him that Diana wouldn't need to finish him off: Lois would do the job for her if she discovered Clark's plans. That left the police. Contacting them might prove to be a challenge; he didn't see a telephone anywhere in the room.

Two minutes later the nurse reentered his room, her eyes on his chart. "Time for your vitals again. How are you feeling now?"

Her tone was cheerful, and her manner reminded Clark of his mother. At that thought, his eyes watered yet again. Blinking back the moisture, he swallowed the lump in his throat before replying. "Not too bad, I guess, all things considered." He took a deep breath before going on, "But even though I feel better physically, I still don't feel like myself. It's kind of hard to explain."

Nurse O'Brien gazed at him, sympathy evident in her expression. "Do you mean emotionally, Superman?"

"Yes, that, and, oh, I don't know, mentally, too. I feel like I've gotten stupid or something. I can't seem to think too clearly right now." Clark ran his hand through his hair in frustration. "This is gonna sound ridiculous, but I feel really … uh … depressed." He flushed in sudden embarrassment as he heard his voice admit that. Superman was supposed to be strong and stoic. Squirming a bit, he tried to explain, "I've never felt like this before." Clark really felt like crying; he felt like a child who wanted his mother. He certainly couldn't tell the nurse *that.* Clark wasn't sure he could even admit feeling that way to Lois. It was difficult enough acknowledging it to himself.

"Well, I don't think that what you're feeling is either unusual or abnormal, Superman. As I told your friend earlier, your body has been subjected to tremendous trauma in the last twelve hours or so. Not only have you been subjected to the effects of the toxin you ingested, you've had to deal with the medical treatment necessary to save your life. All of that is not only hard on your body but also on your emotions. It can't be easy knowing that someone tried to murder you, either." She smiled gently at him as she patted his hand. "Have you ever really been sick before?"

He shook his head. "Not like this, no."

"I would imagine that it's been pretty scary at times today. Waking up to find yourself unable to move or even speak would terrify most people. Don't be so hard on yourself. You're going to be fine, but it may take a day or two to get back to normal." She smiled sympathetically. "If you want to cry, go ahead. I won't tell anyone."

Stunned that Nurse O'Brien had seen through him so clearly, Clark remained speechless.

Plumping his pillows, she continued, "Now, before I leave you, is there anything you want or need? How about something cold to drink? Is ginger ale all right?"

He nodded. "That would be fine, thank you." He added as the thought struck him, "Could you please ask one of the policemen out there to contact Inspector Henderson for me? I need to talk to him."

"Certainly." With a final plump of his pillow, she left the room. "Be right back with that soda."

Left alone, Clark wondered at his reactions to the events of the day. It dawned on him that he did want his mother. If he could only see her, he knew she would help him put things into perspective. Her calm, good sense would bring some order to the chaos that was his life at the moment. Tears rose again in his throat. Maybe Nurse O'Brien was right. Perhaps he should give in to his desire to weep. He could hardly feel worse, and it might help. Clark turned his face into the pillow and let out the sob that had been choking him. Right now, he didn't feel like the Man of Steel; he felt more like the Man of Limp Dishrag. Clark hoped that the condition was temporary. The debilitating weakness he was experiencing was becoming increasingly annoying. Nurse O'Brien did have a point. His physical condition was undoubtedly influencing his mental state.

Other than the fleeting sense of relief he'd felt when Lois had found him in his apartment that morning, his emotions had mostly been disturbing since he'd realized what Diana Stride had done to him. He'd felt anger at her and at his own gullibility, fear of dying alone and as Superman rather than as Clark, terror at being completely under the control of others when he had first regained consciousness in the hospital, and an almost overwhelming sense of depression all morning, due no doubt to his physical condition and to his concerns about what Diana Stride was planning on broadcasting. Lois had helped save his life, but when he had tried to thank her, she had scolded him roundly. He knew she loved him, and that she was reacting out of her own fears and trauma, but the episode had only served to depress him further. It was obvious that he and his girlfriend still had some details of their relationship to work out, but it would have to wait on solving the Diana Stride problem. And for that, he needed to talk to Henderson.

A sharp rap on the door signaled the return of his nurse. Bustling back into the room, she handed him the soft drink along with the news that Inspector Henderson was on his way to the hospital. "The officer who called him said it should be about ten minutes."

"Thanks. I really appreciate your help." He managed a weak grin.

"Here, let me check you again. It's about time." She looked at the readouts and smiled. "Coming along nicely, Superman. And you only have about another half hour on dialysis." Having noticed the traces of tears, she wiped his face with a damp cloth. "Once we get you up to the solarium, I imagine you'll feel a lot better. These little cubicle rooms are pretty depressing, you know." The RN wrote down his vital signs and left the room, leaving Clark alone with his thoughts once more.

***

Lois carefully steered her Jeep through the crowded streets of Metropolis on her way to the Daily Planet building. Her initial sense of elation over the successful completion of the Sew-Rite investigation faded as she thought about her partner. Clark was definitely not himself. He wasn't thinking clearly; that was plain. And he was obviously an emotional wreck at the moment. She had never seen Clark exhibit such mood swings as she had today. He seemed to be shifting between depression and cheerfulness without any reason for the changes. Of course, Lois had to admit, he had been through the wringer today; and it was only early afternoon. Perhaps once the ER personnel had all the Kryptonite out of his system and got him under the rays of the sun, he would settle back into the man she knew. To be fair, Lois doubted that she'd be doing as well as Clark was if it had been she who'd been left to die a slow, agonizing death. She frowned at the thought. Poor Clark. She had hated leaving him alone in the hospital, but he was right. One of them needed to make an appearance in the newsroom.

The Planet's parking garage entrance loomed in front of her. Lois yanked on the steering wheel, turning in. After finding a spot, she gathered her belongings and made her way to the elevator. With any luck, Perry would be out to lunch; and she wouldn't have to answer any difficult questions. She pushed the button for the third floor and leaned against the elevator wall. Would this day *ever* end? she wondered idly.

The elevator rose smoothly in its shaft, the doors sliding open on the platform overlooking the newsroom bullpen. Lois stepped off and immediately realized that the fates were not with her.

"Lois, in my office, now!" the editor's bark reached her ears.

She took a deep breath and squared her shoulders. When Perry's voice held that particular tone, there was no worming one's way out of lengthy explanations. Lois hoped her mind was up to the challenge. Not even pausing at her desk, she strode into the editor's office. Having long ago realized that the best defense was a good offense, she immediately plunked the diskette on his desk. "Here's the story that will win the next Pulitzer Prize, Perry. Clark and I just finished it."

She sat down in the wing-backed chair facing his desk and waved at his computer. "Aren't you going to look at it? Henderson says it's good to go." Lois hoped desperately that Perry wouldn't notice thather partner had been missing all day. Meeting a source only took so long. Hmm, maybe Clark could be meeting his parents at the airport.

"In a minute, Lois. It'll keep. I'm sure that it's fine. Right now, I'm a little more interested in what's going on with you and Clark."

Lois feigned confusion. "I'm not sure what you mean, Perry. Nothing's going on with Clark and me. We're fine."

Perry turned a look of pure disbelief on his star reporter. "Lois, you know that's not what I'm talkin' about. Where is Clark? He hasn't been in the newsroom at all today, and he hasn't called. That isn't like him and you know it."

"Well, of course he hasn't called in. I have." She returned to the offensive. "Since when do both of us have to call to say where we are?"

Perry sighed. She wasn't called "Mad Dog Lane" for no reason. "Lois, honey, Ralph was driving down Clinton Street this morning. He noticed an ambulance outside Clark's building. Needless to say, he was worried when he saw your Jeep parked outside." He pierced her eyes with a minatory stare. "Tell me the truth. Is Clark ill or injured? And if he is, why have you been lying to me all morning? What have you been trying to hide?"

Completely taken aback, Lois swallowed hard. Blind-sided by Perry's question, she had no idea what to say. Stalling for time, she began, "Perry, I can't believe you would accuse me of lying to you. You've known me long enough to know better than that. I don't know if I'm hurt or angry." She sniffed in self-righteous indignation. "Of course Clark isn't ill or injured. He's with Superman right now, in fact." Mentally apologizing to Clark, she went on, "Diana Stride attempted another assassination last night. Henderson, Superman, and Clark are on the case now." At least she hoped Henderson was on the case. "If Ralph saw my Jeep at Clark's apartment, that's because I had gone there to pick up his laptop. As for the ambulance, I suppose somebody on the street must have needed it. I was in a hurry and didn't stop to inquire." All of which was somewhat true, even if the timing of events was off a bit. "Please, let Perry buy this," she thought.

Her employer eyed her carefully. "All right, if you say so." He turned to put the diskette in the slot on his computer. Perry clicked a few buttons to bring up the text file and soon was engrossed in reading the article.

Lois, meanwhile, slumped back in the big plaid chair. That had been a little too close for comfort. She silently entreated all the powers of heaven to help Clark make enough of a recovery to be able to come into the office before the end of the day. His continued absence was becoming a problem, and she was running out of ideas for plausible excuses. Her concern for protecting his secret was growing hourly. Not only did he have the assassin to deal with, but now Ralph was poking his nose into Clark's affairs. Ralph wasn't much good when it came to journalistic investigations, but he was like a terrier in search of a bone when it came to office gossip. If anyone would believe an expose by Diana Stride, it would be Ralph.

"Okay, Lois." Perry had finished reading. "You may be right, Lois. This is a very powerful piece of writing. If you and Clark don't win an award for this, I'll be surprised." He cleared his throat. "But even if you don't, you all will have the satisfaction of knowin' that you had a hand in bringing down Intergang, and helping hundreds of people in the process." He gave her a genuine smile. "Top of page one in this afternoon's edition." He clicked a few more buttons and sent it to the composing staff. "Good work, you two."

Seizing the opportunity, Lois rose. "Thanks, Chief. If that's all, I've got some research to do."

He nodded his dismissal, and she gratefully made her escape. Settling down at her desk, Lois booted up her computer and opened her email program. She was reading the first message when her telephone rang.

"Lois Lane," she spoke into the receiver.

"Ms. Lane?" a soft voice whispered. "You work with Clark Kent, right?"

"Yes," she warily replied. "Who is this?"

"My name is Joan Perkins. I'm on the production staff at 'Top Copy.' Superman saved my child's life last year. I just can't let him and Mr. Kent not know what's going to be shown tonight."

Startled, Lois asked, "What's going to be shown?"

The voice went on, "Diana Stride is going to broadcast evidence that Superman is really Clark Kent. She's built a pretty strong case. I think people will believe it when they see the show tonight." The woman paused, allowing time for the message to sink in. "Personally, I don't care what Superman does, or who he is, in his spare time. If he does have a secret identity, I figure he probably has a good reason that isn't anyone else's business. Superman does a lot of good for this city and the world. I'd hate to see his life ruined just for ratings." She took a long breath and continued, "Maybe if he knows about it, he can figure out how to prove that Superman and Clark Kent are two different people."

"Have you seen what she has?" Lois demanded.

"Yes, she's got film of Superman's belongings in Mr. Kent's apartment as well as film of Superman himself there. It's all circumstantial evidence, but it's still pretty convincing." The woman paused a moment. "One other thing. I've been told to alert the media that they should stake out the Planet and Mr. Kent's home during the show. He can expect reporters to be waiting to interview him the minute the show is off the air tonight. I can't say any more." There was a click, and the line went dead.

Lois stared at the receiver still in her hand. Although she was horrified by what she had heard, she wasn't terribly surprised. And at least she now knew what they were up against. The first course of action was to warn Clark. For the second time that day, Lois grabbed her purse and fled the newsroom.

***

Alone in the solitude of the treatment room, Clark sipped on his ginger ale and winced as he thought of how completely he had let down his guard with Nurse O'Brien. He had rarely let anyone outside of his parents or Lois see his emotional vulnerability before, even with people who knew him as Clark rather than as Superman. To have let a stranger, albeit a kindly one, see Superman as anything less than invincible was unthinkable. Yet he had just done it with his nurse. He hoped that she would keep her word and not tell anyone about his lapse. The last thing he needed was for the world to view Superman as weak.

Strength was Superman's forte. Right now, he needed to find some of his strength in order to deal with the danger that was Diana Stride. He hoped that Inspector Henderson and he would be able to come up with a plan that would draw the assassin out into the open where she could be apprehended, preferably before the broadcast of Top Copy. If she were discredited, perhaps the network would pull the show. Clark wasn't particularly sanguine about that though. Ratings were ratings, and the story she had filmed would undoubtedly bring in high ones. Thus it was likely that he would have to combat her electronic attack along with the physical one. He pondered wryly that it would help if he knew what she was planning to say. Clark also wondered how much longer it would be before Henderson arrived. He seemed to have lost all sense of time in the last twelve hours, and he couldn't see a clock in the room from the hospital bed.

As if on cue, a sharp rap on the door preceded Henderson's voice. "Can I come in?" Without waiting for a reply, the police inspector pushed open the door and strolled into the room. "So, Superman, I understand you wanted to see me. What do you need?"

Forcing himself to remember that he was Superman, Clark replied, "Thank you for coming, Inspector. I want to talk to you about Diana Stride."

Henderson raised an eyebrow. "Yes?" he asked laconically. "We're looking for her, I assure you, but she appears to have gone to ground somewhere. No one has seen her since earlier this morning when she dropped off some videotapes to be edited together for tonight's edition of her program."

Clark inhaled deeply. "I think we need to draw her out if we want to catch her."

"We?" Henderson's tone was almost surprised.

"Yes, we," Clark persevered. "If she knew where I was, I think she'd come looking for me. She can't afford to let me live. She'd come out of hiding to try to finish the job." He looked hopefully at the detective.

"Let me get this straight," Henderson said dryly. "You want Diana Stride, a suspected assassin for Intergang, a woman who has apparently already tried to kill you once in the last twenty-four hours, to come looking for you? And then what?"

"And then we catch her." Clark grinned sheepishly at Henderson. "Well, actually, then you or your men catch her. I'm not really in any kind of shape yet to do it myself."

The inspector directed a quizzical look at Superman. "Funny, you don't look like Lois Lane."

Startled at the mention of his partner, Clark asked, "What is *that* supposed to mean?"

Henderson's eyebrow went up another notch. "Come on, Superman. You should know exactly what I mean. Surely you know that woman well enough to realize that this is exactly the kind of scheme she'd come up with." His mouth twitched in some semblance of a grin as he went on, "Frankly, I don't know how Kent stands it. I'm convinced she must risk both their lives at least twice a week."

Clark smiled thinly at the comment. "Probably. I know that's about how often I have to save them."

"So what exactly did you have in mind?" the detective inquired dryly.

"I thought maybe you might know how to let the word get to Diana that I was here, but getting treatment. You could post some plain-clothes detectives instead of the ones in uniforms. When she shows up, as I'm sure she will, they can arrest her. It's simple, really." Clark looked hopefully at Henderson.

The laconic detective temporized, "Don't you think that even plain-clothes bodyguards might be a little obvious here, Superman? This room is pretty small, and there's not exactly anywhere to hide."

"That's the beauty of the plan, Inspector. I'm supposed to be moved in about twenty or thirty minutes. They're putting me in the solarium up on the third floor. Don't you imagine it's a lot bigger? They can pretend to be visiting someone else, or put on scrubs or something." Clark took a deep breath and grimaced. "Just as long as they are close enough to get her before she gets me. I really don't want to go through any more medical treatment if I don't have to."

Henderson chuckled. "Glad you're normally invulnerable, huh?" His lips twisted wryly. "Let me think here a minute. How long do you think the docs are going to keep you upstairs?"

"Probably two or three hours, I think. So if this plan is to work, we need to get going. It might take her a while to get the message and to get here."

"Hmm, yes. This plan could work. We have a very small Intergang fish in the county jail at the moment. I need to talk to the DA, but I'm pretty sure he'll let me spring the guy on a technicality in return for disseminating a little information." Henderson made his way towards the door. Reaching it, he turned and faced Clark. "Superman, until the plain-clothes guys get here, the uniforms stay. I'm not taking any more risks with your life than necessary."

Clark grinned at that comment. "Gee, Inspector, I didn't know you cared so much about my health."

"Your health? Ha! I was thinking of my own. If something were to happen to you, Lois Lane would probably take out a contract on me."

The Superhero laughed at that. "Well, I'd promise to protect you from her wrath, except I guess I wouldn't be able to."

Shaking his head, Henderson opened the door. "We'll see you after they move you upstairs. Try to stay out of trouble till I get back, all right?"

Clark looked ruefully at all the medical equipment still attached to his body. "I don't think that will be a problem."

With a, "See you later," the detective disappeared down the corridor.

Clark sank back into the pillows and assessed his current situation. He was definitely beginning to feel better, both physically and mentally. Talking to Henderson had helped him feel less helpless and more in control of the situation than he had felt since the night before. And while the plan to apprehend the assassin was weak at best, at least he was acting instead of reacting. If his luck was finally in, he and the police would be able to pull it off before Lois returned from the Planet. At that point, all he would have to worry about was the Top Copy broadcast. Perhaps the network brass would pull it if Diana Stride were already in jail. At the worst, his parents would soon be arriving in Metropolis; and with Lois' help, they would be able to put the lie to whatever the program showed. Closing his eyes, Clark decided that things were beginning to look up.

Nurse O'Brien interrupted his musings with a brisk, "Superman? Time for your vitals again." She moved quickly around the cubicle, checking the various machines and their readouts before taking his pulse and blood pressure. The motherly nurse smiled cheerily at him. "You are looking *much* better, I'm happy to say. How do you feel?" Her fingers were cool on his wrist.

"A lot better, since you were here the last time," he responded. "Weird, huh?"

"Oh, I don't know. The body is always somewhat of a mystery, and yours more than anyone else's. Maybe it takes having all the Kryptonite gone from your system for you to be able to truly feel a difference." She shrugged her shoulders. "Does it really matter? What's important is that you are feeling better. And you are definitely looking much better. Your color is really improved. I'd hardly recognize you as the same man that came in here five hours ago." Before he had a chance to reply, she moved to the door. "I'm going to go get the doctor. I think it's time for him to see you again." She quit the room, leaving an almost happy Superman behind.

A few short minutes later, the doctor returned with Nurse O'Brien and a lab technician in his wake. "Let's take a look at you, Superman. I understand that you are beginning to feel more like yourself."

"Yes, I'm beginning to feel a lot better, just in the last half hour or so."

"Well, it looks to me as if we may have gotten all the Kryptonite out of your system. We're going to send a blood sample to the lab to check. If it comes back clear, we'll take you off dialysis and take you on up to the solarium so you can get some exposure to the sun before we send you home."

As the doctor spoke to his patient, the technician was preparing to draw a blood sample. He tied the tourniquet around Clark's arm and felt for a vein. "Make a fist, Superman."

Clark complied, wondering if this was going to hurt as much as everything else had all day. The technician slid the needle into Clark's arm and told him to relax his hand. Siphoning off a test tube full of the Man of Steel's blood, the technician released the tourniquet and quickly applied a bandage. "Bend your arm and hold it tightly for a while to stop the bleeding," he advised. He quickly labeled the tube and left, his destination the laboratory.

Reading through the notations on Superman's chart, the doctor watched his patient from the corner of his eye. The Superhero did seem much healthier than he had the last time the doctor had been in his room. Superman's skin had lost its pallid hue of the morning, and his eyes were no longer flat and bruised-looking from the fever and pain that had ravaged his body. At last the physician spoke, "I want some straight answers here, Superman. No evasions, no hedging. All right?"

Clark nodded, confused as to what the doctor was implying.

"First, are you still in any pain whatsoever?" the doctor queried.

Pausing to consider his answer, Clark finally decided, "Not really. I still feel kind of tired and weaker than normal, but the pain is definitely gone. I don't really even feel achy anymore."

"Good. Now, obviously all your superpowers aren't back. For instance, you are still physically vulnerable. We still have shunts in your veins, and we were able to draw blood a few minutes ago. Are any of your powers back?"

"I haven't tried to find out," Clark confessed. He focused his vision on the door, but saw nothing beyond the interior surface. Closing his eyes, he tried out his superhearing. Whenever he'd been exposed to Kryptonite before, that had always been the first power to return. But it, too, had yet to return. Disappointed, he shook his head sadly. "No, nothing."

The doctor was quick to reply. "I wouldn't worry about it just yet if I were you. The exposure you had this time was particularly severe, and while the treatment we've performed to clean the Kryptonite from your body has been successful, it has also been traumatic in its own way. I would imagine that even with exposure to the sun, it's going to be a couple of days before your powers return completely. If they haven't returned in a few days, then we'll get concerned, all right?"

Clark nodded, numb at the thought that his powers might not return. They always had before; surely they would this time as well. He would take the doctor's advice for now and try to be patient.

Before he could actually respond, the lab tech returned, holding a computer read-out which he handed to the doctor. A wide smile spread across the physician's visage as he perused the paper. "Fantastic!" Turning to the technician and Nurse O'Brien, he gave orders to begin removing Superman from the dialysis machine. "Good news, Superman. There were no traces of Kryptonite at all in the blood we just sent to the lab. As soon as we get you into some sunshine, you should feel even better."

The medical team began the process of removing the shunts, tubes, and sensors from Superman's body. The doctor scrawled some notes on Superman's chart before turning to help the rest of the staff. They made quick work of the process. The technician wheeled the portable dialysis machine from the room while the doctor gave the nurse directions for Superman's care for the next few hours. Clark soon found himself alone in the room with Nurse O'Brien.

"Thank you," he murmured. "I can't tell you how much I appreciate what you've done for me today." He smiled at her.

"No problem. There's nothing I like more than a patient who doesn't complain and gets cured. Sort of makes my day, you know?" she replied cheerily. Waving a hand in the general direction of the chair placed by the side of the bed, she continued, "Ms. Lane brought you some shorts to wear in the solarium. We think that you need to have as much skin as possible exposed to the sun for maximum effect. She also brought you some other clothes, in case you want to leave the hospital incognito. Do you think you can manage on your own, or do you want me to send in an orderly to help you change?"

"I think I can manage on my own, thanks," he responded. "What happened to my uniform?" He hadn't really noticed it in the room.

"It's here, in a plastic bag by the chair with the clothes Ms. Lane brought." Smiling broadly, she told him, "You're lucky the EMTs didn't cut it off. They usually do, you know. I'll leave you now. Push the call button when you're ready to go to the solarium, all right?" As an afterthought, she added, "Don't get too far away from the bed. You are probably weaker than you realize."

"Yes, ma'am," he replied meekly. Clark swung his legs over the edge of the hospital bed as the door closed behind her. Reaching for the gym bag on the chair, he pulled out the shorts and tee-shirt Lois had brought him. Gingerly placing his feet on the floor, he stood carefully, noticing that his head swam a bit as he did so. Clark wasn't terribly surprised by that reaction; after all he had been through, a bit of temporary dizziness wasn't too remarkable. Holding onto the bed with one hand, he slowly changed from the hospital gown to his own clothes. Feeling as if he had performed some super feat, he lay back down and reached for the call button.

"Yes, may I help you?" a disembodied voice asked over the intercom.

"I'm ready to go to the solarium now," he replied.

"All right. Someone will be with you in a moment."

Clark settled back to wait.

***

Unbeknownst to Clark or Henderson, there was no need to lure Diana Stride to Metropolis General Hospital. As Clark was preparing to move from the Emergency Room to the solarium, the Intergang assassin was following the map on her Kryptonite tracer straight to her quarry. As she neared the hospital, it's beeping increased in frequency and volume. Diana smiled maliciously. Her story was set to air, not that it would matter to Superman. He'd be dead long before air-time, if all went according to plan.

***

The shrill tones of her cell phone jarred Lois as she steered her Jeep through the teeming streets of Metropolis. She fumbled for the phone in her purse, grateful for the red light that momentarily stopped her progress. Finding it, she punched the button to respond, "Lois Lane."

"Lois, this is Martha. What's going on? And where on earth is Clark?"

Lois answered in a rush. "It's a long story, Martha. Clark's on assignment. Superman is in the hospital, and I'm on my way there now. Where are you and Jonathan?"

Martha's strangled gasp was the only indication she gave of her distress at Lois' news. "I see. Is Superman all right?" she inquired as calmly as she could. "Does he need anything?" Martha didn't add, "Like his mother?" but Lois thought she heard the implicit question.

"He's going to be fine, Martha. He should be released in a couple of hours. I think he may be planning on going back to Clark's apartment to rest for a while after that; so if you and Jonathan are there, you could see him for yourself." Lois paused to consider how much she really wanted to say over the unsecured connection of a cellular phone. She decided in favor of vague information. "I wouldn't be at all surprised if Clark shows up with him."

Martha took the hint and dropped the subject. "That's fine, then. We'll be looking forward to seeing them later." As an apparent afterthought, she went on, "Will we be seeing you too, Lois?"

"Oh, probably at some point," she replied airily. "I've got a few things to do, and I imagine that I'll have to go back to the Planet at some point."

"All right. You take care. Tell Superman that Jonathan and I are thinking of him, please."

"I will. Talk to you later." Lois cut the connection and sighed wearily. This had definitely been the longest day of her life. Metropolis General loomed up ahead. Lois pulled into the first parking spot she could find. Now that Martha and Jonathan were in town, she was even more impatient to tell Clark about Diana Stride's upcoming expose. All of the puzzle pieces were at last becoming visible; now all they had to do was get whatever plan Clark and his mother had come up with to actually work.

***

Nurse O'Brien chatted with Clark as she pushed his wheelchair to the elevator. "Now when we get you settled in the solarium, I want you to take off your shirt. The more skin you have exposed to the sun, the sooner you'll be back to normal." She chuckled. "We'll try to keep all the Candy Stripers away, okay?"

"That would be nice," he replied. "I'm not sure that I could cope with too much attention right now." Clark shuddered inwardly at the thought of being fawned over by giggling teenagers.

The two police officers followed them into the elevator and watched as the nurse pushed the button for the third floor. A minute later, the doors slid open, and the small party made its way down the corridor to a large sunlit room decorated with recliner chairs and several sofas. A large television in one corner was broadcasting yet another advertisement for the upcoming edition of "Top Copy." Clark winced as he heard the announcer's voice. Not sure when his parents were due to arrive, he wondered what he would do if they didn't make it to Metropolis in time to put their plan into action. Ignorance, too, of exactly what Diana Stride was going to say added to his uncertainty and mental discomfort.

Noticing his reaction to the ad, Nurse O'Brien patted his shoulder reassuringly. "Don't worry, Superman. Everyone knows that shows like that don't care too much about the facts. I'm sure it will be all right."

"I hope so," he replied ruefully. "Being exposed on national television, even if what is presented is a complete fabrication, is not my idea of a good time."

She helped him make the transition from the wheelchair to a comfortable recliner bathed by a large pool of sunlight. The policemen took places nearby. Unfolding a couple of newspapers, they tried to be inconspicuous. "All right, Superman. Your clothes are right here." She indicated a table beside the recliner. "I believe Ms. Lane said she would be back before you get discharged to give you a ride home. Here is the call button if you need anything." She indicated the apparatus attached to his chair. "I'll say good-bye now. Your doctor will come see you in a couple of hours before he releases you. You take care, all right?"

Clark reached for her hand. "Thank you so much for all you've done. I can't tell you how much you've helped me today." He flashed her his megawatt smile. "If there's ever anything I can do for you, just call, okay?"

Nurse O'Brien smiled affectionately at the Man of Steel. "You just stay away from that Kryptonite, you hear?" She squeezed his hand gently and turned to go. "Take care of yourself."

Settling back in the recliner, Clark surveyed the room. There were several entrances and a number of support pillars in it. It appeared to be an ideal spot for Diana to try to finish the job. Only a few other patients were in the solarium, so she probably wouldn't worry too much about being apprehended. He closed his eyes and willed Henderson to return quickly with the undercover officers and word on how soon he could expect Diana's arrival.

***

Moving stealthily through the corridors to the Emergency Room, Diana Stride slipped into an empty room and watched as a nurse pushed a wheelchair bearing Superman to the elevators. Diana stepped back out when she heard the elevator's ping. Watching the lighted numbers intently, she noted that the elevator stopped on the third floor. With a self-satisfied smile, the assassin made her way to the stairwell. After checking to see that she had her equipment safely stowed, she began to climb the stairs. In a very few minutes, Superman would no longer be a threat to criminal society. Diana could scarcely contain her glee.

***

A frantic Lois Lane approached the nurses' station in the ER. "I need to see Nurse O'Brien. Is she here anywhere?"

"No, she just took a patient up to the solarium on the third floor. She should be back in a few minutes," was the calm reply.

"Thanks," Lois called over her shoulder as she headed for the stairwell. She had noticed Diana Stride's slimy cameraman hanging around the lobby when she entered the hospital. There could only be one reason for that, and it didn't bode well for Clark. The Intergang operative must be in the building looking for him. In his current state of vulnerability, Diana wouldn't even need Kryptonite to kill him. Any ordinary weapon would do. Lois bit back her fear as she sprinted up the stairs. As she started on the flight to the third floor, she heard the clang of a closing door. Redoubling her efforts, Lois raced up the last set of stairs and opened the door to the third floor. A glimpse of auburn hair on the white-clad woman entering the solarium at the end of the hall confirmed Lois' fears. Diana was in the solarium, and Clark was powerless to help himself. Lois tore down the hall, cold fear clenching at her heart.

Lois burst into the solarium in time to see Diana approach a recliner chair in which was ensconced the dark-haired figure of Superman. The sun glinted on the silver hypodermic needle that the assassin pulled from a pocket. Watching Diana creep up on the sleeping Superhero like a huntress stalking her prey, Lois felt terror rise in her chest, its cold fingers clenching around her heart. Superman looked so vulnerable, lying there clad only in his shorts, his eyes closed against the glare of the afternoon sun. Lois froze for an instant, her eyes riveted to the scene; then she began to run.

Diana's dulcet tones echoed through the room, "Good-bye, Superman." She reached for his arm, only to feel a firm grasp on her own. Diana stared in shock as Superman held her wrist in both his hands, keeping the lethal needle away from him.

"I don't think so, Diana." Clark's voice was firm, but he wondered what the policemen were doing. He questioned how long his strength would hold out. His glance darted around the solarium, searching for his bodyguards, but help came from an unexpected quarter.

Lois raced across the solarium and launched herself at Diana, knocking her to the floor. "Keep your hands off Superman," she hissed as she wrenched the assassin's arm up behind her back. "Superman, what happened to your bodyguards?" she asked.

"Good question," he answered. He felt a rush of relief as the two policemen finally noticed what was happening and hurried over to seize Diana.

The two officers had the grace to look embarrassed. "Sorry, Superman. We didn't hear her coming, and we didn't see her between the pillars and our newspapers," one of them tried to explain.

Lois picked herself up from the floor and began to search for the hypodermic which had skittered away when she tackled Diana. With a cry of triumph, she found it several yards from Superman's chair. "Yes! I believe this will be plenty of proof of attempted murder, don't you?" she asked the assassin, her tone saccharine. Turning to the police officers, Lois suggested that they contact Inspector Henderson. "By the way, tell him that he should collect Rolf, Diana's cameraman. He's loitering down in the lobby. I have a feeling he's involved in at least some of her crimes."

"Yes, ma'am," the officer replied as his partner slapped the handcuffs on the Intergang operative. He began to read her her rights while the other officer radioed the precinct.

Unable to resist one last jibe, Diana sneered at Clark, "Just wait till tonight, Superman. The entire world will know your secret, so your life will be as good as over anyway."

He paled visibly at that remark, but Lois jumped on Diana immediately. "Don't count on it, Diana. What you think you saw isn't necessarily the truth. I imagine that the Daily Planet's resources can prove you wrong. Trust me; mess with either of my friends, and you will live to regret it. You don't want to make an enemy of me." She gave the television anchor a tight smile that failed to reach her eyes. "Just for the record, you already have. You can read about it in tomorrow's edition. If they let you have access to a newspaper in the county jail, that is." Lois turned her back on Diana as the police officers drew their prisoner away.

Turning to her partner, Lois asked, "Superman, are you all right? I was scared to death when I saw her so close to you." She shuddered in reaction.

Taking her hand in his, Clark replied, "I'm fine, Lois, thanks to you." Trying to lighten the moment, he said, "We really should stop meeting this way."

"I know. I can think of some better things to do together." She bit her lip. "But first, we need to talk. I got a phone call at the Planet a little while ago with information about tonight's Top Copy broadcast. I'll fill you in as soon as Henderson gets here and deals with this mess."

As if on cue, the police inspector strode into the solarium, several additional officers in his wake. "I see that Ms. Stride was ahead of us, Superman. I had just finished making those calls we had talked about when the officers here radioed that they had her in custody. Nice work, Lois. If you ever get tired of being a reporter, give me a call."

"It'll never happen, but thanks, Henderson. Did you get Rolf, too?"

Henderson chuckled dryly. "Yeah, what a strange one. We picked him up in the lobby, and he said, 'Ooh, am I in trouble? Are you going to … punish me?" The police inspector shook his head. "I guess it takes all kinds. Well, Superman, we'll need a statement from you and Lois; and then we'll be out of your hair." He told the uniformed officers to take Diana to the station for booking and drew up a chair. Pulling out his notebook, he proceeded to question Superman and Lois about the events of the last few minutes. Finally satisfied with the information they gave him, he closed his notebook with a snap. "I'll see you two later. Hope you're back to your normal self soon, Superman."

"Thanks, Inspector. Me too." Clark watched the detective's retreating form and waited for Lois' questions to assault him.

"Superman, just what was Henderson referring to back there?" she demanded.

"Would you believe me if I told you I didn't have a clue?" he asked hopefully.

"No, and don't even think it, because Superman doesn't lie."

He grinned sheepishly. "It was worth a try. I really don't want you mad at me, Lois."

"I won't get mad at you."

"Yeah. I wish I could believe that." Inspiration struck. "Didn't you say you got some sort of phone call?"

Diverted from her subject, Lois replied, "Yes. A producer at Top Copy called me and told me what Diana is going to show tonight. You have some time to think of a rebuttal." She wrinkled her brow. "Oh, and Clark's parents are here at his apartment. I have a feeling that they might be a little anxious about all this."

"Probably. Did you tell them very much?" His concern for his parents was in his voice.

"Not really. Just that you were in the hospital, but on the mend and would be out in a few hours. I hope that was okay."

"That's fine. Now tell me what is going to be on that show."

Lois proceeded to give him what details she had while Clark listened in pensive silence. When she came to the end of her recital, he mused, "So I need to come up with a reason for my suits being in the apartment?"

"That's what it sounds like to me. That, and the fact that Diana saw you being hauled out of the apartment on a stretcher."

Clark mused, "I don't think it'll be a problem. We have several hours to come up with a reason for that — like Clark and I are close friends."

His partner giggled, "Yeah, about as close as two guys can get."

Giving her a mock glare he said, "Do you have any idea what time it is? I've lost all sense of time today."

She looked at her watch. "It's about three-thirty. Why?"

"Because I think the doctor is going to release me around four. I need to go home and finish the details of the plan with my parents; and then I really think I should make an appearance at the Planet, don't you?"

"Yes, but do you feel up to it?" She looked him over anxiously.

"Lo…is," he began.

"Don't start that," she snapped.

"Start what?" he asked in a plaintive voice.

"Don't start with that tone you get when you're humoring me. I'm worried about your health. In case you have forgotten, you almost died this morning. I don't think you should overdo it today."

"No, I haven't forgotten. But I really do feel amazingly better. This sun seems to be helping me a lot." He took her hand. "Have I thanked you for saving my life?" His lips twisted. "It's not supposed to be that way, though."

"Yes, you have, several times. You're very welcome." She looked at him, curiosity evident in her gaze. "What's not supposed to be what way?

"You're not supposed to save me. I'm the one who does the saving, you know?"

"Usually. But that's what being partners is all about, isn't it? One stepping in when the other can't? Backing each other up?" She smiled. "And saving each others' lives when necessary?"

Clark rubbed his thumb over her palm. "I guess so. But it still bothers me … that you had to save my life. What if you'd needed me today?"

"I did need you today. Why do you think I decked Diana?"

The Man of Steel succumbed to her logic. "Okay. If you say so. Please tell me it's four o'clock, and I can get out of here. I have things to do and people to see."

Lois smiled at his impatience, happy to see his returning strength and humor. "Thirty more minutes. Let's start planning the story on the arrest of Diana Stride. That should make the time go faster."

"Okay," her partner agreed.

The two reporters spent the next half hour brainstorming about the article, carefully avoiding any discussion of the plans to rebut the Top Copy story. That would have to wait until they could meet with Martha and Jonathan at Clark's apartment.

It was with immense relief that the pair spied Superman's doctor arrive in the solarium. "You look ten times better than when I last saw you," he commented. "Do you feel better?" His fingers encircled Clark's wrist to take his pulse.

"Yes, I do. I think being in the sunshine has helped a lot."

The physician checked the rest of Clark's vital signs, made some notations in his chart, and addressed his patient. "I think it will be all right to release you. Your vital signs have stabilized, and you seem to be in much better shape. Are any of your powers back?"

"No, not yet, but I'm not surprised."

The doctor nodded. "Okay. If they don't return in a few days, come back and we'll take a look. My feeling is that it's just going to take some time. You had a pretty hefty exposure to that Kryptonite. I'm willing to release you now, as long as you have somewhere to go and someone to keep an eye on you."

"Thanks, doctor. Lois is going to take me to stay with a friend till I'm back on my feet."

"Good." The doctor scribbled on some papers, and handed them to Superman. "My office phone number is on the bottom of this sheet if you need to get in touch. Otherwise, good luck. It's been an honor meeting you." He stuck out his hand.

Shaking the doctor's hand, Clark replied, "Thank you so much for your care. I really appreciate it."

A chuckle sounded. "Really? Even all the tubes?"

Clark grinned wryly. "Well, they were necessary, weren't they?"

"Of course. Now get on out of here. I think in the interest of your privacy, we'll dispense with standard procedure, and not have an orderly take you out in a wheelchair. Do you think you'll be all right?

"Yes, Lois can help me."

"Great. And next time I see you, I hope it's because you just rescued someone." He shook Superman's hand again and turned to leave.

"All right," Lois said briskly. "Let's get some clothes on you and get out of here. We still have a plot to foil."

He shook his head at the whirlwind that was Lois Lane. He hoped he had the energy to keep up with her for the rest of the day. Reaching for his gym bag, he asked her, "Did you see anywhere I could go change?"

"Yeah, the men's room is over there. I'll walk with you in case you need help." She took his elbow and tugged. "Do you want me to put my arm around you?"

"Lois, really, I'm fine. I can walk."

"I know, but did you ever think that maybe I needed to touch you? To make sure that you're all right?" Her voice caught.

"Yes," he replied, his voice barely above a whisper. "But if I touch you here, I may give away my feelings for you; and we can't risk that."

Comprehension dawned. "Okay. Then let's get out of here quick. Because if I don't get to hug you soon, I may just collapse."

"I'll do my best, Lois." He disappeared into the men's room.

***

When Clark emerged from the men's room, dressed casually in the jeans, tee shirt, and jacket Lois had brought him, it took every ounce of her self-control to refrain from enveloping him in her arms. More than ever, he looked like her boyfriend rather than the Superhero who had spent the better part of the day as a patient in the ER. Lois' need to hold him, to touch him, to reassure herself that Clark really was all right, was a physical ache. "Come on, let's blow this joint," she tried to joke. If they didn't get to Clinton Street soon, she knew she was going to scream in frustration.

Clark adjusted the baseball cap, hiding his face as much as possible with the bill. "Sounds good to me. I don't want to seem ungrateful; but if I never see the inside of this hospital again, it will be too soon." Shouldering the gym bag containing his Superman suit, he nodded in the direction of the elevators. "Shall we?"

"You bet." Lois reached for the bag. "Let me take that for you," she offered.

"Lo…is. I am *not* helpless. I can carry this," he replied. Smiling at her, he went on, "I really do feel pretty good. Just not 'super.'"

She sighed. "All right. But I don't want you to wear yourself out. This day isn't over yet."

"Yeah, I know." A frown furrowed his brow. "I'm not looking forward to tonight at all."

"Don't worry. We'll think of something. We always do." She flashed a reassuring grin at him, then stepped into the waiting elevator.

Following in her wake, Clark returned the smile. Lois was right; between the two of them, they always managed to come up with a solution. He couldn't wait to get home.

***

The trip to Clark's apartment was uneventful, if one discounted the furtive glances Lois directed at Clark any time she thought he wasn't looking. She couldn't seem to help herself; if she didn't keep an eye on him, her subconscious feared that he would disappear all together. Not trusting herself to stop with a mere pat on the leg or arm, Lois kept both hands firmly on the steering wheel. Unwilling to waste any more time than necessary, Clark broached the subject of the upcoming "Top Copy" broadcast.

"Lois, I've been thinking," he began tentatively. "Mom's got this hologram laser machine. Last night, she rigged it so it will project a life-sized image of Superman. She could show that when I leave the Planet building later tonight, couldn't she? That would pretty much prove that Superman and I are different people, wouldn't it?"

Lois pursed her lips. "Hmm. Maybe. Is there any way to make it look like Superman is talking?"

"A tape, maybe? Why?"

"Because if 'Superman' talks, then whatever reporters are lying in wait for you will be more likely to believe that it's not some sort of hologram or trick." She thought a second and continued, "Since we know what Diana is going to say, it should be easy enough to come up with a statement for Superman to make. You can tape it, and it can be played back while your mom shows the hologram."

Clark looked at her, his eyes narrowed in thought. "Do you have a remote control tape player? Or something similar that we can use to play a tape from, say, the globe outside the building, but that we don't have to be standing right there to turn it on? Because I think it would be pretty obvious if the sound was coming from another direction than where the image of Superman is. And that would prove that it *is* fake."

A giggle was Lois' reply. "Don't you *ever* accuse *me* of babbling again!" She snorted. "That was the worst example of a brook I've ever heard." After she caught her breath, she continued, "Actually, I do have a remote control boom box with a cassette player in it. So we can go make the tape, and, when I get back to the Planet, I'll sneak upstairs and put it where the remote can turn it on." She smiled at her partner. "Don't worry. It'll be fine."

Clark sighed, "I hope so. This whole thing with Diana has been a pain from the very beginning. I've never felt so hunted in my life. Not even before I created Superman and had to worry about people connecting things that happened with me, you know? At least before, I knew I could always just pack up and leave. Disappear, and reemerge somewhere else. It's not quite so simple now."

She quirked an eyebrow. "Oh? You have a reason to want to stay in Metropolis?"

"Lo…is, don't do this to me. You know exactly why I don't want people to know that Clark Kent is Superman. My parents, and even more important, you, would become targets for everyone who had a grudge against Superman. I'd have to spend all my time protecting all of you."

"You mean you don't now?" Lois asked mischievously. "I think I'm hurt."

"Nah, right now, I don't have to protect my parents at all. As for you, well, I'd say only about half my time is spent protecting you. The rest is spent trying to keep up with you." He chuckled. "Actually, it's probably a good thing that I do have super powers. If I didn't, there'd be no way I could even come close." Clark sobered as he heard his last comment. What if his powers didn't return? What would happen then? He stared out the car window, lost in thought.

Lois glanced at her suddenly silent companion. "What?"

"What, what?"

"Why did you get so quiet? Are you feeling all right?"

He shook his head. "Really, I'm okay. I just thought about what it would be like if my powers don't return." He shrugged his shoulders. "Don't worry about it."

"I won't. They'll come back. They always have before." Lois spoke with confidence.

"True, but I've never been exposed to so much Kryptonite for so long like that before."

"No? What about when you spent the whole night and part of the next day in that Kryptonite cage? That has to be a similar exposure." She smiled at him. "The doctor said they got all of it out of you. Just relax and give it time."

"All right. I'll bow to your superior wisdom." He grinned. "We're almost home. What do you want to do first?"

"Hug you, of course. But maybe we should say hello to your parents before we start."

"They won't mind. They know how we feel about each other."

"True, but it may be a while before I let go of you once I have you in my arms. You have no idea how horrible it's been today, wanting to hold you and kiss you, but having to act like we're just friends."

"I don't? I could have sworn I was in the same position," Clark retorted.

"Well, yes, but you were unconscious for a lot of it; so it was worse for me because it lasted longer."

Clark let out a shout of laughter. Sometimes Lois' logic was so crazy it almost made sense.

"Don't laugh at me. It was terrible. That mean doctor threw me out of the room and told me to go get coffee or something. I think he must have wanted me to be a patient. Have you ever had hospital coffee? It's enough to kill you."

"Well, if he threw you out before they pumped my stomach, I'm glad he did. While I want nothing more than to share my life with you, that is one experience that should definitely remain mine and mine alone."

"I thought you were unconscious while they did that," Lois replied, her tone perplexed.

"At first, but I woke up before they were finished." He shuddered at the remembered feel of the tubes down his throat. "I couldn't move, I guess because I was so weak, but I was so disoriented that I thought I was in a lab somewhere, and that I was going to be dissected just like my dad always said would happen. I couldn't talk because of the tubes in my throat. And the feeling, ugh. I felt like I was choking and couldn't breathe. It was not pleasant."

"Yeah, I can imagine. Especially since you've never really been that sick before." Lois felt her heart turn over, listening to him. "See, I knew I should have been there."

"No way! It would have been worse. I really wouldn't have wanted you to see me like that." He quickly went on, "It's a guy thing. Sort of like watching sports on TV."

Lois shook her head in bewilderment. "I wouldn't have stopped loving you just because I saw you with tubes coming out of you. At least I'd have known you were alive, and you'd have known you were safe if you'd seen me."

"Maybe, but the whole experience was unnerving. Truthfully, that part of it, I'd just as soon forget."

Lois took the hint. She turned onto Clinton Street, and parked in front of Clark's building. "If you root around in the gym bag, I think I put some sunglasses in it. You can put them on, and if any of the neighbors are watching, they'll know it's you."

He quickly found the sunglasses and put them on. The Jeep's clock indicated that it was almost five o'clock. "Oh boy, we better get a move on. Look at the time."

His partner nodded. "Yep. We've got a lot to do in the next couple of hours." She pulled the keys from the ignition. "Let's go." Lois jumped out of the car and darted around to the passenger side in time to grab Clark as he emerged. Hand in hand, the pair mounted the staircase and entered the apartment.

As Clark closed the door behind them, Lois threw her arms around his neck. "Oh, Clark! I was so scared!" As he wrapped his arms around her, reaction to the stresses of the day set in; and Lois burst into tears. "I thought I was going to lose you. You were so sick," she sobbed, drenching the front of his tee shirt.

"Shh. It's all right. I'm all right," he murmured soothingly, his cheek resting on her hair. His hands stroked gently up and down her back "Everything is fine." A large lump seemed to have taken up residence in his throat as well, but he continued to murmur reassurances to her as he blinked back his own tears. As Lois' sobs softened to an occasional sniff, he pushed her a little bit away from himself so he could look into her eyes. "You okay now?"

"Yes. Thank you. I don't know what got into me. I don't ordinarily fall apart like that." She sniffed. "You got any Kleenex around here?"

"Yeah, in the bathroom. Come on." He led her down the stairs into his living room, where a somewhat startled Martha and Jonathan sat speechless on the couch. "Hi, Mom, Dad. How was your flight?"

As Lois moved off in search of Kleenex, Martha jumped up to embrace her son. "Oh, Clark, our flight was fine. But what about you? What on earth happened to upset Lois so much? All Lois told us was that Superman was in the hospital."

Jonathan put an arm around his son as well. "Your mother has been worried ever since. I guess Lois couldn't talk much."

"Probably not. The short version is, Diana Stride tried to kill me. She tricked me into swallowing Kryptonite. If Lois hadn't gotten worried when I didn't show up at work, I'd probably be dead by now." Motioning to the couch, Clark suggested that his parents sit down. "Anyway, Lois got worried, tried to call me and got no answer, and came over here. She found me half conscious on the floor, still in the Suit. She called an ambulance, and I've spent the rest of the day in the hospital, realizing how nice it is to be invulnerable." He gave a self-deprecating smile. "I feel fine now. The doctor thinks it may take a couple of days for my powers to return, but other than that, I'm all right."

"Oh my," was all Martha could say.

Jonathan responded, "Thank God for Lois." He looked a bit stunned. "So Diana Stride really is evil?" His voice was leaden with disappointment. "I always thought she was so trustworthy."

"Attractive is more like it," Martha teased. "So, Clark, what now? We brought the hologram. What else do we need to do, and when and where are we going to do it?"

Returning to the living room, tissues in hand, Lois chuckled. Trust Martha to keep them all on task. "We need to have Clark make a tape of Superman explaining why his suits are in a hidden compartment in Clark's closet. And then we need to get it set up at the Planet building before "Top Copy" airs at eight. And Clark and I need to go back to work. Or in Clark's case, go to work for the first time all day." Flopping into a chair, Lois asked, "Clark, do you have a tape recorder? Or should I go get mine? We need to get that done."

"I do. I brought it along with the laser. I'll go get it." Martha rose and went to find her equipment. "Here you go. I even put in new batteries." She puttered around with the equipment for a minute before turning to Clark. "Superman, when I lower my hand, start speaking."

"Yes, ma'am," he replied meekly.

Lois sighed in contentment. They were going to pull this off. She could tell everything was going to work. Against her and Martha, Diana Stride didn't stand a chance.

***

An hour later, the Daily Planet's top reporting team strolled into the bullpen. "Lois, Clark, in my office, now!" Perry barked as he saw them.

"Sure, Chief. What's up?" Clark innocently inquired.

"What have you two got for me?" the editor growled. "And it better be good."

"How about an exclusive on the arrest of one of Intergang's top assassins?" Clark asked. "Would that be good enough?"

"What?!" Perry was dumbfounded. "Who?"

"Diana Stride," was Clark's reply.

"That's right. It's just been so long since Lois called, I forgot." He looked at her pointedly.

"Hey, I came in for a couple of hours this afternoon. We finished up the Sew-Rite story, remember?" Lois responded testily.

"It all came together a couple of hours ago, Chief. We've been covering the story. We have a statement from Henderson, a denial of all knowledge of her extra-curricular activities from her cameraman, and an eyewitness account from her latest victim," Lois chimed in. "If we type fast, we can get it in the morning edition, can't we?"

"Judas Priest! That's the durnedest thing I ever heard. Who did she try to kill?"

"Superman," Clark responded dryly.

Perry's eyes widened in surprise. "How on earth could she do that? I thought he was invulnerable." He searched Clark's face intently, looking for some clue as to how his reporter was reacting to the story. "More importantly, is Superman all right? She didn't succeed, did she?"

"No, she didn't. It seems that Jason Trask was right about that rock he found. Apparently Kryptonite does exist and can harm Superman. Diana Stride had some and tried to use it to kill Superman." Clark's voice was steady as he gave Perry the story he had decided could no longer be kept secret. Too many criminals had already found some of the deadly substance. Public knowledge undoubtedly wouldn't change anything at this point. And, as Superman, he would have to testify against Diana unless she pleaded guilty. "Lois helped catch her."

"All right. Do I even want to know?" Perry muttered.

"Probably not. Anyway, we just came from interviewing Henderson down at the police station, so if you're through with us, we could go write up the story," Lois hinted.

Clark laughed. "I think Henderson did ask Lois if she was interested in changing careers."

"I told him no. So, may we go now? I'd really like to get the article written so I can get out of here before midnight."

"I suppose so. I was just wonderin' what you all had come up with that could have kept you out of the office almost all day," the editor drawled. "I'd say this qualifies as worth it." As the reporting duo rose to leave, he added, "By the way, nice job on the Sew-Rite investigation."

"Thanks, Chief," they answered in chorus as they opened the door. Crossing the newsroom to their desks, Lois and Clark relaxed a bit for the first time all day.

"Whew. I'm glad that's over. I was a little worried about what Perry was gonna say," Clark told Lois.

"You mean about not being around all day? I thought I told you, I've been lying to him since about eight o'clock this morning. He thinks you were chasing this story all day."

Clark squeezed her hand. "Thanks, partner. I don't know what I'd do without you."

"Probably get fired," she teased. "You know, you really should have let me know sooner. It would have made your life a whole lot easier, having me to cover for you."

"I know. I was dumb. What can I say?"

"Say you love me, and I'll be satisfied."

"Lois, I love you. Don't ever doubt that." He smiled tenderly at her as he pulled out her chair. "Let's get writing. We have a show to watch tonight, too."

Lois grimaced. "Don't remind me. When I think of what that woman put you through, and is going to put you through, I kind of wish I had dropped her head on the floor this afternoon." She took a breath. "Repeatedly."

"Ah, my fiercely loyal girlfriend." Clark rubbed her shoulders as she began to type the heading for their story. "What do you say we lead with this?" He proceeded to dictate his take on the arrest of Diana Stride.

***

Perry White's glance swept the newsroom as he made mental notes about which reporters were still working on late-breaking stories or rewrites for the morning edition. His gaze stopped when it reached the desk of his star investigative reporter. Lois Lane's fingers were flying across her keyboard filling her monitor screen with text. Clark was standing in his usual spot behind her chair, one hand resting on her shoulder while he peered intently at their developing story. The writing process must have been going smoothly on this one; Lois had yet to turn around and glare at her partner.

The editor groaned inwardly as he thought of what his two employees had been through so far that day. If what he suspected about Clark was true, he mused, then the young man had even more stamina and courage than Perry had given him credit for. "I wouldn't have blamed him if he'd gone into hiding this evening," Perry thought. Judging from the questions the "Top Copy" anchor had been asking around the Planet, all hell was going to break loose about two seconds after Diana Stride revealed "the secret life of Superman" at eight o'clock. Clark would be besieged by reporters from rival news agencies the minute he set foot outside. Perry wondered if Clark had an inkling of what was likely to happen in just a few hours. Sometimes that Kansas farmboy naivete was a serious handicap to survival in the big city.

On the other hand, Lois was extremely knowledgeable about where all the hidden shoals were and was adept at navigating them. She had to know the potential difficulties Clark would encounter after the program aired. Given how relatively calm Lois appeared, the pair of reporters must have come up with a plan to deal with the fall-out from "Top Copy." If Lois were very concerned about Superman's secret being exposed on national television, she would be pacing frantically around the conference room, flinging ideas and possible responses at Clark at roughly twice the speed of sound. But she wasn't doing anything more frenetic than typing their latest article while Clark dictated over her shoulder.

Having successfully reassured himself that his top reporting team had everything under control, Perry retreated into his office to complete his editing chores for the early morning edition. Lois and Clark had the air of people in charge of their own destiny. Satisfied, Perry glanced at the clock. Seven PM. One hour till show time. Perry silently willed time to stand still. The two reporters might already know how they were going to react to the Superman story, but he had yet to think of what tack he would take. Of course, he thought, with a shrug, a lot of his reaction would depend on what Diana Stride actually had to say.

***

"Well, what do you think?" Lois looked up at her partner, satisfaction written all over her face.

"I like it," Clark replied. "It's a good, objective account of Diana's attacks on Superman; and we've managed to tie in the evidence we've uncovered about her role as an assassin for Intergang." He quickly scanned the copy one last time. Grinning, he continued, "I think I'm impressed. This doesn't sound the least bit biased. Amazing."

Lois stared at him. "And why would it?"

"Well, I could be wrong; but I think the two of us might be just a little too close to this story."

His partner returned his grin. "*That* is why we're the best! We're *always* too close to the story, but we also keep it objective. Think about it, Clark."

"I guess. This one, though, was a lot closer than I like." He perched on the edge of her desk. "So, are we ready to send it to Perry?"

"Definitely. And then I think we ought to call your parents at the hotel to make sure they've got the laser set up and ready to go."

Clark grimaced. "You know, I had almost forgotten about that. You don't suppose there's any chance that the network will pull the show now that Diana is in jail, do you?" he asked hopefully.

Lois shook her head at his innocence. "You're kidding, right? The network may not even know that she's been arrested. I haven't heard anything about it on television, have you?"

He shook his head in denial. "No. You think Henderson is keeping the news that quiet?"

"Yes. It makes sense, doesn't it? Keeping her arrest quiet gives Superman more time to recuperate, and it gives the DA more time to try to get a confession and cooperation from Diana." Lois typed a few commands on her computer. "I'm sending the story to Perry now."

"Great." Clark stood. "Want to go to the conference room to call my folks?"

"Yeah. We can have a little more privacy that way." She stood and stretched. "Boy, am I tired. This has been one *very* long day."

Her partner laughed dryly. "Tell me about it. And I feel like my day began last night." Placing his hand at the small of her back, he escorted her to the conference room. "I cannot wait to go home and get some rest."

"I know what you mean. It has been one horrendous day, hasn't it?" She shook off the thought. Reaching for the telephone, she asked, "What's the number of the hotel?"

Clark shrugged his shoulders. "How should I know? I'll look it up." He flipped through the yellow pages of the telephone directory until he found the listing for the hotel across the street from the Planet building. He couldn't believe the luck they'd had finding a room to use for the hologram. Even if Diana Stride revealed his secret identity on "Top Copy," he and his parents would have the opportunity to convince everyone that he really was two people.

Martha answered on the second ring. "Hello?" Her voice sounded a bit tentative, as if she wasn't sure who might be calling.

"Hi, Mom. Lois and I just wanted to see if you and Dad were all settled in and had everything you need," Clark said a bit cryptically.

"Oh, yes, honey. We're fine, and the room is perfect. We're all set for all contingencies. How are you doing?"

"I'm fine, Mom. Lois and I just finished our story. We're gonna hang around here and wait for 'Top Copy' to come on. I'd rather face the press here than at my apartment."

Martha felt a pang of concern for her son. "I don't blame you, sweetie. It's going to be difficult no matter where, but at least at the Planet you'll have Perry and Lois to support you."

"That's what I was thinking. I gotta tell you, I am not looking forward to this at all."

"I know, Clark. But there is nothing else you can do about it. You've done what you could to protect your secret, and now you'll just have to trust that you and Lois can do enough damage control to salvage the situation." She sighed. "Your father and I are ready to do our part. Call us right before you leave the Planet, all right?"

"Okay. I think that I'll probably leave shortly after the show ends. Might as well get it over with quickly."

"I don't blame you. Your dad and I will be waiting for your call. Take care."

"Thanks, Mom. I will." He rang off, and turned to Lois. "Well, Mom says they're all set." Taking her hand, he pulled her close.

"Good. I don't see how this plan can miss." She slipped her arms around his waist and gave him a quick hug. "It's going to be fine. I can feel it."

Dropping a light kiss on the top of her head, Clark said, "I hope so. If not, we are going to have some major problems."

"If we do, we'll face them together." Lois cupped his cheek with the palm of her hand. "That's what being partners is all about, right?"

"You bet." He squeezed her gently. "Lois, I love you. God knows what I'd do without you."

She chuckled. "Aren't you glad you don't have to find out?" A quirky idea suddenly struck her. "Just think, what if Perry had paired you up with Cat when he hired you?"

Clark let loose a shout of laughter. "I don't even want to think about that. Uh, Lois, are you trying to put me back in the hospital? Because that just about gave me a coronary."

Lois pulled him closer. "Give me a kiss, and then let's go watch some television."

Her partner readily obeyed, then led her back to the newsroom.

Jimmy bounded up. "CK, Lois. Are you guys gonna stay and watch 'Top Copy'?"

The reporters responded in the affirmative. "Have you seen any more ads for it, Jimmy?" Lois inquired.

"No, they just keep running the same one, over and over. But it could be kinda cool, you know?" Jimmy had the same expression as an eager puppy. "I mean, think about it. What can she say about Superman that we don't already know?"

Clark responded dryly, a lead weight in his stomach. "I have no idea, Jimmy. But I guess we're going to find out pretty soon."

The trio turned their attention to the television monitors tuned to the station. The announcer's voice rang through the newsroom. "Tonight, Diana Stride reveals the secret life of Superman. This story and more, right after these words from our sponsors." Clark felt ill. If the hologram didn't convince people that he wasn't Superman, his private life would be over. There would be no chance for the one thing he had always wanted: a normal life with a job, a home, a girlfriend, eventually a family. At best, he would become a public property with no private life; at worst, he'd be constantly beset by all the criminals who wished the world rid of him. Both prospects filled him with dread.

Standing at his side, Lois watched the subtle play of emotions flitting across Clark's face. She could imagine what he was thinking as he waited for Diana's expose to unfold. Silently, she reached for his hand. Lacing her fingers through his, she held his tight, trying to convey her love and support through her touch. They would foil Diana. They had to. She gave his hand a squeeze and returned her attention to the television screen. Clark released her hand and moved behind her, unsure whether he wanted to see the show or not. Lois reached back and took both his hands in hers, wordlessly conveying her love and support. She pulled his hands forward, wrapping their arms around her waist in a loose embrace. Clark leaned into her, grateful beyond words for her caring gesture.

The "Top Copy" segment on Superman began simply enough, with Diana showing footage of the Superhero's many feats of bravery: stopping runaway trains, saving shipwrecked sailors, rescuing people from burning buildings. The anchorwoman segued into the interviews with Planet employees, including a hero-worshipping monologue from Jimmy that had the young photographer visibly cringing. From the comments by Clark's coworkers, Diana veered into her theory that Superman had a secret identity. After she proposed several hypotheses about what the Kryptonian did in his spare time, a wide-angled view of the apartment building at 344 Clinton Street filled the screen. The camera followed Diana into the apartment and showed her open a closet door, revealing Superman's uniforms.

Although they knew it was coming, Lois and Clark watched in horror as Diana said, "… and here in this apartment, we find the final piece of the puzzle which tells us that Superman is Clark Kent." The newspaper employees clustered around the television set gaped at the screen, incredulous.

Jimmy was the first to recover the ability to speak. "I don't believe it." But his tone didn't sound convinced.

"I don't either," Perry stated authoritatively.

"They do kinda look alike, though," the young photographer continued. He had yet to look in Clark's direction.

Perry stepped in again, "Hey, I've been told I look a little like Nixon but I've never been to the White House. Lois? You buying this?"

"I … I …" For once Lois was speechless. "Get a grip, girl," she thought. She took a deep breath to steady herself. "Of course not, Perry. Think about it. I've seen them both together dozens of times. And I certainly think I know who my boyfriend and partner is." Which, she thought, was all completely true. Every time she saw Clark, she also saw Superman. "I just can't believe that the producers of that show would let her get away with making a statement like that with no other proof than a Superman suit in Clark's closet. That is *hardly* proof of anything other than that Superman left a couple of suits there for some reason." She made a moue of disgust. "That's what I hate most about shows like this. They should receive awards for most imaginative screenplay."

"You are absolutely right, Lois," Perry replied. "The standards on these tabloid shows are way too low. I just hope Clark and Superman don't get too upset by this."

"Me too, Chief. Superman's already had a bad day. And poor Clark, having her break into his apartment like that. Maybe he should press charges." Lois looked hopeful as she came up with another crime to lay at Diana Stride's feet.

Jimmy finally managed to catch Clark's eye. "Hey, CK, did you ever expect that? I bet it really blew you away, huh?"

Clark managed a credible grin. "Yeah, Jimmy. I'm stunned all right. I can't imagine how she got into my apartment, and now Superman is probably going to be upset that people know where he keeps some of his stuff. What a mess." He rubbed the back of his neck, which was stiff with tension and fatigue.

"Well, son, I imagine that you're gonna be hounded by the press the minute you step outside this building. You better think of a statement to make so you don't get caught unaware," Perry drawled.

"How about, 'Diana Stride is crazy?'" Lois proposed. The more she thought about what the other woman had done to Clark in the last twenty-four hours, the less objective she became. "Or what if Clark said, 'The woman is currently under arrest and being held in the Metropolis City Jail for crimes too numerous to mention. She has the credibility of a snake oil salesman?'"

"Somehow, I think I better say something a little less inflammatory than that, Lois," Clark responded dryly. "Let's get some coffee while I think about this."

"Good idea, Clark. If you want any input, or want to run your statement past me before you talk to anyone else, I'll be in my office," Perry added as he moved off. "Jimmy, come with me." He drew the younger man away. "The rest of you, either get back to work; or go on home," he barked at the staff members still clustered around the television monitor, their mouths agape as they stared at Clark.

Clark looked at the editor's retreating form with gratitude. As much as he liked Jimmy, he really didn't feel up to dealing with him at the moment. Clark headed for the coffee area while Lois returned to her desk.

The jangle of her telephone startled her. "Lois Lane."

"Lois, this is Henderson. I just got a report about the 'Top Copy' show tonight. How's Clark taking it?" The laconic police inspector actually sounded concerned.

"He's in shock, I think. Here he goes and does a friend a favor, and that witch tries to ruin his life." Lois' tone showed her annoyance.

"Yeah, well, it's not as bad as what she tried to do to Superman, but I see your point. Anyway," he went on, "I just wanted to let the two of you know that you are free to print everything you've got on Diana. She has refused to cooperate with the DA, so as far as I'm concerned, you can let Intergang and the rest of the world know where she is and why."

"Thanks, Henderson. We appreciate it." Lois smiled at the thought of what Intergang would do to Diana, given her failure.

"Tell Clark I'm sure this will all blow over once the news about Diana hits the street."

"All right. We'll talk to you later."

"Right. Good-bye now." Henderson cut the connection with a satisfied smile. If Lois and Clark printed everything they had, Diana had better hope that all of Intergang's top leaders were in custody as well.

Lois looked up to see Clark standing by her desk, two mugs of coffee in his hands. "That was Henderson. He says we can print everything we've got on Diana." She repeated the rest of the conversation to her partner.

"Great. Let's call Mom and Dad and then leave. I really just want to get it over with and get home," Clark sighed wearily.

"All right." She reached for her telephone. "I don't suppose you remember the number, do you?" she asked.

"Yep." He punched in the numbers.

Two rings later, Martha answered. "Yes?"

"Martha, it's Lois. We're ready to leave. Are you and Jonathan all set?"

"Yes, honey. Have you looked out the window?"

"No, why?"

"Because there must be several dozen news crews on the sidewalk out there. I hope that Clark is up to this." His mother's worry came across the phone lines.

"Oh boy. Well, I'll be with him. Maybe that will help. And it's not like it matters whether he's ready or not. He has to leave the building, and they aren't going to go away until they interview him. We'll be coming out in just a couple of minutes."

"We'll be waiting. Tell him we love him." Martha prepared to hang up the phone.

"Do you want to talk to him?" Lois suggested.

"No, just give him the message. Take care." Martha rang off.

Lois turned to her partner. "Your mom says she loves you, and there are a whole lot of reporters out there." She looked at him anxiously. Are you ready for this?"

"As ready as I'll ever be. Think we should have Perry go with us?" he asked.

"Might not be a bad idea. You go tell him we're leaving while I get my purse." She nodded in the direction of Perry's office.

"Got it." Clark strode over to the editor's office and rapped lightly on the door. "Chief, Lois and I are leaving now. Rumor has it that there are a lot of reporters on the sidewalk."

"Okay, Clark. I'll come with you all." He rose from his desk to accompany the two reporters.

The trio headed for the elevators at the head of the ramp. Pushing the "down" button, Perry asked them, "You two want to take the day off tomorrow?"

Clark sighed in relief. "That would be great, Perry, if you're sure you can spare us."

"We'll manage, son. You both look like you've been through the wringer today. I think you all could use the rest."

At that, the elevator doors slid open, and they stepped inside.

***

"Forewarned is forearmed," but no amount of prior knowledge could have prepared Clark for the barrage of questions which hit him as Perry, Lois, and he stepped through the doors of the Daily Planet onto the sidewalk.

"Mr. Kent, is it true? Are you really Superman?"

"How did Diana Stride find out?"

"How do you feel about the story on 'Top Copy' tonight?"

"What is your response to the allegations?"

Reporters jostled each other for position, trying to get closer to the trio from the Daily Planet, while at least a dozen microphones were shoved within inches of Clark's face. He felt a momentary sense of claustrophobic panic as the crowd pressed in from all sides. "Please. One question at a time," he requested.

Lois stayed close by him, hoping that her proximity might help him feel a little less harassed. She slid her arm around his waist and gave him a gentle squeeze. Clark felt a bit better, feeling her love and support. He squared his shoulders and took a deep breath, preparing to address the crowd of his professional colleagues.

"Mr. Kent, what do you have to say in response to the allegation made tonight on 'Top Copy' by Diana Stride?" Linda Montoya from LNN demanded.

"First of all, I'd like to say that I was as astounded as any of you to hear her make that claim," Clark began. "Apparently, she and her cameraman broke into my apartment earlier today and found some of Superman's suits there. She constructed her allegation from that small discovery."

Never one to keep quiet, Lois spoke up. "If Diana was looking for someone else's clothes in Clark's apartment, then she didn't do a very good job on her investigation. If she had looked a little more, she would have found a pair of jeans and a sweatshirt of mine in Clark's apartment as well. If having someone else's clothes in his apartment means that Clark *is* that person, then Clark and *I* are the same person. Now, how many of you believe that?" she challenged.

Her words were punctuated by a loud "Whoosh" as Superman landed on the ledge in front of the Daily Planet's Globe. The reporters gathered beneath it looked on in astonishment as they realized they were seeing both Clark Kent and Superman together.

"Clark, I don't mean to interrupt; but maybe it'd be easier if I explained. Diana Stride is now under arrest and being held for questioning by the Metropolis Police Department." Superman's authoritative tone drew the attention of the assembled newsmen and newswomen completely away from Clark. They stared at the Superhero as he continued, "Her contention that I'm Clark Kent is an attempt to deflect attention away from herself. She apparently discovered that she was being investigated by Clark and his partner Lois Lane, and decided to distract the media with this ludicrous theory. Clark Kent is a friend of mine. My uniforms were in his closet because he's nice enough to let me use his washing machine. The last time I was there doing laundry, I was called away and had to leave my suits."

Superman paused a minute to let his explanation sink in. "The 'Top Copy' story does raise an important issue, however: my right to a private life. I told Lois Lane over a year ago that I was here to help. Nothing has occurred to change that. Nevertheless, I do believe that I have the right to some privacy. I realize that Diana Stride has raised the question of what I do in my spare time. I would suggest that the answer to that is no more anyone's business than what policemen or EMTs do in their spare time is the public's business. Now, if you will excuse me, I'm needed elsewhere." The Superhero flew straight into the sky and, in a flash, had disappeared from sight.

Across the street, Martha switched off the laser and turned to Jonathan in relief. "We did it!" she exulted.

"Thank God," he replied. Jonathan opened his arms and enfolded his wife in a loving embrace. "I can't believe I was playing with lasers," he chuckled. "I'm a farmer."

She looked at him with mock severity. "You were helping our son."

"Yeah. Anyway, I'm glad it seemed to work." His relief was palpable.

"Me too," she sighed.

On the sidewalk in front of the Daily Planet building, Clark addressed the assembled reporters once more. "Any more questions?"

The din was deafening. As all the reporters seemed to shout their questions at once, Perry stepped into the fray. "That's enough, people. Let the man answer your questions one at a time," he drawled.

Clark shot him a grateful glance. "Thank you, Chief."

Linda Montoya's microphone was under his nose immediately. "All right, Clark. I suppose the question raised by 'Top Copy' has been answered. Now I'd like to know, why on earth has Diana Stride been arrested?"

"Obviously, on charges of breaking and entering, to begin with," Clark replied with a somewhat smug grin. "Not only did I not give her permission to be in my apartment, but I didn't know she had been there until I saw the show tonight. Naturally, I called the police."

"Naturally," the LNN reporter said. "What can you tell us about *why* you and your partner have been investigating her? Surely, the two of you haven't moved to the entertainment section."

"I believe that you can read about that tomorrow in the early morning edition of the Daily Planet," was Clark's terse response.

Lois grinned appreciatively at his quick thinking. Her naive Kansas boyfriend was catching on to the ways of the city. She squeezed him again, and whispered, "Don't you think we need to go back to the newsroom? We have an update to write."

"If no one has any more questions, then I'll wish you all goodnight."

Clark looked relieved as the reporters murmured, "No, not really," and began to drift away. No doubt some of them would be making tracks to the police station to see what they could discover about Diana's arrest.

He turned to Lois and asked, "Did you mean that?"

"About writing the update? Of course."

Perry interrupted. "You two get out of here. Someone else can write the 'Diana Stride's Superman Hoax' update." He smiled genially at his two star reporters. "I'll see you all the day after tomorrow. Now, go." With that, the editor turned and entered the Planet.

Left alone on the pavement, the two partners looked at each other, suddenly unsure of their next move. Clark heard Lois' voice in his memory, "You've just got to get well, because then I'm going to kill you." He knew they needed to talk, but he still felt too weary to even contemplate having a serious discussion with her. "Are you hungry? Maybe we should go collect my parents and take them out to dinner." He smiled at her hopefully.

"Sounds good. I know I'm starved." She looked at him thoughtfully. "What about you? I know you've told me that you don't need to eat; but when you don't have your powers, do you get hungry?"

He nodded. "Yeah, so I'm pretty hungry right now." Wrapping his arm around her waist, he inclined his head in the direction of his parents' hotel. "Shall we?"

Lois readily agreed, and they strolled to the crosswalk. "Restaurant or take-out?" Noticing the lines of fatigue etched on his face, she added, "Or room service in the hotel?"

Clark looked at her in surprise. "Room service?"

"Well, you seem really tired. And I don't know how your parents are feeling right now. They must be pretty tired, too. So if you want, we could just eat in their room and not bother with going out."

"Let's see what they want to do. I think I'd like to get take-out and go back to one of our apartments, myself," Clark replied.

Leaning closer to him, she agreed. "Okay. Then let's collect them and pick up some food on the way to my place."

"That would be fine, Lois. I don't think I want to face a restaurant tonight. We may have satisfied those reporters just now, but I have visions of people coming up to me if we're in a public place for very long." He paused and gave her a grave look. "While I don't want the world to know about my secret identity, I also don't really want to tell anyone an outright lie." He grinned shamefacedly. "Does that make any sense at all?"

His partner smiled at him in understanding. "Of course it does. If the world knew what I know, you'd have no life at all. It would be worse than being a rock star. But I also understand that whole boy scout thing about being truthful. Superman can't tell a lie." She giggled. "And you did an excellent job of not lying, just now. You told the truth, but didn't say who you really are. Most impressive."

Entering the hotel lobby, he looked down at her. "Lois, do you have any idea how very special you are?"

"Not as special as you, sweetheart." She tugged his hand towards the bank of elevators. "Come on. Let's go find your parents. It's way past dinner time."

Chuckling, he followed her. "Did you forget to eat today or something?"

"Didn't I tell you? My lunch consisted of a stale, left-over half sandwich I found in your refrigerator. I'm not sure I wouldn't have been better off not eating." Lois shook her head in disgust. "And you didn't even have any chocolate in the place."

"Poor thing. I'll have to do a better job keeping it in stock, I guess."

"Yep. Today was a three Double Fudge Crunch bar day, and I didn't even get one."

Clark laughed again. "Well, I'll see if I can make it up to you with dessert tonight." At that moment the elevator arrived, and his parents stepped off.

"We thought we'd go get some Chinese. Want to join us?" his mother queried.

"Great minds must think alike. We were just heading up to find you to see if you wanted to get some food and go back to my apartment to eat," Lois said.

Smiling contentedly, the foursome left the hotel and made their way to Lois' Jeep.

***

Several containers of beef with broccoli, steamed rice and crab rangoon later, Martha and Jonathan sighed with contentment. "I think it's time we went back to the hotel," Jonathan announced. "I don't know about you two, but I'm beat. And we have a flight to catch in the morning."

Lois and Clark paused in clearing the table. "Are you sure? It's not all that late," he demurred.

"Yes, sweetie," his mother replied. "You and Lois need to get some rest, too. We've all had a long day." Turning to her husband, she went on, "Jonathan, why don't you call us a cab?"

"I can drive you back to the hotel," Lois protested.

"I know you can, but you aren't going to," Martha declared. "You have had more than enough to cope with today. I think you need to get some sleep. We can take a taxi. Clark, do you want us to drop you off at your apartment, or are you going to stay here a little while longer?"

"I'll get myself home, Mom, thanks. Lois and I have a couple of things we need to discuss." He hugged his mother tightly. "Thanks again, Mom and Dad. Your hologram saved my life."

Martha was a bit startled by his comment. "Clark, Lois and the doctors saved your life. We just helped you prove you aren't Superman."

"No, Mom. If we hadn't proved I wasn't Superman, my life as Clark Kent would have been over. So you saved my life." His expression turned serious. "And if my powers don't come back, my life as Clark will be all that I have. So I appreciate you coming all this way. I love you two."

"We love you too, son." Jonathan's eyes were bright as he hugged his son. "And quit worrying about your powers. They came back last year; they will again."

"I hope so."

The Kents and Lois made their good-byes, and Clark escorted them downstairs to the waiting taxi. Hugging them again, he said, "Thank you again. Will I see you tomorrow?"

"No, honey. Our flight leaves at eight. You need to sleep in. We'll call when we get home." His mother peered into his face, anxiety flitting across her features. "You will get some rest, won't you? Don't stay up all night talking to Lois. You can talk when you've both gotten some sleep and feel better."

"Okay, Mom." He kissed her cheek and shut the taxi door. "Bye."

"Good-bye, son. Take care of yourself and try to stay out of trouble."

Clark gave a shout of laughter. "With Lois as a partner? No chance of that." He waved as the cab pulled away from the curb. He made his way back to Lois' apartment.

The instant he stepped into the room, she was there, drawing him into her arms. "Oh, Clark," she sighed. "It feels so good to hold you." She lifted her face to his, seeking his lips with her own. Kissing him gently, she released him and taking his hand, began to pull him towards the sofa. "Let's sit down, all right?"

Clark followed her to the sofa, happy to comply. Once there, he pulled her into the shelter of his arm. Leaning his cheek on her head, he swallowed the lump in his throat. Now that the excitement was over, his adrenaline supply shut itself off. All the terrors of the past twenty-four hours came rushing back to haunt him. Visions of himself lying on his living room floor, writhing in pain and unable to reach the telephone, flashed through his mind's eye. The relief he'd felt when he saw Lois kneeling over him warred with the terror he'd known upon waking up in the hospital, not knowing where he was or what was being done to him. Suddenly, the stress of the day was too much to bear, and Clark shuddered violently.

Lois whirled to face him. "Clark, what is it? Are you all right?" His face was pale and his skin felt almost clammy.

"Yes, I think so," he answered.

"Are you sure? You don't look too good right now." Her concern formed a security blanket around him.

"Yeah," he whispered. A little embarrassed, Clark asked, "Lois, would you mind if I stayed here tonight? I'll sleep on the sofa. I just don't want to be alone."

She choked back the tears that had risen to clog her throat. He sounded so forlorn. "Of course you may. But you aren't going to sleep on the sofa. You'd be in the hospital for sure if you did that — in the orthopedic ward." She hugged him gently. "It really is all right. I don't really want to be alone either." Pushing the lock of hair that persisted in falling over his forehead off his face, she said, "And I want to keep an eye on you, anyway. You were supposed to have gotten some rest after you left the hospital, not go put in a full day's work in three hours."

"I didn't see that I had much choice, Lois." His exhaustion was apparent.

"True, but that doesn't change the way you're feeling now." She stood and pulled him up. "Come on. Let's go find you some sweats and get to bed. I don't know about you, but I'm so tired I can hardly see straight."

Clark followed her to the bedroom. "I know what you mean." He took a deep breath. "Lois, I just want to sleep, so don't feel like …" He trailed off, unsure what else to say.

"I know, sweetheart." She smiled at him again. "Let's get some sleep. We can talk tomorrow."

She rummaged through her drawers until she found an old pair of sweats he'd left one night after a stakeout. Throwing them at him, she nodded in the direction of the bathroom. "You can have it first. I'm gonna lock up and get the lights."

After she finished those mundane tasks, she returned to the bedroom to find Clark already in bed, his face more peaceful and relaxed-looking than it had been all day. Lois disappeared into the bathroom for a few minutes. Emerging dressed in an old tee shirt and shorts, she slid under the covers. His arm snaked around her waist, pulling her close. They lay in the dark, the rhythmic sound of breathing the only noise in the room.

"Good-night, Lois."

"Good-night, Clark."

He lightly kissed her hair. As she burrowed her head into his shoulder, he reflected on how much he owed his partner: his identity, his sanity, his life. If she wanted a pound of flesh tomorrow, he'd let her take it. She deserved at least that much.

***

He was falling, unable to fly; the concrete terrace of his apartment rushing up to meet him on his descent. Diana Stride's mocking laughter rang in his ears. "Do you have something to hide, Superman? I'll expose you to the world."

Pain, excruciating pain, tore at every fiber of his body. He had to get away from the Kryptonite, but then he remembered. He couldn't elude it; the deadly substance was inside him, working its way through his system. Lois! Lois would help him. All he had to do was call her — if he could get to the telephone. He began to crawl across the apartment floor, only to lose consciousness, his hand inches from the phone.

Consciousness returned, and with it the searing pain that had him writhing in agony. Only he couldn't move, no matter how hard he struggled. He was strapped down, held immobile. A white-clad man loomed over him poking sharp instruments into his no longer invulnerable skin. "Hold still, Superman, this will only take a minute. Just a prick, and then it will be over."

"No! I'm not a frog! Please, please, don't do this!" he pleaded piteously. Why wouldn't the man stop what he was doing? Were they going to dissect him? What had he done to merit this treatment? He had never hurt anyone. He'd only tried to help. But he was on this medical table, about to become a lab experiment. "Please, I need Lois. Lois, help me!"

The man in white jabbed his arm, and Superman lost consciousness again.

Lois was leaning over him, tears glinting in her eyes. Why was she weeping? Surely she was all right. Was she upset that he was dying? He hated that he was dying as Superman. His parents wouldn't be able to claim his body or grieve properly unless they revealed his secret to the world. And they couldn't do that. It would put them in danger from his enemies seeking revenge. Perhaps Lois would think of something. He sank once more into oblivion.

Clark's rest didn't last very long. Lois was talking to him again. He wished he could make out her words, but it was so hard to concentrate through the pain. Her words became more distinct. "I'm going to kill you!" What was this? He could have sworn that it was Diana Stride who was killing him. Lois was his girlfriend. Why would she say she was going to kill him?

Lois' face morphed into that of Nurse O'Brien, smiling at him as she and her colleagues shoved tubes into every conceivable place in his body. He wanted to ask them to stop, but he couldn't talk with the tubes in his throat. He was gagging, choking, gasping for air; but no one seemed to care. Every time he tried to move, to get away from the pain and the torment, iron hands held him fast. Icy fear gripped his soul.

He was so afraid, more afraid than he'd ever been in his life. He didn't want to die. He was too young, had too many things yet to do. Why wouldn't anyone help him?

Lois was scolding him again. Why on earth was she doing that? Didn't she know how bad he felt? How sick, and how tired, and how miserable he was? If only he could get away from this torture chamber, maybe he and Lois could talk, straighten things out. He could find out what she was angry about and try to patch things up.

"I'm sorry, Lois, so sorry," he tried to tell her; but she had gone again.

Hands were stretching out towards him. Maybe there were people to help him. Hope sprouted in his heart until he realized that the hands were holding microphones. A horde of people wanted to know if he was really Superman. Why would they think that? What were they saying? "Top Copy!" Diana Stride had actually exposed his secret identity on national television. He might as well give up the fight to live. He'd have no life if the world knew that Clark Kent was Superman. His friends and family would never be safe again.

He looked around the newsroom at the Planet. All of his friends and colleagues were staring at him, incredulity on their faces. Jimmy, in particular, was gazing at him with an accusatory stare. "Man, CK, I can't believe you didn't tell me. I thought I was your friend." The young photographer turned his back on Clark and stalked off.

His girlfriend had returned, her face set. "Clark, how could you?" she spat at him. "I thought we were partners. Partners aren't supposed to leave the other one out on a limb." She shook her head. "I thought you loved me." She, too, turned her back on him.

"Lois, please, I never meant to hurt you. Please, don't go. I need you. Help me, please," he begged.

Lois was beginning to panic. Clark had been moaning and mumbling in his sleep for quite a while. When she had first been awakened by his restlessness, he had been tossing and turning. Now he was lying rigid in the bed, his hands clutching the blanket that covered him. Sweat beaded on his brow; his knuckles were white from the tight clasp he had on the bed-covering. His head moved from side to side, as he called her and pleaded for help. Lois had been trying to awaken him for minutes that were beginning to feel like hours. Frantic, she padded to the bathroom in search of a damp cloth. Returning to his side, she gently bathed his face with the warm washcloth. At last Clark's restless movements stilled, and his eyes fluttered open.

"Lois?" he whispered, his body shaking violently.

"Clark, are you all right?" Her voice was thick with worry.

"Uh, yeah, I guess so. I think I was dreaming." He shook his head to clear it of the muzzy images that still fogged his brain.

"It must have been one heck of a nightmare, Clark." She stroked his hair with one hand while the other rested on his chest. "I kept trying to wake you up, but you just wouldn't." She pulled his trembling body close to hers. "Oh, sweetheart, I was afraid you'd never wake up." She took a breath to steady herself. "You want to talk about it?"

He shuddered in her arms. "Yeah. I think so. But don't you want to sleep?"

She rolled her eyes. Honestly, sometimes Clark was too considerate of others. "Clark, do you really think that I'm going to be able to go back to sleep when you're in the state you're in right now? Come on, let's go get something hot to drink." She gently released him and rose from the bed. Pulling on her robe, she asked, "Do you want cocoa or tea?"

"Tea, please." Clark sat up and swung his legs over the side of the bed. He hoped his powers came back soon. He really hated feeling this weak and vulnerable. Somehow, his physical weakness made him feel more fragile emotionally as well. Feeling drained and depleted, Clark followed his girlfriend to the kitchen. "Do you want some help?" he offered.

"I think I can manage to boil water, Clark," was her smiling response.

"I know, but I didn't want to seem unhelpful."

"You can find the mugs, okay?" Lois was filling the kettle with one hand and rummaging through a drawer in search of spoons with the other.

Reaching into the cabinet, he pulled out a pair of mugs. "Cocoa or tea for you?" he asked.

"Definitely cocoa. I still haven't gotten any chocolate."

Clark smiled. It was good to know that some things were constants. Lois' chocolate addiction certainly fell into that category. He found the instant cocoa mix and the tea bags and put them in the mugs.

"Come here," Lois commanded as she set the kettle on the stove and turned on the burner. She enveloped him in a warm embrace as the water began to heat.

"Lois," he began; but she cut him off abruptly.

"Shh. Don't say anything just yet. Let me hold you, okay?" Her tone was gentle, a verbal caress. "You need to relax." She rubbed his back with a soothing motion.

Clark felt the tension begin to drain from his body as Lois massaged his back and arms. He sighed in relief. She must still love him; she couldn't hold him like this if she didn't. His nightmare was just that — a horrific dream brought on by the trauma and terrors of the last twenty-four hours. Burying his face in her hair, Clark drank in the scent of her, reveled in the feel of her. Never in his life had he felt so complete as when he was in Lois' arms. He silently thanked whatever Fate had drawn him to Metropolis.

The shrill whistle of the teakettle roused him from his reverie. Lois released him and moved back to the stove. As she filled the mugs with the boiling water, she cautioned him, "Remember, that's hot; and right now you could get burned."

"Yes, ma'am," he chuckled.

As she stirred her hot chocolate, Lois motioned in the direction of the living room. "Let's go sit down, and then you can tell me about your dream."

Carrying the mug of tea from the kitchen, Clark eyed Lois' sofas dubiously. "What on earth ever possessed you to buy these instruments of torture?" he inquired.

"I'll have you know, they are extremely attractive," she protested indignantly.

"Yeah, so are porcupines, but I wouldn't want to sit on one," Clark teased as he eased his body into the corner of one of the offending pieces of furniture.

Snuggling up beside him, Lois cradled her mug in her hands. "All right, let's hear it."

"Hear what?"

"Your dream. What on earth was going on?"

Clark sipped his tea. He tried to shrug off the question, a bit embarrassed now that he was no longer caught in the web of his nightmare. "It was nothing, really. Just a dream."

Lois wouldn't allow him to dismiss the subject. "Clark, it was *not* just a dream. I've never seen anything like it. You were thrashing around at first; then you went rigid. The whole time, you were muttering in your sleep. You sounded like you were terrified. I was really worried about you." She glanced at him sympathetically.

He ran his hand through his hair. "I don't know, Lois. It was … I guess it was the worst nightmare I've ever had. It was like I was reliving the past twenty-four hours in fast forward."

"Oh, Clark, how awful."

He pulled her closer. "I could feel the physical pain from the Kryptonite and from all the medical procedures. I felt like I was dying."

She interrupted. "Pain from the medical treatments?"

"Yes. It hurts when people stick needles and shunts into you, Lois. As for all the tubes they stuck in me, I can't begin to describe how incredibly terrible they feel. Besides the discomfort, I felt almost violated." He stared off into the dim recesses of the room. "I know people were trying to help me, but in my dream it got all confused. I thought they were trying to kill me." He swallowed some more tea. "And then, I wanted you to help me, but first you weren't there. Then I saw you, but I couldn't seem to talk to you. You were crying."

Lois placed her mug on the coffee table and turned so that she could put her arms around Clark. "Oh, honey. That was probably when I first started trying to wake you up. You were talking in your sleep. You would say my name, but you never responded when I tried to talk to you." She laid her head on his shoulder.

He continued, "Then, suddenly, I could talk to you, but you said you were going to kill me." He put down his tea. "I couldn't understand that at all."

Lois looked at him, contrition in her eyes. "I'm so sorry, Clark. I didn't mean it."

"Mean what?" Now he was confused.

"When I said I was going to kill you. It was while we were waiting for the ambulance to get here. I told you to get well, so I could kill you. But I didn't really mean it. I wasn't even sure that you heard me. You were pretty out of it by then." She took a deep breath. "It was the kind of thing people say when they're worried, you know like parents when their kid has gotten hurt, but the kid is going to be all right. Because you're scared and worried. That's all."

He kissed the top of her head. "I know, Lois. I didn't really think you wanted to kill me. It was just all jumbled up in my dream." He grinned at her. "You did get pretty mad in the hospital, though. Remember?"

"Yeah. Nurse O'Brien reamed me out for that, too." Lois grimaced. "Then I was afraid that I had let your secret identity slip. Clark, you have to believe me; I wasn't really angry. Mostly, I was terrified and frustrated. I didn't know what else to do for you, but I knew that you probably didn't want to go to the hospital. And then they wouldn't let me see you for what seemed like hours. I didn't know if you were getting better or worse, or anything. And I didn't have anyone to talk to. I couldn't exactly let people know how worried I was about Superman when everyone knows I'm dating you." She hugged him more tightly. "So, I guess I took it out on you. I shouldn't have done that, and I apologize."

"It's all right, Lois. I understand." He shifted his position so he could look at her. "Are you sure that you want to have to deal with all this? I know that being in a relationship with me is a little more complicated than it would be with a regular guy."

"Clark, I don't want a regular guy. I want *you.* I love *you.* And if this is what it means to be in a relationship with you, then I'll deal with it." Reaching up to cup his face with her hands, she pulled him into a tender kiss. "Understand?"

"Yes, ma'am," he replied, more meekly this time.

"Was that all of your dream?" she prodded.

"Mostly. There was some more about 'Top Copy' and all those reporters outside the Planet. Why?"

"Just wondering. It seems to me that you had the nightmare because you just had too much today. Any of the things that happened to you would be enough to cause nightmares."

"I suppose so. I know that it was awful, reliving the day." He shuddered at the thought.

Lois looked him in the eye. "This whole incident does bring up something important we need to discuss, though."

"Which is?"

"Your notion of proper behavior."

"You've lost me, Lois." Clark was completely baffled. Where on earth had *that* comment come from?

"Do you remember at the beginning of the Sew-Rite investigation, how you tried to tell me I couldn't go stake out the meeting of the Intergang bigwigs — because it might be too dangerous?"

"Yeah …" he temporized.

"And you said that you worried about me, because I could get hurt, but you can't?"

He wasn't sure he liked the direction this conversation was headed. "Uh huh."

"Don't you think that we need to reopen that discussion?" She gazed at him intently. "I think the events of the past twenty-four hours have proven what I was trying to tell you back then."

"Which is?" Clark rubbed the back of his neck. "I'm sorry, Lois, but I'm still not feeling too sharp."

"That you have to be more careful, too. You are so used to thinking of yourself as invulnerable, but you aren't. Not really. Clark Kent is invulnerable. No doubt about that. Superman, however, is not. Plenty of criminals seem to know about the effects of Kryptonite on you, and they seem to be able to find it at the most inopportune moments. Clark can't really be hurt, because no onewould think to use Kryptonite on him. But plenty of people seem to want to use it on you when you're in the Suit. And yet, that is when you are the least cautious."

"What do you mean, Lois?"

"When you are dressed as Clark, you are fairly cautious. I'm the one who jumps in without checking to see how deep the water is. You, on the other hand, seem to verge on compulsiveness with regard to following rules and checking things out thoroughly. But when you appear as Superman, you think that nothing is going to hurt you. Yet a fair number of criminals and maniacs have proven you wrong." She winced as she thought about how close Diana Stride had come to actually killing him the day before. "Clark, if you won't think of yourself, then will you think of your parents and me? If I hadn't gotten worried yesterday when you didn't show up for work, what do you think would have happened?"

He swallowed the lump in his throat. He had a feeling he knew exactly where Lois was heading; he'd already been there in his dream. "I would have died, alone, and as Superman."

"Exactly. And do you have any idea what that would have been like for your parents and me?"

Clark felt almost sick with guilt. "Yes. Believe it or not, I thought about that in the hospital, and then I was dreaming about it tonight. You wouldn't have been able to do anything about my death — not have a funeral or grieve properly. I hadn't really ever thought about that before yesterday. But you're right. It was really selfish of me. I'm sorry, so sorry, Lois."

"I know, Clark. And I don't really want you to feel guilty about that. I just want you to understand that it's important that you try to keep yourself safe, especially when you're being Superman. There are people who love you and need you." Lois reached up to place another kiss on his lips. "Clark, I love you. More than I ever thought I could love anyone. I don't want to lose you." Her voice caught on a strangled sob. "But I almost did lose you yesterday. And it could have been less likely, if you had only been a little more careful."

He hugged her again. "Lois, what could I have done differently?"

"You could have let me know you were going to see Diana that night."

"She said to come alone. Besides, it would have looked strange if I'd taken you with me as Superman."

"I didn't say you should have taken me. I said you should have let me know where you were going. Then, when you didn't return, I'd have known to look for you hours sooner. You would have been able to avoid hours of pain and suffering." She impaled him with her stare. "Does that make any sense to you at all?"

Clark squirmed a bit, uncomfortably aware that Lois had a point, a very good point. "You're right. So, what do you want me to do?"

"Truthfully? I would like you to try to think ahead a bit more when you're in the Suit." She giggled. "Quit acting so much like me. Consider the consequences before you jump into things. And when you go after bad guys who might be able to hurt you, let me know; so I'll know when to send out a search party." She looked deep into his eyes. "Is that too much to ask?"

"No, not really. And I guess it does make a certain amount of sense. It was killing me inside when I realized that I was going to die as Superman, not as Clark. I knew it would tear my parents and you apart." He gently cupped her cheek with his palm. "Do I have the right to ask you to do the same? You aren't the only one who doesn't want to lose a partner."

"You bet." She pulled him closer. "Let's promise each other to be more careful and to tell each other before we do something that is potentially dangerous."

"All right. I'm willing to do that." He leaned in to kiss her again. "Lois, I'll do just about anything to make you happy. You know that."

"Clark, this isn't about making me happy. This is about being partners and about taking care of ourselves. It's about having a little common sense. It's about staying safe." She snaked her arms around his neck. "I love you. I'd like to think that you are going to be around for a while, you know. There are too many wackos out there like Diana Stride and Arianna Carlin. I just want you to be more careful."

He rained kisses on her face. "I know, Lois. I know. I'll do better, I promise." He kissed her deeply. When he broke the kiss, he sighed. "Are we okay?" he asked, unsure of her response.

"Of course we are." She smiled at him tenderly. Glancing at the clock, she noticed the time. "Clark, it's three AM. Do you think you could sleep now, if we went back to bed?" A huge yawn cut off her words.

"Yeah, I think so." He kissed her again. "I feel a lot better. Thank you, Lois."

She was bewildered. "For what?"

"For being you. For being here for me when I need you. For reminding me of what's important. For loving me. For being here for me to love." He held her close. "I love you so much. I owe you my life." An idle thought struck him. "You know, in many cultures, if you save someone's life, you belong to them. So I guess I belong to you now."

Lois smiled contentedly. "And I belong to you. Think of how many times you've saved my life." She stood and tugged on his hand. "Come on. Let's get some sleep."

"Good idea." Smiling, he followed her to the bedroom, more at peace than he'd been in days.

THE END