Trust Me, I'm a Reporter

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

Rating: PG-13

Submitted January 2000

Summary: What if Superman wasn't recovered sufficiently to fly away at the end of the episode "Madame Ex"? Lois's insistence on looking after him causes Clark some unexpected complications.

Author's Note: There comes a time in every L&C fanfic writer's career when he/she finds it impossible to resist the lure of the revelation fic any longer, and I'm no different to anyone else, so here it is: my version of how Lois finds out that Clark is Superman. There's nothing very clever or new in this, just me indulging my fantasies (and sometimes they're very indulgent!). The story dovetails with the end of Madame Ex, and if you've ever read any of my other stories, you've probably guessed already what happens ;)

Email to: Yvonne@yconnell.fsnet.co.uk

Feedback: Private/public comments of any description are welcome. No editing.

***

Clark landed on the balcony of Lex Luthor's penthouse, desperately hoping that all their investigative efforts hadn't been wasted. Only moments earlier, the final piece of the Arianna Carlin puzzle had fallen into place, and he and Lois now knew that she had been planting subliminal messages into her articles in the Planet. It explained why half of Metropolis was turning against Superman, accusing him of behaving like a supergod who only saved the people he wanted to save. Furthermore, they had previously deduced that Arianna had created a double of Lois, and was using that double to destroy Lois' reputation and imply that she was psychologically unstable.

Now Lois was missing, and he had just received a phone call from Arianna telling him that Lois was apparently going to kill herself unless she could speak to Superman. He knew the claim was false, but he had to play Arianna's game in case it led him to Lois.

To his intense relief when he walked into the penthouse, he found Lois sprawled unconscious on a settee.

"Lois?" he tried, unsure of just how unconscious she was. A movement across the room caught his eye, and Arianna appeared, holding a gun in her right hand.

"She'll be fine," she told him.

He regarded Arianna dispassionately.

"I really thought you'd be smarter than this," he said as Arianna lifted the gun up and pointed it at him. The side of his mouth curled up in dry amusement. This was ridiculous; surely she knew that a bullet couldn't hurt him.

"I really am," replied Arianna with a self-satisfied smile on her face and squeezed the trigger.

The gun fired, and suddenly he knew something was wrong, terribly wrong, but it was too late. His world exploded in pain and confusion as the bullet struck his shoulder, and he cried out in agony as its force pushed him backwards and down onto the carpet.

Arianna looked down at him in triumph as he writhed in pain on the floor.

"I can imagine what's running through your head right now. Shock, confusion, outrage. The same emotions I felt when you let Lex die." She spat the last words out with all the venom which had been boiling up inside her over the past few days. Turning back to the unconscious Lois, she picked up a limp hand and wrapped it around the gun, addressing her second victim as she worked.

"You'll wake up in a few minutes, although I'm sure you'll wish you hadn't."

She straightened up and raised her voice.

"Let's go!"

The mysterious double came out from the side room she'd been hiding in, and the two women made their escape from the penthouse.

***

Left alone to die in agony. How had he ever got to this point in his life? Clark pushed down his rising panic and terror, trying to concentrate on survival. He hauled his head up from the carpet to look at Lois on the couch.

"Lois, can you hear me?" he gasped.

There was no response. He tried again.

"Lois!"

The effort of holding his head up was making him dizzy and he had to let it fall back to the carpet again. Maybe there was another way…ignoring the pain and waves of nausea threatening to engulf him, he raised his head up once more and tried to direct a beam of laser vision at the fish tank behind Lois. He had just enough power left to bore a tiny hole, causing a small spout of water to appear from the side of the tank and spill out over Lois' face. Exhausted by the incredible effort, he collapsed back in a pain-filled stupor onto the floor.

Lois emerged from blackness into layers of fuzzy cotton wool and…someone dribbling on her? She jerked quickly into full consciousness and spluttered as the dribbles fell on her nose and mouth. Still feeling as though there was a fog swirling around her brain, she sat up slowly and took in her surroundings.

Reality came flooding back when she discovered a gun had mysteriously found its way into her hand. Then she looked up and saw Superman lying on the carpet in front of her, clutching a bleeding shoulder and obviously in great pain. How?…she thought he was invulnerable.

"Superman?" she questioned in confusion as she pulled herself off the settee and started towards him. He looked dangerously ill…something had to be done. She reached for a phone on desk.

"Superman, I'll call an ambulance."

His voice stayed her hand in its path towards the phone.

"No, too long," he gasped. "It has to come out…now."

Oh, God, he meant the bullet was still in him and he wanted her to pull it out. His voice left her in no doubt as to the urgency of the task, so after a quick survey of the desk, she selected a letter opener as the only possible candidate for extraction, and moved to kneel beside him.

The hand clutching his shoulder moved to hold hers in a desperate plea for reassurance and protection against the pain. She hesitated: what was she doing, trying to take out a bullet with a letter opener? And how could she possibly inflict more pain on him than the agony he was already suffering?

"I don't know if I can do this," she confessed.

She felt a small squeeze in her left hand; enough to spur her on with the job. Willing it to be over quickly, she dug in with her improvised tool. Superman immediately let out an agonised cry, and she felt tears pricking the backs of her eyes as she pressed into the damaged flesh, located the hard metal edge of the bullet and levered it out.

The bullet exuded an evil-looking green glow. Something clicked in the back of Lois' mind. This was kryptonite — the substance she had christened but had simultaneously concluded was a figment of a deranged mind. How wrong she had been! It was real, and it was capable of killing Superman…Superman! She looked down at him: he had collapsed in a dead faint. Probably a good thing…or maybe not. What should she do?

OK, first things first. There was no way this bullet was staying here for someone else to get their hands on, so she cleaned it off as much as she could and stuffed it into the side pocket of her skirt.

Next, Superman. The bullet was out, so she should call an ambulance now. She lifted the receiver, but was stopped once more by his voice.

"Please don't."

She looked over at him. He had his head turned towards her and was staring at her pleadingly.

"I was just going to call you an ambulance," she explained.

"I know. I can't have anyone knowing about this."

"But your shoulder — you've been shot. You need medical help."

"It will probably heal itself pretty quickly. I just need somewhere I can rest up for a few hours." He closed his eyes briefly. "Could you help me over to Clark's place? He'll look after me."

Feeling somehow put out that he hadn't suggested her own apartment, she nevertheless agreed.

"You're sure you'll be OK?" she asked, still uncertain that this was the correct course to follow.

"I'll be fine."

He started to struggle up, so she hurried back to his side to help him. He gasped in renewed pain as she got close, and she paused in alarm.

"Maybe you should lie back down for a while longer."

"No," he forced out. "It's…where did you put the bullet?"

"In my pocket…oh!" she jumped up and backed away from him quickly until he relaxed out of the intense pain and subsided back down to the floor. "It's that powerful?" she called from the other side of the room.

He nodded. "Please — get it away from me. The Bermuda Triangle would be a good place for it."

"It'll have to be somewhere more mundane, I'm afraid." She crossed quickly to the en-suite bathroom, shut the door and flushed the bullet down the toilet. Not exactly ideal, but it wasn't likely that anyone would find it in the sewage. Coming back into the main room, she returned to Superman's side to help him up to a sitting position. He wanted to go further, but she stopped him with a hand against his good shoulder.

"Wait. We need to do something about this first."

She indicated his injury, which was steadily oozing blood all over his suit. She left him supporting himself shakily with his good hand, while she hunted around for something suitable to bind the wound with. A cushion cover looked like the best option, and with scissors gleaned from the desk, she hacked it into strips. Then she chopped out a chunk of the cushion itself as a wad — thankfully it was a fibre-filled one and not feathers — and proceeded to bandage up her patient as best she could.

"If you can bear it, I think you should apply pressure to try and stop the bleeding," she told him. "but let's get you standing first."

Which was easier said than done. First, he rolled over onto his knees, still supporting himself by his good hand. Then he pushed back so that he was kneeling upright. Finally, with Lois supporting him under his elbow, he hoisted himself up to stand. She grabbed him around the waist when the extra effort required sent him reeling sideways, and waited until he was stable.

"OK?" she asked, looking up anxiously into his face.

"Yes." He tried a reassuring smile, but it turned into a grimace. "No. I need to sit."

"Here." She guided him around the desk to the chair behind and lowered him down carefully. "Better?"

"I will be." His eyes closed again. "What now?"

"Well, I remember Luthor boasting about this place. He said he'd had a special elevator installed just for him — I think it goes all the way down to the basement car park."

"Sounds good. Then what?"

"Then we steal a car."

His eyes shot open. "Lois?"

"How else are we going to get to Clark's apartment?" she asked defensively. "We can't call a cab with you looking…well, with you like that," she gestured in his general direction, "we can't walk there, and we definitely can't use public transport." She stopped and stared at him. "Hold on, why am I being so dumb? We can call Clark and ask him to come pick us up."

"Uh, I don't think he'll be in."

"Oh, right, he's probably at the Planet." She grabbed the phone and dialled. Clark groaned inwardly. He couldn't tell her not to bother, but this was just delaying things and he really wanted to get home and rest up. His shoulder was a huge ball of solid pain, and the slightest movement sent sharp bolts of agony rocketing through his body. Why wasn't he recovering now that the Kryptonite was gone?

Lois drew a negative at the Planet, together with some puzzlement because Jimmy thought Clark was at the penthouse with Superman. She also ended up having to convince Jimmy of her sanity, after he had got over the relief of discovering that she was alive. Finally putting the phone down, she said, "I'll try his cell-phone."

"Clark told me it wasn't working. Dead battery, I think."

"Why is it that Clark can be so hard to get hold of when you really need him? Sometimes I swear he's avoiding me."

"I'm sure it's not that." Clark tried half-heartedly to defend himself, but his mind was too fuddled to come up with the rest of the explanation.

"You always stick up for him, too, even when he lets you down. OK, back to plan A. I hope you've got a key for Clark's place, by the way."

"Yes."

Clark gave in to the inevitable. He was going to steal a car. Maybe they could get it back to the owner without them noticing it had even gone. Yes, that might work.

He drew a deep breath, planted his right hand firmly on the arm of the chair prior to standing up slowly and gingerly. Lois looked on, worry written all over her face.

"You look so pale. Are you sure you'll make it downstairs?"

He nodded. She moved up to stand a couple of feet away from him: her initial familiarity with him was wearing off now that the first stages of the emergency were over. After all, this was Superman…not quite untouchable, but also not someone she would normally just blithely grab around the waist.

"Shall I…?" She held out a hesitant arm towards him.

"Yes. Please."

She put her arm around his waist once more, while he laid his good arm across her shoulders for extra support. She could tell that he was trying not to lean too heavily on her, which was just as well, because she was pretty sure she couldn't support a Superman's weight on her own.

Something was gnawing at the back of Clark's mind as they shuffled slowly to the door. Something he should have remembered…something they should have done.

"Oh!" Lois halted abruptly, causing him to sway dangerously forward under his continuing momentum. When he regained his balance, she backed into the room and manoeuvred him so that he was leaning against the wall beside the door.

"What about Arianna?" she explained. "We should tell the police to put out an APB for her and the double."

"I think Jimmy already did that at the Planet. But maybe you should check," he agreed.

"Will you be all right there?"

"Yes." He sagged slightly against the wall. "Just don't take too long."

Lois hurried back to the phone on the desk and dialled the police. Clark let the conversation wash past him, until Lois' voice became more strident and he heard her say, "Listen to me, you-you cloth ears! *I* am Lois Lane, and there *is* a person out there who looks exactly like me…well, almost exactly like me — her dress sense is like something out of a cheap catalogue and her hair looks like it was designed by a monkey. Anyway, you have to put an APB out on her as well as Carlin."

There was a short pause, then he heard her say, "OK, if you don't believe me, would you believe Superman?"

He hauled himself off the wall and walked slowly back to the desk. It was only ten feet or so, but it felt like ten light-years as the room threatened to tilt away from him and his hands grew clammy with sweat. Lois dropped the receiver to help him sit back down in the chair.

"Hello, this is Superman. Who am I speaking to?" he asked in the best version of his superhero voice that he could muster.

"Uh, Sergeant Lewis."

"Sergeant Lewis, please make sure that an APB is issued for the double of Ms Lane. She is very seriously implicated in several crimes against Ms Lane and the Daily Planet. You can identify her by checking for a mole behind her left knee. Ms Lane has one, she has not."

"OK, Superman. Thanks."

Clark replaced the receiver. Lois was twisting around where she stood, trying to examine the back of her left leg. Evidently surprised by what she found there, she stared at him in wonderment.

"How did you know that? Even I didn't know I had a mole there!"

"Lois, I notice everything about you." The confession slipped out of him before he could stop it. This light-headed feeling was making him drop his guard.

"You do?"

Instead of answering her, he started up again. "Shall we try this again?"

They shuffled slowly out to the elevator, where Clark leaned up against the wall again to give Lois some respite from supporting his weight. He reached up gingerly to try and put pressure on his wound as Lois had suggested, but one brief press sent a fresh bolt of pain thundering through his left side. He bit his lip to suppress the gasp of agony; Lois placed a comforting hand on his arm.

"Don't worry about it."

The truth was, she was worried enough for both of them. Already, blood stains were appearing on her make-shift bandage, and he looked as though he might collapse in a heap at her feet at any minute. She didn't doubt her ability to break into a car and hotwire it, but she did wonder whether she could manhandle an unconscious Superman into it.

Thankfully, the elevator reached the basement before any disaster befell them, and Lois left Clark inside while she found a suitable car. A few minutes later, she had parked just outside the elevator door and was helping Clark inside.

"Here, I found this."

She produced a large blanket and tucked it around him.

"It'll hide the suit."

"Thanks."

Actually, he had begun to feel a little shivery and the blanket afforded some welcome extra warmth. He'd never noticed how little the suit protected him against the cold before, but then why would he? At least the pain had subsided to something just below a dull roar, leaving him with a sick, shaky feeling and incredible dizziness. He closed his eyes as the car swung sickeningly through the traffic: the nightmare was nearly over now and he'd be home safe. He would find a way of persuading Lois to leave and then he could sleep for a few hours until he was better. Except he didn't feel as though he was getting any better. A small seed of doubt was growing in his mind: maybe he just wouldn't heal up quickly. He had no experience to draw on, and it was frightening him just a little.

Lois glanced over at Superman as she drove. He had his eyes closed but she was pretty sure he wasn't asleep. He looked so vulnerable, this man of steel who everyone looked up to. Of course, she looked up to him as well, but he was so much more than just a soulless icon and she liked to think she understood him better than most. She saw more of his unguarded moments, when he let the man behind the suit slip through, when he would smile a broad smile, or betray stronger emotions than usual. Something made her reach over and put a hand on his knee.

"You'll be fine."

He opened his eyes in surprise and turned to look at her.

"Thank you."

"I guess this is kind of scary for you. I bet you've never had so much as a scratch all your life."

"Mmmm," he murmured non-committally. Lois didn't know about his previous exposures to kryptonite and he had no intention of enlightening her.

She moved her hand up to the radio and switched it on. "Maybe we can find out something about Arianna," she explained.

They listened while the announcer told them about tornadoes in Florida, a bank merger in Gotham City, and thick fog conditions Metropolis airport, but nothing about the fleeing ex-wife of Lex Luthor or her companion.

"I guess they haven't caught her yet," concluded Lois.

"No." He closed his eyes again as a fresh wave of dizziness overcame him and they fell back into silence for the rest of the journey.

***

The blanket came in handy, when they arrived at Clark's apartment, as a partial cover-up for the suit. Clark had mussed up his hair so that hopefully it looked as if Lois was helping an ordinary man into the building. Not that there were many ordinary men in Metropolis wearing bright red boots, but it was a big city where idiosyncratic behaviour was commonplace. They rode up the elevator, negotiated the final steps up to his front door, where Lois looked expectantly at Clark.

"Key?"

Clark pointed to the ledge above the door.

"You're kidding," said Lois incredulously. "Hasn't Clark realised he's not living in Hicksville County yet?" She reached up blindly with her hand. "He's going to pay for this if a spider crawls up my arm."

However, she managed to retrieve the key unscathed, and they were finally inside. Clark felt a huge sense of relief sweep over him as Lois supported him over to his couch.

"Lois, I'll be fine now and I'm sure Clark will be home soon. I can't tell you how much I appreciate all your help in getting me here. I'll always be in your debt. You should-"

"Oh, no, you don't, buster. I'm not leaving yet — that shoulder needs more than a shredded cushion to help it heal. Where does Clark keep his medicine cabinet?"

"I-I'm not sure. I don't think he has one. Look Lois, you should be taking that car back-"

"You're probably thinking I'll make a lousy nurse. OK, you're right, I'm not much good around sick people, but this is different. This is you. Do you really think he doesn't have any medicines or band-aids at all?"

"No."

"Sometimes I hate that man. He has a body to die for, he eats like a five year old, and he never gets sick. Not even an aspirin?"

"No."

Once again, Clark was giving in to the inevitable. He didn't have the strength to fight Lois in her present 'coping with emergency' mode, and anyway, she was probably right. At the very least, he needed a proper bandage on the wound.

"OK, I'll have to go out and get some stuff. Where's the nearest pharmacy?"

He gave her directions to an all-night pharmacy round the next corner, and sank back against the cushions of the sofa with instructions from Lois to rest and relax as much as he could.

Lois hurried down to the street, took a glance at the car and decided it would be faster to walk. Actually, she practically ran around to the pharmacy, and whizzed around at top speed, grabbing everything and anything she thought would be useful to treat a gunshot wound. The cashier raised an eyebrow when she presented her basketful of medical supplies, but Lois gave her a glare which shut the woman up before she could pass comment.

An idea was forming at the back of Lois' mind as she made her way back to Clark's apartment. Recent events had triggered memories of her father poking fun at TV cop shows when the hero would be back on his feet just a few minutes after being shot. He would point out that gunshot wounds were a whole lot messier in real life than the way TV portrayed them, and that people could even be permanently disabled from the kinds of injuries shown in the movies and TV. Superman might not be human, but he certainly looked a whole lot like one, so there was no reason to think his body might not react the same way as anyone else's to being shot. Which meant he really needed medical assistance, which he was refusing, so maybe she could find a compromise.

She walked back into Clark's sitting room and dumped her purchases on the table. Turning to Superman on the sofa, her heart did a little jump when she saw him: he was sitting with his eyes closed again, and for a moment she thought…

"Superman?" she asked querulously.

His eyes opened and her heart did another flip. Thank God, he's still alive…OK, her mind was made up.

"Superman, I know you don't want me to tell anyone about you, but I was wondering…how about if I rang my father? He's a doctor, you know. At least, he was a doctor — these days he builds cyborgs. I guess he thinks he can have a meaningful relationship with a cyborg — they'd be just about his level of maturity. Anyway, you probably didn't want to know that, but he really was a very good doctor once upon a time, so I could ask his advice on how to look after you. I won't tell him about you, just that I'm doing research for a story. What do you think?"

"Lois, are you sure? I know you and he don't exactly get along."

"You do?"

Another slip. He really had to try and get a grip on his thinking, before he gave himself away completely.

"Uh, Clark told me. I hope you don't mind."

"No, I guess…you mean, you and he talk about me?"

He nodded.

"Oh." How did she feel about that? Confused, as usual, she decided. "So shall I call him?"

"If you're sure it's all right."

"Hey, I've dealt with terrorists, bombers, crazy scientists. I think I can handle a wacko scientist who also happens to be my father."

She pulled out her cell-phone and dialled the number.

"Daddy?"

"Lois! How are you, princess?"

"Fine. Daddy, I have a favour to ask."

"Ah. I should have known this wasn't a social call."

Lois took a deep breath. "I'm sorry, but this is important. How would you treat a gunshot wound in the shoulder?"

"Princess, are you in trouble?"

"No, Daddy, it's for a story."

"You could have asked any one of a hundred medical advisors. Why come to me?"

"Because I know you're the best. I need to get this right."

"Why, thank you, Lois! I didn't know you thought that highly of me."

"Please, Daddy."

"OK, OK. How would I treat a shot in the shoulder? Well, I'd want to get the patient into surgery as soon as possible-"

"What if you couldn't?"

"Couldn't get him or her to surgery? This is an odd story you're writing, Lois. What's it about?"

"I can't tell you until I've done more work on it."

"Oh, I get it. Hush-hush job, can't reveal your sources and all that. I understand. You'll let me know when it comes out in print?"

"I promise you'll be the first to know, Daddy. So, no surgery?"

"No surgery. OK, the shoulder is tricky — there are lots of nerves running through that area, so you'd want to check for nerve damage. I'm afraid if there was any, your patient would be in real trouble if they couldn't get to the hospital. Also, you've got some large blood vessels around there, so there could be severe blood loss. Without surgery, the best you could do would be to clean up the wound, bandage it up real tight and keep it as immobilised as possible."

"How would you check for nerve damage?"

"Make sure all motor movement is intact and that there's still sensation in all parts of the arm. And before you ask, if blood isn't running out of the wound, if it's just oozing, then you're probably OK. Otherwise, get the patient to the hospital as soon as you can."

"OK. Thanks, Daddy."

"Any time. Call me again when you're free — we'll do lunch."

"Sure."

Lois shut down her phone and turned to her patient.

"All right! Good news. You're not going to bleed to death."

Clark smiled in spite of his discomfort. "That's good."

"But we have to check that you haven't damaged any nerves." She sat down beside him on the sofa and looked at him apologetically. "I think this is going to hurt."

"What do you want me to do?"

Lois had Clark twiddle all his fingers, flex his wrist, bend his elbow and move his whole arm from the shoulder. The last manoeuvre sent renewed bolts of pain thundering through his left side, but at least he now knew he wasn't seriously injured. She even made him close his eyes while she prodded various points along his arm and asked him where she was touching, to make sure he hadn't lost touch sensation anywhere. When she had finished, he opened his eyes and smiled at her.

"Have you ever considered a change in career, Lois?"

"No way! One crazed scientist in the family is quite enough." She reached over to the table and started pulling things out of the bag and laying them out. "We should get you cleaned up and properly bandaged."

The first problem was how to get him out of the suit. The movement required to undress him normally proved impossibly painful, so in the end, Lois took a pair of scissors and cut the top half off from him.

She gulped at the sight of his muscular naked torso. She wasn't a fan of the over-developed look so common in men who worked out a lot, but this was simply perfection. Powerful shoulders, strong arms, a smooth, firm chest and flat stomach, and…she snatched her eyes back up from where they were starting to wander. Busying herself with antiseptic cleaner and cotton wool, she mentally slapped herself for thinking such unwholesome thoughts at a time like this.

"Sorry if this stings," she murmured, glancing up at his face before concentrating on his shoulder. There was a sharp intake of breath and his whole body tensed.

"Sorry," she repeated. She really wasn't cut out for this stuff. This was the second time in so many hours she'd had to hurt him, and it didn't get any easier. Maybe she should try talking to him to distract his attention away from the pain.

"How long do you think it will take for you to recover?"

"I…don't know. I'm not sure," came the tight response.

"Right. Stupid question. How should you know? Are all your powers gone?"

"I think so. Anyway, I don't think I'd have the strength to try-" he paused when she hit a particularly sensitive spot, "-to try them out," he managed at last.

"Have you any idea where Arianna might have got the kryptonite from?"

"I think Lex had some at one time. Maybe she stole it from him somehow."

Lois faltered briefly in her clean-up operation. Lex had kryptonite? How did he know about it, and where did he get it from? More importantly, what had he been planning to do with it? Superman seemed to know something about it, but now wasn't the time to ask him. She continued her dabbing, resolving to ask him about it when he was better.

"I hope there's no more of the stuff hanging around waiting for someone else to find," she commented as neutrally as she could.

"So do I."

"OK, the worst part's over. You can let out that breath you've been holding."

She dropped the last of the soiled cotton-wool pads onto the pile while Clark relaxed back onto the sofa cushions. He hadn't even been aware that he had been that tense, but it definitely felt good now that she had stopped interfering with his torn shoulder.

Finally she bandaged up the shoulder. She didn't really have a clue what she was doing, but she kept doggedly winding the bandage around until it looked as if it would stay put and prevent movement. For a moment, her mind did a complete flip and she suddenly thought: my God, I'm bandaging Superman's shoulder! I'm so close I can feel his breath on my neck, and here I am fumbling my way around his body with this pathetic attempt at a bandage. What must he think of me? Fortunately, common sense reasserted itself pretty quickly, and she realised he was probably too exhausted and in pain to care what she was doing or how. More likely he was just relieved that the ordeal was nearly over.

She sat back and surveyed her handiwork, a small frown playing across her forehead.

"How does that feel?"

"Fine."

In truth, it hurt like hell, but at least it was a non-specific pain now, instead of the stabbing pain he had felt before while she had been cleaning the wound. Now it was time to try and persuade her to leave before she started wondering why Clark wasn't coming home.

He waited while she cleaned up the mess on the table and came back to sit next to him again.

"Lois, I'll be fine now. Why don't you take that car back before someone misses it? Clark will be back any time now, so you don't need to worry about me."

"I can't leave you like this! You're, you're half-naked and you'll get cold if your powers aren't working. Why don't I help you into Clark's bed? I'm sure he won't mind and you'll be more comfortable there. Here."

She snaked an arm around his waist as a prelude to helping him stand up. He put a placating hand over hers at his waist.

"Really, Lois, I'm happier here."

"I'll find you a blanket."

She leapt up and hunted around his cupboards. His heart thudded in his chest when she got dangerously close to the secret compartment.

"Ah, Lois? I think Clark has some extra bedding underneath the window seat."

She found a blanket and wrapped it gently around him.

"Now you look like a refugee from a disaster movie…except for the tights and the boots."

How was it this woman always made him smile, even when he felt as awful as he did now?

"Thank you."

"Maybe I should wait until Clark gets home. You don't look like you should be left alone."

"Lois, I'll be fine. Honestly."

"I don't mind waiting. I need to speak to Clark anyway, to find out what he knows about Arianna."

Please, Lois, just go and take the car with you. He closed his eyes and heard himself say, "Actually, I think I'd appreciate a little time on my own."

"Oh."

He could already hear the hurt in her voice.

"Not that I don't appreciate everything you've done for me. Trust me, Lois, I do, I really do."

"I see," she said in a small voice, making him wince inwardly at his own callousness.

He ploughed on anyway. "It's just, I think I need some time to adjust to all this. Being shot, feeling sick-"

"You're feeling sick too? You never mentioned that. Can I get you anyth-"

"It's just a touch of nausea…I-I'm sure it will pass. Anyway, as I was saying, I'd really like to be on my own for a while."

"I really don't think y-"

"Please, Lois." He opened his eyes and looked directly at her. "Please."

She shot out of her seat abruptly. "OK, you want to be on your own. I understand. I understand completely. I'll just leave now and let you have some quality time alone, thinking about being hurt and what it means to you. Sure."

"Lois. Lois, I hope you understand."

"Of course I understand. You want to be alone. Just like Greta Garbo."

"Not like Greta Garbo. Just like me."

"Fine."

She snatched up her purse and hurried to the door. Opening it, she paused and turned.

"Please take care of yourself. Keep warm and don't move that shoulder more than you absolutely have to. Is it OK if I at least call you later to make sure you're all right?"

"Of course it is. And thank you…you'll be all right taking the car back, won't you?" He suddenly remembered the borrowed vehicle.

"Why — you offering to help?" she asked snippily.

He closed his eyes briefly. "Sorry."

"I'll be fine. Now, get some rest!"

Finally, she closed the door quietly and at last he was alone. For a moment, he sat still, savouring the silence and solitude. Then, gathering up as much strength as he could, he reached over for the phone and dialled the number he'd been wanting to call since arriving home.

***

"Mom?"

"Clark?" Martha's mother-son antennae were already quivering with his first word. "Clark, honey, are you all right?"

"Mom," he repeated, not sure how to continue.

"Clark, what is it?"

Martha waved at Jonathan to pick up the other phone.

"Mom, I've been shot." Saying it out loud made him shiver with fright. He took some deep breaths to steady his voice.

"Oh, dear God, Clark! Where are you? Do you need help?"

"Mom, it's OK, I'm at home. Lois took care of me."

"Lois? Is she there now?"

"No, she's gone. But she cleaned me up and bandaged me up just fine before she left."

"Clark, you should be in the hospital."

"Mom, I can't go to the hospital. I can't let people know there's something out there that can hurt me like this."

"What was it, son?" asked Jonathan. "Was it that kryptonite stuff again?"

"Yes. The bullet was made of it, or coated in it. I-I'm not sure which."

"Where is it now?"

"Lois flushed it down the toilet. I just hope no-one finds it…"

"Clark, we'll be there just as soon as we can."

"Dad, you don't have to-"

"Clark, we're coming to Metropolis to take care of you, and that's that."

"Sweetie, are you in much pain?" asked Martha before Clark could object again.

"It's not too bad now, Mom. It's more of a dull ache — except when I try to move around."

"Where did it hit you?"

"My shoulder — but Lois checked me out and there isn't any lasting damage. I guess I'm lucky it didn't hit anything vital."

"Well, you just relax and take things easy, dear. How do you feel otherwise?"

"Just a little shaky."

Martha listened to her son's voice trying to sound in control and minimise his predicament and thought she detected something else she didn't often hear from Clark.

"Honey, you sound scared. What is it?"

Trust his Mom to find him out, even when they weren't in the same room together. He gripped the receiver more tightly and forced his voice to sound calm.

"I-I thought I might have healed up by now, but it doesn't seem to be getting better any quicker than it would in a normal person."

"Oh, honey! We don't know if you should get well any quicker than anyone else. Just because you're stronger and faster than the rest of us doesn't mean you should heal quicker than us."

"A gunshot wound is a serious injury, son," added Jonathon. "Who knows how long you might take to get better — you've never actually had the kryptonite inside you like this, so maybe it mixed with your bloodstream…" Jonathan trailed off as he realised that his well-intentioned words were probably making Clark feel worse instead of better.

Back in Smallville, Martha glared at her husband while speaking to Clark in soothing tones completely at odds with her expression. "What your father means is that maybe you'll take just as long as he or I might."

"I guess. But if that's the case, how am I going to carry on as Clark?"

"Don't worry about that, sweetie," answered Martha. "We'll think of something. You just concentrate on looking after yourself and let us do the thinking for you. Have you had anything to eat or drink since you got home?"

"No. I don't think I could face anything right now."

"It's important you drink something at least. You must have lost some blood and you need to replace the fluid."

"OK, Mom."

"And then get yourself into bed, keep warm and try to get as much sleep as you can."

"OK."

"You ring us if you need to, any time, day or night. You hear me, son?"

"Sure, Dad."

"We love you very much, sweetie."

"I love you, too."

The receiver rattled in its cradle as Clark replaced it. The release of being able to transfer the burden of his plight onto his parents left him feeling weak and very shaky. For a time, he was gripped by uncontrollable shivering and he hunched in on himself, pulling the blanket closer around his shoulders. The nausea rose in his throat and the shivering made his shoulder flare up again. It felt like a living hell.

After an eternity, the shakes quietened down and he was able to relax a little. When the pain in his shoulder settled down again, he summoned up what little strength he had left to ease himself off the sofa and creep carefully into the kitchen in search of a drink. He knew it should be a hot, sweet drink, but nothing happened when he fixed his gaze on one of the hot plates on the stove, and without his heat vision, he couldn't face the extra effort required to heat anything up. Apparently whatever tiny residue of his powers that had enabled him to bore a hole in the fish-tank had disappeared once the kryptonite bullet had completed its work inside his body. He settled on milk straight from the carton.

With a couple of gulps to fortify himself, he clutched carton and blanket together awkwardly in front of him and wobbled his way to the bedroom, where he dropped the blanket on the floor, laid the milk carton on his bedside table, and crawled carefully into bed.

It felt good to be lying flat at last, and within minutes he was asleep.

***

It seemed as if only minutes had passed when he was woken up by the sound of his phone ringing. Slowly and painfully, he sat up and reached over to pick it up.

"Clark Kent."

"Oh, so you do still live there. I was beginning to wonder."

"Hello, Lois."

"Where have you been, Clark? I've been searching for you everywhere. No-one knew where you were."

"I was…out."

"Out? What does that mean, 'out'? Out dancing? Out meeting your long-lost cousin from Nowheresville? Out returning a video?"

"None of those…just out." Belatedly it occurred to Clark where he might have been. "I was out trying to find Arianna."

"Oh. And did you?"

"No. I'm not sure where she's gone."

"Huh! Call yourself an investigative reporter. Anyway, I rang to check on Superman. Is he OK?"

"He's doing fine."

"Only I was really worried about him when I left. I'm sure he was hurting more than he was letting on — he looked so pale."

"He's still a little shaky but I'm sure he'll be OK. He wanted me to tell you what a great job you did of bandaging his shoulder."

"He did? Well, tell him to take good care of my handiwork."

Clark was starting to feel uncomfortable in the half-sitting, half-lying position he'd adopted to answer the phone — the phone conversation would have to end soon.

"I will," he managed.

"Clark, are you all right? You sound kinda funny."

"Me? I'm fine." He tried to inject some vigorous surprise into his voice. "Why shouldn't I be?"

"I don't know. I guess it must be this line — the phone company's probably trying to save money by using cheap wiring again."

"Probably…did you manage to get the car back OK?"

"Yes, Clark, it's back where it belongs, without the owner knowing it ever left the car park, so you needn't worry that Superman's going to be arrested for auto theft — honestly, you and Superman are as bad as each other!"

"I guess we are."

"I'll see you tomorrow at work?"

"Sure."

"And Clark?"

"Yes?"

"Try and keep in touch once in a while? We're supposed to be partners."

"I will. I'm sorry."

"Uh huh. OK, Goodnight. Take good care of Superman — we need him."

"Yes. Goodnight, Lois."

He'd barely eased himself back down to a lying position, when the phone rang again. No, he thought, I can't be bothered: let it ring. Whoever was phoning was determined to get through, though, so eventually, he pulled himself up again and reached gingerly over once more for the receiver.

"Hello?"

"Clark, sweetie, I'm sorry if I woke you up. How are you?"

"Hi, Mom. You didn't wake me up, it's OK."

"Have you heard about the heavy fog at the airport? Your father's been trying to get us a flight to Metropolis, but he's just been told that the airport is closed. He managed to get an early morning flight to Gotham City, and we can get the train up from there, but it means we probably won't be there until late tomorrow afternoon. Are you sure you'll be all right until then?"

"Mom, I'll be fine. Don't worry about me."

"You didn't answer my question about how you're feeling."

Clark sighed. "I can't fool you, can I? OK, I feel pretty weak and shaky, but I'm sure I'll be fine after a good night's sleep."

"How's the shoulder?"

"Sore — but not as bad as it was."

"Have you taken any painkillers?"

"Lois bought me some, but I don't think they'd work on me. My body doesn't work like yours."

"I guess not. Well, you just try and get as much rest as you can, OK?"

"OK."

"'Night, Clark."

"Goodnight, son," chipped in Jonathan on the extension.

"'Night, both of you."

***

Lois was sitting up in bed, vaguely watching a late-night run of Casablanca. Humphrey Bogart was sitting at a table by himself, looking…well, looking like Humphrey Bogart always looks, she thought to herself. Craggy. And here comes the famous line…

"Play it, Sam," chorused Lois with Bogart. "Ha!" she digressed triumphantly. "You never said 'play it again, Sam' did you? You and I know that, don't we, Bogey?"

Wonder if Superman watches the movies? Or is he more of a book person? Come to think of it, what exactly *does* Superman do in his spare time? Or doesn't he have any? She'd have to find a way of asking him the next time she saw him. After all, it was about time she got to know him better…not that she didn't think she knew him, but she didn't know much about his private life, and their relationship wasn't going to go very far unless she got to know about every aspect of his life. Of course, they didn't really have a relationship — hadn't he just rejected her when he most needed a friend? He'd looked so ill and vulnerable when she'd left him…very human, in fact, and not at all like the bold superhero the rest of the world knew. Why hadn't he wanted her to stay? Did he prefer Clark's company to hers? Maybe there had been other times like this, but it had always been Clark who saw him at his most vulnerable — maybe he was embarrassed! Well, she'd have to change that: she wanted him to know he could share everything with her. Then there was that remark about the mole on her leg — didn't that demonstrate that he paid her a great deal of attention? "I notice everything about you," he'd said. She was pretty certain he hadn't meant it to slip out, so what did that mean? He was attracted to her, but was scared to let his feelings show? Why?

Ingrid Bergman was talking to her screen husband Victor Laszlo.

"Don't stick with him, girl," instructed Lois. "He's a cause-fighter. You stay with him, it'll be one cause after another, you'll see. Bogey's the guy for you."

So which was Clark, Victor or Bogey? Neither, really. Clark was just Clark — steady, dependable…no, strike that, he wasn't dependable at all. He was always dashing off in the middle of their conversations, on some lame errand to return a video or likewise. And where had he been this afternoon and tonight? The last time she'd seen him had been just as the clone had let off the gas bomb at the Daily Planet. He'd told her that he'd been chasing after Arianna and the clone, but did that really take most of the afternoon and night? He'd only do what she'd been doing since she got home — keep pestering the police to see if they'd been caught yet. He might have gone back to Lex's penthouse or the doctor's office where the plastic surgery to create her double took place to see if he could get any leads, but that wouldn't take much time. Sometimes he was so strange. He presented the image of a regular guy from Kansas, with nice, ordinary parents and a talent for journalism, but then he'd go and do something really weird, like disappear for half the day. Well, she was going to ask him about that first thing tomorrow morning at the Planet — it was about time he stopped getting away with these crazy things.

He did nice things, too, though. He always stuck up for her, like yesterday when everyone believed she was going crazy and that it was really her going off the deep end and saying mean things about Superman. He was always there for her when she needed a friend — but wasn't that what partners did for each other? Except that, for a moment, she'd thought there was something more there than just a partner relationship. Why, Clark had even told her he loved her! He'd changed his mind pretty quickly — but which version did she believe? Which version did she want to believe? What about Superman? Oh, God, this was hopeless!

"Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship," said Bogey as he and Claude Rains walked into the mist.

Yes, but she wanted more than friendship with someone — who was it going to be?

***

Clark checked the time on his bedside alarm clock again. Five-thirty. He'd been dozing fitfully for hours, never able to find an entirely comfortable position, and constantly checking the clock in the hope that the night would soon be over. He was hoping that when day dawned, he would start feeling better. Maybe he should just get up now and start getting ready for work. It was probably going to take him longer than usual, and he might even feel better once he was up and moving around. Sitting up slowly, pushing himself up carefully with his right arm, he found that his shoulder wasn't protesting too violently with his movements. Maybe everything was going to be all right after all.

An hour and a half later, he was finally washed, dressed and sitting on the edge of his bed getting his breath back. The shoulder certainly hadn't been pain-free when he'd started to peel the bottom half of the suit off, so he'd had to do everything in small stages, resting after each one. The good news was that he had a reasonable amount of movement in the arm; enough that he thought it wouldn't be noticeable to anyone else that he was injured. The bad news was that he already felt considerably more ill than when he'd first got up. He felt weak and shaky, his body felt heavy and lethargic, and he had a horrible sour taste in his mouth all the time. Nevertheless, he convinced himself that he'd be OK just sitting at his desk. Of course, Lois would be wanting to chase after the Arianna story, but he could volunteer to do all the tedious desk-bound work while she went out to investigate. He eyed the pain-killers Lois had bought the previous night. He was pretty sure they wouldn't work, but they were probably worth a try anyway — he could do with every extra little help available. Picking up the packet, he read that the maximum dosage was two every four hours…throwing caution to the wind he decided that his body might need more, so gulped down four.

The next problem was how to get to work. Usually he walked or flew, but neither of those options were viable in his present state, and he couldn't face the hassle of the subway or a bus.

Well, he'd just have to forget the expense and call a cab. At least he'd be arriving so early that no-one would see him getting out of the cab.

***

Lois Lane was not in a good mood by the time she reached the Daily Planet. First, she'd tried to call Clark at home only to find he'd already left for work, and either Superman was so ill he couldn't come to the phone, or he'd recovered and had departed. She was frustrated about missing Clark — she'd wanted to suggest picking him up from his apartment so that they could ride into work together. That way she could challenge him about yesterday's disappearing act before work got in the way, and she'd also decided it was time for a little more positive action on her part in the relationship stakes. She still hadn't a clue who she was ultimately chasing after, but maybe if she and Clark spent more time together away from work it would help her make up her mind.

Next, the blasted panty-hose she had on today kept slipping back down, threatening to take her underwear with them…there was only so many times a woman could decently haul her underwear up in public. Trust her to pick the only make in the shop with instant frustration-factor built in to them.

Finally, she'd been stopped by a traffic cop about half her age, who demanded to see her driving licence then asked her to step out of the car.

"Look, kid, don't waste your time on me. I'm the real Lois Lane."

"Just step out of the vehicle, Ma'am."

"If I was the fake Lois Lane, do you really think I'd be driving around in a silver Jeep in the middle of Metropolis?"

"Please get out of the car, Ma'am."

"It's the 'kid' remark, isn't it? OK, I'm sorry I called you that — I'm sure you're very mature for your age."

"I'll only ask you once more, Ma'am."

"Then what?" She held up her hand to block any answer. "OK, OK, this is what you want, isn't it?"

She got out of the Jeep, slammed the door, turned so that her back was facing the cop, and pointed down to the back of her leg.

"Satisfied? Or maybe I faked that, too."

"Thank you, Ma'am, that will be all." He handed back her licence. "Have a nice day."

"That depends on how many of you there are around," she retorted, getting back into the Jeep.

***

Clark shifted gingerly in his seat for the umpteenth time, reflecting grimly that these office chairs just weren't designed for people with shoulder injuries. He grimaced. This had been a big mistake — he should never have come into work today. Even simple little things were hard. He'd answered the phone for someone, but had soon discovered that holding the receiver in his left hand was too uncomfortable. He'd switched to his right hand, but then of course he couldn't write down the message he was taking, so he'd had to rely on his memory — which normally wouldn't be a problem, but in his current state of wooziness was a very hit or miss affair. He was pretty sure the painkillers weren't working either, unless this cotton wool-like haze he was swimming around in was their contribution to his general ill-health. They sure weren't killing any pain, anyway.

He wasn't looking forward to dealing with Lois when she arrived. She was so perceptive, it wouldn't take much for her to notice that he wasn't himself. He'd already had to deflect Perry, who was always an early starter at the Planet.

"Mornin', Clark. What brings you in at this time of day?"

"Ah, just catching up with some paperwork, Chief."

"Have the police found Carlin and that double yet?"

"I don't think so."

"You don't *think* so? I thought you and Lois would be on their tails day and night! What have you two been doing since yesterday afternoon?"

"It was just a figure of speech, Chief. They're still looking."

"Huh! Well, you keep on it, y'hear?" Perry leaned a little closer to study Clark's face. "Are you all right, son? You're looking a little peaky around the gills."

"I-I just didn't get much sleep last night. Too much on my mind, I guess."

"Ah. A woman'll do that to you," replied Perry wistfully. "I didn't sleep a wink the night Alice and I had our first argument."

At any other time, Clark might have pursued the conversation, but now he just he wanted some time alone.

"Chief, I'd better get on with this. I want to get it finished before Lois comes in."

Perry's eyes twinkled as he walked away. "Like I said, a woman'll do that to you."

***

Clark stared blankly at his computer screen. More people were starting to arrive at work now, and he was beginning to feel like an island of hopeless inactivity amongst the hustle and bustle of the newsroom. In fact, he almost felt as though he had a sign painted on his forehead: this man is not working because he feels so ill. Maybe he should just leave now, while he still could. He could invent a lead to chase up, and leave a note on Lois' desk. At least he'd made an appearance at work, so people, especially Lois, wouldn't make a link between Superman's absence and his own. There was something wrong with that logic, but he couldn't quite put his finger on it…

Lois marched down the ramp into the pit, eyeing her victim as he stared intently at his screen. Probably trying to get ahead of her in the investigation. Well, he'd have to answer for where he was yesterday, and she wasn't going to let him think up an excuse first, either. She took a circuitous route around the pit until she was creeping up behind her partner, then suddenly clapped both hands on his shoulders.

"OK, buster, you're going to tell me where you were last night and most of the afternoon, and don't give me some dumb excuse about suddenly discovering your long-lost aunt is sick in the hospital, because I won't believe you!"

In the heat of her tirade, she didn't notice Clark's gasp of agony or the way he flinched away from her when she touched him. When he didn't answer, she shook him roughly.

"What's the matter? Cat got your tongue? Can't think up an excuse quick enough?"

"Lois," he gasped.

"What?" she demanded impatiently.

"Please…let go."

Puzzled by his strange request, she let go of his shoulders, and when he sagged in relief, she swivelled him around in his chair to look at him.

"Clark! You look terrible! What's the matter?"

"I-I didn't get much sleep last night." …No, that wasn't enough…"I caught my shoulder on a door this morning." Was she going to believe that?

"You must have hit it pretty hard. Have you seen a doctor?"

"No, it's just a bad bruise. I'll be fine."

"You don't look fine. Can I get you anything?"

"Uh, a coffee would be nice."

"No, I meant painkillers or something."

Her voice was starting to fade in and out as he fought to focus blurrily on her face. This was bad, this was very bad. The last thing he wanted was for her to know that he was hurt. He should never have come to work today…

"Clark!"

He forced his eyes open to look at her concerned face. He needed to go home now…had the rest of the newsroom noticed them yet? Lois could get him home…he couldn't manage it on his own…Lois could help him…he didn't care, he just needed to go home…he should never have come to work…

"I need to go home," he said faintly. His voice sounded as thought it was coming from a long, long way away.

"Sure, Clark, I'll take you, but are you sure you shouldn't see a doctor first?"

"No!" Too forceful…"No, please just take me home. Please."

She rubbed his hand comfortingly. "OK, give me a minute to tell Perry-"

"No!" He didn't want anyone knowing he was sick. He saw her frowning at him and tried to soften his voice again. "I'm sorry. Please, can we just go home now?"

So many 'pleases', thought Lois. Something is badly wrong here — Clark's acting as if he doesn't want anyone to know he's sick. His desperation was clear, though, and he'd helped her enough times in the past, so it was time to repay the debt.

"OK," she said quietly and, she hoped, calmly. "Can you make it to the elevators on your own?"

"I-I'm not sure. Probably."

"I'll be right beside you. If you think you're going to go, just grab my hand. Is it your left shoulder?"

He nodded. "Is anyone watching us?"

"No, it's all right. Come on." Raising her voice, she continued, "OK, Clark, I'm sick of the police giving us the runaround. You coming with me to the precinct, or do I have to do all the hard work in this partnership?"

"OK."

She accompanied him up the ramp, staying close to his right side for reassurance and safety. Somehow, he made it to the elevator, and they rode down to the basement in silence, Clark leaning against the side with his eyes closed. Lois suddenly got a shot of deja vu — hadn't she been doing just the exact same thing just last night with Superman? What was it with the men in her life? Same shoulder, too…weird.

***

Lois kept glancing at Clark as she drove. As they neared his apartment, his face gained a little more colour and he opened his eyes.

"Feeling better?"

"Yes, thanks."

"How exactly did you hit the door with your shoulder? You must have given it one heck of a thwack."

"I-I guess I wasn't looking where I was going. Rushing around too much." He hated lying to Lois like this. Time to change the subject. "Where do you think Arianna is now?"

"I don't know — probably a few states away by now. I'm more worried about the double."

"Do you think she might still be around here someplace?"

"Maybe. Of course, maybe Arianna would have tried to get rid of her — after all, she must have known a lot of what Arianna was planning."

"So maybe the police should be looking for bodies as well as doubles."

"Yeah." She parked the Jeep outside Clark's apartment. "You going to manage under your own steam?"

"Yes, you'd better go back to the Planet. Th-"

"Oh, no, you don't, Clark. Superman tried to get rid of me like that last night — I'm seeing you into your apartment."

"I'll be fine, Lois."

"Clark, let me do this, OK? I want to help."

How could he refuse her? Especially as he'd already rejected her once last night. "OK."

***

Clark turned to Lois once they were both inside his apartment.

"Lois, thanks for helping me here, but I'm sure I'll be fine now. You should-"

But Lois wasn't satisfied yet: Clark was looking distinctly unsteady on his feet again. "Why don't I take a look at that shoulder?"

"I told you, it's only a bad bruise. Not very pretty."

"Maybe it's more than that. Come on, I promise I won't hurt you. I'm getting good at shoulders these days."

She moved up closer to him, but he backed away.

"Lois," he protested.

"Oh, come on, don't be such a baby!" She eased his jacket away from his left shoulder and froze. "Clark, you're bleeding."

"Am I?" Stupid, stupid…

"Yes, your shirt is a mess. You'd better sit down while I take a closer look." She slipped an arm around his waist to guide him down to the sofa, but he pulled away again.

"I can clean it up. I-I'm sure it's nothing."

"Clark, what is it? Why won't you let me help you?" Lois just couldn't understand his behaviour at all, and it was beginning to frustrate her. She was also starting to wonder exactly what he was hiding — what could be so bad that he would keep shrinking away from her like this?

Clark stared dumbly at Lois; he didn't know what to tell her. What he did know was that he needed to sit down soon.

"Oh, for heaven's sake! At least sit down before you fall down."

There was no argument for that. Once seated, he couldn't resist relaxing back into the soft cushions and closing his eyes. He felt her start to ease his jacket off again, and somehow it was easier to let her continue than put up any more resistance. <She's going to find out.> I know, but I can't stop her. <She's going to be so mad at you.> I know, but I can't change that. His tie was coming off, and then she was undoing his shirt buttons.

"Lois, I'm sorry."

"I should think so! You were acting like a two year-old."

<That's not what I meant.>

Now his shirt was off, and he felt her go still. "What…?"

He opened his eyes just as hers slid from the bandage to his face.

"I'm sorry," he repeated, but it wasn't enough. It would never be enough.

"Why have you got Superman's bandage on your shoulder?" Lois studied the face in front of her…she reached up and pulled his glasses off his face. Those eyes…slowly she pushed the hair back from his forehead, while he continued to stare anxiously at her with those wide brown eyes of his…of-

"Superman's. You're Superman." She snatched her hand away from his hair.

"I'm sorry, Lois. It wasn't meant to happen like this." He was supposed to tell her when the moment was right, when he had it all figured out and could explain it so that she would understand everything. Not this way, not by accident.

"Why were you pretending to be Clark? Where is he?"

For a split second, Clark considered taking advantage of her confusion, of perpetuating the deception, but just as quickly he knew that he didn't have a plausible answer for her question, and anyway, he was tired of lying to Lois.

"I wasn't pretending to be Clark. I *am* Clark; I'm just Superman as well."

"What?" Lois stared at him in perplexed confusion. Either he was a lot, lot sicker than she had thought, or he was telling her something else, something utterly outrageous. Surely he couldn't be…could he? She placed the glasses back onto his face, all the time aware of how curiously submissive he had become during her experiments, almost as though he'd let go of something, some inhibition which had made him flinch away from her earlier. With the glasses on, and with his hair messed up, it was definitely Clark Kent looking at her — she'd recognise that earnest, anxious look anywhere. With the glasses off — she repeated her earlier action with his hair — it was Superman looking at her: she'd recognise that earnest, anxious look anywhere, she repeated ironically to herself. How could she have been so blind? The evidence was staring her — literally, at times — in the face!

"Lois, I'm sorry," he repeated to her.

"Will you stop saying you're sorry!" she snapped.

He closed his eyes in defeat. "I guess you're pretty mad at me."

"Just be quiet and let me think!" He'd just turned her world upside down and he wanted her to make sensible conversation? She ran her eyes up and down his body, taking in the well-built upper torso — no wonder he looked so good even though he didn't work out and ate like a five year-old — the slim waist and flat stomach, the dress trousers which concealed those thighs she'd dragged her eyes away from a hundred times before when they were clad in blue spandex…not to mention the red br-<no, don't go there, Lois!> How could she be thinking about that at a time like this? Now she knew, it was obvious, from the build, the height…although Superman always seemed a little taller than Clark…to the face and those dark brown eyes she'd gazed into so often. How could she have been so blind? And if Superman was Clark, and Clark was Superman, where did that leave her feelings for both of them? How was she supposed to behave with this new person in front of her — it was almost like she was meeting him for the first time. But she wasn't! She knew Superman. She knew Clark. They were two people — she'd known them for months. And why hadn't they…he, she corrected herself, told her before?

"Clark…do I call you Clark, or Superman, or what?"

"Clark. I'm Clark. Clark Kent from Smallville, Kansas," he ended on a mutter.

"Clark, I'm not mad at you. I'm…I'm confused. I thought I knew you — both of you — and now I find out that you're both the same person. I don't know how that makes me feel."

"I didn't want you to find out like this — I'm s-"

"Don't! If you say that one more time, I swear I'll — I'll…" she hit the sofa cushion in frustration, "I don't know what I'll do to you. Oh, look what you've done to me, Clark! I can't even threaten you properly!"

Clark elected to remain silent this time. Besides, the conversation wasn't exactly making him feel any better. Dealing with an upset Lois was draining at the best of times; when he was like this — weak and dizzy and with a shoulder throbbing with what seemed like every beat of his heart — it was just about impossible. He felt her stand up abruptly from the sofa.

"Where did you put the stuff I bought last night?"

"It's where you left it — in the kitchen…Lois, we need to talk about this," he said half-heartedly.

He felt her sit back down on the sofa, and then he felt her body lean close to his as she started cutting the old bandage off. "Can you sit up a bit straighter? I can't get around the back."

"Lois…"

"That's better. OK, tell me if this hurts." She began to clean away the mess of blood around his bare shoulder with cool efficiency. He flinched when she came close to the bullet wound itself, but held back any vocal protest. Issuing a curt, "Sorry," she continued on her way, dropping the soiled swabs into a bowl she'd brought in from the kitchen. "You know, I think this is beginning to heal already," she commented, a little surprise creeping into her voice.

"Good."

Next came the new bandage, and this time she was more confident in her technique, winding it around securely so that it lent some support and a degree of immobility to the shoulder.

"Lean forward a bit," she instructed.

"Don't you think-"

"OK, all done." She stood up and carried the old bandages and all her other medical supplies back into the kitchen before he could make another attempt to break through her icy barrier. Coming back to the sofa, she sat down beside him and slipped an arm around his waist. "Come on," she told him.

"What?"

"I'm putting you to bed."

"But, Lois-"

"No buts. Come on, up you get!" She started to stand, leaving him no choice but to follow her up.

Sitting slumped awkwardly on the side of the bed, he tried again to draw her out. "Lois, please tell me what you're thinking."

She looked up from where she was undoing his shoe laces and pulling off his shoes and socks. "You want to know what I'm thinking? All right, I'll tell you. I'm thinking, why didn't he tell me before? I'm thinking, was he ever going to tell me? I'm thinking, doesn't he trust me? That's what I'm thinking." She yanked his second sock off viciously.

"Lois, of course I trust you — I'd trust you with my life," he protested.

"Well, you have a funny way of showing it. You want any help with those?" She gestured vaguely in the direction of his trousers.

"No, I'll manage. Lois-"

But she'd turned her back and was busily tidying away his socks and shoes, obviously to give him some privacy. He fumbled his way out of his trousers and somehow got himself under the covers of the bed. How could he make things right with her again — would things ever be the same again?

"Lois, please let's talk some more about this."

She came back to the side of the bed and gazed down at him. He looked so vulnerable lying there, his dark hair making a sharp contrast with his pale face, and she felt her expression soften a little. "No, Clark. You're in no shape to discuss this right now, and I need to figure out exactly how I feel about it all. When you've had some rest we'll talk."

"I won't be able to sleep knowing you're so upset."

"Yes, you will." She pulled the curtains across the bay window to darken the room. "You're practically asleep already."

***

Lois sat on Clark's sofa, nursing a mug of coffee between her hands. After leaving Clark, she'd continued dealing with the practicalities of the situation by calling Inspector Henderson to chase up on Arianna. It was the least she could do, considering she'd given their pursuit of Arianna and the double as the excuse for their departure. Henderson didn't have any news for her, other than a few false sightings of the double. She told him about her own encounter with Metropolis' finest, and was about to suggest snidely that perhaps they needed Superman's help, when she suddenly realised that Superman was in no shape to help anyone right now, and held back the words just in time.

Now she was wondering whether to call Perry or not. If she did, then she'd need an excuse to explain their continued absence. Not easy, because her mind was in such a turmoil that her excuse meter was just about running on empty. Clark obviously didn't want anyone to know he was sick, although quite why that was the case she couldn't quite figure out. OK, she had seen Superman felled by a bullet, so it was bad news — no, disastrous, she supposed, as far as Clark was concerned — that she had found out that he was also sick, but no-one else would be able to put the two together. Maybe he hadn't been thinking too clearly when he'd decided to go to work this morning instead of resting at home. Anyway, where did that leave her? Not calling Perry, she decided. After all, they didn't always stay in close contact with him when they were chasing a story, and what he didn't know, wouldn't hurt him. She'd do their explaining much later after she'd figured out this mess.

Was it a mess? Well, she was certainly a mess. Hadn't it been just last night when she'd been trying to figure out which one of these two men she loved? No, maybe love was too strong a word…liked most. No, that wasn't right either. Cared about most…that sounded better. Now she was stuck with them both — or neither of them. Oh, God, she was really going to have to get used to thinking of them as one person, or she was going nowhere fast.

She took a slurp of coffee. OK, let's see if we've got this straight. This guy from Kansas…was he really from Kansas, or was that all a big front? K for Kansas, K for Krypton…anyway, this guy from K-somewhere arrives at the Planet and gradually insinuates himself into her life. She lets him get closer to her than most other people in her small, small circle of friends, and they go through some pretty hair-raising times together. She tells him things she wouldn't tell anyone else, including — she blushed suddenly in realisation — her feelings about Superman! And all this time, he has this really big secret, this thing which he knows would make a huge, huge difference to her, and he doesn't tell her? Not only that, but his parents don't tell her either. Are they even real people? Come to think of it, maybe the whole of Smallville is in some kind of giant conspiracy together…are they all from Krypton? No, that was ridiculous — except, this whole thing was crazy. She'd been interacting with two people who were really one person. What could be crazier than that?

Clark Kent Superman. Clark Superman Kent. She needed to take another look at this new person, just to try and focus on the fact that he really was two people — even that sounded crazy! Dumping the now-cold coffee on a table, she stood up, yanked the extra special frustration-factor panty-hose up again for the umpteenth time that day and crept into the darkened bedroom, peering ahead of her to the bed in the fervent hope that he was asleep. She could hear his steady breathing as she got closer, and as her eyes adjusted to the gloom, she could see that his eyes were closed. OK, we're safe. Pulling up a chair to the bed, she sat down to study her subject.

In sleep, his features were relaxed, making him look quite different from the two men she knew — thought she knew, she amended mentally. Without glasses, she supposed, he should look like Superman, but he didn't. Superman was mostly serious, sometimes even stern, with an air of firm confidence which meant his face was never truly relaxed like this man's was. No, this person looked more like Clark without glasses. So was that who he was? Clark Kent from Kansas, running a sideline as a superhero from Krypton? Or was he Clark Kent from Krypton? That seemed a better fit — he was an ordinary man with extraordinary gifts, and she was sitting right next to this amazing person.

This amazing person who didn't trust you one inch, she reminded herself. That hurt. She had trusted him with so much, and as for Superman — well, she'd thought he was simply perfect. Completely trustworthy, completely honest. Now she knew differently, and that hurt too. She'd lost her idol…that was interesting. Maybe that was all she ultimately thought of Superman as; a perfect being with incredible powers, an unimpeachable sense of right and wrong, and an amazing body <no, Lois, stop it!>. Anyway, her idol was gone, and she was left with this person who didn't trust her enough to share his deepest secrets with her.

So why was she even bothering to stay with him now? She should leave now, and let him suffer on his own, like he deserved to. She'd helped him out twice now; surely that was enough for someone who didn't even trust you? Of course, he'd have to trust her now — ha! That was ironic. She would keep his secret safe, she already knew that, but only on the condition that he told her absolutely everything about himself. If she was going to keep a secret, she'd better know exactly what secret she was keeping. OK, so that was high on the agenda for when he woke up again. Maybe that was why she was staying — to make sure she talked this out with him while she had his full attention. He wasn't in a fit state to run off, like he usually did…oh! Now all of that made sense! He was running off to be Superman. Well, at least that was a relief. Sometimes it had seemed as if he was avoiding her, when he'd rush off in mid-conversation to return a video or some such equally dumb excuse. Now she knew that he was going off to do something worthwhile, that made it quite different. His excuses could do with a pick-me-up, though. She could help with that, now that she knew.

What was she saying! Help him? He didn't deserve her help! She gazed back down at this traitorous, untrusting, devious man — and saw smooth, innocent features made sickly pale by his injury above a strong chest with one bandaged shoulder. That wasn't playing fair. How was she supposed to remember he was evil when he looked like that? Especially when he'd managed to mess up the bedclothes so that he was half uncovered from them. She reached over and gently pulled them back up again around his shoulders, taking special care with his left side. Was it her imagination, or did his breathing just get faster? She sat back down quickly and listened carefully. No, it must have been her imagination.

***

Clark forced his breathing to keep steady when Lois came into the room. He was just on the cusp of sleep, in that twilight world where reality and dreams were mingled together, but her movement brought him back from the brink just enough so that coherent thought was possible again. He felt more relaxed and comfortable than he had since being shot, and oddly, her presence in the room only served to heighten his feeling of well-being. Somehow it was comforting to know she was right next to him, even though he knew the turmoil of emotions he'd thrown her into. In this semi-hypnotic state, he was even able to consider his own feelings about what had happened without losing his inner calm.

How had he let things get this far with her? He could have got rid of her much sooner if he'd really tried, but instead he'd let the situation spiral out of his control until she found out something she'd be much better off not knowing. He was being selfish, that was it. Deep down, he desperately wanted to share his secret with her, and despite the fact that the minute she knew about him she became a potential target, he let her whittle away his barriers until he — *he* — told her who he was. She hadn't even had to work it out for herself — he had handed it to her on a plate.

That much was history now, though, and in his strange state of calmness he recognised that the way forward was to help her as much as he could to understand his motivation for keeping the secret from her for so long. Once he got that through to her, then everything would be all right.

Suddenly she took him by surprise and leaned close to him again to pull up his bedclothes. He couldn't help himself — his breathing quickened as he endured this close proximity of the woman he loved but had all but driven away from him…except that she was still here, wasn't she? As long as she was with him and talking to him, there was a chance. He felt her move away quickly, and he forced his breathing to slow down again. Detection of his half-wakeful state right now wasn't what he wanted, and he suspected she wouldn't be ready to speak to him either.

A few minutes later, his steady breathing had pulled him deeper and deeper into the twilight world, until he was fast asleep.

***

Martha leaned her head back against the headrest of the aeroplane seat and closed her eyes. The rushing noise of the aircraft engines and the conversations going on around her faded to a background murmur as she thought forward in time to their arrival in Metropolis. She'd go ahead to find them a cab while Jonathan collected their bags from the carousel — there was always a long queue at Metropolis airport for cabs and the sooner she got started in it, the better. They'd be able to let themselves into Clark's apartment; she'd checked she had his key with her three times before they left this morning, so she didn't need to check again. At least they weren't having to go via Gotham City anymore. Shortly after they'd finished their conversation with Clark last night, Jonathan had received a call from the airline saying that Metropolis airport was open again and they could fly direct after all. They hadn't wanted to disturb Clark yet again, so they'd retired to bed to grab a few hours sleep before getting up early to prepare the farm for an extended absence. Wayne Irig had kindly agreed to keep an eye on things for them, and would send over his man to take care of the basic farm chores. Martha had lied shamelessly about the reason for their hasty departure — she reflected wryly how they'd brought their son up with a healthy respect for the truth, yet they were both practised liars when it came to protecting their son's identity. Well, perhaps 'lying' was too strong a word…'being creative with the truth' was more apt.

So here they both were, on an aeroplane bound for Metropolis yet again. Martha loved visiting her son, and enjoyed the sights and sounds of the big city once in a while, but how she wished they were travelling under different circumstances. Sometimes it seemed to her that since becoming Superman, Clark's life was constantly under threat. Of course, usually the threats were ineffective, but now and then they were very real. She had cried in Jonathan's arms the night Clark had told them about Luthor's kryptonite cage. Clark had tried to minimise the danger he had been in, trying to protect them as he always did, but she could see behind his eyes just how close to death he had come that time. She had worried many times about her son's mental vulnerability, but never about his physical safety until that horrible green rock had been discovered on Wayne's farm. Since then, it was clear that Clark was no safer than any other crime-fighting operative. It wasn't fair: naturally, no mother expected to outlive her children, but this should be especially so when that child was super-powered.

But this time, she reminded herself, his life wasn't in danger. He was badly injured, but he would recover, and together they'd figure out ways to ensure the world was no wiser as to what had happened or who he really was. If he was going to be off work for a few days, perhaps one of them could feign a sudden illness which meant he would have to take time off to care for them. Or maybe both of them could come down with a bad case of food poisoning — that could work. The other thing to consider was what to do if he needed a doctor. He'd refused to go to the hospital with his injury, for the usual reasons, but Martha wasn't going to be convinced he didn't need medical attention until she'd seen that bullet wound for herself. If he needed a doctor, they'd find one, secrets or not: health was too important to mess around with.

She opened her eyes and glanced at her watch — not long to go now before they landed. Her gaze transferred to the nearest page of Jonathan's farming magazine.

"I didn't know you were so interested in pig breeding," she remarked.

"Huh?" Jonathan jerked out of his reverie.

"You've been reading the same two pages ever since we took off."

"I guess my mind's elsewhere right now."

Martha laid a hand on her husband's arm. "I'm sure he'll be just fine, honey."

"I know, Martha, I know. I just hate how he seems to have become the target for every sick or crazy person in Metropolis since he started being…you know."

"Me too, Jonathan."

Further conversation was halted by the announcement from the captain that they were to prepare for landing.

***

The TV flickered silently in the corner of the room. Lois gazed disinterestedly at it, occasionally changing channels when the images began to annoy her. She'd turned it on with the sound turned down very low, in the hope that it might distract her from her meandering, confused thoughts. The whole thing had been going around in circles in her mind for too long now, and she was no nearer to figuring out her feelings about it all than when Clark had first confessed that he was Superman. So far, she'd come up with hurt, embarrassment, wonder, sadness, suspicion, relief, and a whole bunch of other emotions she hadn't identified yet that she was putting under the general heading of confusion. The only certainty she had was that she needed to talk to Clark.

All the TV channels were hitting their lunchtime news slots, which reminded her that maybe she ought to force something down too. Not only that, but more importantly, maybe Clark needed food and drink. On the other hand, hadn't he once said that he didn't need to eat, but that he just liked to? Help, now she was even confused about whether to feed him or not! This really was crazy.

OK, decision time. If he was sick, then maybe whatever gave him sustenance wasn't working properly either. Perhaps the best thing was just to go check up on him — if he was still asleep, then she'd leave him alone for a while longer.

She sat back down on her chair beside his bed and waited for her eyes to adjust to the gloom. When they did, she realised he was looking straight at her.

"Hi." She smiled a little for him.

"Hi."

"How are you feeling?"

"Better, I think."

"You been awake long?"

"I don't think so — just a few minutes."

"Do you want to sleep some more, or shall I open the curtains? It's a bit gloomy in here."

"Sure." He pushed himself up in the bed a little while she drew the curtains back, making him blink in the bright midday sun. She came back to her chair and studied him, a frown playing over her face.

"When was the last time you ate or drank anything, Clark?"

"I had some milk last night, a-after you'd left."

"You look flushed." She reached a hand out to his forehead. "You feel warm, too — I think you need to drink something. What would you like?"

He hesitated. "Water would be fine."

"Clark, I *can* fix simple hot and cold drinks. It's just the more advanced stuff, like boiled eggs, I'm no good at."

"Tea, then. Oolong tea. It's in the cupboard above the sink — and the mugs are-"

"I already found the mugs. What about food? And don't look at me like that — the eggs were just a gag."

"I don't think I'm hungry. Besides, I don't really need to eat."

"Well, I think you do this time. I'll make you a sandwich."

"The bread's in-"

"Clark, I'll find it! Just relax."

"I don't take milk or lemon in the tea."

"OK, OK! Relax!"

Relax. That was a joke. How was he supposed to relax knowing Lois was so upset? And that despite her damaged feelings, she was attending to his needs just as if nothing had happened. What had he done to deserve this — she was such a wonderful, kind, bright, funny woman. Usually. This situation wasn't funny, it was horrible, and it was up to him to make it better.

"Lunch is served," announced Lois, carrying a tray into the room. She waited until he had pushed himself into a sitting position and laid the tray on his lap. One mug of tea and a cheese sandwich. Basic, but undoubtedly edible.

"Thank you. Aren't you having anything?"

"I already ate," she lied. She couldn't face anything right now after all.

"Oh." He picked up the mug and took an incautious gulp.

"Clark, be careful! It's hot!" she cried, just as he spluttered half of it back out again.

She watched him aghast as he panted with his mouth wide open for a couple of seconds.

"Are you all right?" she asked.

"I 'hink sho," he managed around his scalded mouth.

"I'll get a cloth." She fetched one and started dabbing away at the spots of tea which hadn't quite made it back into the mug. "What on earth were you thinking?"

"I forgot," he said in a more normal voice. "The kryptonite knocked out my powers."

"Oh!" Lois felt as though a light bulb had gone on inside her head. He'd just demonstrated one tiny aspect of a life which was quite different to anything she'd known before. She put the cloth back in the kitchen and returned on the attack.

"OK, I want it all. If I'm going to keep this secret of yours, I need to know everything about you — where you're from, how you grew up, where you grew up, if you've got any powers I don't know about yet, who your parents are, your inside leg measurement, your position in the school football team, if you actually went to school at all, your favourite colour, and the name of your pet goldfish."

"Boris."

"What?"

"The name of my pet goldfish. Except she was a cow."

"She?"

"I was only three. I liked the name, and Mom and Dad hadn't the heart to spoil it for me. I loved that cow. She was my best friend."

"Oh, so you didn't tell her either about your powers?" Lois remarked dryly.

Clark pulled a face. "I didn't have any powers at that age. They didn't start to develop until I was about five. Up until then I was a normal little boy."

Lois missed the edge of bitterness in Clark's voice. "When did you start to fly?"

"Not until I was eighteen. But, Lois, if you want the whole story, we should start at the beginning." Clark was warming to the idea of telling his story to her — maybe it would help her understand why he did things the way he did.

"Which is?"

"A dying planet."

"Huh?"

"Krypton, my home planet. My parents knew-"

"Martha and Jonathan?"

"No, my real, biological parents, Jor-El and Lara. They knew that the planet was dying, and they knew everyone on the planet would be killed, so they built a tiny spacecraft for their baby — me — and sent me out into space, to Earth. They chose Earth because I could pass for one of you, except that your yellow sun would give me these amazing powers which they hoped would help protect me as I grew up."

"So your real parents are dead?"

"Yes. And everyone else on Krypton — I'm the only survivor."

"You really are one of a kind."

"But I was very lucky. My spacecraft landed near Mom and Dad's farm-"

"This time we're talking Martha and Jonathan, right?"

"Yes. They found me and brought me up as their own child. They couldn't have kids of their own, so they were very happy when they found me. It can't have been easy for them, explaining where I suddenly came from — Mom doesn't talk much about it, but I think they both suffered some pretty unpleasant treatment from folks around Smallville."

"I guess they would. It must have been a constant struggle for them, all through the different stages of your life. I mean, even enrolling you in school must have been hard."

"I think they were always frightened someone would come along and take me away from them, so they fought hard to hide the way I'd really come to them. That's why, when my powers started to develop, they encouraged me to keep them to myself."

"OK," Lois could see the beginning of a pattern.

"I didn't much like being different either, so usually it wasn't so hard to keep what I could do to myself."

"In fact, you developed this 'mild-mannered' thing as the exact opposite of what you could do because that made it easier to hide away."

"Exactly." This was going better than Clark had every imagined it could. It looked like she was really understanding why he had hid the secret from her for so long. "The trouble was, as I got older, I could see how much good I could do with these special powers I had. I would keep helping out as discreetly as I could, but there always came a time when I got careless and someone would notice something — so I'd have to move on again. But then I came to Metropolis and met you."

"Huh?"

Clark sipped some of his tea in order to buy himself some thinking time. He'd tried revealing his real feelings to Lois once before, and that had been a disaster, so…

"From the first moment I met you in Perry's office I knew…well, I knew I wanted to stay in Metropolis." Not exactly how he'd meant it to come out, but at least he hadn't blurted out the fact that he loved her again. He continued, "That meant I had to find a way of helping out without being recognised, and so I created Superman. I could rescue people as Superman, and still lead a normal life as Clark Kent."

"That's important to you, isn't it?"

"Being normal? Yes — so much of my life is so crazily different to anyone else's, that I need to be able to be just Clark Kent, ordinary guy from Smallville, Kansas. Being Superman is a way of using my powers in public — Clark Kent is who I really am."

"OK, Clark, I've got the secret identity thing. I understand that you want to lead a normal life without people hounding you all the time because you're different, and I understand why it's so deeply imprinted in your personality: you've lived your whole life hiding yourself away. What I don't understand is why you couldn't tell me, your best friend, about it."

Clark could only stare at Lois. He thought he'd just explained all that.

"I mean, it's not like you didn't have enough opportunities to tell me," she continued. "All those times you came to visit me in my apartment as Superman, any time you had to invent a stupid excuse to go and rescue someone-"

"Oh, so you'd have been happy if I'd said, 'sorry, Lois, I've got to go, and by the way, I'm Superman' before rushing away from you?"

"It would have been better than leading me down this blind alley of yours. Don't you think it was rude, and, and manipulative, coming to see me as Superman all those times? Standing there, talking to me in that oh-so-confident voice of yours, pretending you didn't know what I might have already said to Clark?"

"Sometimes it was the only way to talk to you. Sometimes you said things to Clark which made it clear to me you didn't want to talk to him."

"Oh, that's pathetic! You must have seen how I was attracted to Superman-"

"Yes, but definitely not to Clark! How was I supposed to feel? On the one hand, you said you'd love me even if I was a normal man, and when I came to you as a normal man and told you I loved you, you rejected me!"

"So it's all my fault that you didn't tell me about your secret identity?"

"Yes!"

Lois stared angrily at Clark; Clark stared angrily back. Neither heard the key in the front door, or the door being opened.

"Clark, honey, it's only us," called Martha.

Clark's expression changed from anger to surprise. "It's my parents," he exclaimed. "They're early — I phoned them last night and they said they couldn't get here 'til late afternoon." He raised his voice. "Hi, Mom, I'm in here."

Lois sat back in her chair and tried to regain some composure for Clark's parents. Clark looked around as Martha and Jonathan came bustling around the corner into his bedroom.

"Clark, how-" Martha stopped when she saw Lois. "Lois! How nice to see you."

"Hello, Mrs Kent."

Martha was furiously trying to re-assess the situation. Why was Lois here? What did it mean that she was here? Lois must have looked after Clark as Clark, not Superman.

"I want to thank you for looking after Clark last night, Lois. He told us what good care you took of him."

"He did? That was nice of him," replied Lois dryly.

Martha frowned. Was there was some sort of atmosphere here that they'd just broken into?

"How are you, son?" asked Jonathan.

"Better, thanks, Dad. I caught up on my sleep this morning, and the shoulder feels pretty good now."

Martha perched on the side of his bed and put a hand up to his forehead. "You look flushed, though. Have you been drinking plenty like I told you to?"

"No, he hasn't," answered Lois. "That's why he's got that mug of tea — which he still hasn't hardly touched," she finished pointedly.

That's because I was going five rounds of verbal boxing with you, thought Clark, darting a frustrated glance back at her.

"Clark, you must keep your fluids up. Do you want some fresh tea, or can I get you something else?"

"Mom, the tea's fine — Lois only just made it."

"Well, drink it, then. And what about this sandwich? You need to eat, too, you know."

"Mom, you know I don't need to eat-"

"Clark," interrupted Martha hastily. "Of course you need to eat." She turned to Lois, smiling apologetically. "He sometimes gets these strange ideas about not eating. I don't know where he gets it from." Her gaze floated over to Jonathan's rotund figure.

"Mom, Lois knows."

"Knows where you get these silly ideas from? I doubt it, honey." Martha's protective instincts were in overdrive now: Clark's slight fever was obviously making him blurt out indiscretions, and it was up to her and Jonathan to field them.

"Mom-"

"Lois, Jonathan and I didn't have a chance to get any lunch on our way over. Would you mind helping me fix us something in the kitchen?"

"She knows I'm Superman." Clark tried again.

"Oh, honey! We all think you're super, but why don't you lie down right now and rest some more — you look tired. You can finish your lunch later."

Martha started pulling his support pillows away from behind him and putting a hand under his good shoulder to help him back down. Clark refused to budge.

"Mom, I'm not that sick! It's true — Lois found out that I'm Superman."

"He's right, Mrs Kent," added Lois. "He told me."

Martha halted in her actions and stared at her son. "You *told* her?"

"Yes," replied Clark heavily.

"Oh, Clark, honey, that's wonderful!" enthused Martha before observing the strained expression on her son's and Lois' face. "Isn't it?"

Clark glanced at Lois again. "Not exactly."

"He only told me because he had to. Otherwise I'd still be the only one in this room left thinking Superman came from Krypton, not Kansas."

Martha didn't miss the dig at herself and Jonathan, as well as her son. Lois was obviously hurt that all three of them had kept her in the dark — probably from her point of view, it looked like they were ganging up on her.

"Lois, Jonathan and I could never make Clark's decisions about you for him. If he couldn't tell you, then we certainly couldn't. I'm sorry if that makes it seem like we were treating you badly, but we were only doing what we thought was right."

"Right for who? Right for Clark? It sure as anything wasn't right for me!"

"Right for everyone," interjected Jonathan firmly. "We respect and support Clark's choices, and if he thought it wasn't right to tell you yet, then we were sure it wasn't right for you either."

"Oh, so you agree with him, then? That it was actually my fault he didn't tell me?"

"Clark, you didn't say that, did you?" asked Martha, appalled.

Clark closed his eyes. "I didn't mean it. Of course I didn't mean that. Things got a little heated…" He felt his mother's hand on his forehead again.

"Sweetie, you really must drink some more. Why don't you finish that tea, and then rest a while until your temperature's back to normal? Lois, how about you and I take a walk to the shops — I doubt if Clark's got enough food in for us all, have you, honey?"

Clark shook his head.

"I-I'm not too good at buying food…except chocolate…real food, I mean," protested Lois, who wasn't keen on leaving the target of her annoyance so easily.

"It's OK, all I need is someone to help me carry it, and Jonathan's back is playing up, isn't it, Jonathan?"

"Hmmm?…yes," agreed an off-balance Jonathan. "Very painful," he elaborated, sitting down gingerly on the other side of Clark's bed to illustrate his point.

"Let's go, then!" Martha stood up and started putting her coat on again. "Aren't you coming, Lois?"

"Yes…I guess." Lois reflected how glad she was that Clark didn't take after his Mom in the way she could organise people into doing things they didn't want to. Partnership with Clark's Mom would have been a whole lot tougher than with him!

Martha had a quick word with her husband before they left. "Keep him drinking whenever he's awake, and make sure he gets plenty of rest."

"Good luck with Lois."

"We'll be just fine." She kissed him on the cheek. "Lois is an intelligent, sensible woman — she'll understand."

***

Lois and Martha walked along in silence for a time. Eventually, Lois blurted out, "I know what you're doing, and I totally understand why, but it's really Clark I need to talk this through with, not you."

"I agree, Lois, but Clark needs to rest right now, and you need some answers, so this is the only way I know of making both those things happen at the same time. I know Clark would much rather talk to you himself, and when he's better, you'll have plenty of time to do that, but I hate to see you hurting the way you are right now, and I want to do anything I can to help that."

Martha's directness silenced Lois again. It hadn't occurred to her that Martha might actually be considering her feelings as well as Clark's. Adjusting quickly to the possibilities this offered up, she ploughed on.

"Well, can you explain why Clark took so long to tell me who he really is? Was he planning on ever telling me?"

"Oh, Lois, of course he wanted to tell you, when the-"

"-time was right. You keep saying that. Why wasn't the time right any time this past year?"

"Well, at the start, he didn't know you well enough. You have to remember that Clark's never told another living soul about himself, not even his closest friends at high school or college. Jonathan and I are to blame for that in part, of course — we were terrified that the authorities would take him away and put him under a microscope if anyone found out about him. But Clark was like any other child — he wanted to fit in and be like the other kids, not to be jeered at for being a freak, so he hid his powers away and played the part of the child he wanted to be. Not that he would have been able to tell anyone very much anyway — just that he was very strong and could do all these amazing things-"

"You mean he didn't know where he came from?"

"No. Clark only learned about himself when you and he found his spaceship and globe in Trask's warehouse. Up 'til then, he didn't know who he was or where he came from."

"I didn't realise…" This side of Clark's personality was another revelation to Lois. She always imagined him to have had a totally secure, stable childhood with none of the traumas she had endured as a child. Martha and Jonathan obviously provided tremendous support and stability, but he must have suffered terrible self-doubts and uncertainty nevertheless.

"Jonathan and I did our best, but there were still times when he would make mistakes and have to cover up for them, usually at a cost to his own self-esteem."

"He still makes mistakes now." Some of the crazier things she had noticed about Clark were starting to make sense, like the time he had claimed to hide behind a potted plant no wider than a standard lamp. He must have used his superpowers somehow to escape detection…maybe by hovering near the ceiling?

Their walking had taken them as far as the local supermarket, which would provide everything Martha required. She explained that she only wanted to buy enough food for tonight's dinner and tomorrow's breakfast, so there shouldn't be too much to carry between them. Lois was despatched on a potato-selecting mission while Martha hunted down chicken and bacon for a pie.

"Is that enough?" asked Lois, dumping a bag of potatoes into their shopping trolley.

Martha smiled. "For a small platoon, yes. I think we'll manage with a few less — why don't you put back about three-quarters of those, and…" she examined the huge bag more carefully, "leave the green ones behind. They're not good."

"Really? I thought they looked kinda pretty."

"Trust me, Lois, green is bad — especially in this family."

"Huh?"

Martha mouthed from behind her hand, "Kryptonite."

"Oh! Yeah, I can see how green wouldn't be your favourite colour."

"Not since Wayne found it on his farm. And then, when Luthor got a hold of it and built that cage-"

"Cage?"

"Luthor built a cage out of, of that horrible stuff, and trapped Clark in it the night before your wedding. You see, he knew that Superman would never let him marry you, because he knew what Luthor was really like, so he tried to get rid of Superman. Clark nearly died that night," finished Martha on a fierce whisper.

Lois was shocked to the core. She knew what an evil man Luthor had been, but she never, ever dreamed him capable of attempted murder — and in such a sadistic, cruel way, too! What had she ever been thinking of, when she thought she could marry a man like that? She could feel the blood draining away from her face as she stood in the middle of the supermarket, sick at the thought of what might have been. Clark might have died…while she lived in a twenty-bedroom mansion with her husband, the murderer…

"Lois! Are you all right?"

It was Martha, clutching her upper arm anxiously. "Y-yes, I, I, just need a minute…"

"Do you want to go back to the apartment?"

"No, I'll be fine." She drew in a couple of deep breaths. "You just caught me by surprise…what else are we buying here?"

"I need extra butter for the pastry-"

"You're going to *make* the pastry? I thought it came in those little frozen packets…"

"Lois, why buy it when homemade is so much nicer?"

"Well, maybe your homemade is…"

"I thought we'd have baked apples for dessert. Could you pick some out…" Martha looked at Lois' doubtful expression. "Maybe I'll pick some out. You find the butter — oh, and get us some milk and cream, too. You *do* know what sort of cream to get?"

"Half and half?" asked Lois tentatively. The frustration-factor panty-hose were slipping down again and she slipped a hand behind her to surreptitiously pull them up.

"If men had to wear them, they wouldn't do that," commented Martha dryly.

Lois froze, then relaxed when she saw Martha's amused expression. "Yeah, why do we put up with it? Fashion victims, that's what we are — slaves to convention."

Martha looked down at her own sensible shoes and ankle socks.

"Some of us," Lois amended, "those of us who have to work…have to wear business clothes, I mean," she hastily added at Martha's raised eyebrows. "I didn't mean you don't work, I'm sure you work very hard on the farm, harder than Clark and I do, probably…that was half and half, wasn't it?"

Martha smothered a laugh. "That would be good, yes. Just don't buy sour cream — anything else will do, I'm sure. I'll meet you at the check-out."

Martha collected a few more items on her way around the shop, took a glance at Lois' contribution and resigned herself to a very cream-filled cuisine over the next few days.

As they walked back to the apartment, Lois returned to her original theme.

"Why didn't Clark tell me about the cage? Or about Luthor?"

"He couldn't tell you about the cage, because that happened to Superman, not Clark."

"But something like that! He must have needed to talk to someone about it — I suppose he talked to you — but if he'd told me, I could have been there for him, I would have understood what he was going through."

"I think he thought you probably had enough to cope with yourself, Lois. He didn't want to make things any tougher for you than they already were."

"OK, but before that, then! If he'd told me what he knew about Luthor-"

"He tried, Lois, didn't he? Didn't he tell you that Luthor was evil when you announced your engagement?" Martha had been trying to hold back her own personal feelings throughout their exchange, but she couldn't carry on being objective where her son was concerned any more.

"Yes, but he didn't say why. He just kept saying Luthor is bad, Luthor is evil. I thought he was just jealous, because…because…"

"Because Clark admitted he loved you and you rejected him?"

"Yes."

Martha let Lois' admission hang in the air for a while, walking along quietly beside her.

"I mean, what was I supposed to think?" continued Lois after a bit. "Clark suddenly comes to me out of the blue with this great declaration of the love he's been hiding ever since he first met me, and expects what? For me to just drop everything, decide I'm not going to marry Lex after all, and agree to, to, I don't know what with him?"

"I have to agree, Lois, his timing was lousy. But he meant every word he said."

"I know…I *know*. But do you think that made it any easier for me? I had to turn him down even though I could tell exactly how sincere he was being."

"Why?"

"Why!? Because I loved Lex…thought I loved Lex…I was engaged to Lex — how could I not turn him down? Besides, then he went and told me he didn't love me after all…and now this! Now he's Superman on top of everything else and I still can't believe he didn't tell me sooner. Plus, I suppose that leaves me with a big fat zero in the relationship department. Clark doesn't love me, I love Superman — who doesn't really exist, and I was never in love with Lex — who was an evil, sadistic villain in to the bargain."

Martha was wrestling with her conscience. She had it in her power, she knew, to do all Clark's explaining for him; Lois would probably take it a whole lot better from her than from Clark, but really, this was Clark's argument, not hers. She should let him fight his own battles, but nevertheless…

"Lois, I know how much it must hurt you to know that Clark kept this from you for so long, but why do you think that is? Why does it still hurt, knowing what you know about him now?"

"Trust," answered Lois without hesitation. "I thought we trusted each other, like partners should, but now I find out that trust was all one-sided. I trusted him; he lied to me."

"But you understand how long he's been hiding this secret. How he's never told anyone else, his whole life, that he has these special gifts." Martha had to fight hard not to react more defensively to Lois' scathing accusation, but she knew she'd lose Lois if she said the wrong thing now.

"Yes, but I thought I was different."

"Why?"

"Because…because we're partners. Because I thought we had something more than just a normal working relationship."

"And that would be?"

Lois stopped walked abruptly and turned to Martha. "I don't know! Just…more, you know?" She thrust a hand out to emphasise her point, the carrier bag jerking around underneath.

Martha smiled knowingly. "I know."

"And why are you smiling like that?" demanded Lois petulantly.

"Oh, I'm sorry, Lois, I wasn't laughing at you. I'm just so pleased we're finally having this talk. You're the first woman I've ever been able to talk to so openly about my son." Nice save, thought Martha to herself — and anyway, it was true, she was thrilled to be able to discuss Clark with another woman.

"Oh, Mrs Kent-"

"Martha. I think we're well past the formalities, aren't we?"

"I guess we are." Lois started walking again. "Martha, I never realised…you and Mr…Jonathan have never been able to talk about this with anyone else, have you?"

"No, but we had each other. We managed pretty well…Lois, is that your cell-phone?" Martha could hear a faint ringing nearby.

"Yes, hang on." Lois stopped, dug out the phone and answered. "Lois Lane."

Martha watched as Lois acquired a very perplexed expression.

"I did?"

The perplexed expression changed to a determined one.

"No, no, I'll come and pick it up. Thank you for calling me."

Lois rang off and stared at Martha. "Someone's been in my safety deposit box."

"Oh, my! Do they know who?" exclaimed Martha.

"Yes — me."

"Lois, I…" It was Martha's turn to look perplexed.

"There's a double of me running around Metropolis. She's been trying to make me look like some sort of psychopathic nutcase for a few days now. I need to get to the bank — now!"

"But why did the bank phone you, if they thought it was you?"

"Apparently, I — she — left a scarf behind, and that was the bank asking if I wanted them to send it to me, or if I wanted to collect it. I'm collecting it — I have to find out what she took! Come on Martha, we need to get back quickly."

The two women hurried back the rest of the way to Clark's apartment, and once there, Lois dumped the bags at the door, grabbed her belongings, and dashed back out again. She had to get over to her own apartment to pick up the key before she could get to the bank.

***

Arianna was quietly fuming to herself as she searched for a suitable place to stop the car. She'd planned to be on a plane to somewhere nice and warm for a couple of days while she waited for the fuss to die down following Superman's death. Get rid of this brainless woman currently sitting beside her, dispose of the body somewhere discreet, and she'd have been free to enjoy the proceeds from selling off Lois Lane's engagement ring. Then back to Metropolis to care for her dear, still-recovering ex-husband, Lex Luthor. Instead, the stupid weather meant that the plane trip was cancelled, and instead they'd had to drive out of town towards Gotham City airport. Now, to cap it all, she'd just turned on the radio to discover that Metropolis airport was open after all, and she could have taken the original plane if they'd just waited long enough.

Spotting a rest area just ahead, she barked, "Pull in here!" to the double, who glanced a frown her way, but obeyed like the stupid, compliant idiot that she undoubtedly was.

"This is where we say goodbye," Arianna explained.

"Here?! In the middle of nowhere?" protested the double.

"There's a truck-stop just back a mile or so — you can walk back there and phone for a taxi." Arianna opened her purse, pulled out a thick white envelope, and held it up for the double to see. "Or don't you want this?"

As soon as the car rolled to a standstill and the double pulled the hand brake up, Arianna swiftly pulled a gun on her companion, demanding, "Now hand over the ring, and you can have your money."

The double swung her head around in a leisurely fashion, brushing her hair back over her shoulder at the same time. A corner of her mouth turned upwards.

"It's not here."

"Don't give me that! Hand it over now!"

"Or what? You'll shoot me? Then how will you find the ring?"

"By searching your dead body, you idiot! Now give it here!"

The double's semi-smile disappeared. "I don't have it."

Arianna raised the gun up to take aim. "At least I won't have to listen to any more of your idiotic claptrap."

"I'm telling you, Ari, it's not here. Shoot me if you like, then you'll never get your hands on it."

"You're bluffing, but I'm not." Arianna shifted her aim a little and abruptly fired a shot just past the double's shoulder, making her jerk backwards in shock. "You're lucky I'm quite good at this, otherwise that one might have hit you. The next one certainly will."

"It's in Lois Lane's safety deposit box."

"What?!"

"I put it in Lois Lane's safety deposit box. I figured that was the safest place for me to do the handover. You're not gonna shoot me in the middle of a bank."

Arianna was speechless. The story was so incredibly stupid, it was probably true. Her gun hand shook with the anger coursing through her, and she almost let off another shot before lowering the gun for safety.

"You brainless, stupid, idiotic woman! Why the hell did you choose Lane's deposit box?"

"I figured if the police found it there, it would help frame her for the burglary at Lex's penthouse."

"But we don't want the police to find it," replied Arianna in a sing-song voice. "We want it for ourselves. My God, I think that accident must have killed off every single one of your brain cells! And why have we been driving *away* from Metropolis for all this time? You didn't think it might just have been a good idea to tell me before we left?"

"I figured you'd get around to asking sooner or later. I'm not in any hurry." The double smiled her half-smile again. "You want me to turn the car around?"

"Do I trust someone without a brain to drive me back — I don't think so!"

"You won't get into Lane's deposit box without me."

Arianna glared at the double. "Do it!"

***

Lois flung open the door to her apartment and dashed over to the drawer where she kept her key for the safety deposit box. Except it wasn't where it should be: right at the front, underneath a pile of credit card receipts. She rummaged quickly around the rest of the drawer but came up blank. Annoyed, she yanked open the next drawer down, and there it was, at the front. Pretty incompetent thief, she thought — probably that airhead double. She dropped the key in her purse, crossed to the door and paused. If she was going to be chasing after thieves, she was damned if she was going to do it in the frustration-factor panty-hose. Slamming the door shut and throwing her purse on a seat, she was pulling off her business suit even as she crossed into the bedroom to get changed. One minute later and she was back at the door again, dressed in jeans, jumper and track-shoes, ready for anything the criminal world might throw at her.

The bank official looked studiously blank-faced when she announced she wanted access to her box again. Lois glared at him.

"Just because a person doesn't use her box for five years doesn't mean she can't come back a few times in a row. I decided to get my money's worth."

"Yes, ma'am. If you would just sign here," he replied, po-faced.

"Certainly," gritted Lois, signing her name with an exaggerated flourish. She held the key up in front of him between finger and thumb. "The box?"

"This way, ma'am."

Lois couldn't believe her eyes when she opened up the box: she was anticipating fewer items to be in the box, not an extra one. Gingerly picking up the velvet-covered box, half-expecting it to explode in her fingers, she held it at arms' length, screwed up her face, turned away and opened it. Nothing. No big bang, no electric shock, no poison gas. With a sigh of relief, she turned back to regard the contents. Her eyebrows shot up into her hairline. Lex's wedding ring? What the heck was that doing here? Think, Lois, think…she smiled in satisfaction. OK, she had it. Well, almost. For some weird reason, Arianna had deposited it here temporarily, which meant she — or rather, the double — would be coming back for it. So, if the ring wasn't here when they came for it, where would they go? Straight to her, of course! Got you, Ari! And your brainless double.

Naturally, what she should do now would be to leave the ring where it was and alert the police. That was the safe, sensible thing to do — that was the Clark Kent modus operandi — but after everything that Ms Carlin had done to her, it was time for a little payback. And anyway, she told herself, they might only catch the double and miss Arianna if she handed everything over to the police now.

Right — if she was setting herself up as a target, she needed to make herself conspicuous. She had no idea when they might come for her, so the easier she made it for them, the faster this would be over. A disturbing thought struck her: Superman wouldn't be coming to her rescue if things turned nasty. That was doubly disturbing, because she wouldn't have even worried about it a year ago — in those days there was no Superman to count on. Was she going soft? Nah, she could handle this!

***

"Ham and cheese on rye, and a decaf, please. No mayo, no salt, no pepper, no salad. Got that?" she asked the waitress.

She was sitting in the cafe opposite the Daily Planet where all the newspaper hacks congregated at mealtimes. The bored waitress stopped chewing gum long enough to issue an "Uh, huh," before turning away.

"Oh!" Lois waited until she'd regained the woman's attention. "And three slices of tomato — not too thick."

"Uh, huh."

"That's on the side. The tomato, I mean. And I'd like real butter on the bread, not margarine."

The waitress regarded her sourly. "Honey, you done yet?"

"Yes, thank you."

Lois watched the waitress walk away again before calling "Er, sorry!"

"You wanna come in back and make it yourself, honey?" shouted the woman from where she was standing halfway across the room. "Famine could break out over the other side of this restaurant in the time it takes you to tell me what you want."

"I changed my mind about the mayo. Do you have low-cal?"

The long-suffering waitress turned and yelled across the cafÈ to one of her colleagues. "Mike, we got low-cal mayo?"

"We got yellow gloppy stuff that comes out of a big tub. You want it to be low-cal, it's low-cal!" shouted Mike sarcastically.

"You want yellow gloppy stuff, honey?"

Lois screwed up her nose. "I'll pass."

"OK! Congratulations, lady. You made a decision."

***

"You're sure she didn't say when she'd be back?" asked Clark for the fifth time. Against his mother's wishes, he was now sitting up fully-clothed on the sofa, having decided he'd had enough of languishing in bed in the middle of the afternoon. The woozy feeling had gone completely and his temperature was back down to normal, thanks to the volumes of tea, coffee and juice his father had insisted he drink.

"Clark, she didn't even say she'd be back at all," answered Martha. "You really mustn't worry about her."

"I'm sure she'll be fine," added Jonathan.

"You don't know her like I do," protested Clark. "If there's danger to be found, she'll find it."

"She's only going to check her safety deposit box. I'm sure if she finds anything wrong, she'll call the police," tried Jonathan again.

"That's just it — she won't. She'll come up with some sure-fire reason as to just why she shouldn't call the police, then she'll jump in with both feet into danger and I won't be there to protect her."

"Clark, you're in no fit state to protect her, even if you could find her."

We'll see about that…ignoring their protests, he stood up slowly and started to walk around the room. He felt undeniably wobbly, but it wasn't too bad after the first couple of steps. "I feel OK," he announced to his parents.

Martha and Jonathan exchanged sceptical glances — they'd seen how he wavered on his first few steps. "OK, son, don't you think that's enough for now? Come and sit here for a while."

But Clark wasn't finished yet. Reaching the steps up to his door, he walked up to the top of them, turned and came back down. For a finale, he tried a brief levitation — which to his amazement actually took him up about a foot in the air before he returned to the floor. "See? I've even got a little of my powers ba-" His face suddenly drained of all its colour and he made a grab for the banister as the room swam sickeningly.

Jonathan and Martha were at his side in an instant, but he waved them off with his hand and held on tightly to the banister until the dizziness passed. He raised a shaky smile. "Guess I overdid it a little there."

"Clark, sit down," ordered his mother. "You won't do Lois any good if you make yourself sick again."

Letting go gingerly from his support, he made his way carefully back to the sofa and sat down again with a sigh.

"How's the shoulder feeling, son?"

"Pretty good. I think maybe it's all healed up."

"Let's take a look, shall we?" suggested Martha. She'd feel better herself once she'd checked his injury anyway. "And then it'll be time for me to get started in the kitchen."

"Mom, I'm not really hungry," said Clark. "Don't make too much."

"Nonsense! You'll eat as much as your father and I, and no arguments. Now, let's see that shoulder."

Martha took a sharp breath in when the last of the bandage revealed Clark's bare skin.

"What is it?" asked Jonathan in a worried voice, his view blocked by Martha.

"It's OK, Dad — look."

Martha moved away to let her husband see. Apart from the dried blood on Clark's skin and some faint bruising, there was only a small puckered scar where he was expecting the wound to be.

"Incredible," Jonathan breathed. "I would never have believed it was possible…how does it feel?"

"A bit tender, but basically it's fine."

"I'll clean you up, then…do you want me to rebandage it for support?" asked Martha.

He flexed it experimentally, his other hand coming over automatically to protect it when it twinged. "Yes, that would be good."

***

"You wanna pay by credit card." The waitress looked down at the proffered card on top of the bill for $4.50.

Lois was sitting with her cell phone pressed up against her ear, waiting for an answer. She moved the phone away from her ear and shrugged. "What can I say? No cash…oh, excuse me, I think he's answering."

Her waitress snatched up the credit card and stormed off to process the bill. Lois couldn't resist the smile which crept onto one corner of her mouth. Boy, but it was fun being conspicuous.

"Perry? It's Lois. Just wanted to let you know I have a hot lead on Arianna and the double, but I can't give you anything yet."

"Lois, where in tarnation's name have-"

Lois looked up to make sure the waitress was back in hearing range again. "I'll be working at home for a while — can you tell anyone who's looking for me that's where I'll be?"

"Lois, I am *not* your se-"

"Speak to you later. Bye!"

She scrawled her name on the credit card slip the waitress brought back, and waited while the woman checked it against the credit card.

"Lois Lane. You that reporter?"

"That's me."

"Didn't think that nice Kent guy could work with someone as ditzy as you."

"And what do you know about Clark Kent?" demanded Lois.

"He comes in here for coffee sometimes. He seems pretty normal."

Ha! If only you knew. She stood up to leave, but shot over her shoulder, "Looks can be deceiving!"

***

Standing outside the cafÈ, she hesitated before turning homewards. Stupid woman, reminding her about Clark — she'd just about managed to put that problem to the back of her mind, and now she was thinking about him again. Worse still, she admitted to herself, she wanted to know how he was. Sighing deeply, she pulled out her cell-phone again.

"Clark, it's Lois."

"Lois, where are you?"

"How are you?"

"I asked first."

"I phoned first."

She heard him let out a frustrated sigh. "I'm fine. Where are you?"

"Standing opposite the Daily Planet. How's your shoulder?"

"It's fine. Lois, are you coming back here? Did you find out what they took from your safety deposit box?"

"Sorry, I only tell people who trust me things like that. Are you sure you're OK?"

"Lois! I thought we talked that out."

"Yeah, we talked, I talked, your Mom talked — doesn't mean I forgive you."

"Lois, please come back here so we can sort this thing out."

"Sure, Clark, we'll talk — but on my terms. Right now I have something important to do. You didn't answer my question."

Clark took a deep breath. Maybe if he kept her talking long enough, he'd get her to come back, or at least tell him where she was going and what she was planning on doing. "I'm just waiting for my powers to come back, but otherwise I-I feel pretty OK. Why don't I meet you at the Planet and we'll do this…whatever it is, together?"

"Sorry, Clark, can't help you there. Besides, you sound like you still need to rest up if your powers haven't returned yet."

Clark winced. She'd just referenced him and his powers in the same sentence in the middle of the street. "Lois, could you speak up? I don't think they heard you on the other side of Metropolis."

Lois felt a quick surge of anger. "Clark, you just blew it. Bye." She snapped the phone shut sharply — he had no right to talk to her like that. OK, she was definitely doing this on her own.

***

Clark slammed the phone down, taking his parents by surprise. Martha regarded him reproachfully. "You shouldn't have said that to her."

"Why not?" he demanded forcefully. "I can't have her talking so openly about me — who knows who might be listening? What if someone had heard her, put two and two together and grabbed her right there in the street? She'd be a pawn in someone else's grudge fight against me."

"Clark, you're over-reacting," stated Jonathan firmly. "What are the chances of a criminal just happening to walk by when she's on the phone? Probably about a billion to one."

"Not with Lois — it's more like a certainty with her — and I just don't want her to get into bad habits. Next thing I know, she'll be calling me Clark when I'm in the suit."

"Calm down, sweetie," tried Martha. She moved to sit beside him on the sofa, put at arm around his shoulders but he dodged away from her.

"I don't want to calm down! She's putting herself danger and I can't help her." He shot out of the sofa and started pacing around the room again. "If only I had my powers back again, I could have been with her as soon as she said she was opposite the Planet. As it is…" He stopped suddenly in the middle of the room and closed his eyes.

"Clark, what-" began Martha in an anxious voice, worried that he'd overexerted himself again.

"Shhh!" he commanded with his hand held up as a stop sign. Martha lifted her eyebrows at the sharpness of her son's voice, but fell silent, watching him with a frown on her face. Jonathan did likewise.

"I can hear the building super's radio in the basement," he announced, opening his eyes again.

"Honey, that's wonderful!" exclaimed Martha, waiting while he fixed his gaze on the wall to one side and lowered his glasses. His eyes screwed up momentarily and then refocused again on the wall. He shook his head slowly, replacing the glasses.

"Nothing." His voice, which had held a note of optimism before, sounded newly defeated. Staring straight ahead now, he rose up about six inches and then came quickly down again with a thump. Without comment, he returned to the sofa and sat down hastily, a pensive look on his face.

Martha laid a hand on his arm. "At least you've got your hearing back, honey."

"I'm sure it won't be long before your other powers are back," added Jonathan.

"I just wish I didn't feel so weak," Clark muttered.

"Sounds like a cue for dinner to me," said Martha brightly, with a brisk pat of her hand on his arm. "You'll feel better with some of my pie inside you."

"I'm not really-"

"-hungry. Yes, you told me. We'll see…come on, Jonathan, you can peel the potatoes. Clark, you stay there and rest until we're ready."

***

By the time she reached her apartment, Lois had decided that perhaps she was being just a little too optimistic in her abilities to catch these two criminals. She'd never forgive herself if they came for her and then escaped because she couldn't overpower both of them. Maybe she'd call Inspector Henderson and have a quiet word with him — make sure he understood the only deal was if she remained the target of the operation.

She closed her front door and was about to start fastening all the locks when she heard an ominous click behind her. She turned slowly and found herself staring down the barrel of a gun.

"Hello, Lois," said Arianna pleasantly. "I believe you have something which belongs to us."

***

Clark laid down his knife and fork. "I can't do this." He stood up from the table and crossed to his bedroom, where he quickly dressed in one of his suits before starting towards the door.

"Clark, you don't know where she is," protested Jonathan urgently.

"You're not well enough yet, honey," added Martha.

"I'll try her apartment first. I just can't sit here and do nothing — I know she's in trouble, or if she's not, she soon will be."

"But you won't be able to-"

"I can at least call the cops if she's in danger. I'm sorry, I have to do this." He opened the door.

"But Clark, you're not invulnerable yet!" called Martha, but he was gone.

***

Lois glanced at her double standing to one side. "She really screwed up for you, didn't she?" she said scornfully, addressing her remarks to Arianna.

"A mere blip in an otherwise masterful plan. Where's the ring?" Her voice hardened on the last sentence.

"What ring?" asked Lois innocently, walking forward a couple of paces towards Arianna.

"Far enough!" barked Arianna. Lois stopped quickly. In a more conciliatory tone, Arianna continued, "Come on, Lois, be smart. Hand over the ring and we'll leave you alone."

"Bet you're wondering why I'm still walking around free," said Lois, moving closer again to Arianna.

"You come any closer, I'll have to shoot you," warned Arianna. "Somewhere painful."

"So, do you want to know why?"

"I'm assuming Mr White got you out on bail," answered Arianna airily.

"Wrong!" yelled Lois, launching herself with a high kick at the gun. It flew out of Arianna's hand, mercifully without firing, and landed somewhere behind her. Lois and Arianna both made a dive for it, ending up in a tussle on the floor together, each fighting with one hand to reach the gun while fending the other off with the remaining hand. Lois was fractionally in front of Arianna, when a voice shouted "Don't move!" and they both heard another gun being cocked.

They both froze to the spot where they were. After a moment of shock and disbelief, both women gathered enough courage to turn their heads slowly to locate the new player in the fight for control of the situation. Lois' double regarded them coldly behind the gun she was training on them. "Don't move," she repeated.

OK, Clark, I give in, thought Lois. I could really, really do with your help now. But you're not going to come, are you…unless I'm incredibly lucky and you're fully recovered now.

"Well done," said Arianna admiringly. "I don't know where you got that from, but for once you did something right. Why, you're even holding it in your right hand — although I have to tell you, it's a little late to be finally getting the hang of that trick."

She reached over to pick up the gun Lois and she had been fighting for, but the double barked, "Stop!" making her pause.

"What's going on?" asked Arianna with barely controlled anger.

"Just stand up slowly — and don't you move!" she ordered as Lois started to inch forward to the gun on the floor.

Arianna stood up and brushed down her skirt. "Now what? I must say, for a brainless idiot, you're doing quite well. I think maybe you're overplaying the role somewhat now, but-"

"Shut up!" shouted the double. "I've had enough of you calling me stupid. It's been nothing but brainless, stupid and idiotic ever since I woke up in that operating room. If it hadn't been for me, you could never have done any of this — I was the one who made your plan work."

"I'm sorry, dear, I don't think you quite understand. If it hadn't been for me, you wouldn't be alive. If it hadn't been for me, you wouldn't have a face. If it hadn't been for me, there would *be* no plan."

"Shut up!" she repeated. "I can't stand it when you talk like that."

"Oh, I'm sorry. How should I talk? With monosyllabic words, perhaps? Come on, dear, face it — you can't string two thoughts together, let alone pull off something like this. Just give me the gun, and I'll get us out of here."

Arianna held out her hand towards the double's gun, who backed away quickly. "Stay away! I'll do this m-"

"Put the gun down or I'll shoot her," came Lois' calm voice from the floor.

Both sets of eyes turned to Lois, who was pointing the gun from the floor at Arianna.

The double's eyes hardened. "What do I care?" Arianna screamed as the double shot her in the shoulder, the force of the shot sending her sprawling in agony to the ground. The gun swung round to face Lois again, who quickly brought her own gun around to train on her opponent. She stared in shock at the double, not quite able to believe what she'd just witnessed.

"You shot her!" she exclaimed, suddenly feeling pretty stupid herself at the banal observation.

"Yes, Lois, that's what the gun is for. Or didn't you think I could do it?"

"I just didn't think you'd be that stu-" she caught the double's eyes flaring again, "-pendously brave," she finished slowly.

"Why, thank you, Lois."

Lois stood up slowly, carefully keeping the gun aimed and her eyes fixed firmly on her opponent.

"What now?" she asked sarcastically. "Do we wait until one of us falls asleep?"

"I'm sure we'll think of something."

"Things aren't going too well for you, are they? First you're in a car crash, then you wake up with a new face, then you have to put up with Arianna, and now this? Just not your year, I guess." <Clark, I could really do with your help now. Maybe you're all right?>

"You're the one in trouble — there's no Superman to rescue you this time, is there?"

<OK, Lois, go for it…> "On the contrary, SUPERMAN," Lois said his name very loudly, "is just fine. SUPERMAN didn't die when Arianna shot him, and SUPERMAN is probably on his way right now, so if I were you, I'd just give up now and hand me the gun. SUPERMAN won't like it if he finds you pointing a gun at me."

"Oh, Lois, you're so sad. Take away your superhero and you still try to pretend he's alive — you should have counselling."

"Nope, sorry, tried that. Ended up wanting to catch homicidal criminals — oh, that would be you, wouldn't it? SUPERMAN doesn't like homicidal criminals."

The double shook her head sadly. "So pathetic."

***

Clark's heart was pounding in his chest by the time he reached Lois' front door. He'd heard her calls to him, so he knew something was seriously wrong. He launched himself at the door with his good shoulder, and to his immense surprise and relief, it yielded to his weight and he arrived in Lois' living room, confronted by a terrible tableau.

Two Loises stood facing each other in the middle of the room, each with a gun trained on the other. Off to one side, Arianna lay unconscious with blood pooling over one shoulder. Worse still, he realised straightaway that whichever was the real Lois had changed clothes since he last saw her so that he couldn't immediately recognise which was which. If only he'd had his x-ray vision back, maybe he could have seen Lois' mole behind her left knee…

"Superman!" said the Lois to his right. "Thank God you're here!"

"Superman, get her — she's the fake!" said the other Lois.

With only his superhearing working, there was no way he reach both of them fast enough. If he picked the right one, even then it would be touch and go as to whether he'd manage to stop any gunfire hitting Lois. Oh, God, which was which?

"Don't listen to her, she's trying to confuse you!" said the Lois on the right.

"Superman, you have to know I'm the real Lois Lane. Look at me," commanded the Lois to his left.

Lois' brain was racing. If Clark hadn't already snatched both their guns, then that had to mean that he didn't have any superpowers, which meant he was going to have to get closer to them than he was now before he tried anything. How to tell him who she was without letting the double know? <Think, Lois, think!> In the meantime, she needed him nearer…

"Yes, come on, Superman, come closer so you can see that *I'm* the real Lois Lane," said the double.

<Huh? I was going to say that. Well, at least he's moving closer to us.>

Clark inched closer to the two women, knowing that when the moment came, he needed to be within striking distance of that gun. He'd get between the two of them, so that even if the gun went off, at least he'd be in the way…

Of course, maybe he should just call the police, thought Lois. But this woman's on a really short fuse and anyway how could she tell Superman to phone the police without it looking very odd — why should Superman need to call the police? And did that matter?

"Superman, look into my eyes," said the double.

Clark held up a hand. "OK, both of you stop talking — now." He couldn't think straight with the two of them babbling away at him all the time. They fell silent and looked at him expectantly. All right, Clark, now what? You've shut them up — now you need to figure out the puzzle.

<Got it!>

"Superman, how's Clark's shoulder?"

Clark hurled himself in front of the double, pushing the gun up and away from Lois as fast as he could. A shot rang out, and then they were down on the floor, Clark wrenching the gun from the double's hand and throwing it as far away as he could, praying it wouldn't go off again as he did so. A few moments' tussle later and he was crouched beside her, holding her hands together behind her back while she lay face down on the carpet.

"Lois, are you all right?" he called behind, his voice sounding harsher with anxiety than he intended.

"Yes, I'm fine," answered Lois.

More thankful than ever, he continued, "Can you get something to tie her up with, then?"

He waited until Lois came down beside him and proceeded to tie their captive up with cable from her hi-fi system.

"Feet as well?" asked Lois.

"Definitely."

Once their prisoner was secure, he released her and flopped back in relief to sit on the floor himself, feeling a little dazed and breathless. A stinging sensation in his left bicep made him bring his fingers up to explore, where he found moisture and a twinge of pain.

"You're bl-" Clark silenced Lois with a quick shake of his head.

"Why don't you call the cops? And an ambulance." He jerked his head towards Arianna.

She frowned at him and didn't budge, so he mouthed, "I'm fine," to her.

He heaved himself up off the floor while she made the phone calls, and walked into her bathroom to try and find a Band-Aid for the scratch on his arm. Presumably the bullet had nicked him on its way past — he hadn't felt a thing at the time. Thank God it had missed Lois…

"Here, let me help."

She came around to his front and started to roll his sleeve up, easing it carefully past the bloody scratch. A brief clean with damp tissue paper, a neatly placed Band-Aid, and the job was done.

"You seem to be making a habit of this," commented Clark.

"Yeah, just don't expect this kind of attention every time you get yourself in trouble," she replied grudgingly, rolling his sleeve back down.

She looked up into his face, and their eyes met and locked briefly. Neither seemed able to find the words to express what they were thinking, but just stared seriously at the other in a moment of stillness.

"Lois, I-" began Clark.

"The police will be here soon. You'd better hide that hole in your suit with your cape while they're here."

***

It was early evening by the time Lois and Clark had the apartment to themselves again. The police had taken statements from both of them, dusted the place painstakingly for fingerprints, and removed the two women criminals. All that was left was a small patch of blood on Lois' carpet and some black smudges where the fingerprint man had worked. Clark had phoned his parents to let them know that they were both safe, and now the two of them were sitting quietly in Lois' living room drinking coffee.

"You should get that cleaned up," said Clark, indicating the stain on the carpet. "The sooner the better, before it really sinks in. Have you got any carpet cleaner?" He started to get up.

"Clark, sit down. The carpet can wait," she replied in a tired voice.

He sank back down into his chair and regarded her warily.

"You knew you weren't invulnerable but you still went for that gun," she accused.

He nodded slightly.

"That took guts," she added.

He continued to stare at her with that earnest/anxious look she knew so well.

"You could have just phoned the police, you know."

He was still staring at her silently.

"Clark, say something! I'm trying to have a conversation here."

He shrugged. "Lois, what can I say? You were in danger, I had to protect you."

"Oh, sorry! I didn't realise I was such a nuisance: 'Darn, Lois is in trouble again; guess I'll just have to go rescue her.'"

"That not what I meant. I meant I can't *not* rescue you. I hear you in danger, I *have* to come and get you out of danger. It doesn't matter what the consequences are: if you, Lois Lane, need help, then you get help. It's that simple."

"Oh," said Lois in a small voice.

"That's the way it's always been with you, Lois. From the very start, I couldn't stand to see you hurt in any way."

"Oh," she repeated quietly. If Clark hadn't been so tired, he might have noticed how she seemed to shrink in on herself at his words.

"When you announced you were going to marry Luthor, I knew he would hurt you in ways I couldn't even imagine, so I tried everything I could to stop the wedding happening."

"And Luthor knew you'd try to stop the wedding, so he decided to kill you by putting you in that cage." So much had been going on behind the scenes back then that she'd been blind to — she, Lois Lane, the incisive, cutting, insightful investigate reporter. She wondered what else she had missed.

"You know about that?"

"Your Mom told me…actually, your Mom told me lots of things."

"Like?"

"Like you didn't know anything about yourself until we found that spaceship at Trask's place. Like how much you had to struggle to keep up the illusion of being just a regular guy while you were growing up. Like the fact that your parents have never been able to tell another living soul about their son." The more Lois had thought about these things, the more she had realised how hard the Kents' family life must have been, even if the household had been so full of love as it obviously was. Depression weighed heavily on her as she revisited the long list of their trials.

"Yeah, it's been tough for them."

"I think she even told me some stuff without actually telling me, if that makes any sense," she continued morosely. "She made me realise that I expect a lot from this…partnership of ours."

"That's good…because I expect a lot from it too." Did he dare to allow himself a little hope if she was admitting she expected something special from their…whatever it was?

"And one of the things I expect is trust." She hadn't meant to scratch the still-open wound again, but the words just fell out of her. In fact, as soon as she uttered them, she received an ugly insight into her own feelings: her pride had suffered a huge blow when she found out that she didn't after all know everything there was to know about Clark Kent. She had thought she had him figured out pretty well, and then he had destroyed all that by letting her know that she had missed out on the biggest single thing that made him who he was — and she hated it. She hated knowing that her famed reporter's instincts had failed her completely with this incredible man, this man she saw just about every day of the week in both his guises. Just one more thing to be depressed about, she supposed.

Clark's heart sank into his boots. He was tired and weary, and hearing her say those words yet again just left him feeling empty…almost past caring, in a way. "Lois, I just don't know what to say to you any more. I've explained to you over and over about all the reasons I didn't tell you about myself. How I've never told anyone else all my life, how I've had it drummed into me from an early age about how risky it was for other people to know, how scared I am of the danger it puts you in if you know — I guess I didn't tell you how much it hurt *me* not to tell you, but I suppose my feelings aren't important, are they?"

He paused in his weary, flat monologue to glance up at her. Seeing only a pinched, set face which he read as dispassion, he continued, "I've told you why I didn't say more to you about Luthor — oh, and by the way, just remind yourself how little we were even talking to each other just before all that happened. I've told you how difficult you made it for me to tell you how I really felt about you, and I've tried to tell you how you made Clark Kent, the real me, feel when you only had eyes for Superman, the cartoon cut-out. In spite of all that, despite me risking everything by telling you these things, you decide instead to punish me today by cutting me out of your investigation and almost getting yourself killed in the process. I give up, Lois, I really do. Why don't you just tell me what you want to hear and I'll say it?"

"Sorry would be a good start," she said in a low voice.

"I think I did that already, but OK. Sorry. What else?"

He watched her grim face and waited for the next cutting remark to strike home. The silence stretched into infinity, and then he was horrified to see her bottom lip quivering and a lone tear make its way down her cheek.

"I wasn't trying to-to p-punish you." The last word came out in a strangled squeak and in an instant he was beside her, cradling her in his arms, feeling a terrible rush of remorse at what he'd done to her.

"Oh, God, Lois, I didn't mean to make you cry. I'm so sorry, so terribly sorry." He stroked her hair as she cried into his shoulder.

"I wouldn't ever want to punish you," she squeaked out between sobs. "I like you too much."

"I'm sorry, Lois. I shouldn't have said those things. Will you ever forgive me?"

"They were true, though," she wailed. "You're right — I've been so mean to you."

"No you haven't — we just didn't talk things over like we should have."

"What about-about this morning? I probably made your shoulder twice as bad by yanking it around like that."

"You didn't know I was hurt. Shhhhh, Lois…"

"But a real friend would have noticed that you weren't well as s-soon as they saw you. I just wanted answers to my own s-selfish questions."

"Oh, please, Lois, don't do this. It's OK, really — look at me." He held her out at arms' length. "See? I'm absolutely fine — no harm done."

Her eyes went over to the Band-Aid on his arm.

"And that's probably all healed up by now too. Come on, Lois, please stop crying. We've both said and done some things we wish we hadn't. Let's try and forget them and move on, OK?" He bent at the knees and looked up into her tear-stained face. "Please?"

His pleading went for nought, though, and as her crying intensified he wrapped his arms protectively around her again, rocking her gently to soothe away the hurt. "Shhh…shhh…"

"It's just…just that it's been such a-a h-horrible day. I want you to know I don't-don't usually cry this easily."

"I know, I know. Lois Lane, toughest reporter in the business. Everyone knows not to tangle with Lois Lane." He rubbed a hand softly up and down her back.

"Everyone except you."

"Yeah, well, no-one warned me until it was too late."

"Too late?"

"Too late to stop me f-"

'Falling head over heels in love with you' was what he'd been about to say, but now wasn't the time…

"Stop you what?" she pulled away from him to look up into his face.

"Stop me falling for your game. You lure me in with that wide-eyed innocent look of yours-"

"What wide-eyed innocent look? I don't have a wide-eyed innocent look."

"Yes, you do. You're wearing it right now."

"No, I'm not."

"Yes, you are."

"Am not."

"Lois…" He propelled her by the arms over to a wall mirror and stood her in front of it. "There. See? Wide-eyed innocence."

She regarded her tear-stained, blotchy face and limp, straggly hair. "You call this wide-eyed innocence? I call this my 'total wreck after emotional outburst' look."

"Ah, see, that's where you're wrong. Maybe that's what you see, but I see something different."

She turned and regarded the man in the brightly coloured suit beside her. On impulse, she caught him by the arm and pulled him in front of the mirror. "What do you see now?"

He looked up and down at himself. "I see Clark Kent dressed in a funny suit his mother made for him…what do you see?"

Her red, puffy eyes looked at his reflection for a long time before replying, her eyes meeting his in the mirror. "I see Clark Kent without his glasses on."

He put an arm around her shoulder and pulled her close to him so that both of them were reflected in the mirror. "What do you see now?"

"I see two people who just got to know each other a whole lot better than they deserve to. I see a guy from Krypton with extraordinary abilities who's more human than all the rest of us put together."

"I see two people with a whole lifetime of getting to know each other stretching out in front of them. I see a beautiful, clever, funny woman from Metropolis who's in serious need of a comb and some new make-up."

His eyes twinkled, removing any sense of mockery from his words, but she shoved him sideways anyway in pretend-annoyance. "You're the one wearing the holey, blood-stained spandex suit, you know!"

"Do you forgive me for being a superhero?" he smiled.

"Do you forgive me for being so mean?"

No answers were necessary as they turned to each other and embraced for a very, very long time.

THE END