When Lightning Strikes Twice

By Wendy Richards <wendy@kingsmeadowcr.freeserve.co.uk>

Rated PG-13

Submitted July 2000

Summary: Clark finally feels ready to ask Lois for a date. But before he can, an old adversary returns and, in a stunning display of audacity, turns himself into Superman's greatest threat yet: SuperLex!

Author's Notes

This story emerged from an idea I had in early spring of this year; I remember emailing one of my writing buddies to say 'what do you think?!' and getting a very excited email in return urging me to write it. And so I did… and I don't think either of us imagined it would turn out to be anything like as long as this! This is now, officially, my longest story, and Kathy and LabRat, my Archive GE, have my sincerest sympathies! <g>

Thanks are due to a number of people here: Dr Phil Atcliffe, Fanfic Engineer Extraordinaire, for pointing me in the direction of websites relating to Tesla coils and for being patient in respect of our joint fic while this one took over all of my writing time; JoMurf (Julie) for some very helpful assistance with medical information; the FoLCs on Zoomway's Message Boards and on the fic list who read this monster as it was being posted in instalments, waited (not so) patiently for each successive instalment and supplied me with wonderful feedback, on the list, the boards and on IRC: particular thanks in this context to (in no particular order) LaurieD, Ann, AnneC, Irene, Tank, Dede, merry, TerriAnn, Jenny, Chiara, Anita, Charlotte, Kara, Missy, Rac, James, DebbieC, Pam, Vicki, Nan and Marnie; and to JenniD and Hazel who read the story privately and sent very helpful comments. If I've missed anyone out, my sincere apologies and my assurance that I did appreciate your comments very much!

But above all my thanks go to Yvonne and Helene for beta-reading efforts beyond the call of duty. You two have been fantastic, completely invaluable and very, very much appreciated! You both understand perfectly the main requirements for a beta-reader: praise the story, catch typos, praise the story, point out plot holes, praise the story, tell me where I've gone over the top with something, praise the story, offer extremely helpful suggestions for additional twists or to crank up the angst, praise the story… <g>. I'll give you both excellent references any time!

In relation to time-frame, this story takes place instead of The Phoenix. Comments very much welcomed at wendy@kingsmeadowcr.freeserve.co.uk or w.m.richards@hrm.keele.ac.uk


He'd had the dream again. *The* dream. The one where he and Lois were on a date — *together* — and she turned to look at him with exactly the same look of love in her eyes for him as he knew he had for her. He'd had the same dream three times in the space of a week now. It had to be significant.

Lois's behaviour towards him had certainly altered in the past couple of months — since his supposed death, he realised with a touch of guilt, remembering the pain he knew he'd caused her then. Since then, she'd been much more affectionate towards him, had been far more inclined to be the one to suggest spending off-duty time together. And there had been Christmas Eve… he'd kicked himself so many times for not taking advantage of that highly romantic moment when the carollers had started to sing below Lois's window. He could have kissed her then, and he was pretty sure she would have been receptive. But as always, something had held him back… the fear of what her rejection would do to their friendship.

But now, something else was in danger of damaging their friendship: a certain Assistant DA by the name of Mayson Drake. Clark liked Mayson: she was an attractive woman, certainly, and would be an amusing, intelligent companion if she could only stop being so… so *pushy* where he was concerned. He sighed. The problem was that Lois knew Mayson was attracted to him; but on the other hand, and this was what had finally given him hope, he actually thought that Lois might be jealous of the other woman. She'd certainly behaved as if she was jealous when she'd thought he'd gone away for the weekend with Mayson.

So it was time he took a chance, instead of hiding his feelings away the whole time, Clark decided. If there was a chance that Lois might at last be ready to return his feelings, to fall in love with *Clark* instead of being dazzled by Superman — and, as Superman, he'd done his best to hint her away — he needed to get his act together once and for all and ask her for a date. Make it clear that his interest in her went beyond that of best friend. It was a terrifying thought, that he might actually *do* what he'd been wanting to do for so long… but he couldn't carry on as they had been any longer.

He loved Lois Lane. She… might care for him, might be willing to see him as more than a friend. But he would never know unless he made the first move.


"Clark! Have you seen this?" Lois flicked angrily at the press release which Perry had just handed her.

Her partner came to stand just behind her and read over her shoulder. "'Female forfeit is $250,000 over a lifetime'," he read, his voice puzzled. "What's this about?"

"It's the pay gap between men and women — some new research from economists at MetU," Lois explained impatiently. "Everyone knows women lose out in their careers if they have kids. But this shows that even women without kids end up earning less than men — look at this!" She gestured at one column. "A professional woman without children will earn a quarter of a million bucks less than an equally qualified man over her lifetime!"

She glared up at Clark, who raised one eyebrow at her as he leaned forward and rested his elbows on her PC monitor. "Lois, you earn more than me," he pointed out mildly.

Almost screaming in frustration, she gritted out, "I know. But that's — "

"Not the point. I agree, Lois," he interrupted, and she could see from his expression that his earlier objection had just been teasing. Clark was interested. "So we're doing a story on this? News or feature? Or will Perry let us do both?" His expression became distant, unfocused, as it tended to do when he was mentally planning a story. "We could interview women at various stages of their careers, with and without kids, talk to them about their experiences, what they want to see changed for themselves and for the next generation of working women…"

"Sounds great," Lois began, then winced suddenly. Her pain-killers were not working, and she was really beginning to feel lousy. Groping behind her for her chair, she slumped into the seat and leaned forward, closing her eyes.

"Lois…? Lois, are you okay?" Clark's voice was anxious, and she opened one eye to see him hovering solicitously over her.

Sincere as he obviously was, sympathy from Clark was not what she needed right now. "I'll be okay, Clark, don't worry about it."

But he didn't go away; he leaned closer, concern evident in his soft voice. "Lois, can I get you something? Glass of water? Coffee? Pain-killers?"

A different biological make-up, Lois answered silently, sarcastically. Women lost out every which way, it seemed. They suffered for being female in so many different ways: sexism at work, macho behaviour and harassment, and as this new research had just proved, lower pay simply for being female. And of course to add insult to injury…

<You'd just know God's a man!> she thought savagely as she got to her feet. "I'm going home, Clark. You put a schedule together for that article, yeah? I'll be back tomorrow and we'll get to work on it then."

She grabbed her coat and bag and was making her way towards the exit when suddenly he was beside her again. "Lois — let me take you home, okay? I'm worried about you — "

"Clark, I'll be fine. And I need you here — Perry'll throw a fit if we're both missing." Before he could raise another objection, she summoned the lift and stepped inside it, slumping against the wall once the doors had closed.


Lois hadn't seemed at all well when she'd left the Planet, Clark thought, concerned. He'd wanted to take her home himself, butshe'd refused his offer; that had hurt him in the circumstances. He'd been ready to ask her out on a date, and she wouldn't even let him look after her when she was sick. Perhaps this idea of asking her out was a waste of time after all…

He hovered near her apartment window, feeling guilty about invading her privacy but needing to reassure himself that she was okay. She must have heard him, though, for a moment later her voice called out, as if she was uncertain whether he was really there or not, "Superman?"

He floated nearer and hovered close to the window-ledge. She was lying on one of the couches, in what looked to him to be an uncomfortable posture with her arm wrapped around her stomach. Unusually, she didn't get up to greet him.

"Lois? Is everything all right?" Unsure whether or not he should enter her apartment, he waited.

"Come on in, I can't talk to you all the way out there," she told him, so he stepped over the ledge and into the room. She was too pale, he thought, wondering what was wrong with her. Should he call a doctor? Take her to the hospital?

"Lois? You don't look too well," he said tentatively, hoping she wouldn't be offended at Superman making such an observation. "Is there anything I can do for you?"

Seeming unwilling to comment on his question, Lois changed the subject. "It's okay. Is there something I can do for you, Superman? I mean, it's good to see you, of course, but…?"

Oh yes, what had his excuse been? Yes, that was it… "Lois, I just wanted to thank you again for all your help last weekend — you know, when I was blinded. I kind of rushed off once it was all over, but I don't want you to think I'm not very appreciative of all you did."

She blushed, the flush on her cheeks accentuating her pallor. "That's okay. We're friends, aren't we? Friends help each other."

"I know, and you're a very good and valued friend," he couldn't help telling her. "And… don't be offended, Lois, but I also appreciate you keeping what happened out of the press. I know I can trust you not to print that kind of information about me, so you don't need to remind me of that — but I do need to tell you occasionally that I'm grateful for your discretion."

She shrugged. "You know I won't print anything that could harm you, Superman." She seemed about to say more, but he noticed that she seemed to tense suddenly, and he studied her in concern. Her heart-rate was up, which seemed to suggest that she was in pain, and he could see that she was tensing the muscles in her abdomen.

"Lois…? You really don't look well," he ventured again.

<I'm not, but will you please go away!> Lois thought, resting her head back against the sofa-cushion. This was really not the best of times for the Super-hero to come visiting; much as she would normally enjoy the opportunity to talk to him, she just wanted to rest and wait for the pain to subside. "I just need to get some rest," she told him evasively.

"Lois, please let me help you," he persisted.

"Superman, there's nothing you can do. I've taken some painkillers, and I'll be okay in a couple of hours."

He was clearly puzzled, judging by his expression, and for some reason it seemed that he wasn't about to let this one go. <He's as bad as Clark> she found herself thinking, remembering how hard it had been to convince Clark earlier that she was capable of making her way home alone.

She sighed; he wasn't going to be satisfied until she gave him an explanation, and anyway, part of her wanted to see his embarrassed retreat when she did. Raising her gaze to his, she gave a careless shrug. "I told you, it's no big deal. Just that time of the month, that's all."

She wasn't remotely surprised to see an obvious blush creep across his face; he seemed about to apologise and leave when, instead, the embarrassment was replaced by a thoughtful expression. "Lois — you do trust me, don't you?"

Taken aback, she replied, "Of course!"

"Then let me help you." Before she could say a word, he was striding to her side; he bent and slid his arms underneath her body. "I can't work here — there isn't enough room. Do you mind if I take you into your bedroom?"

Completely baffled as to what he intended, Lois shrugged as well as she was able while being held cradled against his Spandex-clad chest. "If you want…"

In a very short space of time he was laying her gently on the bed, sliding a pillow underneath her head. He studied her for a moment before speaking. "Could you take off that sweater? I mean… I assume you've got a T-shirt or something underneath it…?"

She did, so that wasn't a problem, but she still wondered what he intended. Checking that the T-shirt was still properly tucked into her sweatpants, she pulled the sweatshirt over her head before lying back down, gazing up at him in open curiosity. Even the painful stomach cramps which had driven her home from work weren't enough to stop her wondering just what Superman had in mind.

He glanced at her, his gaze seeming to ask her permission as his hand hovered over her stomach; she nodded and gestured for him to go ahead. Then he placed his hand gently on her abdomen, moving it around a little as he stood beside her bed, an expression of concentration on his face. Then she saw his eyes narrow, and she stared at him in amazement. What was he…?

He must have seen her surprise, for he glanced in her direction. "Heat vision, Lois, not X-ray," he assured her, a hint of amusement in his voice. He turned to gaze at her abdomen again, and within a moment or two she felt a warm sensation spreading all over the affected area; only superficial at first, but it quickly began to reach the cramped muscles inside her. This was better than a hot water bottle any day, she decided, barely able to believe that this was happening. The pain started to recede, and for the first time since she'd got up that morning she felt able to relax her stomach muscles.

"My God, Superman, can I call you over to do that every month?" she joked, trying to hide her incredulity but not succeeding particularly well.

He smiled briefly in response, ceasing the caress of his heat vision. "Is it always this bad?" His tone suggested that he was curious, as well as concerned.

Shaking her head, still barely able to believe that they were having this conversation, she explained. "Not normally, but every so often I have a really bad month. I guess this was one of them."

"You going to be okay if I leave you now?" he asked, still sounding concerned.

Lois nodded quickly, realising that he needed to go but at the same time wishing, now that she was definitely feeling better, that he could stay and talk. Although she'd had him almost to herself over the weekend, for some reason they hadn't really talked all that much. The presence of Clark's parents for some of the time had inhibited them, and in any case she'd been busy trying to find a solution to Superman's blindness, as well as finding out who was responsible for it. It just seemed so long since they'd spent any time together beyond a very quick demand on her part for a quote when they happened to meet somewhere.

"Thanks, Superman — I really appreciate it," she told him, and for an instant his expression, focused as it had been on whatever lay ahead of him, softened. He moved back towards the bed and bent down; for a brief moment her heart almost stopped when it seemed as if he was going to kiss her lips. But instead his lips brushed her forehead before he stepped back again. Of course; she had been foolish to imagine he'd meant anything more. Bidding her a brief farewell, he strode out of the bedroom and a moment later she heard the sonic boom of his takeoff.

That heat vision of his was simply amazing, she thought as she pulled the quilt over herself. He'd been so gentle with it; and yet she'd seen him use it to devastating effect at other times. He could cut holes in solid steel with it, and he could reduce objects to a pile of ash. And yet it hadn't occurred to her for a moment to be afraid; he'd told her he was going to use it on her, and she'd trusted him completely. It was only now occurring to her to wonder what kind of damage a full-strength blast of heat vision could inflict on her or any other human.

Not that Superman would do that, she knew — no matter what the provocation, Superman wouldn't use his Super-powers to maim or kill. But, for the first time, she began to consider what a devastating weapon his powers could be in the possession of someone without Superman's ethics. Waldecker didn't count, she instantly decided. The man who'd become Resplendent Man hadn't been evil in the slightest; just a little misguided and bitter at the turn his life had taken. But what if it had been someone else who, during that flash of lightning, had been with Superman? It just didn't bear thinking about, she decided, hoping that Superman intended to be very careful during thunderstorms in future.

Yawning, she rolled over and decided to sleep for a couple of hours.


At least it was nothing serious, Clark thought as he headed back to the Planet. And he'd been able to help in some small way… and, he guessed, she'd be feeling better later. Perhaps he should go over to see her later that evening, he mused. He could bring her something nice, chocolate perhaps, and maybe *then* he could ask her for that date. She might even say yes — in fact, he considered, it was probably more likely that she'd be prepared to say yes if he asked her away from the workplace anyway. He grimaced as the consequences of someone — Ralph, in the worst-case scenario — overhearing his request occurred to him.

Another thought occurred to him suddenly, and he slowed in mid-air with a low groan. There was one rather major issue which he hadn't even considered in all this planning. That was the matter of his alter ego. Lois didn't know that he was Superman, and he hadn't even considered telling her.

He frowned. Was that a problem? It was Clark who wanted to take Lois out on a date, after all.

But… just now, in her apartment, he'd almost come on to her as Superman. Yet again.

<No, I didn't!> he protested indignantly to his conscience. All he'd done was use some heat vision to ease her pain, and then leave her to rest.

No, his conscience reminded him, he had kissed her. And if he hadn't remembered who he was and what he was doing just in time, he would have kissed her lips instead of just her forehead. As far as Lois was concerned, therefore, Superman was still a potential love-interest — and he knew she was interested. Okay, she didn't chase after him as obviously as she had six months or a year ago, but he knew her well enough to know that if Superman gave her any reason to believe that he was really interested, she'd respond.

<So what am I saying?> he asked himself, confused. <That Clark doesn't have a chance with Lois?>

Maybe, he thought carefully, what he was saying was that he needed to be sure that Lois was interested in *him,* Clark, and not just Superman. Once he was sure that she did care about him, that her feelings for him were more than just friendly, he could tell her the truth about him and Superman. And, he had to admit, there were times when the thought of her knowing the truth really appealed to him. No more running off at inopportune moments with stupid excuses. No more having to come up with elaborate explanations for where he'd been or just how he knew something that only Superman should know and vice versa, no more talking about himself in the third person, and no more disguising his true self in front of her. Yes, he liked the sound of all that very much…

But his old insecurities kept jumping up to slap him in the face. He wouldn't, *couldn't* tell Lois the truth until he was sure she wanted Clark.

He recommenced his journey back to the Planet, trying to ignore the little voice which irritatingly insisted on pointing out that to enter into a romantic relationship with Lois while she didn't know that Clark Kent was also Superman would be completely unethical. It was one thing to deceive a friend; quite another thing to lie to a romantic partner. But what could he do? If he told Lois who he was and then asked her out, how would he know whether she'd said yes to Clark Kent or to Superman? But if he asked her out first and told her afterwards, wouldn't she be likely to see that as him having set her some sort of test?

He sighed, realising that this debate with himself wasn't actually getting him anywhere. Perhaps he should… oh, he didn't know. He would have to think about it later; now he needed to get back to work.


At the end of a very busy day in which Perry had sent him and Ralph to cover a breaking news story about a potential hostile takeover of the Metropolis Bus Company, Clark was finally able to leave the Planet and think about going to see Lois. He wanted to… but he knew he had to decide what he intended to say to her first. It just wasn't enough any more to be good old Clark, her best friend, the person she turned to when she wanted a pizza and movie, or a Saturday trip to a ballgame, or the person she called when she needed someone to talk to. But if he ever wanted to be more, he knew he had to grapple with the question of letting her in on his secret. Sooner or later, she had to know.

But the same dilemma which he'd been thinking through earlier remained: did he ask her out and then tell her his secret, or should he take that huge leap of faith and tell her he was Superman first?

His thoughts were interrupted by a woman's voice calling for help, in shrill, panicked cries. Grimacing, he glanced cautiously around and, seeing no-one anywhere around, hurried into an alley from where, less than a second later, Superman propelled himself into the sky. Engaging Super-speed immediately, he flew in the direction of the cry. His Super-hearing told him it was coming from a science park on the far side of the city. As it was now after seven o'clock in the evening, he knew that the research laboratories and business 'incubation units' should be shut down for the evening — although, he reminded himself, he was well aware that scientists rarely respected normal working hours. Yet the building from where the screams were coming was in darkness.

Not stopping to X-ray first, he barrelled in through an open side door and strode faster than human running speed along the corridor until he found what he was looking for. There was a big interior room, at least as large as an auditorium, and it was from there that the cries were coming. It was in semi-darkness, there being no windows or other form of natural light; only a couple of the low-powered fluorescent lights in the ceiling were switched on. He noticed in passing that apart from a few tables and instruments around the side walls, the room was empty but for two low, squat cylindrical objects set several feet apart.

But he ignored those; his attention was focused on the two people in the centre of the room — between those two objects, in fact. A tall, slim woman with short cropped blonde hair was held in a punishing grip by a man, who seemed to be tearing at her clothes and trying to assault her. Both were facing away from him as they struggled, the man grunting ferociously and the woman struggling, trying to free herself.

In an instant Superman had freed the woman from the man's grasp, the bare glance he cast her not affording him sufficient opportunity to look at her properly. He would assure himself that she was okay in a minute, he decided, once he'd dealt with her attacker. Instead, he reached out for her captor, seizing him by the upper arm and collar in a firm grip.

"Are you all right?" he asked the woman, not glancing in her direction and barely pausing for an answer as he turned his attention back to his prisoner. "Thought you had an easy victim, did you…?" Superman trailed off as his captive turned to face him. The world almost seemed to stand still as he was confronted with a face he'd never imagined he would see again.

"Luthor…!" It was indeed Lex Luthor, but Clark couldn't believe it. The man should be dead — he *was* dead, Clark had seen him fall to his death with his own eyes. Staring at the once-respected billionaire, an image flashed into Clark's mind of Luthor plummeting to the ground, complete with the sickening thud which his body had made on impact. He was dead — he'd died almost on impact. There was no way anyone — any human — could have survived such a fall.

But somehow… no, this had to be a double, a lookalike, it couldn't be Lex Luthor. And anyway, this man looked older somehow, more careworn and crumpled, with shaggier hair — the old Luthor would never have allowed himself to look this seedy. Even his clothes looked second-hand.

"We meet again, Superman," the man drawled; now Clark had no doubt at all. This was Lex Luthor; that voice was unmistakeable. "What's the matter…? Oh, I see, you thought I was dead. Well…" Luthor smiled broadly, clearly enjoying the situation. He shifted position in Clark's grasp, the Super-hero too shocked by the apparent resurrection, like Phoenix from the ashes, of his would-be nemesis to object.

Luthor's smile grew wider still. "Thanks to my good physician here, Dr Gretchen Kelly, even death may be reversed."

Clark's glance shot across to the woman, Luthor's erstwhile captive. No innocent victim, but someone he'd met before; the woman who had stolen Luthor's corpse, who'd believed that she could bring him back to life. And he'd thought she was crazy! And she'd also tried to transfer his powers to the corpse…

A quick scan of the underground area assured him that there was no sign of the elaborate equipment the scientist had set up in that crypt. Ignoring her, Clark turned his attention back to Luthor. "Well, your resurrection won't have done you any good, Luthor. I'm sure the police will be very happy, if a little surprised, when I hand you over to them."

"Perhaps, Superman, perhaps," Luthor drawled. "We'll see."

As Luthor spoke, the strange cylindrical objects seemed to crackle into life; a halo of light and frenetic electricity hovered above each one before arcing towards each other in a dazzling, eye-catching display of lightning. Clark was briefly mesmerised by the dancing bolts of lightning which shot backwards and forwards between the two cylinders; until, too late, the implications of the situation struck him.

He made to move out of the way… but one jagged spike of sheer high-voltage electricity was already striking him. Almost in slow motion, as his body absorbed the shock, his brain appreciated Lex Luthor's cunning and sharp intelligence: while Clark had still been recovering from the shock of Luthor's resurrection from the dead, the man had manoeuvred their respective positions to ensure that he was not anywhere in a direct line between the two cylinders.

Had Luthor been, Clark knew, he would now be dead.

Instead… instead, it was very likely that he now possessed at least some of Clark's Super-powers.

"Yes," Luthor drawled again as the lightning died down as quickly as it had started. "We will see, indeed, Superman." In one swift, forceful gesture he pushed hard at Clark, taking the younger man by surprise and thus making Clark stumble and lose both his balance and his grip on Luthor, who then ran for the door at Super-speed.

Clark scrambled to his feet almost instantly, but although less than a second had passed, Luthor had already made his escape. His gaze switched from Gretchen Kelly to the door Luthor had just exited through, debating whether to restrain Dr Kelly somehow before going after the once-dead villain. There was another consideration, which was that he needed to ensure that this equipment, whatever it was, was put beyond use. But that could wait; he needed to catch Luthor. The implications of what had just happened were too great to ignore.

Lex Luthor, the only truly evil man Clark had ever met, now had Superman's powers.


Luthor paused once outside the building, realising that there was no sign of the great do-gooder in the blue tights in his wake. He wasn't going to look a gift horse in the mouth, however: if the Man of Steel had decided, for whatever reason, not to pursue him right at that moment, he would take advantage of the fact. Perhaps — who knew? — the act of transfer had not simply duplicated Superman's powers, but had actually removed them from Superman and given them entirely to himself, to Lex Luthor? In that case, the one-time billionaire thought in awed satisfaction, he would be genuinely unstoppable.

Super-powers. He already knew that he possessed Super-strength, since under normal circumstances no human would be able to knock over the last son of Krypton. Then there was Super-speed: he'd certainly left the room at something approaching the speed of sound, and it had been incredible seeing things rush past him in a blur. What about the other powers? He turned and stared back at the research centre, and a moment or two later the walls simply dissolved and he was able to see beyond them. A little more application to his task, and he was suddenly able to see Gretchen and his former nemesis; Superman was just picking himself up off the floor and was staring at one of the Tesla coils in puzzlement, as if still trying to work out what had happened.

<I always knew he wasn't as intelligent as he pretended!> Luthor thought gleefully. Even if Superman still had his powers, he would have a massive advantage over the Super-hero: sheer brain-power.

He'd have to go back for Gretchen later, unless she made her own way to their hideout first. She would be looking for some reward for her services, and he supposed she deserved something: it had been a very ingenious idea of hers, and just the sort of thing to appeal to him. Yes, Gretchen would be rewarded… he was very well aware of the fact that she fancied herself in love with him, and it wouldn't be too much of a hardship to take her to bed. But after; after, he would need to ensure that she could never become a threat to him. It would be insupportable if, for example, it occurred to her that others might benefit from the possession of Super-powers — others, such as herself. So it was unfortunate, of course, but he would have to deal with her.

Later. Once he'd spent some time getting used to these truly miraculous new powers he now possessed.

And there was still the most important, the most fascinating power of them all.


Was that possible…?

Luthor frowned. Just how did Superman do it? The man made it look so effortless; well then, he told himself, it probably *was* effortless. The man was more brawn than brains, so if he could figure out how to defeat gravity, then it certainly wasn't beyond the wit of the most superior brain in the Metropolis business or criminal fraternities.

He concentrated, looking upwards, raising one arm into the air and taking a slight jump. Nothing.

He broke into a run, wondering whether the principle of airline flying might be best for his first attempt: build up speed on a 'runway' and then lift off. But even running a couple of hundred yards along the private road made no difference to the effect of gravity on his body.

<Fly, damn you! Fly!> he cursed himself, unwilling to believe that this aspect of Superman's powers had failed to be transferred. He heaved a heavy sigh, visualising again Superman's effortless take-offs: the man just seemed to float off the ground as easily as if he was merely walking. His body would simply lift into the air, and then he would shift speed and disappear into the horizon.

<Lift… up, up, up… fly!> he chanted silently to himself, walking slowly back along the road. Then he looked down…

…and discovered that there was no longer asphalt — or any substance whatsoever — beneath his feet. He was floating several feet off the ground!

<Okay, keep calm, time to experiment here> he told himself, forcing himself to breathe evenly. He thought about rising higher, above the buildings, and increasing the pace of his flight; to his amazement, the thought was precursor to the fact. Suddenly he was hovering well over the neighbouring buildings and moving at a pace which would have overtaken many varieties of feathered flying creatures.

Executing a loop-the-loop from sheer delight at his newly-acquired abilities, Lex Luthor began to plan the regaining of both his empire and his once-future wife, free from the interference of either the police or Superman.


From the interior of the research lab, Clark quickly scanned the outside of the building with his X-ray vision; Luthor had already vanished from sight. He would have to try to track him down, which would be no easy task if Luthor had discovered the power of flight. As he was about to leave in a burst of Super-speed, he caught sight of Gretchen Kelly in his peripheral vision; she was, he realised, cautiously edging her way towards the door. Ignoring Luthor momentarily, in under a second he had caught hold of her, impeding her progress.

"Not so fast, Dr Kelly," he drawled. "Before you go anywhere, perhaps you'd like to tell me exactly what those… things are."

She looked him up and down, not anything like as intimidated as people apprehended by the Man of Steel in this manner normally tended to be. "Clearly you're not very knowledgeable about physics, Superman," she replied scathingly. "Those… *things,* as you call them, are Tesla coils." She paused, gave him a supercilious smile, then continued. "Perhaps you'd like me to explain what their function is?"

Clark shook his head. He should have figured it out for himself: Tesla coils, invented in the 1890's by Nikola Tesla, and originally intended for use in the wireless transmission of electricity. As the most effective means in existence of producing ultra-high voltages, they tended to be used in special effects a lot — he had seen some demonstrations himself. If there was such a thing as artificial lightning, Tesla coils came the closest. And it seemed that they had the same effect on him as real lightning: anyone he happened to be touching at the time acquired his powers. And he realised at the same time that there was little point in destroying them. Tesla coils were not exactly rare; the main thing was to ensure that no-one else discovered the use to which they could be put.

"So this was your idea, I'd bet," he threw back at her. "You told Luthor a transfer was possible."

She shrugged. "What does it matter whose idea it was? Lex has your powers now. And that machine of mine you used the last time to transfer that weedy little man's powers back to yourself has been destroyed, which means there's nothing you can do about it."

<Not if I can help it> Clark thought, glaring at the woman. He paused for a moment wondering what to do about her. He was tempted to hand her over to the police — but for what crime? Stealing the body of Lex Luthor? But he couldn't produce the corpse to prove it. Bringing a dead man back to life? Again, how could he prove it? His guess would be that Luthor would stay well out of sight, since before his suicide jump he'd been about to be arrested on very serious charges of bribery, corruption, fraud and possibly murder. And if he brought Dr Kelly in, he also ran the very real risk of the fact that his powers could be transferred becoming common knowledge; that was not something he wanted to contemplate.

So he conceded that he probably had to let Kelly go. Reluctantly, he released her; fixing her with another hard stare, he remarked, "Luthor'll never thank you for it. He'll exploit you until you have no further use for him, and then he'll drop you. If you're lucky."

She glared at him again. "I'll take my chances, Superman. At least Lex isn't a goody-two-shoes who hasn't a clue what to do with a woman!"

As she turned and walked off, Clark stood as if frozen. Luthor 'knew what to do with women,' he was well aware of that; the man had taken great delight in flaunting his conquest of one particular woman in front of Superman's eyes some months before. Which could mean that, now that Luthor was alive again, and Super-powered…

Lois could be in danger!

In a sudden burst of Super-speed, Superman left the building and was airborne, heading for Lois's apartment.


It had been quite a productive day after all, Lois thought as she saved her document and stretched, leaning backwards in her chair. She'd fallen asleep not long after Superman had visited her earlier, but had woken up around mid-afternoon feeling rested and much better. She'd considered, and decided against, going back to the Planet, instead spending the afternoon working on her laptop. She had several articles in progress relating to ongoing investigations and also some op-ed pieces which she tended to work on whenever she got a free half-hour, and this had presented a good opportunity to make some progress.

It was getting late, however, the fading light from the window telling her that it was at least eight o'clock. Time to get something to eat, she thought, realising that she was actually very hungry. But as she moved towards the kitchen she heard a familiar tapping at her window. But… She frowned. What was Superman doing back again?

Changing direction to go and let him in, she smiled. Clearly he'd been concerned about her and he wanted to check that she was all right. He really was very thoughtful, she considered as she pushed up the casement.

He brushed past her, and immediately she knew that whatever he wanted, it wasn't just to check on her state of health. His expression was strained, and he was clearly anxious about something.

"Superman? What is it?" she asked quickly. "Has something happened?"

He nodded. "Can we sit down? This is important, and… well, it might come as a shock to you."

Now frowning, she took a seat on one of the love-seats, noting absently that Superman took the couch opposite instead of joining her. He really was making sure that she got the message that there could be nothing more between them other than friendship.

"So what's happened?" she asked again.

He sighed heavily; the action seemed somehow familiar to her, though she couldn't work out why. She couldn't remember seeing Superman sigh like that before, and yet… But she shrugged that aside and waited.

"Lois, I have some… news for you," he said slowly. "And I don't know how you're going to take this…" He paused, seemed to gather his resolve, and then spoke again, his voice sounding strained. "Lex Luthor is alive, Lois."

She couldn't have heard him correctly. "Superman… did you really say that *Lex Luthor* is…? But he's dead, he fell — or jumped, or whatever, he landed on the street in front of me, he died instantaneously…" The horror of those few seconds outside LexCorp flooded back into her mind, and she shuddered. It had been bad enough having second — and third and fourth — thoughts before the wedding, and then managing to tell the Archbishop (and Lex) that she couldn't marry him after all, but then when the police had burst in with warrants for her fiance's arrest she'd felt so… so *humiliated*! It had been such a relief to find Clark outside, hurrying up to her, offering her the shelter of his arms…

…and then there had been shouts, angry cries, the sound of her fiance's voice from far above, and then further cries followed by a sickening thud. Clark had pulled her more tightly against him, turning her head into his shoulder and turning to block her view of Lex Luthor's broken body lying on the asphalt.

He had been killed — suicide — so how could he be alive?

She raised shocked, confused, disbelieving eyes to Superman. "I… don't… understand…?"

"He's alive, Lois," Superman replied, his voice firm, the rigidity of his expression making it plain that this was no joke. "I've seen him."

"He… I saw him! He was dead!" Lois protested, as if the mere fact of repetition would make it so. "And… and so did Clark… Perry, Jimmy… the police…"

Superman crossed the empty space between the two love-seats, sitting beside her and taking her hands in his. "I know, Lois. But — you remember Dr Gretchen Kelly?"

"That crazy scientist who stole his body and thought she could bring him back to life?" Lois asked, remembering suddenly: she had followed Kelly down into the crypt of an old church and had been confronted with her ex-fiance's body in a glass casket. "She was crazy, wasn't she?"

"I thought so," Superman answered slowly. "It seems she knew what she was talking about. She brought him back to life."

Lex Luthor was alive! Lois felt as if her blood was running cold; for her, the only saving grace about that whole affair last summer had been that Lex was dead. She had been spared the humiliation of his trial, of being pictured for the months, years even, of its duration as the woman who almost married the most corrupt businessman in Metropolis — the award-winning investigative reporter who had been fooled by the man's suave exterior.

But now he was alive, it would surely not be long before he was arrested — in fact, he was probably already in police custody if Superman had seen him. Superman had no doubt handed him over to the police personally. So she still had to face the trial.

She turned back to Superman, another thought striking her. "It's just as well we managed to stop her from transferring your powers that day — and that you destroyed her machine," she pointed out.

To her surprise, Superman flinched. "Lois, that's the other thing I have to tell you." The bleak, barely controlled tone of voice he adopted told her that this was even more serious. She listened in shocked silence as he explained that due to a process which she was barely able to understand Lex Luthor now possessed the same Super-powers as Superman himself.

"My God!" she exclaimed slowly, blanching at the thought. To think she'd only been musing earlier about how appalling it would have been had anyone more dangerous than William Waldecker obtained Superman's powers. Lex Luthor was surely the worst possible person to have ended up with Super-powers; the possibilities almost didn't bear thinking about.

"So… where is he now?" she asked.

He shrugged. "I don't know. Lois, it occurred to me that he might come after you, so I came here straight away to make sure you were okay. And, Lois, you have to get out of town. Immediately."

Superman was right: Luthor would come after her, Lois realised. It was entirely consistent with his behaviour. In the months following the engagement and abortive wedding, she had come to realise that all she had been to him was a possession — or someone he had wanted to possess. She had represented a challenge, since she hadn't immediately fallen under the spell of his charm, hadn't tumbled into his bed. Even during their engagement she'd told him she wanted to wait until they were married before sleeping with him; while she couldn't imagine that he would come after her simply because he wanted her body, she was aware that he would see her as unfinished business. And furthermore, although the wedding ceremony had descended into chaos once the police had burst in, she knew he had heard her say that she couldn't marry him. She had seen the flash of fury in his eyes as he'd seen the prize slipping from his grasp.

She knew enough about him, from her own experience and from what she'd learned since, that no-one humiliated Lex Luthor and got away with it.

So, yes, it was entirely possible that he would come looking for revenge. So she would have to be on her guard…

Turning to look at Superman again, she nodded. "You're right, he will want revenge on me."

He got to his feet, moving away from the seating area. "You need to go and pack — enough for a few days at least. I'll take you to m… um, the Kents in Smallville — you know, Clark's parents. I know they won't mind."

Lois frowned. What was he thinking? Did he think that she was so weak and feeble that she'd just run away? Not when there was a story as big as this! "Superman, I understand you're trying to help, but I can't leave. Not now! I have to write this — this is *huge*! Lex Luthor back, and — "

"What are you talking about, Lois?" he interrupted her, appalled. "You can't print this!" What was she thinking? he wondered in disbelief. Apart from her own safety, didn't she realise how important it was that this be kept quiet? Why on earth was she thinking of printing this, when she'd understood how necessary it was that other things were kept out of the press?

Her expression hardened suddenly, her eyes glinting icily at him as she too got to her feet. "Superman, you may be my friend, but you do not tell me what I can and can't write!"

He sighed; he should have known better than to imagine that even Superman could try to tell Lois Lane what to do; and anyway, he was well aware that her attitude towards the Super-hero had changed in the last few weeks. Ever since she'd discovered that he'd withheld information from her, she'd ceased to regard him as being completely flawless, some sort of plaster saint, but as more human; fallible, although — he guessed — actually more approachable as a result. Not that he minded that; quite the contrary, normally. But this was different…

"Lois… okay, I'm sorry, I know you're a professional and you have to do your job. But I'm *asking* you, as a friend, to keep this out of the press. Think about it," he added encouragingly. "Think what would happen if it became widely known that my powers could be transferred — and it would, once it became known that Luthor's alive, people would go looking for him and they'd find out he has my powers. We had this conversation a few weeks ago, remember? Resplendent Man? He wasn't that much of a problem — his heart was in the right place, even though he thought he could charge people for saving them. But you know what my powers allow me to do, Lois. Just imagine a master criminal, or even a petty thief, with Super-powers!"

Her expression changed; she inhaled sharply and then gave him a rueful, crooked smile. "I don't have to try too hard, Superman. If Lex Luthor has your powers, he'll be capable of anything." Her eyes closed briefly. "You have to stop him — find a way of taking them away again!"

"I know, Lois, but I have no idea how long that could take, or even how I'm going to do it," he said heavily. "Which is why I need to get you out of here. You could be in a lot of danger if he decides he wants you back — at least, I assume you don't want him back?" He had to add that final rider, although it hurt him to do so; after all, she had almost married the man, would have married him had Perry not arrived with the police during the ceremony.

But she gave him another ferocious glare. "Do you have to rub that in, Superman? I'd have thought Clark might have told you that subject's not up for discussion. I made a mistake, okay? That doesn't mean I want to be reminded of it all the time!" She turned away from him, her shoulders heaving, and his own shoulders slumped. She was right: he *should* have known. Not that Lois had ever talked much about Luthor and about her own feelings concerning the aborted wedding and the fiance who had turned out to be a criminal. The closest she'd come to confiding in him had been after the reading of Luthor's will, and she hadn't said much then.

"Lois, I'm sorry, but I had to ask," he told her quietly.

She turned back, and he could see the shimmer of tears in her eyes. "No, I don't want him back. I thought he was dead — I wanted him to *stay* dead! After everything he did, all the lies he told, the way he deceived me…" She shook her head furiously. "I have no idea what interest he'd have in me now, other than revenge because I said I wouldn't marry him, but I don't want to see him."

<She said she wouldn't marry him… huh??> Clark filed that one away for future reference, deciding that it was more urgent to get Lois safely out of town. "Well, if you'll come with me you won't have to. Go on, pack some things."

He saw her swallow and nod, before marching swiftly towards her bedroom. She paused on the threshold, glancing back at him. "Clark's parents — do they know what's going on?"

Clark shook his head. "Not yet, but I'll call them while you pack."

He did, carrying on a bizarre conversation in which his parents knew full well they were talking to Clark, and yet he had to speak to them as Superman, a mere acquaintance, and refer to himself in the third person. He could tell that his parents were worried: they were both well aware, as was he, that the last time he'd seen Lex Luthor — before the man's death -he'd trapped Superman in a Kryptonite cage with the aim of killing him. Now, Luthor had Super-powers… and, as Jonathan suggested, given that he wasn't from Krypton, there was every chance that Kryptonite would have no effect at all on him.

If Luthor was able to get hold of Kryptonite again, this time he would probably succeed in killing Superman. There was also a strong possibility that, with powers equal to Clark's own, he could kill Superman even without Kryptonite.

He hung up after promising his parents that he'd be careful, and waited for Lois. At the same time, though, his brain was working overtime thinking through everything that Luthor could possibly be up to at this moment. He knew he should be out there tracking him down, trying to stop him; but Lois's safety had to come first.


Good, she was still there — and the overgrown boy scout was gone. Lex Luthor — SuperLex, as he was already calling himself — executed a wide circuit of the laboratory before dropping downwards. She exited the building and looked around her, probably, he thought, trying to figure out her way home, as he landed in front of her.

"Lex!" Gretchen Kelly exclaimed. "I didn't know where you'd gone… I wasn't sure whether to wait…"

"As if I'd abandon you, my sweet," he purred. "Let me take you home, and then I can thank you properly for everything you've done for me."

She smiled in obvious delight — oh, how easy it was to fool women with a few compliments and admiring glances — and tucked her hand into his arm. "I'd love that, Lex. Should I call a cab?"

His amused smile at that remark was totally genuine. "Why bother, when flying's not only cheaper, but much more fun besides?" Not that Lex Luthor had ever had to worry about money before… this being penniless was really beginning to grate. That fool Nigel should have tried harder to keep at least some of his assets from the hands of the law… but never mind. There would be plenty of time to remedy this situation.

As he'd known she would, Gretchen became very excited at his suggestion, batting her eyelashes at him and moving closer to him. "Oh, Lex… that would be wonderful! You'll have to carry me, I guess," she added, reaching out her arms to him.

In a swift movement, since he wanted to be out of there as quickly as possible in case anyone came looking — particularly as he had no idea what Superman might be up to right now — he swung her up into his arms and sped upwards. She screamed, and he had to clap one hand over her mouth. Stupid woman, he thought furiously, then realised from the way she was clinging to him for dear life that he'd probably taken off too quickly for human comfort. Too bad, he decided. She'd just have to put up with it.

He'd obviously been paying her too much while she'd been his personal physician, Lex decided as she guided him to the balcony of her penthouse apartment. The monthly rent on this had to be several thousand dollars; on the other hand, he quickly decided as he scanned the apartment and the building which housed it, there were advantages. It was soundproofed, and had plenty of privacy. No-one would be disturbing them there. It would make the perfect hideaway… it was a shame…

For a moment, he began to rethink his plans for Gretchen Kelly. But it was probably safer to stick to his original decision; she was the only person, apart from Superman himself and Lois Lane — oh, and that puny little Waldecker man, but he could be dealt with — who knew that Super-powers could be transferred. It was just too much of a risk.

And anyway, there were other apartments, and with his new… advantages, he could have what he wanted. Nothing would be beyond the reach of SuperLex.

He turned to Gretchen. "Well, my sweet, aren't you going to show me around?"

She smiled back, her hands wandering over his shoulders and biceps as she gazed hungrily at him. "Which room would you like to see first, Lex?" she murmured in what he recognised as her attempt at a seductive tone.

He'd been around far too long, slept with too many women, to be impressed by her tactics; in fact, *before* — before his downfall and death — he would never have looked twice at Gretchen Kelly. She was too tall, her appearance far too butch, especially that cropped hair, and her manner too bossy. He admired intelligent women, but not women who wanted to prove themselves better than him. If it hadn't been for the fact that her crush on him had always been only too evident, he'd have believed that Dr Kelly was a lesbian; but she clearly liked men. And now, given that at present his choice was somewhat limited, she would do. It was probably a fair exchange, given that she'd resurrected him and found the means to give him Superman's powers.

He therefore gazed down at her, moving his hands to span her waist lightly, summoning his most charming smile. "Oh, I think it always makes sense to start in the bedroom, don't you, my dear?"


Superman glided to a halt outside the Kent farmhouse, letting Lois slip lightly from his arms to the safety of the back yard. This had been the longest journey he'd ever flown with her in his arms, and it had been both pleasure and sheer torture. He loved flying with her, but he always had to keep at the forefront of his mind the need to ensure that she never associated him with Clark, and the importance of behaving circumspectly. He couldn't have her thinking that Superman was interested in her.

So this journey had been difficult, holding her close to him as he'd had to, but it had helped that his thoughts were elsewhere for much of the journey. He had no idea where to start looking for Luthor — other than Lois's apartment — and no notion of what the older man intended to do now that he was super-powered. Leaving aside the baffling question of how exactly Dr Kelly had managed to resuscitate the ex-billionaire businessman, why had this happened? Did Luthor think that by possessing Super-powers, he could somehow evade the law? What did he think Superman would do? Or was part of his plan to kill Superman anyway?

The only thing Clark had been sure about was that Lois figured in the man's plans somehow. He had intended to marry her, and he'd made no secret of the plans he had for Lois, that night when he'd lured Superman to that Kryptonite cage. Lois had been the ultimate trophy for Luthor: a beautiful, intelligent woman, who had represented quite a challenge… and, Clark was sure, who had been even more desirable for the fact that she'd also reputedly been pursued by Superman. And yet she wasn't quite perfect enough for Lex Luthor, who'd decided that he needed to control her, curb her independence.

And then — according to Lois herself, a piece of information he was still trying to absorb — she had rejected him during the wedding ceremony! Before the police had arrived with their warrants, Lois had told the head of LexCorp that she couldn't marry him. That would have been an incredible blow to the man's pride; he wouldn't forgive that easily. It was very likely that he'd want to gain his revenge on Lois somehow. As she'd put it, she was clearly unfinished business.

All the more reason why his decision to bring her here, to Smallville, had been the right one.

She was standing gazing at him now, clearly wondering why he was simply standing there, not making any attempt to bring her inside or to leave. He had to pull himself together before she started wondering just what was going on inside his head. Sure, she would realise that Superman would be very concerned about this development; but that concern should manifest itself in depositing her in Smallville while he raced back to Metropolis to track down Luthor and deal with him.

Deal with him… easier said than done, especially since Clark didn't want anyone else finding out that it was possible for his powers to be transferred!

Feeling her hand on his forearm, he glanced downwards. "Ah, Lois?"

"Are you okay, Superman? You seemed kind of… distracted." Concern was evident in her brown eyes.

Forcing his thoughts to the back of his mind, he spoke in as casual a manner as he could manage. "I'm fine, Lois. We need to get inside — the Kents are expecting us."

But she hesitated. "I guess… you're bothered about all this, aren't you? Lex with your powers… it's not going to be easy for you, is it?"

As Clark, he might have confided in her, told her how worried he was about the harm Luthor could cause — might already have caused — but as Superman, somehow, he couldn't. With a brief smile, he answered, "It'll be fine, Lois. Trust me." Not allowing her time to respond, he marched firmly towards the back door of his parents' house.


Lex Luthor carefully disentangled himself from Gretchen Kelly's arms in the aftermath of their joining, trying at the same time not to allow her to see his distaste. The woman still had some uses, after all, even though her talents in the bedroom had been little better than he'd feared. Still, it had been a necessary price to pay, and he could console himself with the thought of superior pleasures to come once he'd reclaimed his fiancee. He turned his head towards Kelly and threw her a practised smile.

"If you'll excuse me, my dear, I should go and get rid of this." He gestured towards the latex prophylactic he now held in his hand. There were more reasons than the simple desire for safe sex to use a condom these days, he reflected as he disposed of the item a minute later: he had no wish for DNA tests to establish his presence in Gretchen's bedroom. Wrapping a towel around his hand, he flushed the toilet, and then used the towel again to control the bathroom taps so that he could wash his hands.

Using the couple of minutes of solitary peace as an opportunity to plan, Lex considered his options. Gretchen was no major problem; but once she was out of the way, he needed to work out how best to regain his former empire. His former associates would be easy enough to track down, but which of them could be trusted? Some had been responsible for giving evidence against him, otherwise the police would never have been able to gather enough evidence to arrest him and to convict other associates of his. He'd gleaned that much from the brief half-hour which was all he had been able to allow himself in the newspaper library at MetU after Gretchen had resuscitated him, and before his conversion into… he smiled again in satisfaction… SuperLex.


Well, Asabi could be trusted, that was beyond question, and the manservant would also be very useful in the matter of helping him to learn control over some of these powers. Already he had discovered how easy it was to exert just too much strength: he'd almost broken Gretchen's arm and by her sharp cries of pain at one point he'd suspected that he'd cracked or broken a couple of her ribs. A charming, apologetic smile had convinced her not to make too much fuss at the time, though. But he did need to make sure he could control his abilities properly.

Then there was Nigel: Nigel St John, the former member of the British Secret Service, who had certainly served him faithfully for several years — would he still be loyal? Luthor suspected so, although he had never been foolish enough to reward Nigel with his absolute trust. He was only too well aware that the man had double-crossed his former employers. Once a rat, always a rat… that was a motto well worth remembering, Lex reflected with a half-smile. But if Nigel couldn't be trusted, given the extent of his knowledge of Luthor's affairs it made far greater sense to have him inside the metaphorical tent rather than out: there, at least, Luthor could keep a close watch on him. And if Nigel did prove to be unreliable, then it wouldn't be difficult to deal with him.

Mrs Cox was in prison; he'd have to decide whether it would be wiser to leave her there, or take the risk of breaking her out. Not a risk in the sense that he might get caught — hardly, with the abilities he now possessed. But she was a known associate who had been convicted of being an accessory to many of his offences. So if he did secure her release in a non-legal manner, the police would be looking for her. Not a good idea.

As for regaining his empire and wealth… well, he would have to hope that his closest associates had not availed themselves of the opportunity provided by his death to track down his overseas deposits and hidden reserves. The gold, the Swiss and Channel Islands bank accounts, the stocks and shares held in his ex-wife's name… dear Arianna, he reflected suddenly. She was now in prison herself, after her rather crude attempt at framing Lois Lane for what should have been the murder of Superman. Botched, of course, he thought in amusement. Arianna was never the cleverest at coming up with a failsafe plan. Now, when *he* set out to kill Superman…

But he was getting ahead of himself here. First, he needed to acquire enough reserves of cash to start a dummy corporation and begin buying back the essential elements of his former business interests. He would need to do a lot of it legally, which would unfortunately take some time… but on the other hand, he was sure that with a little Super help he could speed a little of it up. Such as obtaining money: no need to wait until Nigel managed to sell some of the stocks. A quick flight to Switzerland with the necessary fake ID, since the accounts had not, of course, been established in the name of Lex Luthor; a similar trip to Jersey; and if that wasn't sufficient, then a midnight Super raid on one of the city's major banks should help.

Luthor smiled to himself. Yes, it wouldn't be too difficult. But first, Gretchen. After pulling on the clothes which he'd brought with him into the bathroom, he returned to the bedroom. Still taking care not to touch anything with his bare hand, he sat on the edge of the bed, next to the doctor. She rolled over to look at him, clutching her chest with a groan as she did so.

"Lex… you're going to have to take me to a hospital," she said grumpily. "I'm sure a couple of ribs are broken."

"If you need an X-ray, I can do that for you," he replied smoothly. "Why wait around in an emergency room?" He made a careless gesture with his hand. "And since ribs can't be put in plaster, there's really no need for a hospital visit."

She grimaced, then nodded. "Okay. If they are broken I can tell you how to bandage them." Rolling over to lie on her back, she threw back the sheet in an invitation for him to fulfil his promise.

The sight of her naked body aroused no interest whatsoever in him, and his gaze swept her dismissively before returning to her face. "In a moment, Gretchen. I have a few questions for you first."

"Questions?" Her tone was impatient this time.

"Yes. About the transfer — is it permanent?"

She rolled her eyes. "How do I know, Lex? All I have to go on is what I saw with that idiotic Resplendent Man! Superman was struck by lightning when he was holding the guy and suddenly the guy had his powers. Then a few days later I tried to transfer Waldecker's powers to you, but between them Superman and Lois Lane stopped me. Superman transferred the powers back to himself. But…" She paused, then shrugged carelessly, wincing as the movement caused pain in her damaged ribs. "I have no reason to believe that the transfer wouldn't have been permanent, and therefore no reason to believe yours won't be."

Well, it would have to do, Lex acknowledged. And even if it wasn't permanent, he should be able to achieve a lot of what he wanted in a week. But there were other concerns. "What about Superman? He retained his powers last time — it was a duplication, not a transfer. Will he still have his powers this time?"

"He does," Kelly replied, to his amazement.

"How do you know?"

She frowned at his impatient reply. "Because I saw him! Come on, Lex, you flew off and left me in that lab with him! He talked to me for a couple of minutes — he wanted to know what the Tesla coils were — and then he flew off. He *flew*! So of course I know he had his powers still."

"All right, all right," Lex replied brusquely, brushing aside her annoyed explanation with a careless wave of his hand. "One more thing. If Kryptonite is poisonous to Superman, is it also poisonous to me?"

Kelly's eyes widened: it seemed she hadn't thought of that before. After a moment or two, she spoke slowly in reply. "From what I know about Kryptonite, it affects Superman because it's a meteorite from his home planet. You're not from Krypton, so I can't see why you would be affected by it."

"Excellent!" Lex murmured in satisfaction, a slow smile curving across his face. He returned his gaze to Gretchen. "Well, my dear, time to deal with you."

She drew her body into a flat, rigid position on the bed, clearly expecting him to X-ray her. But that was not what he had in mind; he focused his gaze on her chest region, but instead of his X-ray abilities he selected heat vision. He had experimented with this earlier, when he'd gone for his practice flight, and had been amazed at how effective it was.

Within moments Gretchen's screams had been silenced, and the smell of burning flesh was overpowering.

"Get out of that one, Superman," Lex murmured in satisfaction as he swiftly made for the balcony and escape.


Martha and Jonathan Kent instantly made Lois feel welcome, assuring her that she could stay for as long as necessary. Mugs of coffee were pressed into her and Superman's hands; as Lois accepted hers, she watched Martha Kent fussing over Superman with a sense of amazement. Martha was *mothering* him — mothering Superman! Oh, sure, she'd done a bit of that a week or so ago, when the Super-hero had been blinded. But there was nothing wrong with Superman now — just another bad guy to catch and put away. So why was she doing it, and why was he letting her?

He seemed to notice her gaze on him after a while, and he moved away from Martha, at the same time announcing that it was time he headed back to Metropolis.

"You take care, so… Superman," Jonathan Kent said in a serious tone, giving the Super-hero a concerned glance.

"I will, um… Mr Kent," Superman answered, a little awkwardly to Lois's mind.

Martha hugged him, and to Lois's surprise he hugged her back warmly. She had no idea that Clark's parents were on such friendly terms with Superman! On the other hand, from what she'd been able to figure out over the past year, Clark seemed to be very friendly with Superman, so she guessed that it wasn't too much of a stretch of the imagination to assume that perhaps Superman had flown Clark home from time to time, and had perhaps stayed for dinner a few times. After all, who could resist Martha Kent's cooking?

Lois followed Superman outside, determined to have a moment or two to say goodbye privately. He seemed surprised at her presence, and gave her an enquiring glance. "Lois? Was there something you wanted?"

"Just to say… be careful, big guy," she told him softly. "I'd hate it if you got hurt, you have to know that."

He gave her a lop-sided smile in response. "Thanks, Lois. I'll be okay."

"Yeah… but I'll be thinking of you," she persisted.

Before he could take off, she took the couple of steps necessary to bring her into contact with him, and, placing one hand on his arm, reached up to kiss his cheek. He stayed perfectly still as she did so, only raising his hand as she stepped back. The touch of his fingers against her cheek was gossamer-light.

"Thanks, Lois. I appreciate your concern. But you know I'll feel a lot happier knowing that you're safe here, so please stay here until I come to get you, okay?"

She nodded, and at the same moment he lifted upwards, his large body leaving the ground with seemingly no effort at all. No matter how many times she'd seen him do that, it was still a hugely impressive sight, Lois thought as she gazed at him.

A moment or two later he was out of sight, and she returned to the house.


Tracking down Asabi and Nigel was not turning out to be as simple as he'd expected, Lex mused as he flew over the city a couple of hours after leaving Gretchen's apartment. For one thing, it wasn't as if either of them had an entry in the Metropolis telephone directory, and since they had both been resident in his penthouse apartment, his arrest and subsequent stunning death had rendered both homeless. And he didn't really want to go and knock on the doors of other former employees to ask whether they knew where his former associates were.

He should have thought to ask Gretchen before killing her, he thought ruefully, not for the first time. And he was becoming increasingly conscious of another disadvantage of having dispatched her so precipitously: *he* was also homeless, and it had been a long time since Lex Luthor had suffered from the lack of a comfortable bed and expensive, freshly-laundered clothes to wear. That Kelly woman really should have taken more time to prepare for his return, he thought crossly. She should have known what he would need, and have provided it.

His search was also severely hampered by the fact that he was having to keep an even lower profile than that necessitated by avoiding the long arm of the law. He was assuming that the do-gooder in blue would be looking for him, but as yet Lex was not ready to confront Superman. He needed a little more time to get used to these powers, to figure out the best means of attack against another similarly-powered being.

Of course, he did have one rather heavy advantage in his favour compared to Superman, he thought cynically, landing on the roof of the Lexor Hotel to reconnoitre. The great boy scout had *ethics*! Superman wouldn't kill; Luthor doubted he would even injure someone deliberately unless he had no other option. So there were weapons Luthor could use against him which Superman would certainly not use in return. That should render the odds more than a little in Luthor's favour.

That was all very well, but Luthor had discovered over the past hour or so that controlling the Super-powers wasn't quite as simple as he'd thought. He'd experimented with bursts of Super-speed, and had overshot his target on several occasions. He'd tried out his heat vision again and found himself unable to regulate it in order to achieve a variety of temperatures: so far, all he could produce was Hot and Furnace-like. That was okay in some circumstances, but not if all he wanted to do was to scare someone — or just heat up some food.

At least he'd had a couple of minor successes. He'd managed to acquire a couple of changes of clothes, simply through strolling into a men's outfitters in a part of town which, in his former life, he would never have dreamed of frequenting, and using his Super-breath to cause a distraction. Then he'd just seized a number of items and departed at Super-speed. No matter that he'd ended up collapsed in a heap of refuse cans at the other side of the street; he'd got what he needed. And now, as he flew, he was wearing discreet black, from top to toe.

He could do with a mask, though, he considered idly as he stared out across the city from the superb vantage-point afforded by the Lexor's rooftop. Something stylish, not a gangster's mask or anything scruffy like a balaclava. No, what he really needed was… he smiled in sudden amusement. A domino and matching silk eye-mask, such as English ladies and gentlemen used to wear to masquerade balls and places like Vauxhall Gardens in the late seventeenth century. And he could picture himself in a domino, he reflected. It would look suitably dashing; stylish and mysterious at the same time. It would also go rather well with the stylish but strong leather gloves he'd also acquired earlier.

<So where can I acquire a domino?> he mused thoughtfully, before deciding that it would probably have to be one of London's museums. Possibly the British Museum; not the Victoria and Albert, since that covered too late a period. Or even a theatrical outfitters, if he wasn't too concerned about it being the genuine article. In fact, a reproduction would probably be better, he decided. It would be less likely to be moth-eaten, and might actually stand up to the rigours of being used as the trademark SuperLex costume.

Not that he was ready to make his official debut as an anti-hero just yet. He wanted to cause just a little more trouble for theMan of Steel first, and preferably dispatch him permanently this time.

A smile of genuine amusement crossed his craggy features as he imagined standing over the dead, broken and bleeding body of the man whose ego had led him to call himself Superman. That image firmly embedded in his mind, Luthor raised himself into the air again and headed east, calculating the time in London as he did so.


He wasn't having much luck tracking down Luthor, Clark had to admit by the small hours of the morning. It didn't help that he kept getting distracted by minor emergencies, as well as a couple of less minor ones; but then, what could he do? As much as he wanted to catch Luthor, figure out a way of divesting him of his powers (and at the moment Clark had absolutely no idea how to achieve that), and throw him in prison, he couldn't ignore calls for help.

And anyway, any one of those calls for help could actually lead him to Lex Luthor. He was pretty sure that Luthor was responsible for at least two of the incidents he'd been called to. There had been that weird robbery at a men's outfitters on the west side of town: the assistant had described a heavy object apparently collapsing of its own accord, and almost immediately afterwards it had seemed as if a mini-tornado had swept through the shop. When they'd managed to set all the racks back upright again, they'd noticed several of the more expensive items of clothing missing. That had to have been Luthor, Clark was sure.

And, later, the bank robbery… a bank alarm had brought him to a suburban branch of the First Bank of Metropolis, to find himself staring at a gaping hole in the side wall, leading into the safe. A safe which was not completely empty, oddly enough, but then the bank manager, who had also been summoned to the scene by the alarm, explained the mystery. The safe had contained both new and used notes, and while the serial numbers on the new notes were both consecutive and known to the bank, those on the used notes were not. The hole in the wall, Clark had concluded, could not have been made by any mechanical device. It had been a Super-powered blow.

And there were no fingerprints. So he must have stolen a pair of gloves from the outfitters as well — and a pretty sturdy pair, at that.

But despite the fact that Clark had to have been only minutes behind Luthor at each of these incidents, he still hadn't managed to find the man. Luthor must have accustomed himself to his new abilities very quickly, Clark recognised with a tightening of his lips.

Still, he would keep looking if it took him all night and all the following day, and even into the day after that. Thankfully, Superman didn't need sleep, and although his energy reserves might well run low overnight, with the coming of sunrise he would be able to recharge himself. And in fact, there was an interesting point. *His* powers came from exposure to the Earth's sun. Luthor's came from a power transfer. So did that mean that the sun would have the same rejuvenating effect on Luthor as it did on himself? Again, Luthor not being Kryptonian, Clark suspected not. Which meant that the man would not necessarily have Clark's staying power and could run out of energy without a good night's sleep.

The question was: would Luthor assume that his new powers gave him limitless reserves of energy? If he did, then that would be his weak spot. He would get tired, and his powers would fade.

Unless he realised that, like other humans, he still needed a good night's sleep, or was so ingrained in normal patterns of behaviour that he does it anyway, Clark reasoned. But if Luthor did — well, all Clark had to do was find out where he was sleeping and catch him unawares.

So where would Lex Luthor go? Since his attempts at trying to catch the guy by simply patrolling were having no success, Clark flew to one of the city's best vantage points, the Daily Planet roof, and began to think. <Logic, Clark, logic…> he told himself, wishing that Lois was at home so that he could go and discuss this with her. She was alwaysfar better at this type of thing than he; apart from her talent for logic and analysis, she frequently had flashes of inspiration which were nothing short of brilliance.

Okay, so Luthor couldn't go to his old penthouse home; the old LexCorp building had been sold and was now owned, as far as Clark knew, by the owner of a family-owned discount supermarket chain. Where else would he go? He was wanted by the police — or he would be, once they became aware of his resurrection. So he couldn't be seen publicly, unless he intended to use his powers to fight off police officers everywhere he went. He had no money and no access to any, since all of his business interests and accounts had been frozen, the assets initially seized by the police and later dispersed according to Luthor's will.

Friends, family? But his ex-wife was in jail. His former secretary, Mrs Cox, was also in jail. Clark paused, racking his brain. Lois had mentioned, in one of the very rare conversations they had had concerning her time as Luthor's fiancee, a couple of men who'd seemed to be essential to Luthor's organisation. Now who…? He didn't really want to have to fly out to Smallville to ask her; he'd found it difficult enough to maintain the facade of being Superman, a mere acquaintance of the Kents', during his brief visit there earlier. And his parents had found it difficult to hide their concern for him; he'd noticed Lois looking somewhat surprised when his mother had been so attentive, and he'd thought her jaw was about to drop to the floor when his mom had hugged him. No, it was best to keep away from Smallville for the moment.

So who…? An English name, he thought, and an English *man* — that was it, Nigel St John! Lois had said the man was quite a bit older than Luthor, and 'distinguished,' whatever that meant. Okay, well, a search through the Planet databases might help him there, at least to obtain a photograph. And the other man… foreign, Lois had said. Indian, that was it. A manservant, and something else besides — Lois had said the man seemed to exert some degree of influence over Luthor, in the way a counsellor or a spiritual advisor might. Lois had sarcastically referred to the man as Luthor's Rasputin, Clark recalled. He frowned; was it possible that Luthor would allow himself to be influenced to that extent by anyone? The man he'd known had been very assured, completely in control, with that absolute arrogance of a man who answered to no-one.

Still, if Lois had seen this other man, mystic, charlatan or whoever he was, Clark was not about to disbelieve her. And if the man had worked for Luthor, Clark was pretty sure he could find some record of the guy's existence.

Less than a minute later, Clark Kent sat in front of his computer in the darkened newsroom.


Some hours later, Clark leaned back in his chair and stretched wearily; he needed to get out and fly around for a while, he thought as he shut down his computer. Although he wasn't affected by normal human tiredness or stiffness, he really didn't care for sitting in the same position for hours on end. Still, it had been a useful exercise. He'd been through all the Planet archive material on Lex Luthor, as well as a number of other archives which he'd been able to access — legitimately and otherwise — via the Internet, and had reminded himself of a number of salient facts, as well as having acquainted himself with some of Luthor's former associates.

And a lot of pieces were beginning to fall into place, once he started systematically putting clues together and making deductions. He'd always suspected that Luthor was behind the sabotage of the Messenger: he'd found circumstantial evidence which suggested that the man had made some large payments to Toni Baines, which explained a lot. There had been an obscure gossip column item which linked Luthor to a certain perfumiere known only as Miranda, which raised another question in Clark's mind. And then there was the fact that Lex Luthor had ultimately provided the funding for the laboratory in which Dr Fabian Leek had worked… which meant that Luthor could have been behind the Superman clone.

<Ah, Luthor, you couldn't create your own Superman for you to control behind the scenes, so now you've become one yourself> Clark thought as he disappeared at Super-speed up the stairwell towards the Planet roof. Taking off, he focused his mind on the photograph he'd finally found of Nigel St John; it was old, and a little hazy, but Clark was sure he would recognise the man. And something else occurred to him then: a description given to him by Jack of the two men who had purchased the globe from him nearly a year ago. One of them had been tall, old, with a British accent, Jack had said… English, Clark now mentally corrected the boy. After all, he thought idly, 'British' could equally mean Scottish, and Scottish accents are very different…

But there was no time to allow his mind to wander over trivialities, he reminded himself. He needed to find Nigel St John. Or Asabi, as he'd now discovered Luthor's manservant was called. That was the only name he'd found, and he'd no idea whether it was a first name or a surname.

But his Super-hearing kicked in, alerting him to a major disaster at O'Hare Airport in Chicago, and with a sigh he realised that tracking down Luthor and his associates would have to wait… again. At least he'd taken the time earlier that evening to write a note for Perry, from Superman, telling the Planet's editor that a former adversary of Lois's (unnamed) had resurfaced and that he'd taken Lois away somewhere temporarily for her own safety. He was well aware that the editor would be extremely taken aback by this, since Lois was by no means a person to run away from danger, but on the other hand, he knew that Perry respected Superman and he was pretty sure that the older man would believe that the Super-hero could persuade Lois to take his advice. For now, at any rate.


Having been assured that she needn't get up as early as Clark's parents, Lois allowed herself the luxury of an hour's lie-in the following morning. It was strange being back in Smallville, though Martha and Jonathan couldn't have been more welcoming. But there had been a couple of things she hadn't been able to get out of her mind. To begin with, ever since dinner the previous evening she'd had a strange nagging sensation that there was something she'd forgotten, or that she should have thought about, and she still had no idea what that might have been. And the second was that she thought that Jonathan had gone rather quiet when she'd mentioned, late the previous night, that she hoped Superman would find Luthor and reverse the power transfer soon — it had seemed for a moment as if the Kents were as worried about Superman as she was, if not more so. And yet that didn't really make sense — they barely knew him!

Okay, Superman was a friend of their son's, so, as she'd rationalised the previous evening, they probably had met him more times than she was aware of. And she knew that Superman did prefer to keep his private life *private,* so no doubt Clark simply hadn't mentioned it in order to protect his friend.

<But Superman's *my* friend too!> Lois thought, punching her pillow. <Clark Kent, if he was flying you out here for fried chicken and corn-on-the-cob, you could at least have asked if I wanted to come too!>

Well, she was in Smallville for the next couple of days anyway, although she was still dubious as to whether she should have gone along with Superman's persuasion. He had been a little difficult to say no to at the time, and he'd actually managed to find one of her few weak spots by mentioning that time she'd been with Lex Luthor. Not that she thought he'd done it deliberately, but she really hated being reminded of the person she'd been then: a woman who had put wealth and social position above her integrity, or so it now seemed. Even at the time, she'd known she wasn't in love with the man — she'd been in love with Superman, for heaven's sake — and yet she'd accepted his proposal.

She had absolutely no idea what could have made her do the things she'd done then. To accept Lex Luthor's proposal! — okay, she'd had no idea just how evil he was, although if she was being honest with herself she had to admit that Clark had expressed his reservations about the man often enough. And although Perry had always been polite to Luthor whenever they'd met, Lois had sensed a certain reserve in the older man. She herself had begun by simply using Luthor's obvious attraction to her as a means of getting closer to him, to get that exclusive one-on-one interview; until Superman had somewhat distracted her. Yet she had continued to meet the billionaire from time to time, accepting the occasional date with him, using her connection with him when necessary for work purposes; and in all that time she *hadn't* made any serious effort to investigate him, and she'd slapped down Clark on several occasions when he'd suggested that it might be a worthwhile idea.

She blanched as she remembered the time Luthor had constructed an exact replica of her apartment, as a means of persuading her to escape with him from the Nightfall Asteroid and live underground in his nuclear bunker. She'd turned him down, while astonished at his offer, and certainly his actions in recreating her apartment had unnerved her then. But perhaps she'd forgotten it all in the excitement and relief of Superman's destruction of the asteroid; she couldn't otherwise understand why she hadn't immediately concluded that he was a dangerous weirdo.

She had been so superficial! Hanging on the every word of the man, as if he was infallible, while ignoring or talking down to other people — like Clark, who may well have been jealous, but had also been *right*! She'd acted like some silly groupie around Lex Luthor; she couldn't have blamed her friends if they'd imagined she'd had a personality transplant. And for all she knew that was what they'd concluded — not many of them had stayed in touch after her engagement. Apart from the superficial ones who'd wanted the connection with the wife of the world's third richest man, she reminded herself with a grimace.

So now, six months later, that was a period of her life she'd almost tried to block out of her mind. She'd been *glad* Lex had committed suicide; not that she would ever wish for anyone's death, but his dramatic act had freed her from any need to testify at his trial, any approaches from his solicitors or staff to visit him in prison, and — so she'd thought — any chance of ever seeing him again. The knowledge that he was dead and therefore completely out of the way had been the one thing which had helped her through those dreadful few weeks immediately after the abortive wedding.

No, not the only thing, she remembered suddenly. The other thing she couldn't have coped without was the support of her best friend, Clark. Despite the rift which had formed between them over her engagement to Lex Luthor, he'd been there for her when she'd needed him. He had made it clear, in his usual unassuming manner, that if she wanted company, or needed to talk, all she had to do was just pick up the phone, any time, day or night. And he'd meant it, too; there'd been many nights when they'd talked on the phone for half an hour or more until she'd felt calm enough to sleep, or when he'd got dressed and come over. Somehow — and she'd never asked him how — he'd usually found somewhere to buy ice-cream or fresh pastries on the way; comfort food.

Now, Clark held a very special place in her life, and there were times when she wondered just what he meant to her. She already knew that without his presence her life would be very empty in many ways; she simply couldn't imagine what it would be like not having him around. And, a couple of months earlier, she'd got a taste of precisely what it could be like not to have Clark around, when he'd been shot by the clone of a 1920s gangster. He'd fallen to the floor, killed instantly, right in front of her. And she'd cried all night and most of the following day, with only the driving need to catch his killers keeping her going.

And then he'd come back to her… by some miraculous chance, Superman had found his body and rejuvenated it using Dr Hamilton's methods. Clark was alive again, and her future had suddenly seemed so much brighter. Then, she really had wondered… but Clark had fallen asleep, and later she'd begun to doubt her feelings. After all, she'd thought she was in love before, only to realise that it had been infatuation, or that the object of her devotion simply let her down.

No, it was far safer to keep Clark as a friend.

But she'd owed Superman big-time for his work that day. Yet, when she'd tried to thank him later, he'd simply looked embarrassed and told her that he'd had more selfish motives in mind, since he had wanted Clark back too. And come to think of it, Clark had also been very reticent when she'd tried to talk to him about it afterwards. Once she'd recovered from the shock and delight of his return, she'd tried to quiz him on how it felt to have been dead and brought back to life, but — unusually for Clark — he'd become withdrawn and had told her it wasn't really an experience he wanted to discuss.

It was certainly an amazing technique, Lois mused now as she began to think about getting up. How many people's loved ones could have been brought back to life if Superman hadn't destroyed Dr Hamilton's notes? On the other hand, she reminded herself, Bonnie and Clyde and the others weren't the *originals,* they were clones — and experimentation in clone technology was closely regulated for a good reason. Clones were still notoriously unstable, which wouldn't give much comfort to a grieving spouse — you can have your husband back, but he could drop dead again any day? Not something Lois would want. And the ease of obtaining DNA meant that criminals could clone anyone they wanted — even Superman, as someone had done once before.

And the resurrection of Lex Luthor from the dead was another grim reminder that such methods could easily be used for evil as much as good.

Determining to banish Luthor from her mind until she'd at least had a cup of coffee, she sat up in bed, leaning back against the headboard as she planned her day. She'd insisted on bringing her lap-top, so she could at least carry on working on some of her ongoing stories. Superman had promised to explain to Perry why she'd left town, although her location was to remain a secret. It was too bad that she couldn't write up the story of Luthor's return, although she understood Superman's insistence that it had to be kept secret; the fact that his powers could be transferred just couldn't be allowed to get out. And after all, she'd remembered guiltily just after he'd told her why she couldn't write about it that only earlier the same day he'd told her how much he appreciated her discretion in relation to things which couldn't become public knowledge.

Her gaze wandered idly around Clark's bedroom; it wasn't the first time she'd slept there, although it had felt very strange the previous evening sitting with his parents but without him. The room itself looked as if it had changed little since his college days: there were team pennants, schoolbooks, photos of her partner as a very young man and other memorabilia around the walls and the shelves. If nothing else, she thought with a secretive smile, this would give her an excellent opportunity to learn a little more about her best friend's background without him even being aware of it…


The thought struck her suddenly, and she jumped out of bed, standing staring into the middle distance as she realised just what had been nagging at her since last night. She was here, in Smallville, in Clark's childhood home, hiding from a super-powered Lex Luthor. But where was Clark? And why had no-one mentioned him since she'd arrived?

Oh, Martha had chattered on about his childhood, and his ambitions on leaving school, but neither Kent had mentioned Clark *now,* had asked about their work at the Planet, or even mentioned when they'd last spoken to him. And yet they were such a close family; it just didn't make sense that they wouldn't speak of him. And anyway, why hadn't he called last night? He'd have to know where she was — it was inconceivable that Superman wouldn't have told him. So why hadn't he called?

And… she paused then, sitting down on the edge of the bed to think this through. Could Clark be in danger too? Lex had never liked him — had been jealous of him, in fact, Lois had suspected. It had given her a sense of cynical amusement, since she'd known of Clark's jealousy of Lex. Though she'd never understood why Lex Luthor, wealthy sophisticate, business magnate and highly influential individual — he could speak to presidents and chief executives the world over simply by picking up the phone and giving his name — should be jealous of a pretty ordinary guy from Kansas.

But Lex certainly had not liked Clark. Could he dislike him enough to want to kill him? The thought sent a chill through Lois, and she tried to think this through rationally. Apart from his jealousy, what could he dislike about Clark?

Well, Clark had never hidden his dislike of Luthor, for a start; and Lex, used to commanding respect from all about him, would not have liked that. And… She bit her lip. Although it had been a group effort, both Jimmy and Perry had assured her that Clark had been largely instrumental in finding the evidence to convince the police that Lex was behind the destruction of the Planet, and much more besides. So Lex could be after him for revenge, if he knew about that.

No, that was silly, she told herself. Lots of people were involved in bringing Luthor down: Perry, Jimmy, Jack, Inspector Henderson and his team, the directors who talked — was Luthor going to kill everyone who'd helped to destroy him?

But this was Lex Luthor, she reminded herself slowly. A cold-blooded killer, from what had been discovered about him in the aftermath of his death. A merciless, ruthless man without scruples and who was now in possession of deadly powers.

Yes, Luthor could kill anyone he wanted to, with just one look; one move of the hand; one freezing breath; one puff of wind. It was not inconceivable that he might decide to spread his net of revenge wider than Superman had thought… or than Superman had told her he thought, she amended.

But Superman couldn't protect everyone… and in the meantime, where was Clark? She reached for her cellphone and called his desk at the Planet.


It was late morning by the time Clark managed to get back to Metropolis; the 'major incident' at O'Hare had turned out to be a crash involving two jumbo jets, and had led to several fatalities and a couple of hundred injured people, some with serious injuries. He had arrived in time to prevent the engines on either plane exploding, much to the relief of everyone present, and he'd felt obliged to stay around and help free the trapped passengers and cabin crew from the wreckage, although his thoughts during the entire process were back in Metropolis. What was Lex Luthor up to? Where was he? What menace was he plotting? And how far would he go to exact revenge on those against whom he bore a grudge? Clark had realised, during his archive searches for information, that Luthor could well intend to seek revenge on a number of people who'd been involved in his fall from grace, and so he'd begun to question his initial decision to keep the resurrection of the former head of LexCorp secret.

Maybe the police should be informed… but on the other hand, there was the fact of the power transfer. Clark still didn't want the fact that such a thing was possible to become common knowledge; he didn't want anyone to know about it, if it could be avoided. Other than his parents, he'd only told Lois about Luthor's powers, and he was well aware that if she hadn't already known that transfer was possible he would have been very reluctant to tell her anything.

Yet he would still have done his best to get her out of town, he mused wryly on his flight back to Metropolis. Naturally… and she would have resisted with every breath in her body, insisting that she wanted to know whatthe so-called danger was. He sighed; he really would have to tell her his secret soon.

And yet… yet, she was an award-winning reporter, for heaven's sake! She knew him — *both* of him — better than anyone except his parents, and still she had never been able to see that they were the same person! She considered Clark to be her best friend. She had spent more time with Superman than anyone else on the planet, even his parents, and she hadn't seen the resemblance, had never seen Clark in the Super-hero. It was highly ironic, he realised, that in the beginning he'd felt only relief that Lois had been fooled by the disguise, whereas now he felt let down, almost betrayed, that she hadn't seen through the cape and the Spandex to the real man underneath.

That made him wonder whether that odd sense of betrayal had anything to do with his inability to come to a decision about telling her Superman's real identity. It was possible… and his mother would no doubt tell him that it wasn't fair. But -

His thoughts were interrupted by his Super-hearing kicking in and picking up a police radio. Someone was putting out a call for an ambulance and asking whether anyone could contact Superman. He ducked downwards, trying to work out where the original call was coming from; after a moment or two, he located the unmarked police car parked outside a block of expensive apartment buildings.

Landing in front of the car, he asked the uniformed officer using the radio what he could do to help. He was very taken aback by the cool, almost hostile expression on the officer's face.

"Superman — maybe you'd like to come upstairs with me?" the officer invited, in a tone which didn't really represent an invitation.

Clark frowned, puzzled, but followed the officer willingly enough, curious as to what this was about. Inside the apartment, the officer led the way into a bedroom, but Clark's nostrils had already been assailed by the unpleasant smell of burnt flesh. To him it was a very strong smell, though he guessed that most humans wouldn't notice it until they were inside the bedroom.

There was a figure lying on the bed, covered by a light sheet, and three other people in the room. One of them was a man Clark instantly recognised: Inspector Bill Henderson, of the homicide division, a man he and Lois frequently crossed swords with, but whom he respected.

"Inspector Henderson, what can I do to help?" he asked in a pleasant tone.

Henderson swung around and stared at him; the man's expression was unreadable, but something about it made Clark feel uncomfortable. The other two occupants of the room — one uniformed female officer, one plainclothes man — threw him hostile stares.

"What's going on?" Clark demanded then, moving closer. "Is there a problem?"

Instead of replying, Henderson lifted the sheet from the figure on the bed. Clark's first instinct was to recoil at what he saw, but he forced himself to look again, and he recognised Gretchen Kelly. Luthor had killed her!

And he could see why the officers were giving him such pointed stares. Dr Kelly had been killed by what looked like a blast of heat vision, and it had been done in such a way as to burn a crudely-crafted 'S' into her chest — the 'S' shape of the El symbol on his costume.


Lex Luthor stood, arms crossed over his chest, on top of the tallest building in Metropolis. He was a little tired, but feeling very pleased with himself. Only a short time before, he had been hovering above Gretchen Kelly's apartment building and had seen the police arrive, called by the woman's cleaner, who had found the body. From the conversations he'd overheard, the so-called Man of Steel would have some explaining to do.

Lex smiled, wondering just what the mighty blue apparition would say to explain this. If his reading of the situation was correct, Superman would not be anxious to allow anyone to know that his powers could be transferred. His behaviour in respect of the Waldecker man certainly indicated that. Therefore he wouldn't be in any rush to identify the perpetrator; in fact, he would probably decide to deal with the situation himself. Superman was highly unlikely to inform the police that Lex Luthor lived, because he couldn't give them that information without also telling them that Luthor was now Super-powered.

Which, in turn, meant… Lex smiled again. It meant that he was free to carry on unfettered for some time to come without his return becoming public knowledge; which meant that some former acquaintances of his would very soon get quite a surprise.

Including Lois Lane. Although he was still smiling, Luthor's eyes grew cold. He had offered that woman everything! His hand in marriage, a share of his life, his fortune, all of his possessions — and she had had the temerity to reject him at the altar. After everything he had done for her — buying the Daily Planet so that he could become closer to her, offering her — and that thankless partner of hers, Kent — jobs at LNN when the Planet had mysteriously been destroyed, and then bestowing on her the highest honour he could offer a woman, she had betrayed him utterly.

"Was ever a man so deceived?" he murmured to himself, gazing into the middle distance in the general direction of the Planet building.

Lois Lane. Her reputation had preceded her by a long way, of course, and so when she'd dramatically caught his attention at the White Orchid Ball he'd known who she was. However, Lois Lane's reputation had not told him that she was beautiful; that she had quicksilver eyes which missed nothing; that her laughter was the most beautiful sound he had ever heard; that her quick intelligence and lively conversation would charm him — he, who had been bored by more beautiful women than he could remember. He'd had to have her, but she'd eluded him; made it clear that she wasn't interested in a casual liaison; simply hadn't taken him seriously.

He'd tried to forget her: after all, she was a reporter, and at the Daily Planet of all places. The Planet was not an entirely committed supporter of Lex Luthor and all his endeavours; the second time he'd been voted Man of the Year Perry White had had the gall to write an op-ed piece raising questions about the source of some of his income and his apparently easy success in business. Never one to show his hand to his enemies, he'd replied with a charming, witty and self-deprecating letter which had been published on the Planet's letters page. But he hadn't forgotten. His eventual strike against the Planet had been as much in revenge against Perry White as it had been part of his strategy to acquire Lois.

For he'd been compelled to have her. Nigel, of course, had insisted that it was all the fault of that stupid woman Miranda and her pheromone compound, that it wasn't love at all. But he didn't believe that for one instant. Lex Luthor, who had believed himself incapable of feelings for any fellow human being — apart from dislike or contempt, of course — had fallen in love with Lois Lane.

And so he'd set out to woo her and to win her. And he'd succeeded, and he had been *that* close to getting what he wanted — what he deserved. Lois Lane, as his wife, in his bed, in his life. Of course, he would have had to put a stop to her job at LNN — it wouldn't have been especially difficult, just a few hints about the work taking up too much of her time, not allowing her to travel with him when his business interests took him away from Metropolis; or perhaps her line manager could have questioned the conflict of interest created by Lois's being married to the boss. And once she was no longer earning her own living, it would have been no difficult task to control her still further, to quell that independent streak she had and which really did irritate him. It would have been a perfect marriage.

But she'd had the temerity to tell him she couldn't marry him, to jilt him at the altar! It was almost a relief to him now that the police had burst in just at that precise moment, for it meant that probably no-one else who'd been present had realised, other than himself and the Archbishop.

No-one humiliated Lex Luthor like that and got away with it, he mused, his lips tightening. Lois Lane would pay for her defiance; oh, he still wanted her, but if she didn't want to marry him then marriage would no longer be on offer. There would be other ways.

What was it Shakespeare's Benedick said about women? he mused as he began to drift upwards, the black silk domino drifting around him as he did so, the hem becoming a little entangled in his legs (how did that Spandex-clad Boy Wonder do it?!). That was it… 'That a woman conceived me, I thank her: that she brought me up, I give her the most humble thanks: but … I will do myself the right to trust none.'


Clark hadn't answered his desk phone. His pager was switched off. His cellphone was switched off and its message storage facility was full. He wasn't answering his home phone. She'd eventually called Perry, after first speaking to Jimmy who'd told her that Clark hadn't been seen at the Planet all morning.

Perry had, first, been concerned for her safety; it seemed Superman had left him a message that she was in danger and he'd removed her from Metropolis for her own protection. So at least he'd remembered to tell Perry, she'd reflected, before assuring him that she was *fine* and would be working on her stories so anyone who had any information for her should email it to her. She could pick up her Daily Planet email remotely, thankfully, so being in Smallville shouldn't be too much of a problem.

Another thing had quickly become obvious from her conversation with Perry: he had no idea that the danger from which Superman had removed her was the return of Lex Luthor. Of course, she should have expected that given the way the Super-hero had insisted that Luthor's return and his acquisition of Super-powers should be kept secret. It wouldn't be possible, after all, to reveal one and not the other.

So she'd brushed over her editor's questions about what trouble she was in this time and demanded to know whether he'd seen Clark. His answer was the one she'd been dreading: not only had Clark not been seen at the Planet all morning, but he hadn't called in either. No-one had heard from him. It was as if he'd simply vanished.

She'd ended the call with an almost-frozen expression on her face. Clark was missing.

No wonder Jonathan and Martha hadn't mentioned him at all the previous evening. They must already have known that he'd gone missing — after all, if he'd been around, if he'd been okay, he would have called. He'd have wanted to speak to her, to assure himself that *she* was okay — she knew her partner well enough to know that. And she hadn't asked his parents about him, and they hadn't mentioned it; but they wouldn't, because she wasn't family and they were only letting her stay because Superman, Clark's friend, had asked them. If they really considered her to be 'family,' as Martha had recently suggested, then they'd have told her of their fears. So… she couldn't ask them what they knew about Clark's whereabouts: they clearly didn't want to discuss it with her, and they'd consider it an intrusion. No, if she was going to track Clark down, she'd have to do it on her own.

She should have thought of this before; she was kicking herself that she hadn't. She knew Clark almost better than anyone, except his parents. He'd been worried about her the previous day, because she'd been sick — okay, he hadn't known it was just her time of the month, but that was irrelevant. She knew what Clark was like: any time she was sick, or worried, or in danger, he clucked over her protectively like a mother hen! At any other time, Clark would have been knocking on her apartment door as soon as he'd finished work, probably with some chocolate, or ice-cream, or some other delicacy he knew she liked. And yet, yesterday evening he hadn't come.

Why not? Because he couldn't? Because Luthor had already got to him? Because he was already… dead…?

Lois gulped, forcing herself to pretend she hadn't even thought that horrible word. She couldn't lose Clark again, she just couldn't! Not after the other time; no, it would just be too unfair.

Clark had to be all right. He had to be safe, and well, and just… just busy somewhere. Collecting his mail. Returning a video. At the optician's. Or having his hair cut. He'd probably just forgotten to call in to the Planet to say he'd be late. He'd probably turned up by now, all smiles as usual, completely unaware that anyone was worrying about him.

Maybe… She reached for her cellphone again, hitting the shortcut for Clark's Planet number. The phone rang, to be answered within a few seconds. Her heart thudded in sheer relief…

…until she recognised Eduardo's voice. "Clark Kent's desk?"

"Oh — Eduardo, it's Lois. Where's Kent?"

"Not showed in today, Lois. The Chief's been looking for him, too — wanted him to cover some weird bank robbery that happened last night."

What was weird about it? Lois wondered, but wasn't curious enough right now to ask. "So he still hasn't called in?"

"Nope — not that I know of."

Lois cut the connection without saying goodbye, immediately hitting the shortcut for Clark's pager. Again, no response, and his cellphone was still switched off. His apartment phone was still on answering machine, and despite her pleas to him to pick up the phone, no Clark could be found. And it was now just after noon in Metropolis; this wasn't simply a case of someone having an appointment on the way to work.

<Oh, God, Clark…!> Lois scrambled off the bed, throwing a few things into her briefcase, and hurried downstairs.


Clark stared in disbelief at the mutilation of Gretchen Kelly's body. Someone had wanted to go out of their way to give him a message, and he had a pretty good idea who that 'someone' was. He raised his gaze then to look across at Inspector Henderson, and what he saw in the older man's face made him take a sharp intake of breath.

"You think *I*…?" He was barely able to believe it, but it was clear that the police believed he'd — Superman had — killed Dr Kelly.

"Superman, we need your thoughts on how that mark could have been made," Henderson drawled laconically. "And from what we've been able to ascertain, there's no sign of any forced entry or exit. The main door to the apartment was locked and bolted. But the balcony door was open — and this place is on the fifteenth floor. So I'd be interested in any ideas you have on that too."

If he hadn't known who was responsible for this, Clark would have found it easier to hypothesise, to offer alternative explanations for these circumstances. But as it was, he felt helpless.

"Yeah, that mark could be made by heat vision, or it could be something else," he offered at last, but he was aware that his words, and his hesitant tone, to say nothing of the long silence, had not helped allay anyone's suspicions.

At Henderson's sceptical look, he added incredulously, "Come on! You know me, Inspector — would I do this? And even if I had, would I advertise my handiwork by burning my symbol into her chest?"

At this, Henderson shrugged. "Wouldn't be the first time someone wanted to show off."

"Yeah, and it's not as if anyone could do anything to stop *you,* Superman," the woman uniformed officer added, her tone derisive.

Although he was aware that the circumstantial evidence looked bad, Clark was somewhat hurt that the police were so willing to condemn him — especially Bill Henderson, with whom he'd had many encounters as Superman and whom he'd helped on many occasions. Unable to prevent himself, Clark swivelled his gaze to rest on the woman officer. "No, you couldn't," he answered her in clipped tones. "So what's to stop me doing the same to you?" He allowed his gaze to drift over her; he achieved some small satisfaction from seeing her flinch in fear, and hated himself for it.

"Oh, don't be silly, he won't hurt you!" Henderson snapped, glaring at the officer, and Clark swung back to face the detective, a challenging expression on his face.

Henderson clearly recognised the message in Superman's expression, and allowed his own expression to relax a little. "Well, if this isn't your handiwork — and I never thought it was — what do you know about it?"

Clark hesitated. Only a short time earlier he'd been wondering whether it might not be sensible to tell someone on the police force he could trust about Luthor. Now, he had the perfect opportunity; did he want to do it? He returned Henderson's silent gaze for a moment or two, then spoke firmly. "Can we talk privately, Inspector?"

"Sure." Henderson led the way into the kitchen, shutting the door firmly behind Clark. Clark's first action, however, was to scan the room to ensure that no-one was there or in an adjoining room, and that there was no way they could be overheard. Then he turned to meet Henderson's gaze.

"First of all, those marks are made with heat vision," he confirmed briefly. "And I didn't do it."

"Never thought you did, Superman," Henderson repeated his earlier assurance. "Yeah, some of those guys out there weren't so sure — they thought you'd gone bad. She's had sex recently too."

"You think rape?" Clark asked.

"Not sure, but it looks like there are bruises developing on her arms and upper thighs."

It could have been rape; Clark knew Luthor was capable of just about anything. The man had no scruples. "I guess there'll be an autopsy, but I can take another look with X-ray vision if you want a preliminary report," he offered, almost hoping the detective wouldn't take him up on it. The expression of shock and agonising pain on Gretchen Kelly's face wasn't something he wanted to see again in a hurry.

"If you wouldn't mind, Superman, that would help," Henderson agreed laconically. "So…" he added in a more careful drawl, "if it wasn't you, and it was heat vision…?"

"How do you know I'm the only Super-powered being around?" Clark asked, playing for time.

"Well, no-one's seen anyone else," Henderson answered. "Okay, sure, there was that puny guy calling himself Resplendent Man, but he disappeared pretty quick. And this sure ain't his MO any more than it is yours." The detective leaned back against a counter. "My instincts are telling me you know who did this. And if you don't want me to ask you to come down to the precinct with me to be charged with withholding information from the police…"

Clark held up his hand. "It won't come to that, Inspector. Look, this is something I don't really want becoming public knowledge, okay? I realise this is a murder investigation, and you need to know, but this is important."

The detective was silent for a few moments, then he nodded. "Okay, Superman, I guess I know you well enough to know you wouldn't hold out on us without a reason. Let's have it."

Clark nodded. "Okay. You know who that woman was?" At Henderson's interjection of Dr Kelly's name, he continued. "Yes. She was also Lex Luthor's doctor, and a scientist whose research was funded by him." He saw Henderson's eyes widen slightly, but there was no other response.

"She also stole his body from its grave, and was responsible for stealing it again a few weeks ago," Clark added.

This time there was a response. "*She* did? Why? Did he dump her or something? She want to desecrate his grave?"

"No, she wanted to bring him back to life," Clark answered quietly. Henderson stared at him in slack-jawed disbelief.

"Yeah, she did," he emphasised. "I know — I was there when one of her experiments went wrong. But I made a mistake. I thought she was crazy, and that it just wasn't possible."

"You… made a mistake," Henderson repeated slowly. "You mean…?"

"I mean Luthor's alive," Clark confirmed. "Her technique, whatever it was, worked. I saw him yesterday, alive and well."

"Oh, come on, Superman, you expect me to believe that?" Henderson demanded. "Look, I'm not trying to say you've made it up, but it must have been someone who looked like him. Or maybe…" He paused suddenly, then added, as if inspiration had struck, "Maybe she just took some DNA and cloned him — like those cloned gangsters? Mind you, a cloned Luthor could be just as much trouble…"

"No, it's the real Luthor, I assure you," Clark insisted. "They both boasted about it to me. She brought him back to life."

Still sceptical, Henderson then asked, "Well, if you saw him — hell, you know he was a wanted man, Superman! Why didn't you bring him in?"

Clark sighed heavily. "That's the other part of the story," he began to explain. "Luthor has powers like mine."

"You've got to be kidding, Superman!" Henderson exclaimed, appalled.

"I wish I was," Clark said with a grimace. "You mentioned Resplendent Man. He was just an ordinary guy who, as a result of a freak accident, got my powers transferred to him. Gretchen Kelly somehow found out how it had happened, and she set a trap for me yesterday. I walked right into it, and Luthor got my powers as a result."

Raking his hand through his hair, Inspector Henderson stared at the Super-hero. "But how? How can your powers be transferred?"

"I'd rather not tell you that," Clark answered. "That's something I think the fewer people know about the better. The main thing is that Lex Luthor is out there somewhere with powers like mine, and I haven't been able to find him yet."

"My God, yeah," Henderson muttered slowly, completely shaken out of his customary laconic manner. "Luthor, with Super-powers… it doesn't bear thinking about."

"Unfortunately, we have to," Clark reminded him. "He's already killed Dr Kelly, and my guess is that there are other people who could be in danger."

Henderson was nodding already. "I'll organise police protection… but what the heck can we do against powers like yours?"

Clark frowned. "Not a lot, and you don't want to put officers' lives at risk. I promise you that, barring disasters, I will be spending every minute of my time trying to find him and capture him. I have been since last night. The problem is, I don't know where he is. I only know where he's been." He explained briefly about the bank robbery and the other couple of minor incidents which he was sure were Luthor's doing.

"Well, I can have people reporting any strange incidents to my office," Henderson suggested. "Anything where the MO isn't clear, or there's no obvious sign of entry or exit, or…"

"Or where it looks like Super-powers could have been used," Clark finished bleakly. "Inspector, I have to ask you not to tell anyone about Luthor, or his powers. If it became common knowledge that my powers could be transferred…"

"I can imagine," Henderson grunted. "Okay. We keep that to ourselves — for now. But I'm going to need a way to contact you."

Clark shrugged. "Give me a pager only you know the number to."

"Drop by my precinct any time in the next half hour — I'll have one waiting."

They returned to the other room; Henderson waved the other occupants aside and removed the sheet from the body again. After a brief scan, Clark gestured at him to replace it, moving away from the bed at the same time.

"She has three broken ribs and there is evidence of severe bruising on her right arm," he told the detective, speaking quietly so that only Henderson could hear. "There is further bruising on her thighs and… a little higher up," he added. "I'm not really sure whether that indicates force or just Luthor not knowing his own strength yet." He paused then, unable to banish the images from his mind. "Actually, I'm not convinced he'd care if it was the latter, which makes it just as bad as using force in my mind."

Henderson nodded, then called to the other officers. "You can take her away now, we're finished here." To Superman, he added, "I take it you're going out to look for him again now?"

Clark nodded again. "I'll be in touch."


Clark found himself spending a lot of time with the detective that day; it seemed that the Super-powered Lex Luthor was wasting no time in taking revenge on those people he considered to have slighted him.

As he'd promised, Superman turned up at Henderson's precinct within half an hour of leaving Gretchen Kelly's apartment, having spent the meantime again trying to track down Lex Luthor. The man continued to evade him, however. At the precinct, he managed to get Henderson into a private interview room and asked the detective whether the police had any information on the whereabouts of Nigel St John or Asabi.

Henderson emitted a long-suffering sigh. "They went to ground within ten minutes of us marching into the wedding ceremony with our warrants — and they took a lot of evidence we wanted with them. We just haven't been able to locate them since."

"Well, with Luthor dead, how hard did you try?" Clark persisted.

Henderson glared at him. "Damn hard. St John's wanted for a number of offences, and Asabi, or whatever his real name is, is wanted for questioning. But they both seem to have vanished into thin air."

"Out of the country, maybe?" Clark asked.

"Possibly," Henderson answered. "We tried to see whether the Cox woman, or Luthor's ex-wife, would give us any clues, but not even an offer to speak to the trial judge would shift Cox. Even with Luthor dead she refused to give us any information. As for Carlin, she still persists in believing that anyone who's out to harm Luthor's memory is her enemy — she wouldn't talk." He sighed. "God knows what she'd do if she found out he was alive."

"He divorced her — I can't see him wanting to look her up, or break her out of jail," Clark mused aloud.

"Unless he can't find anyone else to help him," Henderson speculated. "Course, he might already have found his former associates, so she wouldn't be any use to him in that case. And since he killed that doctor, that suggests he didn't need her."

Clark nodded, accepted the pager, and left. But it was barely twenty minutes later when he received his first page, while dealing with a fire at a restaurant. Henderson's text message was short and to the point: it gave an address and the word 'Now.' Pausing only to ensure that the humans present could handle the blaze, he took off at Super-speed.

Arriving at the address Henderson had given, he found yet more police cars, police tape, and the detective — looking ever more morose — inside the building, an office block, on the tenth floor. A rough outline had been drawn on the floor around the unmoving body of a man; dead, Clark realised.

With a sudden shock, he realised that he recognised the man. He was the chief executive of a Metropolis construction company which… he racked his brain. Yes, Cook Construction had, about ten months earlier, entered into a multi-million dollar consortium with LexCorp to bid for the contract to build the new waterfront development in the west river area. They'd won the contract, though there had been unconfirmed rumours of dirty tricks; Clark had suspected at the time that the rumours were correct, but he'd never been able to prove it. And a couple of months afterwards, the consortium had fallen apart amid acrimonious rumour and counter-rumour about one side trying to pull a fast one on the other.

So this man, Martin Cook, had been a business associate of Lex Luthor's. Still, Clark reasoned, there were probably very few businessmen in Metropolis who hadn't done business with Luthor at some point, so it was a pretty thin connection. And also, he considered, studying the dead man more closely, the cause of death looked… suspicious.

He turned to Henderson, waiting to be filled in. The detective's morose expression grew even more glum as he led Superman a little further away from the other officers present.

"What do you see, Superman?"

"A broken neck," Clark replied in a low voice. "I X-rayed just to be sure, but the way he's lying suggested that anyway."

Henderson nodded. "That's what I guessed. Any idea what caused it?"

"Nothing definite," Clark answered. "But my guess is a sharp blow to the back of the neck. And from what I could see, I'd guess that was with a hand, not a weapon. Though your forensics lab and the medical examiner will give you a better idea."

"Thanks, Superman," the detective said quietly. "One other thing. The guy's staff say he's been in this office on his own since a meeting he had at twelve. He had his secretary bring him in a sandwich and coffee just before one, and she says he was fine then. She worked through her lunchbreakand no-one went in or out of his office. Then he didn't answer his phone, so she came in and found him like this."

Clark instinctively glanced across at the large window behind the desk. It was open — not fully, but enough for someone moving carefully to slip through, or it could have been closed over again afterwards. He scanned the area from the window to the dead man's body with his telescopic vision, looking for clues; something clinging to the window-frame caught his eye.

Beckoning the inspector over, he gestured to a couple of black threads clinging to the edge of the window-frame. "See, here?"

"Yeah. What do you make of it?"

"The fabric looks like silk," Clark commented. "And it tells me that someone came in, or out — or both — via this window."

"Yeah, looks like it," Henderson confirmed. He called to a uniformed officer standing near the door and instructed him to remove the threads for analysis. Once the officer had disappeared with the evidence, the inspector addressed Clark again. "What was Luthor wearing?"

"Yesterday? A shabby jacket and corduroys. But I have reason to believe he's changed clothes since," Clark added, filling Henderson in on the clothing store robbery.

"So the stuff he took was all black? That figures."

"Yeah, but none of it was silk," Clark replied, frowning.

Henderson shrugged. "Guess that's all we have to go on for now. But you definitely think the injuries, and the entrance and exit, are consistent with Super-powers?"

Clark nodded emphatically. "And given you and I both know this guy did business with Luthor…"

"Yeah. Settling old scores?"

"I'd guess so," Clark agreed. "Look, Henderson," he added quickly. "I'm kind of concerned about some friends of mine — Perry White, the editor of the Daily Planet, for one. He helped put the evidence together which would have put Luthor away."

Henderson nodded. "Makes sense. I'll work on a list of people Luthor might want to get revenged on and see what we can do. What about Lane and Kent? Kent was heavily involved in incriminating Luthor, and Lane… hell, she was going to marry him!"

Clark flinched inwardly at the reminder, but remained outwardly calm. "Clark Kent's fine. And as soon as this happened I got Lois Lane out of town — you're right, I saw her as potentially being in danger from Luthor."

That was only the second murder of the day; by late afternoon there had been three more, and each time Clark's sense of anger and frustration grew. It seemed that he was spending his entire day getting there just too late; that Luthor was evading him by minutes. He was frequently torn between staying behind to help the police in their search for clues and flying off at Super-speed in search of Luthor; the latter option, however, really didn't offer much hope, since he still had no idea where the man was hiding. And if he had any notion in his mind of preventing Luthor getting to his next victim, he dismissed that possibility as quickly as it occurred. The list Clark and Henderson had compiled ran almost into triple figures.

Not by any means for the first time, Clark was cursing himself for having been too slow to stop Luthor gaining his powers. If he had just realised what those Tesla coils were; if he had moved out of the way sooner; if he hadn't almost frozen in shock and disbelief when he'd recognised Luthor and had instead just scooped the guy up and flown him to the nearest police precinct, then none of this would have happened. Lois Lane wouldn't be in danger. And five people who were now dead would still have been alive. He had been so *stupid*! And now, he couldn't even anticipate Luthor: the guy was running rings around him and Clark was playing catch-up. He had not managed to arrive in time to save a single one of the man's victims.

It was a long time since he'd felt this useless.

Late that afternoon, emerging from another rooftop office having confirmed a sixth death by some use of Super-powers, Clark was taken aback to find several representatives of the Press thronging the corridor area. Although one or two reporters had been around earlier, this time there were rather more, which suggested that the police hadn't managed to keep the wave of murders quiet.

And at the head of the clamouring throng was a face Clark certainly hadn't expected to see at a crime scene. Perry White caught his gaze with a challenging stare. "What's going on, Superman?" he demanded in the forceful Southern drawl Clark knew only too well.

"The police have just asked for my assistance," he replied smoothly, preparing to make his escape. "I can't tell you anything other than that."

Having caught Superman's attention, the Planet's editor wasn't wasting his opportunity. Moving in closer, he countered softly, "Superman, you might want to know that tomorrow's headline in the Daily Planet is going to read 'Super-powers Link to Murders of Luthor Associates. Unless you want to give me a bit more than that?"

Clark almost did a visible double-take, wondering — not for the first time — just where Perry White got his information from. Maybe he was guessing, but it was one heck of an informed guess — someone had to have talked, and Clark just hoped that whoever it was hadn't spread his pearls of wisdom more widely. Quietly, he spoke so that Perry alone could hear him. "Okay, Mr White, but not here. I'll meet you in your office at the Planet as soon as you can get there."

And so that was more time taken up when he should have been searching for Luthor; but Clark considered that it was important to ensure that the Planet did not publish the story Perry seemed to be hinting at. Back at the Planet, the editor lost no time in again demanding to know what was going on.

"Superman, you leave me a note telling me Lois is in danger and you've taken her out of town. Clark Kent doesn't turn up all day and can't be reached anywhere. And six murders are committed in one day, of people all connected with Lex Luthor in some capacity or another, and you're at the scene every time, working with the police. Now, forgive me, Superman, but when did you become a homicide cop? I want to know what's happening, what it's got to do with Lex Luthor, and where my two best reporters are!"

Clark struggled to hide his discomfort; while he could perfectly well understand his boss's reaction, he had hoped not to have to explain anything to Perry White if he could avoid it. And Perry had come uncomfortably close to the truth, even though he didn't know it.

"Mr White," he said carefully, "I'm not exactly sure what you meant by your 'headline,' but — "

"Oh, you had a pretty fair idea what it could mean, Superman, or you wouldn't be here now!" Perry retorted. "Okay, I don't know what's going on, but I obviously got close enough, which means that at least some of the rumours flying around have some element of truth in them. So what's going on? Why are you involved in this investigation? And why is someone going around killing people who used to be involved with Luthor? And what's your link to this?" The editor paused briefly, giving Superman a piercing stare, before continuing, "and who else is in danger?"

Treading a careful path through the questions, Clark began to answer. "I'm involved because with my abilities I can give the police quick answers to questions it would take their forensics people a long time to work out. They'll still get forensics to investigate, but at least they've got the information to work on. As for who else is in danger, by the look of today's murders the police think that anyone Lex Luthor disliked, or who gave the police evidence against him, is likely to be on the list of targets."

"Including Lois Lane and Clark Kent," Perry cut in.

"Yes — and probably you too, Mr White."

"Okay, well, you tell me something, Superman," Perry drawled. "The first murder was discovered at around mid-morning today, yes? Well, how come you left me a note some time very early this morning telling me that Lois is in danger and you'd got her out of town? You knew about this threat, whatever it is, before Gretchen Kelly's body was found!"

Clark's heart sank; he should have realised he couldn't deceive Perry White. He sighed heavily. "Okay, yes, there is more I'm not telling you. But that's because I can't."

"Can't or won't?"

Clark grimaced. "This is part of a murder investigation!"

"And I'm worried about my staff!" Perry snapped.

He was, Clark could see that. "All right," he agreed. "I'll tell you some of what's going on, on the understanding that this doesn't appear in the Planet."

A pause, then Perry nodded. "Agreed."

Quietly, Superman filled the editor in on the return of Lex Luthor from the grave. Perry was disbelieving at first, but once he accepted that it was true, he sank into his chair, the colour draining from his face. "If he gets anywhere near Lois…"

"He won't, Mr White, I'll make sure of that," Clark promised.

"And Kent? Where's he?"

This was one of those occasions when the secret identity was seriously a nuisance, Clark reflected. "He's fine, Mr White. I'll make sure of that too. He's just keeping a low profile at the moment."

The editor seemed to accept that, but he still wasn't finished. "Okay, Lex Luthor is back and is looking for revenge. But that doesn't explain these murders — from what I've heard, the cause of death in each case is bizarre and it wouldn't have been easy for anyone to get in or out — unless they had Super-powers. So what's going on?"

This was where he had to play the remote Super-hero, Clark decided. "The police are investigating, and I'm sure they'll make a statement when they're ready. And now, I have to go. I'm needed elsewhere."

The expression on the editor's face made it clear that he wasn't happy, but he let it go. "Okay. Thanks for looking after Lois and Clark, Superman."

Clark nodded, not trusting himself to speak, and quickly flew out the window.


The day had been a great success, Lex Luthor thought as he entered what he'd chosen as his new headquarters: a house he'd rented on the far side of the city. It wasn't exactly salubrious, but beggars — or, at any rate, those without credit cards — couldn't be choosers. It would do, for now. At least it was a roof over his head, somewhere to sleep. He'd noticed around mid-afternoon that tiredness was beginning to set in, which had surprised him. That irritating bluebottle with the red cape never seemed to tire, unless he managed with cat-naps; that was a possibility, Luthor supposed. At any rate, he'd taken a nap for an hour before setting out again, and he'd felt a lot better for doing so.

The only fly in the ointment was his continued failure to locate either St John or Asabi; but he would remedy that omission soon enough. It was perfectly possible, after all, that either or both would start putting two and two together from the names of his victims and realise that their old employer would want them back again. Then they would emerge from whatever bolthole they had fled to. Nigel, especially, was essential to his plans. It was Nigel who had known about the Kryptonite cage with which he had tried and failed to kill Superman; Nigel, he presumed, had dismantled the cage and salvaged the Kryptonite. There had been no mention in the press of an attempt to kill the Man of Steel, nor of an unidentified green substance discovered in his wine-cellar, so it appeared likely that Nigel had done his job. And so Nigel must still have some Kryptonite; that would make the task of disposing of the flying alien even easier.

This house was the perfect place for his woman. It had plenty of security: bars on all the windows to keep burglars out; six locks on all the external doors; and even sound-proofing — apparently the original tenants had got completely frustrated with the ghetto-blasters which played all day and all night in the neighbourhood. No-one would hear any strange noises which came from this house. No-one would notice any comings and goings. He would have all the privacy he wanted.

Now, he just had to find Lois Lane. He'd flown over the Planet earlier just to catch a glimpse of her, but she hadn't been there. It was a shame; but on the other hand, she was probably out on assignment. In fact, she was highly likely to have been following up those unfortunate deaths… Lex's mouth curved into an amused smile as he wondered whether her intelligent mind would have made the connection yet. It wouldn't surprise him if she had; but she couldn't possibly know he was alive.

His smile grew even broader as he imagined the look of surprise which would be on her face when she realised the truth. He couldn't wait to see her reaction: would she be delighted to see him? Or would she, perhaps, be afraid? Or displeased? He didn't know, and in fact he didn't care very much; he would take her for himself regardless of her reaction. But he was still going to enjoy seeing her face when she was confronted with him.

Now, he just needed to stock up on essential provisions; and then he could go to fetch Lois.


After another consultation with Inspector Henderson down at the precinct, Clark was finally able to head home; he desperately needed a shower and to change his Suit, and he also thought he should call his parents. They'd want to know what was going on, and he wanted to know how Lois was doing.

Henderson had told him that he'd managed to persuade the police that the murders were not Superman's doing, despite appearances, which was an enormous relief to Clark. He had been very disconcerted at the reaction of those officers at Gretchen Kelly's apartment; it wasn't easy for him to forget that, after all he'd done for the police since arriving on the scene as Superman, they would suspect him of something as dreadful as that without any evidence whatsoever. The way that female officer had looked at him, as if she both loathed and feared him, would stay with him for a long time. He knew he'd over-reacted in his response to her, but he had been angry and hurt.

On top of that, Clark had been unable to banish the image of Gretchen Kelly's body from his mind. It wasn't that he hadn't seen far more horrific sights, on a frequent basis; what disturbed him about this was the thought of Lois and the danger she could be in if Luthor found her. He'd wanted to own her before, to control her, to curb her independence, to have her as a trophy wife, chained to him in subservient obedience. That sort of life would drain all the life out of Lois: she would cease to be the vivacious, independent, fascinating woman she was today. She would stultify, even if she could cope with being married to a villain and a man she clearly now hated. And she would be lost to him for ever.

Clark had, over and over, felt very thankful that she was out of Metropolis, safe where Luthor would never think to look for her.

Although, of course, Luthor had wanted to marry her, had claimed to be in love with her; but Clark reminded himself that this was little guarantee of any degree of protection for Lois. After all, it was Gretchen Kelly who had given Luthor back his life, and had made it possible for him to have Super-powers. The man owed Kelly everything; and yet he'd murdered her. And even worse, he'd done so after sleeping with her. He was completely without scruples.

So there really was no reason to suppose that Lois, his intended bride, would be safe from him. And suddenly, Clark remembered something else. The previous evening, when they'd been in her apartment, Lois had told him that she had said 'no' to Luthor during the wedding ceremony. He'd been taken aback by that at the time, and had determined to find out more about it some other time. But now the implication of that remark hit him forcefully. Lois had jilted Luthor at the altar. From what she said, it sounded as if that had already happened by the time the police had arrived. And Clark couldn't see Lex Luthor accepting rejection lightly.

Lois's life would, therefore, be in every bit as much danger as anyone else's. Luthor would want revenge for what he was sure to consider a humiliating insult.

Did Lois know that? Probably. She'd certainly gone very pale when he'd told her Luthor was alive, so it was entirely possible that she was well aware of the potential danger she was in. And though the thought made him feel guilty, he was glad that her reaction had been horror. Although he was Lois's acknowledged best friend, she had never really talked to him about the whole Luthor thing. Even with all the times he'd been there for her when she'd needed to be held, needed a shoulder to cry on or just someone to call up at three in the morning, she'd never really *talked* about it. He'd understood that she was glad the guy was dead, since that had meant she hadn't needed to testify against him. He'd guessed that finding out the truth about Luthor had been an enormous shock to her and had probably caused her to reassess everything she'd believed about him. He hoped that she'd never really been in love with the guy, but that was probably wishful thinking on his part.

The main thing was, though, that Lois no longer wanted to have anything to do with Luthor, and that was fine by Clark. He would make sure she was safe from him, and she wouldn't even have to see him if he could help it.

Landing on the balcony of his apartment, he hurried inside and made straight for the shower. Less than a minute later he was by his phone, raking a hand through his hair. About to pick up the phone to call his parents, he saw the message light blinking and decided he'd better listen to those first.

Lois's voice came straight at him. "Clark? Clark, where are you? I've been calling all over — the Planet, your cellphone, your pager! I need to speak to you — call me back, please!"

He winced. That message had been left that morning, and she sounded worried. The next message was also Lois's voice. "Clark! Now I'm really getting worried — where the hell are you? No-one's seen you at the Planet all morning! Call me!"

He sighed and was about to dial his parents' number when the answering machine beeped to indicate another message. The sound of his mother's voice, agitated, caught his attention. "Clark! Oh, Clark, I hope you get this — Lois has disappeared! She never said a word to us, just left a note that she couldn't find you and was going back to Metropolis to look for you! Please, if you get this, come and get her before she gets on the plane at Wichita!"

With a cold dread in his heart, Clark noticed that the time-stamp on the message was more than six hours ago. Lois had returned to Metropolis… he began to think furiously. Where would she go? And why hadn't he realised that she might do something like this? He knew what Lois was like! Why hadn't he anticipated that she might completely ignore his advice? He *knew* she hated being told what to do, or being treated like a helpless little woman. He should have known…!

She was looking for him — would she have gone to the Planet, or simply called again? She would have come to his apartment, surely? But she wasn't there now, and he was pretty sure she knew where he kept his spare key. And anyway, old-fashioned locks like his were rarely a problem for Lois. He cast his gaze around the apartment, and wasn't surprised to see a sheet of paper on his kitchen table, weighed down by one of his coffee-cups. He picked it up.

'Clark, where are you? I've been calling all over, and now I'm getting worried. CALL ME!!! Lois.'

No time on the note, but he guessed it would be a couple of hours ago at most. He should probably call his parents to let them know he'd got their message and was going to look for Lois, but he quickly decided that he couldn't wait. He was going straight over to her apartment; he'd fly over, he decided, but would knock on her door as Clark, since it was Clark she was worried about. Once he'd reassured her, he could come back as Superman and fly her straight back to Smallville.

Two minutes later, Clark Kent was knocking on the door of Lois's apartment, rehearsing what he would say to her. He was furious with her for being so reckless as to leave his parents' place, no matter what the reason; but on the other hand, when Clark got angry with Lois it only put her back up. It would probably be better to save his anger for when he saw her as Superman.

He knocked a second time, but there was no answer. Maybe she just wasn't there? Maybe she was out on the streets somewhere looking for him? He had to hope that would be the case…

Hoping over and over that she was safe, he discreetly lowered his glasses and scanned the interior of the apartment. What he saw made him take a sharp, appalled intake of breath. In under a second, he had reached the stairs leading to the roof and was flying down to Lois's apartment window as Superman.

The damage was apparent. Her large living-room window was smashed to pieces, and glass lay all over the floor. An occasional table and the lamp which had stood upon it lay on the floor. One of her sofas had been pushed back haphazardly. And… and there was blood on the edge of the window-sill; he looked closer, and realised that it had dripped from a jagged edge of broken glass which still rested in the window-frame.

And, caught on another bit of broken glass, were a couple of threads of black silk, exactly like those he'd found earlier.

Lex Luthor had Lois.


It was late afternoon by the time Lois managed to get back to Metropolis; there had been the two-hour — and very expensive — taxi-ride to Wichita, having sneaked out of the house without running into either Jonathan or Martha — she knew they would have tried to stop her, or somehow got hold of Superman to prevent her leaving. She'd then had to wait around for a flight; in the end she'd had to make a two-stage journey with an hour-long delay in between. All the time she'd been unable to keep the thoughts of what might have happened to Clark from her mind. She was dreading arriving back to find him already dead — like those former associates and opponents of Luthor who, she'd discovered from the news broadcasts she'd managed to catch en route, had been murdered. Luthor was on a killing spree, and she could only hope and pray that Clark was not going to be the next victim.

She took a cab straight to his apartment, but he still wasn't there; or, at least, he wasn't answering the door. Visions of her partner and best friend lying dead or dying on the floor assailed her, and she rummaged frantically in her bag for her trusty lock-picking devices, otherwise known as hairpins. A few moments later, she was shoving open Clark's front door. There was no sign of him anywhere in the open-plan area immediately inside, so she hurried through the kitchen and around into his bedroom. That was also empty, as was the bathroom. Wherever Clark was, dead or alive, he was not in his apartment.

Grabbing the notebook she always carried with her, she wrote a note and left it on the kitchen table, taking care to weigh it down in case it blew away, then hurried back to her own apartment to think about what to try next. He had to be somewhere… someone had to have seen him during the day! The alternative was too horrible to contemplate. She just couldn't cope with losing Clark again. If he had been killed… she swallowed, refusing to countenance that possibility even for a second.

Back at her apartment, she quickly turned on her TV to watch LNN; she was just in time for an update on the murders, and she held her breath until the sixth victim was named. It wasn't Clark; she sighed with relief before allowing herself to think about who had been killed. She recognised all the names; some were even people she'd met, one in the company of Lex Luthor himself. All were either ex-associates or rivals; she recognised one name as the CEO of a small construction company which had gained a contract Lex had wanted, during the period of her engagement to him. She'd thought at the time that Lex's anger at losing out on the bid had seemed a little disproportionate; now, it was clear to her that he must have had some ulterior motive in wanting that contract. Again, with the benefit of hindsight, it amazed her that she had been so blind to the real Luthor which lay behind the suave, urbane businessman.

So he was definitely bent on revenge, although Gretchen Kelly didn't seem to fit into that category — perhaps he'd justwanted to shut her up? Lois had no doubt whatsoever, despite the police official line that no link had been confirmed between the Kelly murder and the others, that Luthor had killed the woman. Kelly had been Luthor's doctor, and Superman had told her how it had been Kelly who had engineered the Super-powers transfer. He'd probably killed her to stop her trying to do it again, or trying to reverse it, or to stop her talking… knowing Lex Luthor, there were any number of possible motives. But his method was nothing short of gruesome. There had been a sexual assault — although the police had left open the possibility that it might have been consensual, the news reports had managed to ascertain that there had been violence. Okay, Lois reasoned, the man might not be fully aware of his own strength, but to sleep with a woman and not care about hurting her was as good a rape, in Lois's opinion.

And then there had been the murder itself. The news reports had been very sketchy, and Lois was itching to call Henderson and demand more information; she would do so once she'd managed to locate Clark, she decided. All she'd been able to find out was that some insignia had been burned into Gretchen Kelly's body; the police weren't saying what the nature of that insignia was, claiming that it would damage their investigation.

Lois wondered what Henderson made of all this; Superman had made it clear to Lois that he wanted no-one to know about Luthor's resurrection and acquisition of Super-powers, and yet it had to be obvious that there was something highly unusual going on here. Superman had attended the scene of each and every murder, too, from what she'd been able to glean; that was also unusual. Could Superman have taken Henderson into his confidence? It was possible, she supposed. If Lex Luthor was on a killing spree, then Superman would feel honour bound to help the police in any way possible, and from what she knew of the Man of Steel she felt certain that he would be feeling bad about not having managed to prevent the murders — probably blaming himself for the fact that the transfer of Super-powers had happened at all.

So there had been six victims so far… the question was: who was next? Lois was hoping and praying that it wouldn't be Clark, or Perry, or anyone else she cared about.

The sound of rushing wind outside her window made her swing around with an annoyed grimace: she'd hoped that Superman would be too busy to catch up with her this soon. Martha and Jonathan must have had some means of contacting him, she realised. She felt a twinge of guilt for the way she'd treated Clark's parents: they'd shown her nothing but kindness and concern for her safety, yet she'd sneaked out of the farmhouse behind their backs and left them nothing but a note.

And now Superman was here to drag her back to Smallville — or somewhere else, if Clark's parents refused to have her back. She stood in the middle of her living-room, waiting for the familiar blue suit and red cape to appear, resigned to Superman's interference; at least, she thought, she'd be able to ask Superman about Clark. If anyone knew where he was, it would be Superman. She only hoped it wasn't bad news -

The sight of a black mass outside the window, accompanied by the violent sound of shattering glass, made her jump back in shock. This wasn't Superman!

A tall figure, masked and dressed entirely in black and wearing an old-fashioned black cloak, the hood thrown back to reveal dark curly hair, stood in her living-room, a triumphant smile on his face. "Lois, how charming you look, my love! Are you surprised to see me?"

Silently cursing herself, Lois met his gaze with a challenging stare. "Lex — couldn't you have just knocked at the door?" she asked, her tone deliberately unimpressed.

"Ah, so our mutual friend in blue told you about my somewhat changed circumstances," he replied smoothly. "What a shame — he denied me the opportunity to be the gallant knight, catching the lady when she swooned in shock at the sight of me."

"You should have stayed dead, Lex," Lois told him bluntly, conscious that she was probably doing the wrong thing by risking arousing his wrath; but she had no intention of pretending to be glad to see him. In fact, the sight of him was causing her to ask herself, in complete astonishment, how she could ever have considered marrying him.

"Ah, but that wouldn't have been as much fun, Lois," he replied, tilting his head sideways in the way she remembered. "And you and I have some unfinished business: how could I not come back?"

"Any business between us is over and done with," she said flatly. She wanted to turn on her heel and walk away, signalling the end of the discussion, but it was far too dangerous to turn her back on a Super-powered Lex Luthor. So instead she stood her ground, hoping that the growing fear she felt inside didn't show on her face.

Where was Superman? Didn't he know she needed him *now*? All her instincts were screaming at her to yell for him immediately, but her rational mind was pointing out that to do so could be fatal. Luthor could kill her instantly and be gone before Superman arrived. Or it could be that he intended to use her as a lure, that he *wanted* her to call for Superman, and that his real aim was to kill the Super-hero.

Could he kill Superman? She'd wondered that the previous evening, but when she'd tentatively asked Superman himself about the danger he might be in, he hadn't given her any indication at all, instead brushing aside her concerns. It was probably better to keep Superman away, for now. It was entirely possible that Lex wouldn't kill her, after all — she'd been his fiancee, for heaven's sake! Surely that meant he felt something for her still?

But Luthor had always been impossible to read; he was perfectly capable of smiling charmingly at her while at the same time plotting her destruction, or intending to use her as a means of getting to someone else. She made her decision: she would not call for Superman. She would take the chance that Luthor didn't actually want to kill her, and deal with whatever threat he represented herself.

"Lois, my love, you cut me to the quick," he drawled, taking a couple of steps closer to her, the heavy cloak almost entangling itself in his legs as he did so. "We're still engaged, as far as I'm aware, and if we hadn't been so rudely interrupted on the occasion of our last meeting, you would be my wife."

<Never!> thought Lois fiercely, at the same time wondering whether it was actually possible that Lex couldn't have heard her say 'no' during the ceremony. But she dismissed that thought just as quickly: she remembered him staring at her and repeating that single syllable, a disbelieving expression on his face. Yes, he'd heard all right. So either he was missing some part of his memories, or was deranged, or he was playing some sort of clever game with her. And since he remembered the police invading the wedding ceremony, she was more inclined to believe the latter.

Deliberately relaxing her facial expression into a light smile, she shook her head. "Lex, I know now that I should never have said I'd marry you," she told him, her tone regretful. "I just don't think we'd have been right for each other."

"Ah, but I disagree, my sweet Lois," he replied smoothly. "But it's not too late. We have a second chance." He smiled briefly, then sang mockingly, "Come fly with me…"

In a sudden blurry movement, he was gripping her, his hands like steel bands around her upper arms. She tried to struggle, but his strength was far too great for her; kicking at his ankles did nothing other than to wreck her shoes and hurt her feet. Instead she tried to make it difficult for him to grab her properly, by kicking out at the furniture and anything else in the way. He simply allowed her to do this for a few moments, then in another sudden movement scooped her up and threw her over his shoulder, one arm pinning her to him. Then he was flying out of the window with her.

Her arm was dangling down behind his back; she felt a sharp pain as her hand scraped against the broken glass in the window-frame. She knew she was bleeding, but in her current predicament there was nothing she could do about it. But there was no way that she was calling for Superman — she still had no answer to her earlier fear that Luthor might kill him.

She considered the available evidence. Luthor was as powerful as Superman; had all the same abilities. Luthor had no scruples at all about killing, whereas Superman did; but would Superman feel that killing Luthor in these circumstances was justifiable? She didn't know. Until recently, she'd thought that Superman wouldn't do anything which was morally wrong; but then he had lied to her about Resplendent Man, so clearly there were some limits to his ethics. Would the existence of a completely conscienceless villain with powers similar to his be sufficient to overrule his scruples when it came to killing? Lois simply didn't know.

So here she was being carried off somewhere by Luthor, possibly as bait for Superman or possibly because he wanted her for some other purpose — and that latter possibility was enough to make her feel very scared indeed. Her only consolation lay in the knowledge that, if Superman did go to her apartment looking for her, he would know that she had been abducted against her will. But what if this was precisely what Lex Luthor wanted him to think?

In that case, in returning to Metropolis and as a result getting herself captured by Luthor, she might have succeeded in luring Superman into danger as well.


Clark forced himself to breathe calmly, normally. He would be of no use to Lois whatsoever if he started to panic; he was Superman, after all, and Superman never panicked! He had to think rationally, to figure out where Luthor could have taken Lois.

And, he reminded himself, at least the man had *taken* Lois somewhere. If he'd intended to kill her, why wouldn't he have just killed her on the spot? So all the indicators pointed to Luthor wanting Lois kept alive.

Alive, but for what purpose? he asked himself as he flew carefully through the shattered window into Lois's apartment. Clark could envisage two possible reasons why Luthor might want Lois alive, and they weren't necessarily mutually exclusive. He could want to extract his revenge on her for jilting him at the altar; he had wanted to possess Lois, and now she was in no position to fight him off. Clark's blood ran cold again at the thought of Luthor using Lois as he had Gretchen Kelly; even if he didn't kill her in the same way, raping her would be bad enough. The thought of Lois suffering in that way, at the hands of someone it was clear now repulsed her — and whom she possibly feared — tortured him, and with the added possibility that the man might *hurt* her without either knowing or caring, because of his enhanced strength…

Clark forced himself to push those fears aside. Thinking about Lois's possible fate at Luthor's hands wasn't helping him to *help* her. He needed to be rational, to think clearly.

So, taking his revenge for being jilted was one possible motive Luthor could have for abducting Lois. He might want to frighten her, or hurt her, or merely to enjoy having her at his mercy.

And the other motive wasn't too difficult to deduce. It was by now a well known maxim among the criminal fraternity that if Lois Lane was threatened Superman would come to her rescue. In fact, that fact was so well known, and had been acted upon so many times, that Clark was privately aware that one of his reasons for not telling Lois who Superman really was — that if she knew the truth she would be a target — was a complete fallacy. She was a target anyway.

So Luthor could be using Lois as bait for Superman.

If he was, then so be it. There was no way that Clark would just not attempt to rescue her; but he had every intention of being very careful about it. After all, remembering the last time he'd encountered Luthor before the man's unfortunate resurrection, Clark knew that it was entirely possible that Luthor could have Kryptonite. He had no idea what had happened to that cage; the following day, he'd flown hisfather to Metropolis and had taken him down to Luthor's wine-cellar in an attempt to destroy or otherwise dispose of the cage. But it had disappeared.

Looking around Lois's apartment, Clark could find nothing in the way of clues. Lois had clearly put up a struggle, which gave him a guilty sense of gratification: she hadn't gone willingly with Luthor. But she'd been hurt: the blood on the windowsill and the glass told him that. It was possible, though, that it was the glass itself which had caused the injury — he Super-sped over for a closer look. Use of his telescopic vision told him that there were fibres of skin on the jagged edge of glass; his bet was that Lois had caught her hand or her arm on the glass as she'd been carried out. That was something of a relief, since it indicated that Luthor hadn't deliberately injured her.

However, since he'd allowed her to injure herself, it seemed he was indifferent as to her well-being — that in itself was worrying.

So where could he have taken her?

Clark restrained himself with difficulty from flying straight out the window in search of Lois and Luthor. After all, he had no idea where they could be, and he'd just wasted a day flying aimlessly around the city in search of Luthor — when he hadn't been with the police or with murder victims, that was. So another such aimless flight would get him nowhere. It would be like searching for a needle in a haystack.

<Lois, why didn't you call for help?> he asked himself despairingly. <You've never been slow to yell 'Help, Superman!' before now, when you needed me!>

But perhaps Lois hadn't had an opportunity to shout: Luthor could have prevented her easily enough. Or perhaps she too had guessed that her capture was a lure for Superman, and had refused to be used in that way. Either way, she hadn't called for help, and she still wasn't calling for him, so he couldn't follow the sound of her voice.

But if he couldn't follow the sound of her voice… He stopped suddenly, his stance rigid as he thought through the idea which had just occurred to him. He had no idea whether it would work, but anything was worth a shot…

Superman quickly strode through to Lois's bedroom and began to sniff the linen on her bed, the clothes lying folded on the chair and her nightshirt, which lay under her pillow. He immediately recognised her unique scent, made up of her favourite soap and perfume, as well as the essence which was indefinably Lois.

Now, all he had to do was follow his nose…


It wasn't the flying so much as who you were flying with, Lois had concluded after barely a couple of minutes airborne with Lex Luthor. Not long after leaving her apartment he had shifted his hold on her so that he was carrying her, one-handed, clasped against his chest; she felt a little more stable in that position but otherwise didn't at all enjoy the experience. Even apart from wondering what Luthor planned to do with her, she knew that he was not the person with whom she wanted to fly.

However, the flight didn't last very long and she was surprised when he drifted downwards in a neighbourhood the like of which she could never imagine Lex Luthor ever visiting, unless it was to see how the houses could be torn down and turned into luxury apartments. To her amazement, he flew into one of the houses through an upstairs window, which gave them access to a cheaply-furnished bedroom; before she'd even had time to draw breath, he'd shut the window firmly behind them and was turning to face her, one hand clasped firmly and painfully about her wrist.

His lips curved into a slow smile. "My dear Lois — obviously you weren't telling me the truth back there in your apartment. You really are pleased to have me back!"

She glared at him, but was inwardly quaking, bearing in mind the possible implications of this line of conversation, given where he had taken her. "Whatever gave you that impression, Lex?"

"Well, I didn't once hear you utter those revealing words 'Help, Superman!' Clearly you've decided that now you know I can do everything *he* can,you much prefer me to the overgrown freak after all, Lois."

"I wouldn't even mention you and Superman in the same breath," Lois retorted, trying to pull her wrist from his vice-like grip. "At least he has ethics — he would never do what you've done today!" She was provoking him, she knew; but the alternatives were either to act terrified and call for Superman, which she was determined not to do, or to pretend to be delighted to see him and act as if she was still in love with him. She was pretty sure, from the mocking tone she'd detected in his voice a moment or two earlier, that he simply wouldn't believe it.

"Ah yes — your flying friend does have his scruples, doesn't he? He'll find that a major handicap one of these days," Luthor murmured smoothly. "Still, Lois, my love, I think we really need Superman here if this party is going to be a success. So I would be most grateful if you would summon him." This suggestion was accompanied by the slow stroke of the back of Luthor's free hand along her cheek; she had to steel herself not to recoil, in case he reacted violently.

She stared at him instead, her expression deliberately disbelieving. "*Summon* him? No-one summons Superman. And I haven't the faintest idea how to get in touch with him."

"And yet, my dear Lois, he always does seem to turn up just when you need him. He appears to have a very strong sense of loyalty where you're concerned, you know. Did you know that he's in love with you?"

In *love* with her? Superman? Of course he wasn't… he couldn't be… could he? But when she'd told him she was so deeply in love with him, he'd rejected her.

Although… now that she thought about it, he hadn't said that he didn't love her, just that he couldn't believe her words about being in love with him.

So… maybe Lex was right? Superman *did* love her? But he'd had so many opportunities to tell her, to show how he felt, and he'd taken none of them. Because he didn't know how she felt? But that couldn't be true either.

She tilted her chin and gave Luthor a disbelieving stare. "You have to be crazy. Superman isn't in love with me."

"Oh? Then why did he come in answer to my summons, the night before our wedding? I told your friend Kent I wanted to talk to Superman about you, and he turned up — he even threatened me that if I ever did anything to hurt you he'd be there to make me regret it. I could have sworn I was talking to a man deeply in love." Luthor smiled again, clearly enjoying Lois's discomfiture.

"You talked to Superman about me, the day before our wedding?" Lois was incredulous.

"Well, it wasn't so much of a talk, really," he conceded with a wry smile. "More a conquest… or it would have been, if he hadn't managed to escape from my cage. But no matter — there'll be another opportunity," Luthor finished elliptically.

"Conquest? Cage? What are you talking about?" Lois demanded, making another attempt to shake her wrist free of his hand.

But he had no intention of releasing her. "Come, my dear, let me take you downstairs." As he led the way out of the room, his grasp gave her no option but to follow. She looked around her incredulously as she followed him down the stairs: the house was filthy, the decor tasteless and the fittings were cracked, broken or otherwise in a bad state of repair.

"Oh, you're surprised that I should bring my fiancee to such a place?" Luthor asked, clearly noticing her disbelief. "Do you think I can't afford any better?"

"Well, since I'm aware that the police froze most of your assets, and then your will dispersed whatever wasn't confiscated, I *could* assume that you're penniless," she replied dryly. "But I wouldn't be at all surprised if that bank robbery I read about last night was your doing."

"How clever of you, my sweet," he drawled, amused. "Yes, I'm certainly not penniless — but this house suits my purpose admirably, for the moment."

Leading the way into a sparsely-furnished sitting-room, Luthor then released Lois and instructed her to take a seat. Rubbing her bruised and painful wrist, she glanced around at the two chairs which, apart from a television, were the room's only furniture. The chairs were upright, as might be found with a dining-table, and one of them looked wobbly; she chose the more stable one of the two and sat down, watching her captor carefully. He took up a position between her and the door, though she guessed that even if he'd been standing at the other side of the room she still wouldn't make it to the door before he caught her.

A flash of red caught her eye: the back of her left hand, not the one Luthor had been holding, was bleeding. Vaguely, she remembered having scraped it against the broken glass in her apartment. Not having a handkerchief, she could only dab at it with the hem of her shirt, but the bleeding seemed almost to have stopped.

She had to keep Luthor talking. That was the best way to deal with him, to try to find out what his aim was in bringing her to this place. Lex Luthor was not a man to be under-estimated; she would never make that mistake again. Before his downfall he had controlled a multi-billion dollar empire, as well as being one of the most dangerous criminals this century — even if hardly anyone had known it. She herself had known him to be ruthless, capable of stabbing someone in the back while simultaneously being charming to their face. But on the other hand, *then* he had enjoyed a large support network, of loyal employees and business associates. Now, he was alone.

Whether Luthor had made any attempt to make contact with those of his former close allies who were still at liberty, Lois had no idea. The main thing, as far as she was concerned, was that right now he was alone. It was just him and her. Yes, he had Super-powers, which meant that there was absolutely no way that she would be able to get the better of him physically — even her Tae Kwon Do would be of no use to her. But she could use her intelligence, and her powers of reasoning and logic; true, Luthor was one of the most intelligent men she had ever met, but she felt reasonably confident that she could hold her own against him, especially as she was definitely beginning to wonder about his mental state.

Keep him talking…

"So you did rob that bank, Lex? Quite a come-down for you to have to do your own dirty work, isn't it?" She knew it was unlikely that she would gain his confidence, but she might just succeed in getting him to tell her enough about what he'd planned to give her an opportunity to stick a spanner in the works. She was already sure that he had wanted her to call for Superman; his comment upstairs had only confirmed it. The fact that he hadn't made any attempt to prevent her from calling out when he'd captured her, or during the brief flight, told her only too clearly that he wanted Superman.

Which made her all the more determined that the Man of Steel was not going to turn up.

Luthor smiled sardonically. "I always believe in utilising the most effective means possible to achieve a given end, Lois. With my new… ah, *attributes,* it doesn't make sense to delegate, don't you think?"

"Ah, but you don't seem to have anyone to delegate to at the moment, Lex," Lois observed with an amused smile, hoping that she was succeeding in hiding her fears about her situation. Although the fact that Lex had brought her downstairs had reassured her on another point: given their past relationship, she had feared that he intended to have sex with her — and she suspected that he wouldn't much care whether it was rape or not. Of course it wasn't necessary to be in a bedroom, or lying on a bed, in order to have sex, but the Lex Luthor she had known had always been fastidious; she couldn't quite visualise him having his way with her on the faded, stained carpet on the floor of this room. So if sex was on his mind, it wasn't part of the immediate agenda. Which was a relief: remembering what she'd heard about Gretchen Kelly, she had no illusions about her ability to withstand an assault of that nature by Luthor.

Pushing aside that thought, she concentrated on what he was saying to her in response.

"Lois, my dear, this is between you and me," he drawled. "Why would I need anyone else? Don't you believe that I just want to be alone with you, my love?" he enquired, lifting one eyebrow and at the same time allowing his gaze to rake her from head to toe. She suppressed a squirm of revulsion and ignored his remark; she had no intention of pursuing that line of discussion. Change the subject, Lois… He'd wanted to talk about Superman, that much was obvious, and he'd given her the perfect opening by dropping hints about something which had happened the day before their abortive wedding. It wasn't too difficult to put the clues together: he must have tried to harm Superman in some way, using her as bait. He might even have tried to kill the Super-hero: she wouldn't put it past Luthor to be aware of the existence of Kryptonite, even to have obtained some. In fact… Lois bit her lip to prevent herself saying anything out loud… that could explain where Arianna Carlin came by the Kryptonite to make that bullet. She'd had access to LexLabs…

So Luthor had tried once before to kill Superman, and had failed. Had he had Kryptonite then? Did he have it now? Was this to be his second attempt at killing Superman, again using her as bait?

She wasn't going to play along. Change the subject, Lois, she told herself again. Distract him. She got to her feet and turned towards him, allowing her gaze to rake him slowly from head to foot. "Just what *are* you wearing, Lex? Are you planning to go to a fancy-dress party later or something?"

He fingered his black mask lightly, his expression contemptuous. "It's a lot less ridiculous than that outfit your Kryptonian friend flies around in. He looks like an escapee from a children's pantomime!"

"Maybe, but at least his Suit and the cape are aerodynamic," Lois taunted. "That cloak of yours just keeps getting in the way! And it looks heavy — it must create a lot of wind resistance."

She was playing a dangerous game, running the risk of angering him. But on the other hand, Lois was pretty sure that he would be instantly suspicious if she tried the other possible tactic, of being friendly, pretending she was delighted to see him — if she could even pull it off, which she very much doubted.

He paced a little, which merely proved her point about the cloak: it swished about his ankles, but not in the way Superman's cape did. Superman's cape was made of a light unlined fabric — silk or a synthetic which had a similar feel, Lois had always thought. But this cloak, while possibly made of silk, was lined with a much heavier fabric. In fact, it looked as if it had been designed for warmth as much as for concealment, and it seemed to get in Luthor's way as he moved; she saw him kick it aside more than once.

"So what exactly *is* that thing you're wearing, Lex?" she asked, taking care to tread a fine balance between curiosity and taunting.

He sighed; she wished he wasn't wearing the mask so that she could see his expression more clearly. Was he annoyed? Merely impatient? Humouring her? "My dear Lois, I thought you had a better understanding of our planet's history and culture than that. This is a domino, the genuine article, dating from one of the more civilised periods in English history, the Regency period. The domino, together with the mask, would be worn to a masquerade by a lady or gentleman."

Lois stifled the urge to laugh. "Lex, I never thought I'd hear you referring to anything to do with the English class system as 'civilised'! You know that if you'd been around in eighteenth-century Britain none of those blue-blooded aristocrats would have given you the time of day! You'd never have built up an empire as powerful as LexCorp — not with your background."

"Oh, you know I despise the class system, Lois," he answered dismissively. "The feudal aristocracy, at any rate — I do admire a class system built on courage, and fearlessness, and ruthlessness. A world in which only the strong survive, Lois, that would be the perfect world."

"Survival of the fittest, Lex? How primitive," she replied, this time allowing herself to laugh. Her choice of conversation was disconcerting him, she could see that; he didn't know what to make of her mood. And that was just the way she wanted it.

Now, if only she could work out a plan to get herself out of there *without* the assistance of Superman…


He couldn't work her out. She should have been pleading with him by now, begging his forgiveness for the humiliation she had caused him by jilting him at the altar, imploring him to spare her life. Instead, she was daring to laugh at him; she'd had the audacity to question his choice of apparel and was scorning his opinions. Didn't the woman realise how much danger she was in?

Perhaps she simply didn't appreciate the seriousness of her position; maybe she hadn't heard about his victims of that day, those old enemies with whom he'd now evened the score — although she had referred to things she knew he had done today, which suggested that perhaps she did know. But perhaps she needed to be brought to an awareness of her fragile grip on life and of how completely she was at his mercy. He could, perhaps, turn on the television — assuming this place had cable or access to a decent TV news programme — and show her the fruits of his day's work. She couldn't fail to be intimidated by that, Luthor reasoned as he continued to stare, unblinkingly, at the woman who should have been his wife.

But she wasn't his wife; and he felt now that she didn't deserve that status. It was strange: he had wondered how he would feel on seeing her again, and yet nothing could have prepared him for the sight of her in the living-room of her apartment, when he'd burst through her window. Every bit as beautiful as he'd remembered; he had wanted her all over again. Wanted her in his bed, to grace his home, to give him the stimulation he'd found lacking in most of the other women he'd bedded in recent years. Lois was not only pleasing to look at, but also intelligent — perhaps *too* intelligent, he'd thought, but he could deal with that — and had never been sycophantic, which had been a novel experience for him.

Yes, he still wanted her; now, as his gaze wandered over her beautiful, slim body standing only a few feet away from him he found it incredible to believe that he'd been foolish enough to go along with her request that they wait until their wedding night. It had seemed, at the time, an intriguing prospect: a test of his ability to control his desires. He'd even thought that by heightening the anticipation their wedding night should be even more spectacular. Lois might appear to be cold, on the surface, but he'd always felt that she was capable of vast reserves of passion. He'd seen the way she behaved when she was hell-bent on a story, for example: she had passion in quantities then. And when she was angry… as she was now, to some degree; how he wanted to harness that anger in a different way! To run his hands through her sleek dark hair, to kiss her luscious lips in a way he'd never allowed himself to before, and to… well, there would be time for that later.

But she was certainly capable of passion. There had, of course, also been that memorable occasion at the airport when Mr Goody Two-Boots himself had unbent and kissed Lois with an unseemly display of ardour; she had kissed him back in a manner which — besides making him mad with jealousy — had, in spite of his revulsion, delighted his heart, since it meant that he had been right to believe her capable of such passion. That had been the occasion on which he'd begun to suspect that the irritating so-called Super-hero's feelings for Lois were not as pure as the alien had pretended — he had a strong suspicion that Superman had not actually been affected by the pheromone at all, but was using that as an excuse to have his way with Lois.

Lois's own reaction to his appearance had, he had to admit, surprised him. He'd expected her to show at least some fear: after all, his chosen mode of entrance would have scared most normal people, and he would have expected that the sight of one whom she had believed dead should have shocked her. But instead, coolly, she had told him that he should have stayed dead! The woman clearly had no manners, let alone any normal person's sense of self-preservation. It was once again apparent that marriage to Lois Lane would have been a great mistake; he'd had a fortunate escape.

And, while she wasn't afraid of him, neither was she impressed by his new-found abilities; he couldn't make sense of that either. He had noticed with chagrin, early in their acquaintance, how quickly she had become distracted once that offensively-clad exhibitionist had arrived on the scene; and yet *he,* Lex Luthor, now had the same abilities as Superman, and she had shown a distinctly unflattering lack of interest.

However, he mused as he watched her now, there was still the immediate question of what to do with the woman. She was being extremely unco-operative: she showed no willingness to call for that boring do-gooder friend of hers, which was most disappointing. After all, one of the reasons he had brought Lois here was to lure that so-called Superman here too. Though she would have other uses…

Seeing Lois again had told Lex that, however angry he might be with her, he still desired her. However, he was no longer so besotted that he was prepared to accept her back, make her part of his life once more. No; she had betrayed him and publicly humiliated him, and she would have to pay. Once Little Boy Blue was out of the way and his body dumped in the deepest part of the Atlantic, he could use Lois to his heart's content; that was the purpose of acquiring this house and stocking up with several days' worth of food and other essential items, after all. And then, when he'd had his fill of her… well, he'd discovered today just how easy it was to get rid of troublesome — vulnerable — humans. But first, there was Superman to dispose of.

Actually, Lex was somewhat surprised that Superman hadn't already caught up with him; there was absolutely no doubt that Mr Whiter-than-White would have known who was responsible for those deaths, and if Luthor knew anything about Superman he was sure that the Super-hero would be anxious to prevent him killing anyone else. In fact, the idiot no doubt wanted to find him anyway: having been so stupid in the first place as to allow his powers to be transferred, Lex was pretty sure that Superman would want to find a way to reverse the transfer at the earliest possible opportunity.

Not that he would get the chance; certainly not if this plan worked.

He turned back to Lois: she was still standing erect, gazing at him with a slightly scornful expression; she wouldn't be looking at him like that later if he had anything to do with it, he resolved. The immediate necessity was to ensure that she called for Big Blue, so he would simply have to frighten her a little more. With that in mind, he took a couple of slow, deliberate strides towards her, the domino swirling irritatingly around his legs again as he did so. She clearly needed to be shown just how much danger she was in, since she seemed unable to appreciate it on her own.


Lois watched as Luthor began to walk towards her; she recognised that there was now something a little menacing in his behaviour, a demeanour which had not been there before now. Clearly he was losing patience with her complete refusal to act intimidated or impressed by him, or to summon Superman to come to her aid. This was where, no doubt, things would start to get nasty.

She *was* frightened, but was still determined not to show it. She knew only too well that to give Luthor any indication at all that she was intimidated by him would only help him. She was also now convinced that the Luthor she was confronted with was not at all like the urbane, civilised man she had known before — even if she hadn't known that other man at all well. Whatever process Gretchen Kelly had used to resurrect Luthor had, Lois suspected, had some effect on his mental state: he seemed to be showing some evidence of instability. That might explain his crazed attack on Kelly herself; it could also explain the seeming inconsistency in his behaviour now.

The only way to deal with this situation was to keep him off balance, by *not* behaving in the way he expected. So she tilted her chin and gave him a challenging look as he approached, determined to stand her ground and not back away from him. She briefly considered her chances of landing a carefully-aimed kick, but decided that his Super-powered reflexes would have him out of harm's way before she'd even got half-way to making contact.

But he ignored her, and instead picked up the chair further away from her in one hand. "In case, my dear Lois, you were under the misapprehension that my abilities do not match your friend Superman's in every way, let me give you a demonstration," he drawled smoothly.

In one brisk movement he snapped off one of the chair's legs, dropping the wrecked chair back to the floor. Then, as she watched, he snapped the broken leg in two, holding the pieces in one hand. Within seconds, ground fragments of wood were trickling through his fingers.

"I haven't tried it yet, but I'm sure you can imagine the effect if that was a human leg I had been holding, my love," he added, opening his hand to allow the remainder of the fragments to fall to the floor, and then crossing to her side to trail his fingers along her cheek. She could feel the rasp of some splinters which still clung to his fingers..

Would he really hurt her like that? Lois remembered her earlier doubt about Luthor's intentions towards her — his former fiancee, after all — and her suspicions about his mental state were further confirmed. Now, she was very frightened; but she was still determined not to show it. Deliberately keeping her gaze fixed on him, Lois spoke scornfully. "Am I supposed to be frightened, Lex? You know, none of this is making a lot of sense to me. You're talking some of the time as if we were still together — and you're calling me your 'love' — and at the same time you're trying to intimidate me. If I didn't know any better, I'd say you really didn't know what you want here."

But inwardly she admitted that she knew only too well what he wanted. He was hoping that she would give in and yell for Superman. But that was the one thing she was determined not to do, under any circumstances.

A small voice inside her asked just how far she was prepared to let Luthor go; if he really was prepared to use any tactics at all, was she willing to be raped, or even killed, rather than bring Superman into this situation?

But if she brought Superman into the situation, the chances were that *he* would end up dead; and she wasn't prepared to take that chance. She supposed that if she was actually asking herself whether she was prepared to die for the Super-hero, then the answer was yes. Superman was far more important to the world than a mere reporter. The world needed Superman; he'd saved the lives of countless thousands of people since his arrival a year and a half earlier. So she could not allow him to risk his life to save hers.

All she could do was hope that Superman could find a way to stop Luthor before his death toll increased much more. She still had no idea what might have happened to Clark — while the thought of simply demanding of Luthor whether he had harmed Clark had crossed her mind, she'd quashed the impulse. No point putting ideas into his head which might not already have been there. Likewise, she had concerns for Perry White and Franklin Stern, and possibly Jimmy and Jack, though Luthor might well consider them to be so insignificant as to be beneath his notice.

"Lois, my love, I always know what I want," Luthor was assuring her, his voice smooth; but his eyes were like shards of ice as he watched her. "You really should know not to underestimate me — "

He broke off suddenly and spun around; Lois could see the dawning of a triumphant smile on his face, just as she heard a very familiar voice say coolly, "And you really should have learned by now not to underestimate me, Luthor."

Her heart sank as Superman strode purposefully into the small room.


It had been easier than he'd expected to follow Lois's scent, Clark thought as he approached the house in which he now knew she was being held. He'd have to remember that in future, the next time she did something foolish like go off into danger on her own; knowing Lois, it wouldn't be too long before that happened again.

He hovered over the house, deliberately restraining the impulse to rush straight in. Although every impulse he possessed was screaming at him to fly in and rescue her, that he didn't want her to be in Luthor's power for one second longer, his common sense told him that he needed to establish the precise lay of the land first. To begin with, he X-rayed the house to ensure that Lois really was there, and whether Luthor was there with her; he was hugely relieved to discover that they were in a small room on the ground floor and that Lois appeared to be unharmed apart from the cut to her hand, which didn't seem to be bleeding any more. He was threatening her, however, which made Clark more anxious.

But since he was also well aware that this could be a trap, he waited. The biggest danger was Kryptonite, and it was perfectly possible that Luthor could have some. However, after floating above the house for a minute or so, he felt no ill-effects. Knowing it was still possible for Luthor to have a piece of the lethal meteorite in a lead box, he resolved to take the chance. Putting on a burst of Super-speed, he flew downwards and wrenched open the back door of the house, in time to stroll into the front room and respond to Luthor's drawled comment to Lois.

"And you really should have learned by now not to underestimate me, Luthor."

As he spoke, Clark took in the scene in the room: Lois standing by a chair, doing her best to look determined — though she couldn't hide the quickened heartbeat which spoke to him of her fear. He also saw the brief but alarmed glance which she cast in his direction; he was unsure whether that represented concern for him or a recognition that he was bound to be angry with her. He deliberately turned his attention away from her once he'd confirmed his initial impression that she seemed to be unharmed — apart from one wrist, which she was now rubbing and which appeared to be painful.

Lex Luthor stood close to her, wearing what seemed to Clark to be a ridiculous outfit: typical of the man to put on such a display of showmanship. But he ignored the cloak, other than to note that it was obviously the source of those black silk threads, and mask, fixing Luthor with a hard stare.

That didn't seem to bother his old adversary; Luthor smiled in apparently genuine amusement. "Superman. So good of you to join us: Lois and I were wondering whether you would drop in."

Clark ignored the words, but felt his blood boil as Luthor took a step closer to Lois. Deliberately, the older man took Lois's chin in his hand and lowered his head; he brushed a kiss across her lips. Clark could see in Lois's eyes the distaste she was desperately struggling to keep off her face, and he stepped forward.

"Let her go, Luthor. This is between you and me."

"Oh? You don't think that my fiancee and I might have some unfinished business?" Luthor enquired, turning to face Superman.

"I'm not your fiancee, Lex. I told you that at my apartment," Lois pointed out, her tone slightly bored. She was doing her best to hide any fear that she might have been feeling, Clark recognised — and probably very successfully too, since Luthor's response to her intervention was to look irritated.

But Clark had no intention of risking the possibility that Luthor might lose patience with Lois; he stepped forward, interposing his body between the other two, and with one hand gripping Lois's arm and gently but insistently pushing her back. She retreated, though he could tell that it was with less than good grace. He wished that, just for once, she would recognise her own limitations.

"It seems that Ms Lane doesn't consider herself to have any involvement with you, Luthor," Clark said pointedly, crossing his arms in front of his chest in what he knew to be his trademark Super-hero-expecting-to-be-taken-seriously pose.

"Oh, very gallant!" Luthor observed sarcastically. "Not that it matters — Lois and I will resolve our outstanding business in the very near future, without any interference from you, Superman!"

With that, Luthor lunged towards Clark. But he had seen the movement, and he positioned himself to block the older man's attack. It took a lot of strength, since Luthor had not only strength equivalent to Clark's own, but momentum too. They wrestled for a few moments, Luthor making several attempts to grab Clark's jugular, but he managed to evade his opponent's grasp.

"Let's see how brave you are when you're up against someone who matches your strength, Superman!" Luthor taunted, struggling hard to try to overpower Clark.

With a crash, one of the chairs went flying, and out of the corner of his eye Clark could see Lois moving herself swiftly out of the way of the struggling opponents. Without taking his attention off Luthor for so much as a split second, he yelled at her, "Get out of here! Go, now!"

But, to his annoyance and anger, she stayed put. He forced himself to try to ignore her, but he was seething inside; didn't she know that by remaining she was giving him something else to worry about? He could cope with fighting Luthor: the other man's strength might be equal to his own, but there were aspects of his Super-powers Luthor clearly hadn't become accustomed to yet. Clark was confident that he would be able to overpower the other man fairly quickly. But with Lois still in the room, his attention was necessarily distracted; he had to ensure that she wasn't hurt, instead of concentrating solely on getting the better of Luthor.

And Luthor was prepared to fight dirty. He caught a glint of red in the other man's eyes, and a moment later the light-fitting came down from the ceiling towards his head. Clark simply glanced upwards and used his Super-breath to direct it to the other side of the room. Luthor took advantage of the distraction to make another grab for Clark's jugular, but Clark recovered in time and wrenched Luthor's arm away.

"Lois, *go*!" he yelled again, and refocused himself on the fight. Luthor was directing a blast of freezing breath in his direction; he felt it coming, and again used his Super-breath to direct it harmlessly away. Then he saw that glint of red again, and this time was just in time to meet Luthor's blast of heat vision with one of his own; they struggled against each other for several seconds until Luthor was forced to break the contact. A patch of the carpet caught fire; Clark, having disengaged his heat vision as soon as Luthor had conceded defeat, stepped forward and ground out the flame with one booted foot.

Breathing heavily and with fury in his gaze, Luthor spat at him, "I said you were a coward. You haven't the guts to kill me, have you, alien?"

<If I was a different person, I would have taken the advantage there> Clark acknowledged, ignoring the 'alien' barb as he poised himself for Luthor's next attack while he tried to work out the best way of overpowering his opponent. Was he imagining it, or was Luthor finding it difficult to sustain this level of combat? <But if I had done that, it would make me as bad as him…>

"That's *not* the way I work!" he retorted firmly, remembering as he did so the previous occasion on which he'd uttered those words; his opponent then had been as determined, and maybe as deranged, as Lex Luthor now appeared to be.

"More fool you!" Luthor scorned, his expression contemptuous. Clark was conscious that the older man was becoming more and more frustrated at his inability to seize the upper hand in their struggle, and wondered whether Luthor had simply assumed that his willingness to kill meant that he should automatically be the victor. It occurred to him to consider whether Luthor had not realised that Superman had the advantage of years of practice with using his Super-powers.

The next attack came in the form of a left hook; Clark feinted and Luthor's fist swung through empty air. Clark followed through by grabbing his arm and throwing Luthor onto the ground; he'd won, he realised, moving to pin the man down, ignoring Luthor's howl of frustrated anger as he did so. This was it; if he could hold onto Luthor and secure him somehow, then he could work out how to deal with the situation from here on. Clearly just bringing him in to Henderson's precinct wouldn't work: no prison could keep Luthor in his current state of enhanced abilities. But there had to be a way of dealing with him, some means of reversing the power transfer. Perhaps if he flew Luthor back to the lab with the Tesla coils, he could manage it -

The renewed glint of red in Luthor's eyes alerted him to danger; too late, he heard Lois scream in agony. As he swung to face her, she fell backwards to the floor, to lie there unmoving.


Why had Superman come? How had he managed to find her? Why couldn't he have just left her to get out of this situation on her own? Lois could barely focus her thoughts on anything but the grim realisation that the situation which she had tried so hard to prevent had come about. Luthor had got what he wanted: Superman was here.

Did he have Kryptonite? He didn't seem to be making any attempt to produce it; instead, he seemed to intend to rely on his physical strength. And maybe he thought that would be enough; after all, she reasoned with a grimace, Superman would not kill. Luthor, on the other hand, would have no compunction. He wanted Superman dead, there was no doubt about that.

With a growing sense of helplessness, she watched them struggle, although some of their movements were reduced to a blur: as far as she could tell, Luthor was trying to grab Superman's throat, and she knew that if he succeeded he would choke him to death, or even break his neck. Wild thoughts went through her mind of grabbing hold of some weapon and trying to sneak up behind Lex and hit him with it; but common sense reasserted itself and reminded her that it would have absolutely no effect on him whatsoever. Unless it simply acted as a means of distracting him, so that Superman would be able to overpower him?

Superman yelled at her to leave, to make her escape while he had Luthor distracted, but even though she knew he was right she couldn't bring herself to abandon him. Just what help she could possibly be to him in this situation she had absolutely no idea; she just knew she couldn't leave. She jumped as the light-fitting suddenly crashed to the floor; Superman must have done something to alter its trajectory as it fell, since it had been hanging above him, but was now in pieces several feet away.

He ordered her to leave again, but this time, even had she been willing to go, she was incapable of moving; her limbs just wouldn't obey any commands. She stood, rooted to the spot, her heart in her mouth as she watched the two men wrestle. A different struggle seemed to be going on now: she watched in puzzlement as they seemed to stare fixedly into each other's eyes. But when Luthor looked sharply away, and then part of the carpet caught fire before being stamped on by Superman, she realised what had been happening: they had been competing with heat vision, just as she'd seen Superman fighting with his clone a year earlier.

And of course Superman hadn't taken the opportunity to injure or incapacitate Luthor when he'd had the chance: his ethics simply wouldn't let him do that. For the first time since she'd known the Super-hero, Lois found herself wishing that he could ignore his principles and just do whatever was needed to overcome the most dangerous villain either of them had ever encountered. Superman could kill Luthor, or severely incapacitate him — given that Luthor was still getting used to the Super-powers, she had no doubt of the Super-hero's ability to win in a fair fight. But this would not be a fair fight, because one participant recognised no limits, while the other was deliberately restraining himself.

She was getting the distinct impression that Luthor was getting increasingly frustrated at his inability to get the better of Superman during the struggle. That surprised her, in a way: while she well knew that Luthor hated to be bested at anything, she found it incredible that he should think he could beat Superman in a Super-powered fight after only being in possession of equivalent powers for twenty-four hours. Was it some sort of incredible arrogance which made him think that he could win?

There was an angry exchange, during which Superman reiterated firmly his refusal to kill; almost as if Luthor had been using this dialogue as a distraction, he suddenly launched his fist at his opponent. Lois caught her breath, but Superman was ready for the attack and suddenly Luthor was on the ground. It was all over, and Superman had won!

She was just about to exclaim in relief when suddenly she felt a searing pain; it was sheer, unbearable agony. Crying out, she crumpled backwards in a heap, simply unable to bear the effort of standing; and everything went black.


With an involuntary howl of denial, Clark threw Luthor away from him and ran to where Lois lay crumpled and lifeless on the floor. He was vaguely conscious of a rush of wind behind him, and realised that Luthor had taken the chance to escape. So that was all it had been, Clark recognised in sheer disbelief: Luthor had killed Lois simply so that he could get away. He had realised that he wasn't going to be able to get the better of Superman, despite his willingness to go further in combat than Clark would — so he'd attacked the woman who had once been his fiancee. He had treated Lois as disposable, a means to an end.

And in doing so, he had wrenched out Clark's heart and torn it into tiny pieces.

Lois was so still, so quiet, her face so pale… she had been hit, he reminded himself, with a powerful blast of heat vision, and he remembered only too well the damage which that same heat vision, used by Lex Luthor, had caused to Gretchen Kelly. Lois had cried out in pain, so it couldn't have been just a low-level intensity, intended to distract rather than to maim or kill — but then, Clark remembered only too well how long it had taken him to learn to moderate his use of that particular power. He could now produce a blast of almost any strength he wanted, but that was a skill honed through years of experience. Luthor had had less than a day.

He crouched beside Lois, almost afraid to touch her. She looked so beautiful, so peaceful in death; he almost couldn't bear to reach out and touch her. Instead, he stared down at her, tears beginning to stream from his eyes as the enormity of what he had lost began to sank in. Lois, the woman he'd loved from the instant he'd set eyes on her, was gone, dead; all the hopes he'd harboured for a possible future with her destroyed in an instant. A torrent of regrets flooded through him: why hadn't he told her he loved her, why had he never told her the truth about him and Superman, how could he have allowed her to make her way back to Metropolis after he'd thought her safely hidden in Smallville…

He had thought she was safe. She should have been safe! And she would have been… only she'd been worried about Clark. About *him.* And if she'd known that Clark was in reality Superman, she would have had no need to worry. She would have stayed put, where he'd left her.

So it was all his fault that she was dead, because he hadn't told her the truth. And because he'd allowed Luthor to get his powers in the first place. And because he hadn't simply grabbed Lois and flown her away as soon as he'd got here, instead of assuming that she'd be okay and he could concentrate on overpowering Luthor. And, most of all, because he hadn't killed the man while he'd had the chance. He could have, in that instant when Luthor retreated from the heat vision battle. Had Clark pursued the advantage he'd had then, he could have killed his opponent — his enemy. Instead, he'd allowed his scruples to prevent him — <that's not how I work!> — and had allowed Luthor to re-enter the battle.

And as a result, Lois was dead.

<It's not your fault…> That was exactly what his parents would say, Clark knew; they would tell him that it was Lex Luthor's fault alone. Perhaps so; but Clark knew that he would never be able to forgive himself for allowing it to happen. And now, he would hunt Luthor down; if it took him his own life, he would pursue Lois's murderer and kill him. His ethics weren't worth anything if they'd prevented him saving the life of the woman he loved.

Through eyes blurry with tears he gazed at Lois; slowly, he lowered his head to claim one last kiss of farewell. Her lips were still warm, and the sensation broke his heart once more…

…until he realised that he could feel the exhalation of air against his face. She was breathing!

Suddenly he was galvanised into action, unable to believe that he hadn't thought to check before this to see whether she was actually dead; he'd just assumed that she must be. She was certainly breathing, and breathing pretty much normally, too. His gaze switched to the charred fragments of blouse on her left arm; that had to be where she'd been burned. The skin was red and angry, but thankfully not as bad as he'd expected; nothing like as viciously burnt as Gretchen Kelly had been. Luthor must have managed to exert some control over the use of his heat vision.

Had Luthor gone deliberately for Lois's arm, rather than somewhere potentially more lethal? Had the man purposefully not killed her, or had he been reckless as to whether she died or not? Clark found he didn't really care; one way or another, Lex Luthor would pay for what he had done. He would see to that.

Swiftly he blew on the injured area with his Super-breath, cooling it as much as he dared, before checking to see what other injuries she had. He quickly realised that she must have hit her head against the upturned chair as she fell; that, combined with the injury to her arm, had to have been the cause of her unconsciousness. He needed to get her to a hospital, but first he X-rayed her head and her arm to check the extent of her injuries.

From what he could tell, her head injury was superficial; there was a tiny amount of swelling but no bleeding. The burn was more serious, but he hoped that his action in freezing it would have helped minimise the damage — though he was cursing himself for having been so slow to realise that she wasn't dead. He could have frozen the burn a minute or two sooner, which could have made a difference in terms of the likely scarring and tissue damage.

Scooping Lois gently up into his arms, he exited the house and headed for the nearest hospital.


That had been a close call, Lex Luthor considered as he flew carefully up towards the Lexor Hotel, his chosen place of temporary refuge. He'd imagined that it would be so easy to defeat and kill that tedious tights-clad do-gooder given that Superman's 'morals' prevented him from killing, but he'd clearly over-estimated his own ability to overcome the Super-hero. He had found himself growing gradually weaker, and the final straw had been when the annoying *insect* had managed to overpower him. Although he'd known Superman wouldn't kill him, the alternatives were too horrible to contemplate.

And so he'd been forced to use Lois as his escape-route. He did hope he hadn't killed her; she was very beautiful, after all, and he still had some unfinished business with her. But it had been a necessary evil, and she had been expendable in that situation, after all. And it was a very certain means of ensuring that Superman would focus his attention elsewhere than on Lex Luthor. And, of course, the thought that the alien was suffering as a result gave him a feeling of satisfaction; and, no doubt, he would find out sooner or later whether Lois was alive. And if, by good fortune, she was, he would have another opportunity to sample what she had denied him throughout the period of their engagement.

It occurred to him that, instead of making his escape, he could have taken advantage of the Super-hero's distraction to aim a bolt of heat vision at his back; but it was probably better this way. For one thing, he couldn't be sure that one bolt would do it — he had no way of knowing, yet, exactly how far invulnerability went. After all, he'd seen Superman go into raging infernos and come out unscathed. For another, he knew how fast his own reflexes were now; how much faster were the Caped Cruiser's, when he'd had, presumably, all his life to get used to his abilities?

So he'd decided, in the best spirit of all good campaigns, that a strategic retreat was in order. And there were times, also in campaigns waged by the best of generals, that a sacrifice had to be made for the good of those whose survival was more important.

Now, he had to decide what his next move should be. Clearly killing that annoying Super-bug was not going to be as straightforward as he had expected; perhaps simple hand-to-hand combat, in the best traditions of duels, was not going to suffice. He needed Kryptonite; and for that, he needed to find Nigel. So that would have to be the priority; Superman could wait, for now. The best campaigns were those which were carefully planned, not those which were rushed into without adequate preparation; SuperLex had more sense than to act on impulse without very good cause.

There was one other thing Luthor was curious about: how had the irritating blue-fly managed to convince the police that Gretchen Kelly's death had nothing to do with him? The set-up had been pretty ingenious — masterful, in fact, Lex considered. The 'S' insignia, and the fact that it had been done with heat vision, and that the perpetrator had not left her apartment by any normal human means, all would seem to add up to a Super-hero gone bad. And yet, from what he'd been able to tell, the annoying hero had been with the police at most incidents, *helping* them rather than being under suspicion.

Still, while attempting to incriminate Superman had been amusing, it wasn't really part of the strategy, so Lex wasn't particularly upset that the Super-hero had managed to convince the police that he wasn't involved. And there were sure to be other ways in which he could create trouble for the man — and right now, he was otherwise occupied in snivelling over Lois Lane.

This was, of course, another way in which that over-moral beefcake could never hope to defeat Lex Luthor. The man actually *cared*! He allowed himself to have feelings for those pitiful human beings among whom he was forced to exist — one thing Lex himself would never do. Of course, he wanted Lois, but desiring a woman sexually certainly did not imply any sense of affection or caring. By allowing oneself to feel such distasteful things as emotions towards other people, one became weakened. That was not the way to succeed.

No; plan, strategise, allow no distractions to get in the way; ensure that next time victory would be absolutely his. Find Nigel; but first, get some sleep. Luthor was tired, which surprised him; he'd expected that possession of Super-powers would also give him unlimited energy resources. He'd never seen Superman tired, after all. But on the other hand, Superman was never on view twenty-four hours a day, so who knew what he did when he wasn't in the public eye? Perhaps he slept, or had some other way of renewing his energy stores.

Getting some sleep sounded like an excellent idea, Lex thought, but where? He had no wish to return to that house; apart from the fact that the cosmic clown now knew of its existence, it was… sordid. It was dirty, unpleasant, the neighbours were appalling, and it smelt. No, the hideout which Gretchen Kelly had used would have to do; bare and dark it might be, but it was secure, and he wouldn't be disturbed.

Having decided that, he lifted upwards from the roof of the Lexor and headed towards the basement which had once been his private underground museum, and was now stripped bare of all exhibits. The new owners of the former LexCorp-owned building on top of the basement had so far not found the secret entrance, which suited Lex just fine. Noteven the Man of Stainless Steel would find him there, since the walls were lined with lead.


Clark flew slowly, reluctantly, away from the hospital; he'd been told by the doctor treating Lois that there was no need for him to stay, and he'd finally, belatedly, realised that everyone in the ER was wondering why Superman was hovering so anxiously around Lois Lane's cubicle. She wasn't badly hurt, he'd had to be reassured by that knowledge. The doctor had seemed more concerned about the possibility of a head injury, since Lois had been unconscious, than about the burn on her arm, although both were being treated.

Lois had regained consciousness just as he'd reached the hospital with her in his arms; she'd blinked and looked up at him and rather woozily had asked whether he was okay. He'd been too concerned about her, and too full of his own feelings of guilt, to say much in response and had not encouraged conversation, simply striding straight into the ER with her. Nurses and orderlies had come running at the sight of Metropolis's Super-hero arriving with an injured woman, and he'd quickly found himself confronted with a young doctor eager to take a case history.

The explanation for Lois's injury had been difficult: Clark really did not want anyone else to know that Lex Luthor — or anyone other than himself — had Super-powers. So he'd had to gloss over the truth a little, and simply make it sound as if it had been his heat vision, and that Lois had somehow got in the way. He'd received a faintly critical glance at that, as if to say that he should have been more careful; well, he thought, he should have. But when he explained that he'd applied some freezing Super-breath to the burn site, the doctor's annoyed tutting had alarmed him.

"I thought it was the right thing to do, to cool a burn?" he'd asked.

"To cool it, yes — not to freeze it!" the doctor told him. "By freezing it, you kill more skin cells, which means she'll have more of a scar than she could have otherwise. The best treatment for an ordinary burn is to hold it under cold running water for about ten minutes."

So, instead of helping Lois, he'd actually made things worse for her? Clark's feelings of guilt intensified at that discovery. He also determined that it would be a good idea to take a first-aider's course at the earliest opportunity: while he often applied what common-sense seemed to dictate was good first-aid at the scene of an accident, this told him that he could be making all sorts of mistakes without knowing it.

But the doctor needed more information; after filling him in on Lois's head injury, Clark could only watch as a nurse wheeled Lois off to a cubicle to carry out the standard checks following loss of consciousness due to a head injury. His attention was recalled to the doctor then as he heard the man cough a little impatiently.

"We need some information about your heat vision, Superman," Dr Scott explained. "From what I've just seen, it looks as if it's just given her a thermal burn — probably a second-degree, maybe third-degree right at the centre, but since she's obviously in pain it's not entirely third-degree."

At the Super-hero's obviously questioning expression, the doctor continued. "Third-degree goes right to the nerve and destroys it — so there's nothing there to feel any pain. It's just possible that the centre of the burn could be third-degree, but the redness around the edges and those blisters beginning to develop suggest second-degree to me. The thing we need to know is how your heat vision works."

Clark frowned. "I'm really not sure. It's just… just a ray, almost like a laser, and it can burn or cut — I can moderate the force of it, though. At the mildest, it's perfectly safe and you'd just feel a little warmth. At the strongest, it can cut through steel."

"Or carve a human being into barbecued pieces," Dr Scott muttered. Clark winced.

"Okay, if it works like a laser, maybe we should treat this like a laser burn," the doctor continued, though he seemed to be thinking aloud. "Thing is, the symptomslook much more like a standard thermal burn, but who knows what tissue and nerve damage there is underneath?" He paused, seeming to be deep in thought, and then demanded, "Is there any likelihood of radiation?"

Clark shook his head; that much he did know. "Will she be okay?" he managed to ask at last. "I mean, how much damage will there be to her arm?"

The doctor shrugged. "If it's just a thermal burn, even at second-degree with some third-degree damage, she'll have a scar but the arm itself should be fine — there shouldn't be any loss of function from what I've seen. The head injury — well, that depends. We'll have to keep her under observation, and I want to keep an eye on that burn as well, in case there're any complications. The nurse will have put some wet sterile dressings on it, but we better just hope there's nothing in that vision of yours that would cause an infection of some sort."

Clark had got the distinct impression that the ER doctor considered him to have been negligent; and, in fact, he reflected as he considered whether to set his course for Smallville, he had been. He should have ignored Luthor and got Lois out of there regardless of her own wishes. And he should have known better than to freeze the burn; the thought that he might have made things worse was eating away at him.

She would be all right, he reminded himself. <Yes> his conscience pointed out, <but she'll have a scar. A scar which wouldn't have been as bad if you hadn't done the wrong thing>

She wouldn't have been hurt at all if it hadn't been for Lex Luthor, he reminded himself sternly. Luthor had kidnapped her, and it had been Luthor who had treated her as expendable in his need to escape. Luthor had used his heat vision on Lois, the woman he'd once intended to marry.

Well, Lex Luthor would pay for that, Clark resolved. He wasn't going to go after the man now, much though he wanted to: he knew only too well that if he found Luthor now he would find it very hard to hold onto his ethics. No, far better to catch up with his adversary when he'd had time to calm down. And anyway, right now he wanted to talk to his parents; he needed to tell them what had happened and seek their reassurance. He'd felt so helpless in the ER, just watching her being wheeled away from him, unable to be near her or to do anything to help, or even to hold her. He hadn't even been able to claim the right of a best friend or partner to stay with her, since he'd been there as Superman.

He briefly considered whether Lois would be safe if he left her alone: would it be better if he hovered above the hospital to keep an eye on her? But he dismissed that thought: he couldn't stay there all night. What if an emergency came up and Superman was needed? He could, he reflected, go to see Henderson and fill him in on what had happened, and ask him to assign protection to Lois — but that would involve some additional explanations to the hospital staff, which he really didn't want. And in any case, what could the police really do? Sit outside her room all night? It was unlikely that Luthor would be able to get in, in any case; he wouldn't run the risk of walking in as himself in case he was recognised, and if he used his Super-powers, he'd still have to break in. And anyway, did Luthor know that Lois was alive? For all the man knew, she could have been dead.

No, far better to come back himself later just to check that she was okay, and then start a more serious hunt for Luthor. The man had a lot to answer for; but first, Clark needed to go home.


"So, tell us again, how did Lois get hurt?" Jonathan Kent asked carefully.

Clark, who had already been over his explanation twice, couldn't understand why his father needed him to go through it again. But he obliged, nonetheless, although more frustration was creeping into his tone, replacing the self-recrimination which had been there on his previous attempts.

"So, let me see if I've got this right," Jonathan answered, pausing to sip from a mug of hot chocolate. "Lois decided to leave the safe place you'd brought her to and put herself in danger by returning to Metropolis. Lex Luthor found her and abducted her. You found her and told her — twice — to get out of there. Lex Luthor fried — sorry, used his heat vision on her. I'm a bit lost here, Clark. Mind explaining to me how that makes it *your* fault she got hurt?"

Clark stared helplessly at his mother, hoping she at least would understand, but she shook her head. "Your father's right, honey, even if I wouldn't have put it as strongly as that. All you did was go after Lois to rescue her. The rest was Luthor's doing."

"But I should have expected he'd try something like that," Clark protested.

"You can't anticipate everything," Martha pointed out. "And anyway, Luthor wanted to marry her six months ago — or, probably, from his point of view, only a few days ago. Why would you imagine he'd try to kill her?"

Clark shrugged helplessly. "I knew he might want revenge on her. But I should have just grabbed her and flown her out of there the second I arrived."

"You thought she'd be safe with you there," Jonathan reminded him. "You needed to bring Luthor in, or neutralise him somehow. And he was determined to try to kill you, so you didn't have a lot of choice once he started attacking you. Anyway, you told Lois to get out of there when you realised things were getting dangerous."

"Okay, okay," Clark sighed. "But I couldn't even treat her burn properly! And I didn't check to see whether she was alive for a couple of minutes. Her injuries could be worse because I didn't act fast enough."

"Now you're just being silly," Martha exclaimed impatiently. "Honestly, Clark! You were in shock! You're still in shock, in fact," she added, placing her hand where his pulse beat furiously in his throat. "And as for freezing her burn, you didn't know any better. You ask that doctor whether she'd have been in a better condition if you'd done nothing!"

Clark had to concede that his mother was right; he knew that if he hadn't made any attempt to cool the burn area, her arm would have been covered in blisters and raw red skin. The healing process would take longer, she would be in more pain, and — depending how deep the burn went — she could have needed a skin graft. But it was hard to stop himself feeling that he should have been able to prevent it happening in the first place.

"Come here, honey," Martha urged, getting to her feet and holding her arms out to Clark. He accepted the hug gratefully, drawing comfort from her embrace.

"I can't help it, Mom," he told her after a while. "I love her — I can't bear to see her hurt, and when I could have prevented it…"

"I know, sweetie," Martha told him. "But you can't be everywhere and do everything, you know that. Lois is going to be *fine,* that's the important thing."

Clark released his hold on her, stepping back. "Yeah, I know," he conceded wryly. "It's just remembering her scream, seeing her lying there on the floor, thinking she was dead…" He swallowed. "Anyway, I guess the main thing now is making sure Luthor can't get to her again. I've got to get back," he finished.

"Sure, son," Jonathan agreed. "But call us, okay? And we hope you deal with Luthor, but be careful. He's made it clear he wants to kill you."

Clark nodded. "I don't think he'll find that as easy as he thought. And he didn't have Kryptonite after all, you know. Maybe he hasn't got access to any more of it — maybe he's got no idea what happened to that cage."

"Let's hope so, honey," his mother said with emphasis. "Let us know how Lois is tomorrow."

"I will." With a rapid breeze and a sonic boom, he was gone.


Lois tried to sit up in the narrow hospital bed, and winced. Her head hurt. Still hurt, despite the fact that she'd asked the nurse for pain relief twice already in the last couple of hours. She hadn't been given any; the nurse had explained that she was under observation for suspected concussion and they didn't want to mask any symptoms by giving her analgesia.

<I'd almost rather have concussion> she thought sardonically. And it wasn't just herhead either; her upper arm was also throbbing under the sterile dressing. Remembering how she'd come by that particular injury, she closed her eyes briefly in frustration and self-condemnation. Superman had told her over and over to get out of the way, but she'd ignored him; and so she'd been perfectly placed for Luthor to use her as his escape route once the Super-hero had overpowered him. If she hadn't been there, Luthor would probably be behind bars by now — or under whatever restraint it would be possible to put a Super-powered villain.

Lex's attack on her also answered her own question of the previous evening, about his attitude towards her now. She'd wondered, before he'd arrived at her apartment, whether he really would hurt her or be prepared to kill her; now she knew. He would stop at nothing to get what he desired, even if that entailed killing someone he had claimed to care about. All his apparent caring for her had been no more than a facade to aid him in getting whatever it was he'd wanted at the time.

And he'd wanted her, back then; but it hadn't been because he'd had any finer feelings for her. She'd never really believed that he was in love with her, even though he had professed to love her. But she had assumed that he cared about her, liked her, enjoyed her company, found her to be an entertaining and intelligent companion and desired her. She supposed he still felt the latter: he'd suggested as much a couple of times during that hour when she'd been his captive. But his endearments had been spoken sarcastically, not lovingly; and he'd seen her as expendable.

<Why do I even care?!> she asked herself, brushing away an unwanted tear. <Not because I care about him — I *hate* him and I wish he was still dead! I wish Superman had killed him last night!>

No, she had no feelings for Lex Luthor, other than contempt. The problem was that seeing him again had brought back all the feelings of shame and disgust she'd felt the previous May, when her crazy engagement had ended at the altar and her ex-fiance had committed suicide. She had very quickly come to her senses, realised just what an unbelievably *stupid* thing she had almost done — marrying *Lex Luthor,* for crying out loud, a man she didn't love, and when, in fact, she'd been in love with someone else. Cutting herself off from all of her friends and support structures, and losing the friendship of someone who had come to be incredibly important to her in the brief year she'd known him.

Clark Kent.

The only true friend she had ever had; the person who'd taught her what having a best friend meant. The man she had worked with, laughed with, fought with, shared late-night takeouts at the Planet or one of their apartments with when they'd been working late, gone to movies with sometimes, come to lean on in a way the independent Lois Lane had never depended on another human being in her life before.

It hadn't been until she knew she'd lost his friendship then, that terrible day when he'd abandoned her in the road when she'd been driving that showy car Lex had lent her, that it had really dawned on her just how much he meant to her. And then, in those few minutes before the wedding ceremony started, she had realised that Clark really meant much more to her than a friend. But it had been too late. Not too late to stop the wedding, but too late for her and Clark.

And yet, it hadn't, or not, at any rate, for their friendship. He'd put their rift behind him once he knew she needed him, and even though he'd cut her off as she'd been about to say that perhaps she felt more for him than friendship — and he'd equally managed to avoid a similar conversation with her a few months later in the aftermath of his shooting — she could perhaps understand his reluctance. After all, she'd behaved in an appallingly fickle manner — Clark had been well aware of her feelings for Superman, and yet she'd accepted Luthor's proposal. She supposed it would had appeared kind of shallow had she then professed feelings for Clark barely forty-eight hours after her ex-fiance's death.

But she still cared for Clark, very much. Exactly what her feelings for him were was something she was reluctant to verbalise, even to herself, however; and those two occasions when she'd been prevented from getting into a discussion with him about their relationship had made her shy away from any further moves in that direction. After all, he was her best friend. If she lost him — and she'd almost lost him only a couple of months earlier — then *she* would be lost. Better to have him as a good friend than as an ex-lover if things went as badly as in all her previous relationships, she'd concluded.

But then Lex Luthor had returned, had turned her life upside-down again, and she still had no idea whether Clark was dead or alive.

Seeing Luthor again had served mostly to remind her of how badly she'd felt about herself in those few months immediately after the end of her engagement. It was also embarrassing to realise that, looking at him now, she only felt revulsion.

And he'd injured her… she'd been very lucky, she supposed. After all, from what she'd been able to work out, he'd killed six people the previous day, one of whom had been the woman who'd brought him back to life and given him his powers. And, from the little the news programmes had seemed to know, it appeared that Gretchen Kelly's death had been particularly horrible. She too could have been dead, fried by a dart of Lex Luthor's heat vision. Instead, he had only caught her arm — presumably because he hadn't taken the time to target his vision properly? — and she was okay, with just an easily-treatable burn. She would probably have a scar, but Dr Scott didn't think there was any nerve damage.

In fact, when she'd come around properly in the ER and managed to shake off the muzziness, she'd realised that the ER staff were more concerned about her head injury; she'd been bombarded with demands to repeat her name, the year, the name of the President, her address… she knew it was the normal routine, but she'd just wanted to close her eyes and make the pain go away. But the pain hadn't really gone away, and she'd drifted between wakefulness and a state of semi-sleep with weird, vivid dreams for most of the night.

So now it was early morning, and although no pain relief was forthcoming, it was possible that she might at least get a cup of coffee soon. She wondered vaguely whether Superman might visit her; he hadn't stayed around the previous evening, but then she assumed that he'd taken off in pursuit of Luthor. Her last memory of Superman was of him talking earnestly to Dr Scott as she'd been wheeled off to a treatment cubicle.

He'd been quiet on the flight to the hospital, from what she could remember; when she'd regained consciousness to feel herself airborne in his arms, her first thought had been the fight with Luthor and her fears for his safety. But he'd merely replied in a monosyllable to her agitated question, and hadn't spoken to her at all as he'd brought her into the ER. Had he been angry with her for disobeying his instruction to leave? Or — worse still — for leaving the safety of Clark's parents' home? After all, he'd been adamant about taking her there for her own safety. Yet she'd completely ignored his instructions — which had, after all, been based on a very reasonable expectation that she would be in danger — and had returned to Metropolis. She'd put herself right in Luthor's path, and had been responsible for luring Superman into a trap which could very easily have led to his death.

Yes, if Superman was angry with her, it was entirely understandable. And, she supposed, there was no real reason why he should visit her, or show any concern for her at all. This was entirely her own fault, and she couldn't blame him if he washed his hands of her.

Her thoughts of Superman made her recall Luthor's bizarre suggestion, the previous evening, that Superman was in love with her. At the time, she hadn't known what to think, but now in the cold light of day — and especially in the light of his manner last night when taking her to the hospital — she knew Lex couldn't have been more wrong. Superman felt responsible for her, she reckoned; he also thought of her as a friend. He'd told her that only the other day. But love… no. He'd made that perfectly clear. She wasn't even sure whether Superman would be interested in women in that way — okay, he'd kissed her on a couple of occasions, but never made the slightest attempt to follow up those kisses, even though it must have been obvious that she wouldn't have repulsed him. No, Luthor was wrong about that, as he was wrong about so many other things.

But Clark, on the other hand, did care about her… but where was he? Would she ever see him again?

She was jerked out of her depressing thoughts by the nurse putting her head around the door to tell Lois that she had a visitor.


On his return to Metropolis, Clark hadn't been able to stop himself hovering over the hospital, scanning the building with his X-ray vision to check that Lois was safe and recovering. She'd been taken to a room, he'd discovered, and although she was moving about restlessly she seemed to be in no more than moderate pain. Even moderate pain, though, was something he never liked to see Lois suffer, so he had spent an uncomfortable night dividing his time between maintaining a vigil above the hospital, doing a couple of Superman patrols and scouting around for Luthor, with one quick detour to Lois's apartment to repair her shattered window.

Of the latter, however, there had been no sign. Clark wondered whether he had gone to ground to recover his strength after their battle; he'd noticed that Luthor had been breathing heavily when he'd finally got the man pinned down on the floor. Perhaps his surmise about Luthor needing sleep to re-energise himself had been correct. But Clark was still concerned that the former billionaire might decide to discover for himself whether Lois had survived his attack on her, so he hadn't been able to tear himself away from the hospital for too long at a time.

Now it was morning, and he'd made one important decision during his long night. Lois, he had been told by Dr Scott, would need to be in the hospital for at least twenty-four hours, possibly two nights. Once she was discharged, he intended to bring her back to Smallville; but he needed to be sure that she would go. And she wouldn't be willing to leave Metropolis while the reason for her return was still present.

She was worried about Clark; therefore he needed to reassure her that Clark was safe and well.

He should be flattered that she was worried about him, he supposed — well, he was flattered, of course, but even though her actions had told him that she cared about him, cared for Clark, he would have preferred not to find out this way.

As he strolled purposefully into the hospital, dressed in his work suit and usual garish tie and carrying a large bouquet of flowers, he realised that it was actually still very early and that he might not be allowed to see her. So when he reached the reception desk he summoned up his widest smile and set about charming the clerical officer. This wasn't something he made a habit of, or which he would even have thought he had a talent for, but Lois had seemed to notice that other women tended to respond to his smile and country-boy manners and had encouraged him to use those in their investigations when necessary.

<If only you were charmed by my smile and my manners, Lois!> he had thought more than once.

The receptionist returned his smile, looking a little flustered, and directed him to Lois's ward; once there, he tried the same tactics with the middle-aged nurse who seemed to be in charge. She explained that visiting wasn't normally permitted before mid-morning, but he gave her a pleading look and made the excuse that he needed to be in work soon, so that this was the only chance he'd get to visit his girlfriend before evening — crossing his fingers behind his back at the description of Lois as his girlfriend. She relented, and led him along to Lois's room.

Pausing while the nurse checked to see whether Lois was awake and ready for a visitor, Clark took several deep breaths to calm himself down. His emotions were churning, a combination of concern for Lois, guilt at his own failure to prevent her injuries, and anger at her own actions in putting herself in danger mingling inside him. As Clark, he wasn't supposed to know the full details of what had happened to her, although he supposed that he could use the old excuse that Superman had told him.

The nurse turned to him and gestured, indicating that he could go in; he took another deep breath and pushed the door open. Lois was half-sitting up in bed, looking very pale but with dark shadows under her eyes. This reinforced the impression he'd had while watching her overnight, that she hadn't slept well and was probably still in some pain. Her arm, he was relieved to see, was covered in a strip of some sterile fabric, but it wasn't a large strip and didn't give the impression that she was very badly injured.

Then she saw him, and her expression, if that was possible, turned even paler. "Clark…! I… oh, God, you're alive!" she gasped, her reaction causing his gut to twist still further as her words reminded him of the reason why she'd returned to Metropolis in the first place. She'd been worried about *him.*


Lois was surprised at the nurse's information: who would be visiting at this time in the morning, and why would the hospital allow anyone in to see her before official visiting time? She quickly decided it had to be Superman — no-one would deny him admittance, and he probably would want to be reassured that she was all right, after all, even if he did think her injuries were her own fault.

So it was with a little reluctance that she pulled herself into a semi-upright position in the hospital bed to face the slowly-opening door. Expecting to see the familiar features and brightly-coloured Spandex of the Super-hero, she took a moment or two to realise that the man standing a little hesitantly in the doorway wasn't Superman after all.

Her breath caught in her throat. "Clark…! I… oh, God, you're alive!"

He stood there, just inside the door, dressed in the dark charcoal suit she secretly loved on him, a yellow tie with little pink elephants dotted over it, and carrying one of the largest bunches of flowers she had ever seen… and he was alive, and seemed to be in perfect health, and was looking at her as if he was about to confess some sort of guilty secret.

He was *alive.* He wasn't lying beaten senseless or with every bone in his body broken in some dark alley in Suicide Slum. He wasn't buried in a concrete grave somewhere. Lex Luthor hadn't fried him with heat vision. *There was nothing wrong with him at all*!!

"You're alive!" she cried again with a choke in her voice, and threw her pillow at him.

A surprised expression on his face, he fielded it with one hand while holding the flowers behind his back with the other. "Lois?" he asked, puzzled. "Why…?"

"I've been worried *sick* about you, Clark, that's why!" she yelled at him, feeling unwanted tears pricking at her eyes.

He quickly laid the flowers on the trolley at the foot of her bed and crossed to her side, deftly placing the pillow behind her head and then taking her hand awkwardly in his as he stood gazing apologetically down at her. "Lois, I'm sorry. It wasn't until I got your note and phone messages at my apartment that I realised you were worried about me. Then Superman told me what happened to you last night." He grimaced, then added, "It was too late to visit you then, otherwise I'd have been straight over here. As it was, I had to practically beg before they'd let me in here this morning."

He seemed to be very contrite, although if he'd figured out that she'd been frantically concerned for his safety and that his absence had been what had brought her back to Metropolis and, ultimately, led to her ending up in hospital, she could understand his behaviour. Clark was the protective type, always wanting to prevent her rushing into danger, becoming very concerned for her safety any time one of her old adversaries — and there were a few — threatened her. The idiot was probably blaming himself for this. It *wasn't* his fault, although if he'd answered his phone at least once the previous day she would have stayed in Smallville.

Clutching his hand — for some reason she seemed unable to let it go — she began to barrage him with questions. "Where have you *been*? Why didn't you answer your phone? Do you know about Luthor? What did Superman tell you? Do your parents know you're okay?"

"Hey, hey, let me get a word in edgeways!" he teased, and in his sudden smile she saw her partner's normal good humour return. He glanced around then and reached for a chair, somehow managing to drag it over while allowing her to hold onto his hand, then sat at her bedside.

"Okay, you wanted to know where I was yesterday," he repeated; was it her imagination, or did he seem to be hesitating a little? "Superman had told me what was going on, and I was… I was doing some research for him about Luthor, trying to work out where the guy might go, who his closest allies were — "

She interrupted him there. "Clark, why didn't you just call me? You knew where I was, I assume?" He nodded. "Clark, you know I could have told you just about everything you or Superman wanted to know about Lex Luthor. Why didn't you call me?" <And if you had, then I'd have known you were okay, and I wouldn't have been worried sick…>

He ran his hand through his hair, a sure sign that her partner felt uncomfortable. "Lois, I… I know you don't like talking about Luthor, or about your… your relationship with him. I didn't want to bother you about it."

Yes, that was true, Lois realised, but surely he'd see that this was different? "Clark, I wouldn't have minded! I want him caught and… and dealt with in any way possible. I mean," she added quickly, agitatedly, "that's assuming it *is* going to be possible to do anything with him. He's got Super-powers, after all! There's no prison on Earth that'd hold him, and no-one who can even hurt him… except Superman."

Clark nodded soberly at her words. "I don't know what's going to happen, Lois. I know Inspector Henderson's very worried — oh, Superman told me he'd told Henderson the truth, but no-one else," he added as she threw him a surprised look.

"I wish Superman had killed him last night," Lois said viciously.

She saw Clark's eyes widen in response. "Lois, you know Superman wouldn't…?"

"I know," she conceded. "Superman doesn't kill, and that's one of the things which makes him the person he is. But Luthor is *evil.* He's pure badness, through and through, completely irredeemable. Nothing's going to change him, and he doesn't deserve to be alive," she spat out.

His hand squeezed hers, his fingers curling around her palm. "Lois, I know you had a fright, and, believe me, I never would have wanted that to happen, I swear to you. But… you know Superman doesn't kill. Won't kill. And I don't know what that means for dealing with Luthor, but that's the situation and we have to accept it." His jaw clenched, and she could tell that he was agitated. "You know how I feel about the man. I wasn't sorry when he died, and I wish he hadn't come back."

"Yeah, I know," she whispered, becoming choked with emotion again. "Me too… Clark, I hate him. I *really* hate him, and I'm scared that he's going to kill Superman."

Clark's expression became clouded, and she wondered whether he was hurt that she was expressing concern for Superman instead of for him — didn't he realise that she'd spent almost the past twenty-four hours in a frantic state of worry about him? But he grimaced as he spoke. "Lois, you know Superman's had a lot longer to get used to his powers than Luthor has. I don't think he has much to worry about."

"No?" Lois threw at him. "What if Luthor gets Kryptonite?"

Slowly, Clark nodded. "I know, that's possible. But Superman can't just ignore what Luthor's doing, or make no effort to find him and put him out of commission, just because he's scared the guy might have Kryptonite."

"I know," Lois agreed. "But… Clark, if you see him… tell him to be careful, won't you?"

"I will, I promise," Clark agreed. Changing the subject abruptly, he spoke in a concerned voice. "But you haven't told me how you are yet! You hit your head, and Luthor burned you… are you going to be okay? Are you in pain?" he finished raggedly.

She shook her head, then grimaced as the sudden pain belied her silent assertion. "I just have a headache, but it's much better than it was last night. I just wish they'd give me some pain relief, that's all — they must know I don't have concussion by now." She caught him looking in some concern at the bandage on her arm, and she touched the edge lightly. "It's not too bad, I'm told. It's red and a little blistered, and I'll probably have a scar, but it could have been a lot worse." Smiling wryly at him, she added, "It'll teach me never to get in the way of a Super-powered man when he's using heat vision, that's for sure!"

She wondered why Clark almost seemed to wince at that remark, but he didn't comment; instead, after a pause, he added, "I'm glad you're not badly hurt. I've been worried…"

<You and me both, partner. And I am glad you're alive> she said silently. It was on the tip of Lois's tongue to add something else. She wanted to tell Clark that, once she was out of hospital and the Luthor emergency was done with, she wanted them to talk about their relationship. All the thinking she'd done in the past twenty-four hours had led her inexorably to this position: she now knew her feelings for Clark were more than just friendship. She wanted him in her life, as… as a boyfriend, a lover, perhaps, a romantic partner.

All she had to do was tell him… just open her mouth and say the scary words… <Clark, I want us to talk about our relationship… I think maybe it's time we moved on from being friends…>

"Umm… Lois, I need to get going now," Clark put in, a little awkwardly. "I need to get to the Planet, and I have kind of a busy day…"

"Yes, you would," she agreed absently, unsure whether to be sorry or grateful that he'd prevented her from telling him what was on her mind. So hard to know… she *did* want him to know how she felt, but she needed to know how he felt too, and her partner was just so difficult to read sometimes! All those times he had run off on her, disappeared when she'd thought they were having fun together, those times when she'd somehow become convinced that he wasn't telling her things, times when his gaze would slide away from hers almost guiltily, making her wonder what he was hiding.

So perhaps it was best that she hadn't said anything, and that he was going now. "Umm… thanks for the flowers, Clark," she said quickly, the sight of the brightly-coloured mixed bouquet catching her eye and reminding her than she hadn't so far acknowledged his thoughtfulness.

He shook his head. "You're welcome, Lois."

She dipped her head a little, not wanting him to see the mute plea which was no doubt in her eyes. "I… the nurse told me earlier I'd be in here another night. Do you think… well, would you have time to come back later?"

He smiled at that, his brown eyes crinkling at the corners. "Getting cabin fever, Lois? Finding it hard to get used to doing nothing?" His amusement rankled a little, until she realised that his smile held sympathy. "I can send Jimmy over later with a laptop if you want, and I'll stop by the newsagent on my way out and get some newspapers sent up to you — that help?"

"Thanks, Clark. You really know me pretty well, don't you?" she teased.

The quick smile she loved crossed his features again. "Pretty well," he agreed, getting to his feet. "I'll come back this evening, promise." Standing by her bed, he bent towards her and she held her breath… he was going to kiss her!

But instead his lips brushed her forehead lightly before he stepped back. "See you later, partner," he promised, heading for the door.

She lay on the bed, unmoving, for several minutes after the door had closed behind him. Why hadn't he kissed her? She had been so sure he'd been going to — she could even have sworn that she'd seen something in his gaze which seemed like…

Like longing. And yet, if he really felt that way about her, and he had to know she cared for him too, why hadn't he kissed her?

Maybe he really wasn't in love with her, as he'd told her outside the Planet a couple of days after her abortive wedding. Maybe he couldn't bear the thought of getting involved with Lex Luthor's leavings — he hated Luthor, after all. Maybe she'd imagined the look in his eyes, and he really did just see her as his partner and best friend — after all, there was Mayson Drake on the scene. She had no idea whatsoever what Clark felt for Assistant District Attorney Drake, but Mayson herself was making her own feelings for Clark very clear.

Yes, it was just as well that she hadn't raised the subject of their relationship before he'd left. How embarrassing to have told him that she wanted a closer relationship, only for him to have to tell her that he was involved with Mayson Drake.


Clark hurried out of the hospital, knowing he had a lot to do that day — not least report to the Planet so that Perry didn't start thinking he'd quit — but he found it hard to push from his mind the image of Lois in her hospital bed. She'd played down her injuries for him, he was aware of that, but he'd also been well aware of the pain in her expression, the shadows under her eyes and the faint winces every time she'd moved her head. She hadn't been badly hurt, that was certainly true, but he hated to see her experience any unnecessary pain, and regardless of what his parents had said to him, he still felt largely to blame for having failed to prevent this.

He also needed to come up with a plan for dealing with Lex Luthor, and Lois had got to the heart of the matter when she'd raised the question of what could be done with the man. He was invulnerable, and Super-powered: the police couldn't just lock him up in prison to await trial. And although a part of Clark could understand Lois's wish that Superman — he — had killed Luthor, he knew that he simply couldn't do that. Superman did not kill; it was as simple as that. No matter how violently angry he had felt the previous evening when Luthor had casually hurt Lois just to engineer his own escape, killing the excuse for a man was out of the question.

But, if he wasn't willing to kill Lex Luthor, what *was* he going to do with him?

Clark grimaced as he slipped discreetly around the back of the hospital and spun into the Suit, preparatory to flying to the Planet. He needed a plan, and he was aware that Henderson would expect him to come up with one: the detective had been getting even more grouchy than usual by the time they'd arrived at the site of Luthor's sixth murder. He had to find Luthor; but before he did, he had to be armed with a plan. The previous evening's encounter had been unplanned, but what on earth would he have done with Luthor if the man hadn't managed to make his escape? He sighed; he had to admit that he had absolutely no idea. Which was certainly not good enough, and he'd have to do better than that before his pre-arranged appointment with Inspector Henderson later that morning.

Perry was, as might have been expected, aware of Clark's presence in the newsroom before he'd even sat down at his desk, and the editor immediately called him into the office, instructing him to close the door behind him.

"So do I get to hear where you were yesterday, Kent?"

Clark grimaced; he hated coming up with half-truths and excuses to cover his absences. "I… um, I understand Superman told you about Lex Luthor…?"

"He did," Perry acknowledged grimly. "So — were you in hiding as well?"

It would be a good excuse, but it wasn't one Clark wanted to use; and in any case, if he saw fit to go into hiding, then why shouldn't Jimmy Olsen, Perry himself and Franklin Stern? All of them had been instrumental in bringing down Luthor's empire six months earlier. "No — I was helping Superman," he explained, deciding to use the excuse he'd given Lois. "He wanted some research done on Luthor's associates, and it was kind of sensitive, so I didn't want to work here…"

"Hmmm." Perry grunted, then tapped his desk. "Next time, let me know where you are, y'hear? I know all this with Luthor is worrying, but we still have a newspaper to run here and I can't afford to have both my top reporters missing at the same time and not knowing what's happened to them, y'know. I can understand Superman getting Lois out of here in the circumstances, but I need you around, Kent. I need a front page for the evening edition, and you know what I have right now? 'City Council Passes New Litter Law'!" He glowered. "So you think you can get me something better to run with than that?"

Clark sighed inwardly; this was just what he didn't need right now. "I don't know, Perry. I've been trying to help Superman out, but you know we can't print any of that."

"I know Superman asked me not to, and I'll go along with that — for now," Perry agreed. "But there's got to be something about those murders we can print. You and Lois are on good terms with that detective on Homicide, so get me a story, Kent!"

Clark nodded, recognising that he had no choice. "Okay, Chief. By the way, what made you think the police thought those murders yesterday had something to do with Super-powers?"

Perry raised one eyebrow. "Oh, he told you what I said, huh? He ask you to ask me?"

Quickly shaking his head, Clark offered an alternative he hoped Perry would accept. "He said you'd thrown a headline at him to get him to talk. I was just wondering whether it was a guess or whether there's a leak down at the precinct."

"And you think I reveal my sources?" Perry's face was stern, but after a moment he smiled. "You can tell your friend that it was a lucky guess. We tried damn hard to get something — anything! — out of the cops yesterday, but they weren't saying anything at all. Seemed to me, though, that Superman was turning up to every murder scene and that every time the cause of death was kind of unusual. So it was a wild guess, and I was lucky enough to hit home somehow. Not that he told me anything!"

Clark shrugged. "Well, it's kind of a sensitive investigation, from what I can make out."

"That's okay, Kent, but you just make darned sure the Planet gets the story before anyone else, y'hear? And you can tell Superman when you see him that he owes us one."

Clark smiled, relieved that Perry wasn't pushing it any further for now, and also very pleased to discover that there had been no police source after all. He saw that Perry was about to dismiss him, however, so he forestalled his editor. "There's something else you should know, Chief. Lois is back in Metropolis — she got hurt last night and she's in Met General Hospital."

"Got hurt?" Perry's face creased in concern.

Briefly, and without going into too many details which would involve revealing Luthor's possession of Super-powers, Clark explained. "I've just come from seeing her — she says she'll be discharged tomorrow morning, and I guess Superman will take her right back where she was, unless Luthor is out of the way before then."

The editor looked thoughtful for a moment. "Okay, Clark, you get me that front-page lead, then you're free to help Superman for the rest of the day. Luthor's got to be stopped before he kills anyone else."

Leaving the editor's office, Clark spotted Jimmy hurrying from one end of the newsroom to another; one outstretched arm brought the photographer cum general gofer to a standstill in front of him. Without explaining the cause of Lois's injuries, Clark explained that she was in hospital and that he needed Jimmy to bring over a few things for her. That done, he went to his desk to read the electronic edition of that morning's Planet to see what had already been mentioned about the murders, before putting together some notes for his own story. He would still go to see Henderson as Superman, but at the same time he could ask the detective to give Superman's 'friend' Clark Kent a few harmless quotes. The sooner the story was written, thesooner he could get away and resume his hunt for Luthor.

No matter what else is going on, there's always a newspaper to get out, Clark mused wryly as he typed as fast as he could without arousing suspicion.


Lex Luthor hovered in mid-air in front of Mount Rushmore, gazing at the enlarged faces of dead presidents carved into the white-grey granite. Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Roosevelt… four of the most revered presidents who had served this country. *Served* — Luthor's lip curled as he mused on the word. Presidents should not *serve,* he thought: they should rule. Lead. Command.

As he would, were he president.

And that, of course, wasn't beyond the realms of possibility, although he wouldn't have the patience to run a campaign and stand for election. No, if he wanted to rule the country, there was a simpler way to achieve it: once he'd disposed of the flying freak in the blue suit, he would simply instruct the current incumbent of the White House to resign in favour of SuperLex. And Congress would have to pass a law repealing the two-term-only rule: President Luthor would have an indeterminate term of office.

In the meantime, Mount Rushmore presented an intriguing prospect. Luthor engaged his heat vision once more, watching with almost academic interest as the beam carved a line in the granite, giving Abraham Lincoln an additional frown-line on his forehead. The man deserved it: if he'd been so stupid as to have abolished the most efficient form of labour imaginable, he certainly did not deserve his place in this great monument. It was really a shame Lex had never exhibited any artistic talent, he thought: he could have carved his own image in the rock alongside the dead presidents. Still, that could always be arranged at a future date.

In the meantime, there was Superman to deal with, and in order to eliminate the SuperFreak he needed Kryptonite. He now had an idea about how to track down Nigel St John, but first he wanted to ensure that the alien was kept busy. A few disasters should do it — the boy scout was just too concerned about the welfare of those tiny humans he'd chosen to live among. It wouldn't be too difficult to cause a landslide in one state, a bridge collapse in a city at the other side of the country, and a major fire at somewhere like an office block or a hospital in Metropolis: all emergencies which, Luthor thought scornfully, Superman would be sure to assist with.

The thought of a hospital gave him momentary pause: he still hadn't found out the fate of Lois Lane. He knew she'd been injured: he'd heard her scream, seen her fall. If she was alive, the freak would have brought her to a hospital. Perhaps he should have the city's hospitals checked out, just so he was aware of the situation — after all, if Lois was alive, she still represented unfinished business and he could return to her after the boring so-called hero was eliminated. That was something Nigel could do, once his former assistant had been located.

In the meantime, it was time to start a landslide.


Lois hated being hospitalised. That was ironic, really, since she should have been used to it by now. Before Superman had arrived on the scene, she had ended up in hospital on a quite regular basis as a result of injuries or attacks sustained in the performance of her work as an investigative reporter. But the mere fact of being accustomed to it did not make her any more inclined to like it, or to put up with the boredom.

Jimmy had arrived in the late morning, bearing a spare laptop — her own was still in Smallville — and a copy of that morning's Planet, as well as some flowers from the newsroom; he'd stayed for a few minutes but had explained that Perry was on his case and he needed to get back. So that had been a short diversion, and having a computer meant that she was at least able to do some writing. The television had provided another source of entertainment, though she'd begun to get very concerned by mid-afternoon. First there had been a landslide in Oregon, and then a bridge had collapsed in the centre of Miami. Superman had still been helping to contain the effects of the landslide when the news report about the bridge collapse had come in. LNN was showing live pictures from Oregon at the time, and she'd seen the Super-hero look extremely anxious, clearly torn between the two emergencies. After consulting with the emergency services, he'd flown off to Miami.

He was still there now, according to the live pictures from LNN: he'd been too late to prevent some fatalities, although many more lives would have been lost had he not turned up. She'd seen him carrying vehicles through the air and placing them safely on an undamaged stretch of road, and ferrying injured people to the paramedics. Now, though, he was floating in mid-air with a very concerned expression on his face. The LNN reporter seemed bemused, unable to figure out what he was doing; but Lois thought she could guess. He was examining the parts of the bridge which had given way… and, if she was right, he was making a guess at the cause.

Luthor. She was sure of it; and he was probably behind the landslide as well.

But why? She spent some time trying to figure that one out. Lex didn't do things just for kicks: he would have some ulterior motive in mind. But what would he gain from a landslide and a bridge collapse?

Unless… unless the gain was not in those events themselves, but in the consequences: one Super-hero otherwise engaged, and therefore too busy to devote any time to Lex Luthor. Now that was very plausible, Lois thought. She scoured the teletext news pages to see whether there was any hint of what Luthor might be getting up to in Superman's absence, but could find nothing which might be attributed to her ex-fiance. No more murders of former employees or associates; no robberies in mysterious circumstances; no unexplained occurrences. Whatever Luthor was up to, it wasn't obvious. She hoped it hadn't anything to do with herself: after her encounter with him the previous evening, she had even less wish to see him again. Now, she was not only repulsed by him, but also very frightened of what he might do: both to her, and *with* her in terms of using her as bait.

Still, this needed investigating, and since she wasn't in a position to do it herself… She reached for her beside phone and called Clark's number at the Planet. After a lengthy pause, it was answered by one of the copy-editors who, it transpired, had got fed up hearing Kent's phone ring and had decided to answer it. No Clark, and no-one had seen him since about mid-morning.

Feeling a sense of deja-vu, Lois tried Clark's cellphone and then his pager. The cellphone was switched off, but she left a message; the pager simply beeped, and she could only assume that he'd left it somewhere. Her partner seemed to be very forgetful where his pager was concerned; it was amazing Perry hadn't said something to him about it.

Well, Clark had said he'd come in to see her later, Lois reflected. If she hadn't managed to get hold of him by then, she could talk to him then. In the meantime, she would carry on watching LNN and text for anything suspicious, anything which looked as if it could be the work of Luthor.


Clark was tired, frustrated and very angry. Once again, Lex Luthor's callous disregard for human life, the man's willingness to kill purely for expediency, disgusted and appalled Clark. It was simply beyond his comprehension how anyone could put so little value on the lives of others.

The bridge collapse was definitely Luthor's doing, of that there could be no doubt. He'd examined the broken segments in minute detail, and it was clear that there was no natural cause: the damage was not merely wear and tear, and there had been no natural disaster or anything like that to explain the collapse. He had no idea what he was going to say to the investigators, who had been hoping that he might be able to give a preliminary opinion as to how it had happened.

The landslide was less obviously Luthor's work, but Clark's gut instinct was telling him that his would-be nemesis was also behind that. There was nothing in the way of tangible evidence: landslides weren't unheard of in Oregon, and it had been raining fairly heavily there for the past couple of days. But the apparent coincidence was just too much to accept.

A large quantity of soil had slid down a mountainside and onto a main highway, ripping away a sizeable section of road, close to a quarter of a mile in all. The debris had continued on down the incline beneath the road and had come to rest on part of a small town in the valley below. Clark's principal preoccupation had been saving lives, but he had observed that at least thirty houses were destroyed, along with shops and a school — which, thankfully, had been closed since this was a State holiday in Oregon. Despite his best efforts and those of the rescue crews, eleven people had died.

And now, he had just lifted the third dead body in this incident out of a badly-crumpled vehicle. This was a young man, perhaps nineteen or so, dead because Lex Luthor wanted Superman kept busy — at least, that was the only possible reason Clark could come up with for the man's actions. If this was the case, what was Luthor getting up to in Metropolis in Superman's absence? Clark tried hard not to dwell on that; there was nothing he could do about it right now in any case. He could only hope that it didn't involve Lois in any way… but he'd come to the conclusion that Luthor had only abducted Lois the previous evening as bait for Superman. So it was possible that she could be safe, for now… maybe. He hoped so…

As he continued to search the wrecked vehicles for occupants, he was trying very hard to damp down his fury. He had already found himself hating Lex Luthor after what the man had done to Lois, though he'd told himself that hatred was not an acceptable emotion. Today, however, it was impossible to feel anything else for Luthor. Clark knew very well that if he had the ex-head of LexCorp in front of him at this precise second, the temptation to kill could be impossible to resist.


His musings were interrupted by one of the emergency co-ordinators calling to him; he handed the young man's body over to a paramedic and went to see what he was needed for. Rubbing a hand wearily across the back of his neck, he smiled briefly at the official. "What do you need?"

"Not us, Superman," the man told him. "We've just heard — there's a major chemical fire in Metropolis, and their fire service is asking for you. We can manage here now — we think you need to get back there."

Clark closed his eyes briefly in despair; where would Luthor stop? Of course, it was possible that this had nothing to do with Luthor, he reminded himself, but his cynical side refused to believe that. Of course it was Luthor.

"You can manage without me here?" he asked briskly, already preparing to take off.

"Sure — you've been terrific, Superman, and we couldn't have done all this without you. The city will always be grateful to you — but you're needed in Metropolis now."

Nodding in acknowledgement, Clark pushed himself upwards and shifted to Super-speed, his mind already on the problem ahead of him: the fire, and the need to deal with Lex Luthor *soon.*


"Lex Luthor finds work for idle hands… you should remember that, Superman," Luthor murmured scornfully as, hovering above the Daily Planet, he used his X-ray vision to watch the TV screens in the newsroom. It had been a highly successful day so far: the irritating boy scout had been kept out of the way since mid-morning, and even though he should shortly be returning to Metropolis, that fire in the chemicals processing plant would keep him busy for a while.

And in Superman's absence, Luthor had succeeded in the day's major objective. He had always known that Nigel St John was gay, but had preferred to ignore it once he had assured himself that his assistant had no intention of pursuing his sexual preferences on Luthor's doorstep. However, before *that* day six months earlier, Luthor had ensured that he was always informed of St John's favourite cruising hang-outs; it never did to be unaware of his employees' habits. It had been a simple task to turn up at a couple of these establishments and instil upon the proprietors the importance of telling him where he could find St John. It had only taken five seconds and three broken tables and a few dozen shattered glasses at the second club for the owner to supply the necessary information. Nigel had been located a few minutes later.

For a brief second, Luthor had suspected that the sight of his former employer was actually unwelcome to Nigel, but the man had smiled broadly on being made aware of SuperLex's abilities. Nigel had been very willing to return to the payroll, and now… Luthor smiled slowly, with great enjoyment, as he opened his hand and gazed at the luminous green object which lay therein.

It was time to meet Nigel, he realised; his assistant had been sent to retrieve the list of overseas bank accounts and set in motion the process of obtaining the necessary false identification in order to get at the money. Nigel had also been instructed to obtain suitable accommodation — and to accomplish one other small task. Luthor smiled in enjoyment as he anticipated the answer to that question. The more he considered the matter, the less likely he thought it was that he had killed Lois Lane. He had simply lashed out with his heat vision, rather than focusing his aim, and he rather thought he might even have missed. But Nigel would know.

A few moments later he landed with a shuddering thud and a gust of wind in the back alley designated for the meeting place; he smiled inwardly at the spectacle of St John holding onto his wispy hair and his tie and struggling to maintain his balance. "Well, Nigel?"

"All done, sir," the Englishman replied. "I have the ID, and the keys to a rather nice house in its own land, on the edge of the city. It's rented in the name of Nicholas S Janacek," he added.

"Ah yes, one of your alibis, Nigel. What would I do without you?" Luthor murmured. "And have you been admiring my activities, by any chance?"

Nigel's cold expression was lightened briefly by a wintry smile. "Indeed, sir. Permit me to observe that I could almost think you insane, if I didn't know better."

Luthor smiled, amused. "Ah, but don't forget that Aristotle tells us that no great genius has ever existed without some touch of madness."

"Indeed, sir," Nigel agreed.

"And the other task I set you?"

"The Lane woman is at present a patient in Metropolis General Hospital, and due to be discharged tomorrow," Nigel replied, a contemptuous curl to his lip; not unexpected, since Luthor was well aware of his assistant's views about women in general and Lois Lane in particular.

"Excellent!" Luthor smiled again, this time almost triumphantly. "I'm sure she would be grateful for visitors — perhaps later tonight. Remind me to pick up some flowers, Nigel."


Lois checked her watch again; it was now after eight o'clock and she'd been expecting Clark since before six. Okay, it was possible that Perry had sent him out to cover the fire in the ChemCo plant, but the last time she'd called the Planet, almost an hour ago, she'd got hold of Jimmy, who'd confirmed that Clark hadn't returned to the newsroom since his abrupt departure at around eleven that morning. So unless he'd called in… and Jimmy didn't think that was the case.

So Clark was missing again… and Lex Luthor was setting up disasters to distract Superman…

Lois felt her blood run cold again as she considered the implications. What was Luthor up to? She knew very well that there was no reason to believe that his killing spree was over; and Clark had to be somewhere on his revenge list. After all, it had been mostly Clark's doing that Luthor's criminal activities had been uncovered.

But even if Clark was okay — and how she hoped he was — she desperately needed to talk to him. Well, she needed to talk to *Superman,* too, she supposed, but she wasn't really sure that she wanted to see him at the moment. He was bound to be angry with her for her carelessness in letting herself be caught by Luthor, for her failure to stay in Smallville. So, she'd decided, she preferred to talk to Clark and to get him to pass on her suggestions to Superman.

Always assuming that she could find Clark…

Yet another attempt at calling him failed: no answer at his desk, his apartment phone or his cellphone. Suddenly determined, Lois came to a decision. Throwing back the bedclothes, she swung her feet to the floor, ignoring the slight dizziness which hit her as she did so. Retrieving her clothes, she dressed quickly and threw her possessions into a bag — it was a pity about Clark's beautiful flowers, but she couldn't carry them — then opened the door to her room carefully. There was no-one in the corridor. A few moments later, having signed her discharge and insurance papers, she was walking quickly through the main doors of the hospital towards the cab-rank outside.


By the time he finally arrived at the hospital, Clark was weary and almost despairing. He had spent all day dealing with the appalling tragedies caused by Lex Luthor's callous disregard for human life. The chemical fire had been the last straw for him, since many workers had been inside the factory when it had been set alight, and those who had survived would carry painful scars — both physical and psychological — for the rest of their lives.

He had returned home once he was no longer needed, staying long enough to take a lengthy shower and change into clean — Clark — clothes, before heading to the Planet. His reception from Perry that morning had reminded him that, no matter what else was going on, he still needed to justify his position on the staff; so he'd occupied the darkened conference room to file an 'interview' with Superman on the day's events, at the same time doing a Super-speed search of the day's news stories to see whether he could figure out why Luthor had wanted Superman out of the way. Nothing sprang to mind at all; he was still baffled.

Now, he was fulfilling his promise to visit Lois — and trying to come up with a credible reason for being so late — and afterwards he would have to start his search for Luthor all over again, still without a clear plan as to what he was going to do once he'd found the man. The thought briefly occurred to him that if Lois knew he was Superman she could help him come up with ideas; he really could use her sharp brain here.

He took a deep breath as he reached Lois's hospital room, not wanting to give her any hint of his state of mind. She wouldn't understand… at least, not without knowing that Superman was really her partner and friend, and although he now knew that he wanted to tell her, now wasn't the time. No, he thought; once all this was over and Luthor was safely behind bars or some other form of restraint, he would invite Lois to his apartment for dinner and tell her the truth. It really was about time he let go of his anxieties about whether she loved Superman or Clark: apart from anything else, she'd shown the previous day, and also by her actions earlier that morning, that Clark mattered a great deal to her.

So he would tell her, and they would see where things went after that…

There was no answer in response to his rap on the door. Clark frowned; he was later than he'd anticipated, but it wasn't *that* late. He wouldn't expect Lois to be asleep… though he reminded himself that she hadn't seemed to get much sleep the previous night. So it was possible, he supposed. Lowering his glasses, he took a sneak peek through the door.

The room was empty. The bed was stripped bare, the bedside table also empty. The only sign that Lois had ever been there was his flowers on a side table. Lois was… gone.

*Gone.* His blood ran cold and his heart almost stopped. Luthor had her again! That was why he had wanted Superman out of the way. It had to be.

But he forced himself to think rationally, to get his emotions under control. How could Luthor have known where she was? (Okay, he could have found out without too much difficulty, Clark conceded). But if Luthor had grabbed her, why would the room have been cleared out? It would only be stripped bare like this if its occupant had left and the hospital was aware of it. Though if he'd taken her early enough in the day… He swallowed, and forced himself to think of other possibilities.

Lois could have checked herself out. It wasn't impossible, and he should have expected it, of course, knowing Lois as he did: since when did she ever stay put? Since when did she ever do what anyone else expected of her? Since when did she pay any regard to other people's concerns about her safety? Did it ever occur to her that some people might actually *care* if she got herself killed?

Now fighting back the bile of anger and resentment, he retraced his steps to the reception desk in order to find out whether she really had left, and if possible to discover where she had gone. She wouldn't be so stupid as to go to her apartment this time, he hoped.

The assistant at the front desk confirmed Clark's assumption that Lois had discharged herself, but couldn't help him with regard to where she'd gone. Leaving the hospital, he stood, shoulders slumped, just outside the entrance, trying to put himself in Lois's shoes. Where would she have gone? Not her apartment, please! The Planet? Her mother's apartment — surely not!

A voice interrupted his thoughts. "You looking for Lois Lane?"

He turned to see a hospital orderly standing beside him. Nodding, he asked the man, "Do you have any idea where she went?"

"You a friend or what?" the orderly asked, a little suspiciously.

"Yeah — we work together and we're close friends. I visited her this morning — the nurse who was on duty then should be able to verify that, and she knew I was coming to see her tonight," Clark explained, thinking that he could understand the man's caution, but he couldn't help finding it frustrating in the circumstances. "Guess I was a bit late, though," he added with a rueful shrug.

"I called a cab for her — she said she wanted to go to Clinton Street, I think," the man informed him, after studying him for a moment or to.

<*My* place?!> Thanking the orderly, Clark hurried off to find the deserted area behind the hospital he'd used earlier. A couple of seconds later, he was airborne and on the way to his apartment. Lois had better be there, he thought; and he would give her a piece of his mind when he caught up with her!


Lois paced the floor in Clark's apartment, wondering where on earth he could be. He had been here since morning; she'd discovered that soon after getting here. Having let herself in and finding the place empty, she'd promptly started searching for clues. He hadn't checked his telephone messages: the light was still blinking. There were no used dishes on the drainer. But when she went into his bedroom, and beyond into the bathroom, it was obvious that the shower had been used recently. There were drips of water still running down the door, and the towels were damp.

So he'd been there, and at a guess something between an hour and ninety minutes ago. So where had he been since? He hadn't come to visit *her,* that was certain. But why not? Didn't he…? She swallowed as an unwelcome thought occurred to her. Did he just not care about her in the way she'd thought? For a long time she'd been aware — sort of — that Clark had strong feelings for her. Whether or not he was in love with her was a moot point, but he certainly cared a great deal for her, at least that was what she'd believed. But… maybe he didn't?

She pushed that thought aside, unwilling to consider it for the moment. That Clark cared deeply for her had almost been the one point of stability in her life over the past six months, particularly during that traumatic period in the aftermath of her abortive wedding. He had been her rock, the one solid force on which she could lean; and his dependable, quiet caring had become of the utmost importance to her. When she'd thought he was dead, she hadn't been able to bear his loss; not just because, as she now realised, she cared deeply for *him* too, but because she needed his love.

Lois had never been able to trust in anyone else's love for her, not since early childhood when she'd realised that not only had her father hoped she would be a boy, but that he was abandoning his family at evenings and weekends so that he could be with whoever his current mistress happened to be. And her mother had taken to drink rather than providing the love and support Lois and Lucy had needed. She had fallen in love at college, but he too had betrayed her, shown that he didn't love her at all. And then there had been Claude.

So Lois had concluded that she wasn't capable of inspiring love in anyone. And so, if she was that unlovable — and Superman had appeared to confirm that when he too had rejected her — then, she'd thought, why not marry someone she didn't love? At least that way she would never suffer the agony of betrayal or rejection. Except that it hadn't worked out that way, and her choice of bridegroom couldn't have been more disastrous.

But through all the unpleasant aftermath there had been Clark. He had been there for her at every turn, quietly supportive, defending her when others attacked, ensuring that her life got back to normal with as little fuss as could be arranged. And despite his denial, that day shortly after the wedding which hadn't happened, that he loved her, she had still believed somewhere within herself that he did feel something for her; if not love, then something close to it. And that belief had been tremendously important to her.

She couldn't allow herself to challenge that assumption; not now, not with all this going on, not while Lex Luthor was still out there somewhere, wanting to kill Superman, wanting revenge on her, probably wanting revenge on Clark and perhaps Perry too.

So where was Clark? He'd been missing all day, she knew that, but he'd been here less than two hours ago, so he'd been okay then. She'd tried his cellphone several times since arriving, but that was still switched off. His pager had beeped, but then she'd heard a strange echo coming from his bedroom; a quick search had revealed the small object lying on his bedside cabinet.

She looked at her watch again; it was now well after nine. She began to think that she shouldn't be here, wasting her time hanging about in Clark's apartment. She should be out looking for him… but the problem was that she had no idea where to start. He wasn't at the Planet either: that thought had occurred to her about twenty minutes earlier and she'd quickly called his desk phone. It had been answered by one of the night staff, who'd just come on duty: he hadn't seen Clark, and her partner's desk didn't look like its owner intended to come back to it any time soon.

Should she try to find him? But where -

Her frantic thoughts about where to start looking were abruptly interrupted by a faint noise somewhere beyond Clark's kitchen — a sound like rushing wind. She knew that sound… but what was it?

A moment later, her questions were answered as Superman strode into the kitchen, then stood and glared at her. He didn't speak, but crossed his arms in front of his chest, his expression one which she had seen many times directed at people who crossed him, but which she had never imagined would be aimed at her.

In an attempt to break what was becoming an awkward silence, she began, "So, Superman…"

"Lois." He fixed her with a hard, determined expression. "I understood that you were supposed to be in the hospital until tomorrow?"

Feeling rather like a chastened child, Lois gazed belligerently back at the Super-hero. "I'm fine! Okay, I hit my head, but it's okay now, and even the doctor says my arm's nothing to worry about. I just didn't see the point of staying there another night," she finished defensively.

She saw him gaze at her assessingly, and she wondered whether he was examining her wound with his X-ray vision. After a moment he walked through the kitchen, coming closer to where she stood in the centre of Clark's living-room. His expression was still not exactly friendly,though she felt less as if he was going to pick her up by the collar any second.

This was a new experience for Lois: apart from that one time in her apartment, when she'd told Superman she loved him and after which she'd felt completely humiliated, Superman had never been cold with her before. She supposed she could understand his behaviour, though: after all, it had been entirely her fault that he'd had to rescue her from Lex Luthor last night, and that Luthor had escaped when Superman had him pinned to the floor. Luthor had managed to use her as his escape-route, preventing Superman from going after him. It was hardly surprising in the circumstances, therefore, if Superman was irritated with her — and, in fact, it was because she'd expected it that she'd hoped to avoid seeing him.

He stopped a couple of feet away, his cape still swishing about his ankles, and regarded her thoughtfully. "Lois, will you let me take you back to Smallville now — and stay there this time? You've seen Clark, you know he's fine. And I don't want any more close calls like this one."

She flushed, knowing that it had been entirely her fault that Luthor had been able to use her as a means of preventing Superman from catching him. But she still didn't want to leave while Clark could be in danger, and she still hadn't seen him. She changed the subject abruptly. "Do you know where Clark is now? I want to talk to him first."

She thought Superman looked… *rattled* by her question, but she couldn't understand why. He sighed then and nodded. "Okay, I'll get Clark for you, and I'll come back for you once you've talked to him." He strode out of the living-room, through the kitchen area and, as she watched, out onto Clark's balcony. One low sonic boom later and he was gone.

Then suddenly there was another boom, a call of 'Thanks, Superman!" and a moment later Clark strolled into the kitchen, wearing jeans and a black cotton shirt. Once again, she was amazed at the relief she felt at knowing that he was safe. Before she knew what she was doing, she was running towards him.

His arms came around her and he hugged her tightly, the warmth and strength of his embrace reinforcing again the notion that this was where she belonged… with Clark. Hugging him, she hoped that when all this craziness was over and Lex Luthor was in prison where he belonged, she and Clark could talk about their friendship and what they both wanted from it. She hoped that he wouldn't be averse to a closer relationship.

But he released her, sighed heavily, and fixed her with a solemn stare from those deep brown eyes she knew so well. Clark was rattled too, it seemed; she knew him well enough to see that. As soon as he spoke, she could tell that his frustration lay with her. "Lois, Superman tells me you won't let him take you back to my folks' place. Please, go with him, Lois."

She stared back at him, her expression determined. "Only if you come too, Clark. You're in just as much danger as I am!"

He seemed taken aback at this, as if the possibility hadn't even occurred to him. "Lois, I can't!"

Frowning, she retorted, "Why the heck not, Clark?!"

"Because… because I'm needed here," he stated bluntly, his tone and strangely remote expression making it clear that he didn't want to discuss it.

"Then I'm staying too," she insisted.

To her surprise, Clark caught hold of her shoulders in a light but firm grip, his expression now angry although she could sense his fear for her beneath his harsh tone. "Lois, don't be so damned irresponsible! Have you any idea how hard you've made things for me over the past couple of days, worrying about your safety on top of everything else, scared that you'll get yourself killed, imagining all sorts of things Luthor might want to do to you as revenge… and then what I went through when he nearly did kill you? And you want to stay and put me through more of that?!"

Clark had really been worried about her — far more than she'd realised, since she'd never known him to swear before. But she had expected that he'd be concerned, Lois knew, but it just hadn't occurred to her that his fear for her went quite so deep. Superman must have told him as early as last night what had happened to her, she realised. Perhaps she'd been wrong to think that maybe Clark didn't care for her as much as she'd thought? But on the other hand, then he should be able to understand her own feelings. He must know that she had been worried sick about him — how could he dismiss her fear as of no importance and claim that she'd been recklessly foolish?

Refusing to be cowed by his anger, she stared back at him. "Then you have to understand how I felt, Clark! I had no idea where you were — Luthor could have killed you, for all I knew! I had to come back to Metropolis — I know it was rude to leave without telling your parents, and I'm sorry, but I was *worried* about you! And even when I came back I couldn't find you anywhere, and I saw all those murders on the news. It was obvious Luthor was killing off anyone he had a grudge against, and I can imagine how he'll feel about you. Now can you see why I want you to get out of town too?"

Lois was at a loss to understand why Clark shook his head in disbelief at this. He released her, almost flinging away from her. "Lois, it's not the same thing at all! Luthor could kill you, just like that — " he snapped his fingers in front of her face, the movement more violent than she'd ever seen from Clark before. She flinched momentarily, then determination made her fight back.

"And you think he wouldn't do just the same to you given the chance? After all, you were the one who organised getting the evidence against him last summer!" Now Lois was angry too; Clark just didn't seem to be taking her concerns seriously.

"Lois, it's *not* the same… oh hell," he muttered suddenly, breaking off and beginning to pace about the room. "Don't be so obtuse — you have to have figured it out for yourself by now!" he flung at her.

Shaking her head, she stared blankly at him. "Figured out what? Clark, what are you…?"

He faced her again, his expression hard, determined… and somehow familiar, and yet *not* familiar. "Figured out where I go when I run out on you with pathetic excuses, why you've known me and Superman for well over a year and you've never seen the two of us together — even when Superman supposedly dropped me off here just now! Lois, you're an intelligent, enquiring woman, you're a *journalist* — go figure!"

Slowly, things were falling into place in Lois's head… she stared at Clark, no longer seeing her partner and best friend, but instead seeing a stranger in his place. This person standing in front of her, obviously furious with her, was not the gentle, caring man she'd begun to suspect she was in love with. Nor, though, was he the strong, decent, honourable and amazing man she had also come to know over the past eighteen months. *This* person was someone else entirely… someone who had lied to her and deceived her from the moment they'd met.

"Yes, I'm Superman," he confirmed, inclining his head in a manner which was — now — so familiar, when her expression made it obvious that she'd at last figured it out. "So naturally Luthor can't hurt me. And you see why I have to stay in Metropolis."

"And why my being here was… distracting for you," she added coldly. "All the time I was worried sick about you, Clark, you just thought I was in the way, taking up your time because you had to protect me instead of stopping Luthor."

He grimaced slightly at her words, a tiny muscle twitching in his jaw. "Lois, normally I wouldn't think that, but yes, your being here did make things difficult…"

"All you had to do was *tell* me, Clark!" she shot back at him. "Tell me you're Superman, and I'd have gone off back to Smallville or somewhere else safe and left you to it! But instead you… not only did you *not* tell me, but you didn't even let me *see* you until this morning! I guess you just don't trust me," she finished quietly, the pain of his betrayal sinking in now. All this time… eighteen months and more, her partner, the man she'd thought of as her best friend, had been leading a double life, and deceiving her on so many fronts she couldn't even bear to think about it.

Clark seemed to lose his anger as quickly as it had taken over his reactions earlier. "No, Lois, I do trust you — it was just… well, it didn't seem the right time to tell you, and I didn't know how you'd take it, and… I just wanted to get Luthor out of the way first. *Then*… I'd already decided I was going to tell you the truth."

"You were, huh?" she challenged him, her tone bitter. "So that I wouldn't make a fool of myself trying to save your stupid neck again, I suppose, Clark?"

He sighed heavily before answering. "Lois, I appreciate your concern, believe me. But you have no idea how difficult it was for me yesterday, fighting with Luthor while trying to make sure you were safe at the same time." He broke off, shook his head briefly in a gesture of disbelief, then added, "*Why* didn't you get out of there when I told you to? *Twice,* Lois — I asked you twice to get out, and you stayed right where you were. If you'd done as I told you, he wouldn't have been able to use you to get away from me — to hurt you."

Now the anger was back in Clark's voice, and his final words seemed to flay Lois one by one. She turned away from him, bitter hurt flooding through her; would he even understand what she'd been feeling then, the cold fear which had filled her as she'd watched them fight, her dread that Luthor would kill Superman?

Lois had never had a problem with holding her own in an argument before. Normally she was adept at wars of words: wordcraft was her profession, after all, and she'd always been one of the most feared and respected of opponents in debates at school and college. But here, now, for the first time in her life the words she needed to defend herself just wouldn't come. She stood in silence, shaking, feeling as if the entire foundations on which she'd built her recent life were being shattered into tiny fragments, and it was all because of this man — this now-stranger — in front of her.

Clark Kent. But not Clark Kent: Superman. Or was it Superman who had ceased to be a real person? Did Clark disguise himself as Superman, or Superman as Clark? Did it matter? She'd thought she had two close friends, two men she could love; now there was one, and he'd been deceiving her for as long as she'd known him. And laughing at her behind her back for failing to see the truth, perhaps? Laughing at her for her worry that Clark could have been hurt yesterday when he'd been missing, probably — but no, he didn't seem to be doing that. He was angry, not amused at her expense.

In a voice she barely recognised as her own, she said quietly, "If you want me to leave Metropolis while you deal with… that man, then let's go. The sooner the better." Now, she no longer wanted to be around him; her first instinct, in fact, was to crawl away somewhere to lick her wounds. A tiny part of her recognised how unusual this was for her: Lois Lane didn't run away from situations. But this was different, somehow, and it hurt too much. Since, however, Luthor was still on the loose — and, for all her agony just now, she would still rather be with this man than face Lex Luthor — it seemed the better option to let Clark take her back to Smallville. At least he would leave her there and he would *go.*

Clark's eyes closed briefly and he raked his hand through his hair before giving her a very wry half-smile. "Lois, I'm sorry, I really didn't mean to get mad at you. You'd never believe… I was so scared he'd killed you, last night. I guess I'm still a bit shaken over that."

He probably was, Lois realised; she'd been aware that Superman had been worried. She'd seen the relief in his expression when she'd regained consciousness on the way to the hospital, although he hadn't said much. But she wasn't ready to have any kind of discussion with Clark yet; she had a lot of thinking and reassessment to do first.

Tilting her chin upwards and giving him a more determined look, she said insistently, "I'm fine, Clark. Now, can we get going, please?"

He seemed to be about to say something else, but instead turned away and picked up the telephone. The number he was calling was clearly programmed into the phone, for he only hit a couple of keys; after a moment, he was speaking.

"Mom? Hi. Look, I want to bring Lois back to the farm, is that okay?" A pause, then, "Yes, she's okay, mostly. She should have been in the hospital until tomorrow, but you know Lois…" Another pause. "Yeah, we'll be there in twenty minutes or so. And, Mom?" A much shorter pause this time. "She knows about me, so there's no need to pretend with her any more. No, I'll explain later," he added, clearly in response to a hurried question. "It was just… well, I needed to do it — and I wanted to. Yeah, we'll see you soon."

Of course Martha and Jonathan knew Clark was Superman, Lois suddenly thought as she listened to Clark's side of the conversation. And it explained so much — no wonder they had expressed no surprise at Clark not being in contact, no wonder they hadn't shown any fear for him. He was invulnerable: of course he was in no danger. Though that wasn't strictly true, she realised. Luthor wanted to kill Superman, and was probably capable of doing so — highly capable if he managed to get hold of some Kryptonite. Naturally Clark's parents would be worried; but in the circumstances it was equally obvious that they wouldn't have shared their concerns with her.

She'd seen the way Martha had fussed over Superman when he'd brought her to Smallville, though, and had even wondered at it, and at Jonathan's almost paternal concern. Of course Martha had mothered him; of course Jonathan had been paternal. They were Superman's parents… and she hadn't been able to figure it out. Clark was right: she was an intelligent woman, with a brilliant reputation as a reporter… and she hadn't even been able to figure out that her partner and best friend masqueraded as a Super-hero in his spare time.

But that, too, was something to think about another time. For now, she only had to endure the humiliation of Clark's company until he got her to Smallville. Then she could have some time to herself to reflect on all of this. Collecting up her belongings, she turned back to Clark as he replaced the telephone receiver. "I'm ready when you are — um, I mean, you have to go get changed, I guess?"

He shook his head. "I just spin. Give me a second." He stepped backwards, putting greater distance between them, and then suddenly she was gripping the sofa-back as her partner spun around faster than her eye could follow. Just as suddenly, he was coming to a halt: now she was facing Superman. The loosely-styled hair, the glasses, the casual clothes were all gone, replaced by the familiar Spandex suit, stiffly slicked back hair and the more formal stance she was accustomed to seeing on the man she'd considered to be her *other* friend. Superman, the man who she now knew didn't really exist.

But she refused to let Clark see how the physical evidence of his dual identity affected her. Walking towards him, her belongings in her arms, she said firmly, "Let's go."


That had not been the most tactful way of telling Lois about Superman's real identity, Clark reflected ruefully as he flew them through the dark night to Smallville. He didn't regret telling her how he felt about her recklessness in returning to Metropolis, and her refusal to get to safety when he'd ordered her to; but he did regret allowing his anger to get the better of him. He'd hurt her feelings badly, that had been very obvious. After all, she'd rushed back to Metropolis believing him to be in danger, and not only had he just told her that his life hadn't been at risk in the way she'd imagined, but that her involvement had actually been harmful instead of helpful.

Apart from that aspect, Clark had no idea at all how Lois had taken his revelation. She'd been shocked, that was obvious, though that could as easily have been the result of the way he'd told her — no, not told her, made her figure it out for herself by near-ridiculing her.

This was not how he'd wanted to tell her; in fact, he couldn't imagine a scenario less like the way he'd planned to tell her the truth. He'd intended to prepare her gently, to point out how much he cared for her, how close a friend he considered her and how much he trusted her, and that because he trusted her so much he wanted to tell her something which, up until that moment, only he and his parents knew. The biggest secret he possessed; because he wanted her to know it. He'd even considered what her reaction might be: he'd expected initial shock, and possibly anger because he hadn't told her before. She might have accused him of refusing to trust her, and of using Superman to deceive her — he'd been prepared for that, and even had his own arguments half-marshalled already. He'd made a mental list of the incidents from the past which she might possibly throw in his face, times when the deceit of his dual identity had caused him to give her half-truths and mislead her in ways he'd hated.

There was the time she'd told Superman she loved him, for example: he'd behaved very badly throughout that interview, but it was completely understandable, he thought, in the light of their conversation earlier that day. Ah, but not so understandable, the voice of his conscience had pointed out, when the option of telling her the truth was there. But the time hadn't been right, and it would have been for the wrong reasons. There were elements about Lois's then relationship with Lex Luthor which he had handled all wrong, he knew that; but telling her about Superman then was not one of them.

There were also the times when he'd used Superman as a means of pursuing a closer relationship with Lois. He couldn't deny that he'd occasionally flirted with her in his Super-hero guise, although he'd only done it because of his frustration at her failure to see that Clark had something to offer her as more than a friend. More recently, he'd used Superman to try to hint her in Clark's direction: he'd told her, that time she'd been suspended from work, that Clark was a 'pretty smart guy,' and that memory made him cringe. Similarly, after the destruction of Metallo, he'd made a concerted effort to push her in Clark's direction, telling her that she and Clark were lucky to have each other. Unfair tactics? Maybe.

But he was well aware that his most serious offence in Lois's eyes would be the fact that he'd let her think he was dead after his 'shooting' by John Dillinger in the casino. While he'd had no option but to pretend to be dead then, he hadn't needed to keep Lois in ignorance of the truth. It would have involved telling her about Superman, but by then he'd had no excuse at all to think that she wouldn't keep his secret. They were best friends — and she'd also proven her loyalty to Superman by not revealing the existence of Kryptonite or its effect on him.

So he had known that he would need to do a considerable amount of crawling over that incident once Lois knew the truth, which was one of the many reasons why he'd wanted to have his confession in private, in his apartment, over a good meal and a glass of wine, with plenty of time ahead of them to talk. Not hurriedly, in a fit of anger, with a villain on the loose who wanted to kill both of them.

No, instead he'd let his weariness and frustration, as well as his anxiety for Lois's safety, get the better of him, and he'd blurted it out without taking the time to consider the consequences. Actually, no, he hadn't blurted it out: what he'd done had been far worse. He'd insulted Lois's status and reputation as a reporter by rubbing her nose in the fact that she had never realised her best friend and partner, the man she spent practically all day with every day, led a double life. Oh yeah, that was really the way to get her to understand why he'd had to deceive her, and to forgive him for it! That would sure make her see that he cared for her… that he loved her.

He loved her — and he'd played her for a fool.

He could tell that she was angry with him… or, no, perhaps not just angry: she was hurt, which was probably worse. He was holding her in his arms, of course, as they flew to Smallville, but for the first time she was not nestling against him in the way she normally did when flying with Superman. She was holding herself stiffly, her face turned away from him, and from what he could see her expression was strained. She clearly didn't want to be with him right now, and if he was being honest with himself he really couldn't blame her.

Clark's own anger had almost completely dissipated now, and he was consumed with regret for the way he'd handled things. He still felt that she'd been wrong, and reckless, to leave Smallville as she'd done, and especially to ignore his injunctions to get out and leave him to deal with Luthor. But then, this was Lois: what had he expected?

They needed to talk, he knew that. He badly needed several hours alone with Lois so that he could apologise for losing his temper and explain everything about himself and his dual life to her; but the problem was that he knew they simply wouldn't get that time. Once he'd left her in Smallville he had to go straight back to Metropolis to try to find out just what Lex Luthor had been up to while he'd made sure Superman was kept busy and out of town. Any talking would have to keep until Luthor was successfully neutralised.

A part of Clark was tempted to feel relief that the inevitable discussion — argument — would have to be postponed; he even wondered guiltily whether his mother might not intercede on his behalf in the meantime. But even as he told himself off for that thought he recognised that, in the circumstances, it was equally possible that his mother would side with Lois. After all, while Lois had been irresponsible in returning to Metropolis, *she* hadn't known that Clark was Superman and therefore had not disappeared mysteriously. But everyone else had, and hadn't told her she had nothing to worry about. Not that she'd asked… But if she had, what would anyone have told her? Of *course* she was going to be worried about Clark while she hadn't known the truth.

And even if she had known the truth, she had good reason to be concerned still, his conscience pointed out sharply just as the lights of his parents' farm became visible below them. After all, Luthor had intended to kill Superman the previous evening. He would have done it, too, if Clark hadn't been too fast, too strong and sufficiently able to think on his feet in order to outwit Luthor.

Superman could have been killed… In a flash of sudden realisation, Clark understood why Lois had not left the room. Could he have left, in similar circumstances, knowing her life was in danger?

But this had been Superman, not Clark… since she'd stayed, did that mean she loved Superman and not Clark, the nagging voice of doubt asked him.

But he pushed that aside. Superman, Clark, what did it matter? They were the same man. He *wanted* her to accept — to love — the two sides of his personality, didn't he? And she'd shown only too clearly over the past couple of days how much she cared for Clark Kent. It was past time he stopped being an idiot over insisting that she was only allowed to love the reporter and not the Super-hero.

Now, all he had to do was apologise and get her to forgive his thoughtlessness.

Something told him that stopping Lex Luthor might be the easier of the two tasks in front of him.


Lois saw the Smallville farmhouse in front of them and felt a rush of relief; it had been almost unbearable being held in Superman's arms — no, *Clark's* arms — for the twenty-minute flight. For the first time since she'd met the Super-hero she had hated every second of the journey, all because she just hadn't wanted to be in such close proximity with Clark Kent, deceiver, false friend, master of disguise and -

And the man she seemed to love and hate at the same time.

It was still sinking in, slowly, the fact that there was no Superman; the Man of Steel was just a costume, donned by her partner whenever he rushed off to save someone. At least that explained where he went whenever he ran out on her, she thought wryly. She had a lot of reassessing to do, lots of past history to rewrite with this new knowledge that two men she'd been close to, considered as romantic partners, were in fact only one person. She knew that a lot of it would hurt, too, and she was desperately trying not to allow herself to dwell on that. No, best to wait until she was in Clark's parents' house; she could plead tiredness, go to bed and then, when she was alone, let herself think about it. *Then* she could cry the tears which had been threatening to fall for the past fifteen minutes or more, grieve for the loss of something she'd probably never really had.

For now, she tried to bolster her anger about Clark's deception, the fact that he'd let her think he'd disappeared, was possibly dead, when all the time he was flying around the place in an eye-catching Spandex suit. Had it just never occurred to him that she might be worried? How dared he accuse her of being reckless when all she'd been able to think about was the dread of losing her partner and best friend again?

Wait a minute…


But… if Clark was Superman, then that meant…

He was invulnerable. *Clark* was invulnerable. A bullet couldn't harm him. So…

So he couldn't have been dead. When he'd been shot, the bullet couldn't have killed him. So he'd lied to her about that, too. He'd allowed her to think her best friend, the man who meant more to her than… yes, than *anything,* was gone, dead. He'd let her cry, long hours of gut-wrenching tears until she had nothing left inside her. He'd allowed her to feel lost, empty, as if the bottom had fallen out of her life. And he'd let her blame herself for his death.

And all the time he'd been alive and well. The *bastard.*

He could have told her. Okay, she understood that he couldn't have told the whole world. It wasn't too difficult to figure out what would happen to Clark Kent — and Clark Kent's family and close friends — if it became common knowledge that he was Superman; but he could have told *her.* After all, he'd even told her just now that he trusted her. So if he really did trust her, why hadn't he told her he was alive? Hadn't he realised how she had to have been feeling?

Unless… it had never occurred to him that she would be upset, unless she hadn't formed part of his decision-making at all. Unless he really didn't care about her in the way she'd begun to hope.

It was all too clear now. Clark didn't love her; he couldn't possibly love her, or even care about her at all deeply, otherwise he would never have put her through this agony. He thought of her as a friend, that was certain; but no more. He *had* been telling the truth when he'd said he'd lied about being in love with her.

But anyway, she forced herself to admit, how could she be in love with a person who didn't really exist? The person he had pretended to be, Clark Kent the self-effacing reporter, was not real. Nor was Superman; instead, the man who was holding her closer to him in preparation for landing was a stranger. In that brief scene in his apartment, he'd turned into someone she didn't know at all. He'd been cold, angry, completely dismissive of her fears for her best friend.

The Clark she'd known for the past year and a half had gone completely, and Lois shivered as she contemplated the man who had taken his place.

Perhaps it was just as well that she would be in Smallville and he in Metropolis for the next day or so. It would give her time to figure out exactly how to proceed from here, and to prepare herself for treating Clark/Superman as just a friend and work colleague; the way he did with her.


Lex Luthor flew slowly around the perimeter of Metropolis General Hospital, under cover of darkness, with one arm fastened securely around the waist of Nigel St John. "You said she's on this floor, Nigel?"

"Indeed, sir," St John replied. "Right over there, in fact," he added, indicating a window just ahead.

He was dumped unceremoniously on the fire escape as his employer flew swiftly up to the window. Luthor smiled at the thought of Lois's face when she realised that she hadn't managed to escape him after all. He and Lois still had unfinished business, and this time he was determined to bring that to a conclusion. After he had finished his business with Superman once and for all, he thought with a feeling of satisfaction. The alien would not get the better of him this time. That little souvenir of Krypton now in his possession would make sure of it.

And then there would be Lois. The house Nigel had chosen was perfect: large, set in its own grounds and very well-appointed; it was also very secure, with electronically-controlled locks and bolts on all the external windows and doors. It would be a perfect location for seduction. Luthor paused briefly, contemplating having Lois Lane in his bed at last, her slim beauty available for his delectation, that alabaster skin laid out before him, her silky dark hair spread over his pillow. He might have to find some way of silencing her, though, since her tongue was too sharp sometimes. He would have to ask Nigel about appropriate drugs, perhaps. It didn't worry him that she might not be a willing participant, though, since he always enjoyed a challenge. It made life much more interesting.

Only a pane of glass now lay between SuperLex and Lois Lane… but… He stared in disbelief. The room was empty, stripped bare. Not only had it no occupant at this precise moment, but it was clear that the occupant had left the hospital.

Angry, Luthor flew back to where he'd left his assistant, and seized hold of the man. "She's not there! You got it wrong, Nigel. Where is she?"

Clearly flustered, Nigel stared back at his employer in disbelief. "I have absolutely no idea where she might be if she is not there. She was certainly there earlier. Are you sure she hasn't just gone to the — "

"The room is *empty,* Nigel," Luthor cut him off. "Stripped bare. She isn't here any more."

"I was told she wasn't due to be discharged until the morning," Nigel protested.

Luthor thought for a moment, then frowned. "She must have discharged herself. She always was wilful." Shooting upwards suddenly, and paying no heed to Nigel's alarmed gasp and frantic clutch at his domino, he added, "We will simply have to pay a visit to her apartment."

Putting on a spurt of speed, he headed across town with Nigel in tow, cursing as once again his domino became entangled in his legs. To his annoyance, he heard Nigel's aristocratic voice drawl in his ear, "Somehow I don't think dominoes were intended to be worn as capes, Mr Luthor."

"When I want your opinion, Nigel, I'll ask for it!" Lex snapped in return. "Now keep your mouth shut, unless you want me to let go of you."

Silence reigned, and within a minute or two they had reached Lois's apartment building. Luthor flew around to the outside of Lois's own apartment, and X-rayed the interior. She wasn't there either; the place was in darkness, and although the window had been repaired and the shattered glass cleared up, the furniture was still out of place.

Could she have gone into hiding? He wouldn't put it past the interfering creature in the tights to put Lois somewhere out of his reach.

"She's not here," he said brusquely to Nigel. "And I haven't got the time or the patience to search for her now. We'll have to use someone else."


Luthor considered for a moment. "That partner of hers — Kent — he seems to be close to Superman. Too close, sometimes — it used to make me wonder whether they were an item. It amused me, actually, because Lois was so crazy about Superman." He paused, then eyed Nigel assessingly. "What do you think?"

Nigel raised one eyebrow, at the same time curling his lip in a sardonic manner. "We don't have some secret sign, like the Freemasons. Or did you think we did?"

"No matter." Luthor dismissed the possibility. "Kent will do."

But a few minutes later, at Kent's apartment building in Clinton Street, he drew another blank. Luthor frowned angrily; this just wasn't going to plan, and he hated notbeing able to get what he wanted. Then a thought occurred to him, and he took off again without warning Nigel; again, the older man clung on to Luthor's domino for dear life, despite the grip Luthor had about his chest.

The Daily Planet; Lex well remembered how obsessed with her work Lois was, and that partner of hers seemed to be little better. He wouldn't be at all surprised if Lois was at her desk rather than in hiding somewhere; and if she wasn't, Kent probably would be there.

But yet again there was no sign of the people Luthor sought, and he cursed aloud when he landed on the Planet roof, setting Nigel down beside him. "Damn it, Nigel, I need someone that freak in tights cares about!"

"Lane and Kent aren't the only likely possibilities," Nigel pointed out. "From what I've been able to work out, Superman also has some liking for Perry White."

"True," Luthor mused. "And I would certainly enjoy getting my revenge on White. He still owes me for that editorial."

"But would White co-operate?" Nigel objected.

"Perhaps not," Luthor mused. "He doesn't scare easily. So… who else?"

It was Nigel's turn to look thoughtful. "There is that young fool — the one White appears to treat as some sort of surrogate son. Olsen, I believe."

"Ah, yes — perfect!" Now Luthor was smiling again. "I believe we shall extend our hospitality to James Olsen, once we find him. I imagine he could be persuaded to yell for help without too much difficulty."


As Clark set her down outside the Kent farmhouse, it occurred to Lois again that she had behaved very badly where his parents were concerned. They had offered her their hospitality, thrown their home open to her as a favour to their son and to keep her safe; and she had repaid them by sneaking out behind their backs and running back to Metropolis. And, knowing how kind and caring they both were, she was sure that Martha and Jonathan would have been worried about her. And, despite her own awareness that they would have been concerned, she hadn't even thought to pick up the phone and tell them that she was okay, or to apologise for her rudeness.

She owed them a massive apology. And she was very fortunate that they'd agreed to have her back, in the circumstances. Not that, on reflection, she really wanted to be stashed away in Smallville while her partner was involved in what could be the story of the year — but then, Clark, as Superman, had told her right at the start in no uncertain terms that Luthor's resurrection and possession of Super-powers could not appear in the Daily Planet.

So that was how Clark managed to get so many Superman exclusives, she thought suddenly, her brain shooting off on a tangent momentarily. And she really didn't want to be anywhere Lex Luthor could find her, in any case, she reminded herself, refocusing on the main reason why she was in Smallville. Then the farmhouse door was flung open and Martha was smiling welcomingly at her.

"Lois, honey, come on in! Are you all right? Clark said you shouldn't be out of the hospital yet…?"

Guilt made her grimace involuntarily; Martha was being very kind. "I'm fine, honestly. My arm's okay, I just need to keep a clean dressing on it for the next couple of days."

Moving into the kitchen, Lois saw Martha cast her son a quick, questioning glance, and she wondered just how she could have failed to put all the clues together before. She *had* noticed the Kents treating Superman as if he was someone they'd known well. She should have connected their behaviour with the way they treated Clark.

"Clark, you okay?" Jonathan Kent's concerned voice asked as he joined the group in the kitchen. "We saw you had a busy day."

"Yeah, it was rough," Clark agreed, and Lois noticed the weariness in his voice. He sounded depressed, and part of her was able to understand it, as well. After all, she'd been watching Superman assisting at the disaster scenes. She'd thought then that it had to be very hard for him to deal with all the loss of life, the devastation, and the pain of the survivors. Too many people had been relying on him; who did he rely on when he needed support?

He could have relied on *her,* she reminded herself quickly. If he'd just once come to her — even if he hadn't told her the truth about his identity — and told her he needed someone to talk to, that would have been a sign that he trusted her as a friend. But instead, as Superman, he had mostly kept his distance apart from the times he'd engaged in some light flirting — which, now she knew the truth, was offensive in itself.

Deliberately, she switched off as Clark, still in his Superman outfit, talked in a low voice to his parents about the incidents of the day, although she couldn't help hearing part of what he said; it was interesting to hear that he also thought the disasters were Luthor's doing. But he didn't stay long; only a couple of minutes later his tone altered and he said he needed to be going.

"You take care, honey," Martha urged as she hugged him.

"I will, Mom," Lois heard him promise, and she glanced in his direction again to see him hug Jonathan. Then his gaze was on her, the coldness which she'd seen in his expression at her apartment now completely absent. This was Superman facing her, but the expression, the tone of voice, the look in his eyes was all her partner.

"Lois… we need to talk, but you know we can't — not right now. Once Luthor's out of the way…" He trailed off, gazing at her hopefully.

Those melting brown eyes… that yearning look was so familiar to her. How many times had Clark looked at her like that? How many times had she caught a similar expression in Superman's eyes before he'd looked away? She deliberately hardened her heart against his unspoken plea.

"Goodbye, Superman." Getting to her feet, she turned away from him, but not quickly enough that she missed his flinch at the formal way she addressed him. Ignoring his reaction, and the shock on the faces of his parents, she added that she was tired and would prefer to go to bed, then left the kitchen and headed for the stairs.


Young men are so predictable, Lex Luthor reflected as he scanned the interior of Jimmy Olsen's apartment. Cans of some noxious substance masquerading as beer, empty boxes which had once contained some variety of fast food, and a vaguely pornographic video playing on the TV. Olsen himself was sprawled on the sofa, one can of beer clutched in his hand, as he stared dumbly at the semi-clad couple writhing on the TV screen. <This is going to be so easy…>

Less than a second later he was standing in a pool of shattered glass in the tiny living-room, his nostrils assailed by several unpleasant smells. Pepperoni pizza mingled with garlic bread and stale beer to create a truly vile aroma.

Olsen himself had sprung up from his prone position on the couch, his beer spilling over the floor at the jerky movement. The young man was now staring at the masked, cloaked figure, his expression a mixture of disbelief and fear.

"Who are you…? Get out of here before I call the cops!" As if suddenly mobilised, the young man made a movement towards the telephone.

Before even one step had been completed, Luthor was holding Jimmy's arms in an unyielding grip. "Don't waste your time, Olsen. Now, I require your company, so if you're ready we'll be leaving."

As he prepared to grasp Olsen around the waist, preparatory for leaving the apartment, Luthor noticed the arrested expression on the other man's face. So Olsen wasn't as stupid as he'd imagined after all — the boy was working out who his captor was. Not that it mattered, Luthor reflected, lifting upwards to fly out of the window. Olsen wouldn't be in any position to run anywhere with tales of the resurrection of Lex Luthor.

Ignoring the younger man's cries, Luthor flew towards the house Nigel had rented; he'd left Nigel there a short while earlier, and now all it required was to scare Olsen sufficiently so that he'd yell for Superman. And that shouldn't be difficult, Luthor reflected with a satisfied smile. He didn't have a very high opinion of Jimmy: the boy was the office gopher, he remembered, senior only to that other irritating boy, Jack, who had been a very convenient scapegoat for the Planet bombing. It had been a pleasure to have those two adolescents sent to the printing department, Luthor remembered.

Olsen was not especially brave or bright, Luthor recalled; on that night when, much to his chagrin, he and Lois had been held prisoner at the Planet by a gang who were after some buried millions, Olsen had been the one who had evaded capture and who, they'd hoped, had gone for help; instead, he'd ended up being captured by the ringleader. Definitely stupid, Luthor considered. It wouldn't take long before he did what was required.

Nigel had, as instructed, left a window open on the upper floor of the three-storey building; Luthor flew in through it and then threw Olsen over his shoulder, fireman-like, in a careless movement before striding out of that room and down one flight of stairs. Nigel St John stood waiting in a large reception room, unusually not on the ground floor; but then, in this house, the ground floor was intended primarily for the use of domestic staff.

Placed on his feet, Olsen struggled to regain his balance for a moment before staring at Nigel. "I know you — you worked for Lex Luthor!" he exclaimed. "What am I doing here? And who — " Suddenly he broke off and stared at Luthor; Lex could see the disgust and disbelief in the young man's expression.

"It is you, Luthor! I didn't believe it could be…!" Olsen trailed off in little more than a whisper, his tone incredulous and horrified.

Luthor removed his mask with an exaggerated movement. "In the flesh, Mr Olsen. Surprised? But you shouldn't be. The world has not seen the last of Lex Luthor."

Olsen stood his ground, much to the surprise of Luthor who had not expected such a display of — foolish — courage. "That's a pity," he retorted swiftly. "How come you can fly?"

Lex smiled slowly, savouring the moment. "You see before you SuperLex." In a sudden movement, he reached for a brass sculpture which stood on an occasional table nearby. With one flick of his wrist the sculpture became a crumpled mass of metal which in no way resembled its original form.

The expression of frozen fear on Olsen's face was very gratifying, Luthor felt, and he glanced across at Nigel, sharing his pleasure in the moment.

"I'm sure you can imagine just how easily I could do something similar to you, Mr Olsen," Luthor drawled then, turning his attention back to the younger man.

Again, a look of fear crossed Olsen's face before it was quickly controlled. "What do you want from me, Luthor?"

"Oh, that's easy. All I want is for you to request the presence of your friend and protector, Superman."

Olsen's expression became wary; his gaze flicked in several directions before he replied. "What makes you think Superman would come for me, even if I did call?"

"Simple. All you do is call 'Help, Superman!' I believe your flying friend would be here in seconds were you to do that. That seems to be his usual custom," Luthor explained in deliberately slow tones.

Olsen seemed as if he didn't quite appreciate the danger he was in, Luthor considered. Instead of complying immediately with the instruction he'd been given, the young fool hesitated, biting his lip. "This is a trap, huh? You want me to get Superman here and you're going to jump him or something, yeah?"

<Spare me from barely-out-of-adolescence young men who imagine themselves as heroes!> Luthor thought in irritation. "Mr Olsen, I suggest you do as I have asked. I don't think you would like what I might do to you if you fail to do so."

This, it appeared, was the wrong thing to say, for Olsen clenched his jaw and threw Luthor a belligerent stare in response. "Do what you want to me — I won't call Superman. No way!"

Furious now, Luthor took a step in Olsen's direction, but was halted by Nigel's soft cough. A swift, quelling glance in Nigel's direction caused the older man to say softly, "You need him alive — for now, at any rate, sir."

"Quite right, Nigel," Luthor answered, restraining himself with some difficulty. "Well, perhaps you may succeed in making our young friend comply with my request. I'm sure Mr Olsen would not particularly welcome your attentions, so perhaps…?"

But Nigel apparently did not welcome this suggestion. He recoiled, looking as if the idea repulsed him even more than it might have Jimmy. "I do have some standards, Mr Luthor," he answered, in a pained voice.

Luthor stepped forward again, grasping Jimmy by the back of his shirt-collar and hoisting him a couple of feet off the floor. "Scream, damn you!" he barked angrily. But Olsen remained stubbornly mute.

After several more attempts, after which Jimmy was lying on the floor clutching his ribs and with blood trickling from a couple of facial cuts, Luthor had to concede defeat. He had never imagined that Olsen would be so stubborn.

"All right, Nigel, we'll have to revert to Plan B. I will expect you back in no more than ten minutes."


Lois hated him, Clark thought miserably; it was all he could think about for the entire journey back to Metropolis. As if her complete avoidance of his plea for them to talk wasn't enough, the way she'd addressed him as 'Superman' instead of Clark made her feelings very clear. He'd made a complete mess of everything. He'd been the one entitled to be angry with her, but he'd handled it badly and now he was the one in the wrong. And as a result, he could have lost her friendship, let alone any possibility of a closer relationship.

And now he had to concentrate on working out a way to track Luthor down and find out just what he'd been up to that day. That wasn't going to be easy. Perhaps it was time to do it the hard way: he'd wondered at some point during that long, traumatic day whether Luthor might not be hiding out somewhere lead-lined. After all, he'd noticed an increase in the number of lead-lined warehouses and basements over the couple of months since his inability to see through lead had somehow become common knowledge. He'd have to scan for places he was unable to see into, or perhaps fly very slowly while listening for Luthor's voice — always assuming the man wasn't alone. So in that case -

"Help! Superman!"

Someone in distress… His thoughts interrupted, Clark changed his course and headed in the direction of the cry. A man, on a rooftop somewhere… yes, there he was, a tiny figure clinging to the window-ledge of the Metropolis Mercantile Bank. A would-be suicide, possibly? A quick swoop, and the frantic man was being gripped securely by Superman's arm, being drifted to the ground.

Once his rescuee had been placed safely on the ground, Clark turned to face the man, intending to give him one of Superman's patented pep-talks for such occasions. But the words froze on his tongue when he realised that he recognised the grey-haired man in the understated pale grey suit.

Lex Luthor's personal assistant, accomplice, whatever — the Englishman. Nigel St John.

He could lead Clark to Luthor; this was Clark's immediate thought, followed just as quickly by a warning note. Why would St John appear suddenly out of the blue? And why was he yelling for Superman? This could not possibly be a coincidence.

He focused his gaze on St John, his expression forbidding. "I presume you wanted me for some reason, Mr St John?"

But the man didn't appear at all taken aback. With barely a blink, he produced a small item from his inside jacket pocket. "I believe you might recognise this, Superman."

Clark studied the small plastic card… he did recognise it, because he carried one like it himself every day. It was a press pass. But whose…?

Jimmy's. His heart sank; Luthor hadn't been able to get hold of Lois to use her as bait this time, so he'd grabbed Jimmy.

Well, Luthor wouldn't find it quite so easy this time. If he was prepared to use Jimmy as a human shield, then Superman would have Nigel St John.

But as he caught hold of St John, instructing the man to take him to Luthor's current hideout, Clark couldn't help thinking that Luthor was unlikely to care as much about securing St John's freedom or safety than Clark did about Jimmy Olsen's.


Before she'd even got half-way to the stairs, Lois stopped in her tracks as guilt hit her. She'd been extremely rude to Martha and Jonathan, to say nothing of the way she'd clearly hurt Clark — though she wasn't sure she wanted to think about Clark right now. On the other hand, how could she *not* think about him? Part of her recognised that if she went to bed now, she'd be awake most of the night agonising over Clark's disclosure — and over his strange behaviour, the way he'd treated her.

Turning on her heel, she returned to the kitchen. Martha was making hot chocolate, and Jonathan was just announcing his intention of doing his usual last check on the livestock before going to bed. Lois hovered awkwardly in the doorway, unsure of her welcome; then Martha noticed her and immediately smiled broadly in her direction.

"Lois, honey, we thought you'd gone to bed! Come in — would you like some chocolate?"

Nodding, Lois entered the kitchen and began to pace edgily. After a few moments, she grimaced and decided just to say what was on her mind. "Martha, I'm sorry — for leaving behind your back yesterday, I mean. I was just so worried… and I didn't want to worry you and Jonathan — and I guess it didn't occur to me that you'd be worried anyway at me going."

Martha smiled lightly. "It's okay, honey. We were worried about you, I can't deny that, but I know you were worried about Clark, and you couldn't have known that he was safe all along. He just forgot, you know? Most of the time, when he has to leave to be Superman, he doesn't have time to organise a proper cover story for himself, but he's rarely gone long enough for it to really matter. This time it did, but he was so busy, and so distressed about all those people Luthor killed, that he never thought that anyone would be wondering where Clark was."

"Yeah, I can see that," Lois answered slowly, sinking into a chair as Martha slid a mug of chocolate in front of her and sat opposite her. "I guess I should have told you two I was worried about Clark, instead of just taking off."

But Clark's mother grimaced slightly then. "I wish you had, of course, and I know Clark does. But I really don't know what we'd have done if you had, honey. Of course we knew Clark was okay, but we couldn't tell you that — and anyway, we were worried about him too. Luthor could really kill him, and that terrifies us."

Lois swallowed, a huge lump building up in her throat as she remembered the previous evening's fight. "I know," she said at last, in little more than a whisper. "I thought Luthor was going to kill him — I just couldn't move. I stood there, completely helpless, watching them… You know, Martha, he could have beaten Luthor then, last night. I saw him — it was incredible! Clark was so… he was just brilliant. He took Luthor down, had him pinned — and then Luthor used me to distract Clark. If I hadn't been there… I know it was entirely my fault, and I can't blame Clark for getting angry with me, but I just couldn't move, Martha!" The words had simply tumbled out of her, and as she came to an abrupt finish Lois realised she couldn't have blamed the older woman for being completely lost.

But Martha reached across and took Lois's hand in hers. "When did Clark get angry with you?" she asked softly, sympathy flowing from her expression as well as her tone.

"Back in his apartment — I left the hospital because I needed to see Clark, I was scared that Luthor might have kept Superman out of Metropolis so he could kill more people… so I went to Clark's apartment. He wasn't there, but Superman found me there. I asked him to get Clark for me, so he did."

She paused then, remembering those moments in the familiar surroundings of Clark's apartment. "Anyway, he — Clark — came in, and for a moment it was wonderful… he hugged me, he was pleased to see me, and I was *so*…" She trailed off, feeling embarrassed at the realisation that her words might have made it clear to Clark's mother how pleased she'd been to see her son. At least she hadn't given any clue to how much she'd wanted Clark to sweep her into his arms and kiss her — *really* kiss her. And how, now that she knew that was what she really wanted, it was so heartbreaking to realise that simply wasn't going to happen. It couldn't; Clark was Superman, for one thing, and he could have anyone he wanted: why would he want Lois Lane? Even if he wanted a relationship with anyone, that was. And for another, his behaviour, both as Clark since his revelation and as Superman before it had made it clear he didn't feel about her the way she did about him.

"And what then?" Martha prompted, recalling Lois's mind to her tale.

"He wanted me to let Superman take me back here, and I said I wouldn't go unless he came too — I told him how worried I'd been about him, and he… he said it wasn't the same thing at all, and…" she broke off to catch her breath, then continued jerkily. "He got angry, and told me to *think* about why it wasn't the same, why I never saw him and Superman together, said that if I was such a hot-shot reporter why hadn't I realised it before now! Well, maybe not in those words, as such," Lois amended, "but that's what he meant."

Martha's grasp on Lois's hand tightened. "Oh, honey, I'm sure he didn't mean it like that! Oh, sure, he might have been angry, but… tell me, Lois, how often have you seen Clark angry before?"

Lois hesitated; anger was an emotion she just wouldn't associate with Clark normally. It was so unlike him. Her partner, for as long as she'd known him, was invariably mild-mannered, good-humoured and kind, although he did have the occasional moments of sulkiness. Not anger.


"There was just one time," she answered slowly, remembering the occasion. "It was while I was engaged to Luthor, and we met when I was driving a car Lex had given me…"

"And why was Clark angry then?" Martha prompted, leading Lois to suspect that Clark's mother was trying to make her recognise something.

"I guess… because he hated the thought of me with Luthor. He knew what the man was really like, and I know it tore him apart to think of me marrying him. I know that's why he wouldn't come to the wedding."

For a brief instant, Lois saw a strange expression cross Martha's face, but it was gone before she could work out what it meant. Then the older woman smiled slightly. "See? Clark only loses his temper when he's under a lot of pressure — emotional pressure, or when things are happening he feels he has no control over." She paused to allow her words to sink in before continuing. "Did he tell you how worried he's been about you? How he thought Luthor had actually killed you, last night?"

Lois stared at Martha, horrified. Clark had actually thought she was dead? "I… didn't know," she whispered; then, before she could help herself, another thought voiced itself. "He let me think he was dead."

Martha blinked, before realisation obviously came to her and she sighed, her mouth turning downwards in dismay. "Honey, *he* thought he was dead! No, really," she added firmly as Lois was about to object. "Clark Kent was dead. Okay, Superman wasn't, but don't you realise that he's really just Clark Kent? Superman's only a disguise. Clark wanted to be able to use his powers to help people, but he didn't want to be labelled as some kind of freak. There's a man under the disguise, and he just wants to have a normal life. When Clark was shot, he thought he'd lost that normal life."

Lois was about to protest, but she bit back her words as the meaning of what Martha was saying hit her. Clark thought he'd lost the life he'd built so carefully for himself. It was no wonder he hadn't thought about coming to reassure her; he'd been too busy grieving for himself! So maybe… maybe she needed to cut him some slack over that. She'd have to think about it.

And there was something else. "He's had a horrible couple of days, hasn't he, Martha? You said he was under pressure, and worried — he's been flying around after Luthor, and then there was today, all those people dead — and then he went back to thehospital and found me gone, didn't he? That had to have been the last thing he needed after the day he'd had."

"Well, he didn't tell us that — about going to the hospital and finding you not there," Martha pointed out. "But even though you've only just found out Superman is really Clark, you must know Clark well enough to realise that he obsesses. If he thinks, for any reason, that he should have done something different, found a way to stop something happening, he'll obsess about it and get himself into a state about it."

"Yeah, I know, I've seen him do it," Lois admitted. "So I guess that by the time he saw me this evening he was pretty wound up. And he was right — my going back to Metropolis only made things worse for him. And then Luthor grabbed me, and I didn't get out of the way when Sup — Clark told me to, so I got hurt. It's not surprising he was mad at me."

To Lois's puzzlement, Martha seemed surprised at that. "Oh, Lois, Clark wasn't mad at you! Trust me, I know my son! He's mad at Luthor, and at the fact that he's always had to hide the truth about himself from you — and at himself because you got hurt."

"But… but that was nothing to do with Clark!" Lois protested.

"You try telling him that, honey! His father and I had him here late last night, trying to talk some sense into him. He was convinced that it was all his fault you were in the hospital. Which reminds me, Lois," Clark's mother continued, "how's your arm?"

Lois shrugged. "It's fine. The nurse put a clean dressing on it this afternoon and she told me to keep it covered for another few days."

Martha nodded. "I should have some sterile dressings in the first-aid kit. When you live on a farm you can't be without that kind of thing! I'll change the dressing for you in the morning."

"Thanks." Lois got up, thinking it was probably time she went to bed: Jonathan would be in from the cowshed at any minute. But she halted on her way to the door, needing the answer to one more question. "Martha, why didn't he tell me? Didn't he trust me? Didn't he think of me as a friend at all?"

Martha also got to her feet, moving towards Lois. "Tell you he's Superman, you mean? Oh, honey, of course he trusted you! He's trusted you with his life, remember? Remember when you took out the Kryptonite bullet?" Lois nodded, and paled at the sudden realisation that it had really been *Clark* lying in agony, dying, on the floor of Lex Luthor's office.

"I don't think Clark ever realised what creating a dual identity would mean. He came up with the idea one day — he called us up and told us he needed a costume, then he flew home and asked me to make it. It all seemed so simple at the time, but I don't think he realised what it would be like once Superman was established as a separate identity. Once people got to know Superman… once Clark started to develop the Superman persona and some people — like you, Lois — knew him as both people. Can you imagine the strain of pretending to be two separate people and keeping those parts of your identity separate, Lois?"

Listening intently, Lois could only nod. She couldn't imagine living two lives, maintaining two such different personalities, and now that Martha was bringing the realities home to her she found that she couldn't imagine how Clark had managed to keep up the pretence without letting anything slip.

"And I think he did want to tell you, Lois — at least recently, I'm sure he was thinking about it. I know he was finding it more and more of a strain. But how do you tell someone something like that? I mean, you're his best friend. How could he just go up to you and tell you that he's been deceiving you for the past eighteen months by pretending to be two people? I'd think that'd be the hardest part about deciding to tell you about himself: just how to do it."

"I guess," Lois acknowledged softly. "I mean, he knows me! I could have screamed at him, thrown things, threatened to tell people — not that I would have," she added quickly, in case Martha was concerned. "I could have decided I didn't want to be his friend any more," she finished quietly.

Martha touched her arm gently. "By the way you spoke to him when he left here, and the way he looked at you, I think he thinks you've done that already."

Horrified, Lois stared at Martha. "No! No… no, I never meant that. I was hurt! Hurt, and feeling betrayed, and disappointed, and confused… and the way he was with me back in his apartment really made me feel like I didn't know him any more. That just wasn't the Clark I knew — I didn't know what to think. And I guess I was cold, but I never meant him to think that."

"So you still want to be his friend?" Martha asked.

Lois nodded emphatically. "He's the best friend I ever had — as Clark and as Superman. I don't want to lose him."

"Well, that's okay then, you can tell him that when you see him next," Martha responded cheerfully. "And in the meantime, tomorrow I'll tell you the real story of how we found him if you like. But now I think you should go to bed." Taking a step closer to Lois, Martha enveloped her in a warm hug.

A few moments later Lois climbed the stairs towards Clark's old bedroom, feeling that while she had a lot to think about, and a lot she needed him to explain to her, she was no longer resentful towards Clark.


Luthor had certainly gone upmarket, Clark mused as he flew towards the near-mansion Nigel St John had indicated once they'd got close to it. He'd either robbed a far bigger bank, or St John had had access to greater reserves of cash.

However, what was worrying him far more at the moment was the fate of Jimmy Olsen. He could barely understand how Jimmy had become embroiled in this at all, though perhaps once Luthor hadn't been able to get hold of Lois he'd simply searched about for someone else known to be on some sort of good terms with Superman. It could just as easily have been Perry White, Murray Brown or the directors of several charities with which Superman had been associated over the past year or so.

Getting closer to the house, Clark engaged his X-ray vision in an attempt to locate Jimmy; he had the intention, if at all possible, of flying in, dumping his passenger (and if St John had a bumpy landing, so much the better), grabbing Jimmy and flying out again with his young friend before going back to deal with Luthor once and for all. His anger against Lex Luthor was by now pretty much at boiling point, though that was something he hadn't really dwelt on too much. Luthor had needlessly caused the deaths of several innocent people that day, between the landslide and the bridge collapse, and had risked the lives and health of others with that chemical fire. He had murdered six people in cold blood the previous day. And if all that was not enough to rouse Superman's fury, he had attacked Lois last night, in a manner which suggested indifference to her fate.

Right now, Superman was as close to feeling murderous as he could possibly be.

Slowly scanning the building, Clark suddenly saw Jimmy: he was lying in a crumpled heap in a room on the house's middle floor. The young man was bleeding, Clark could see, and his gut twisted again. First Lois, now Jimmy: how many of his friends — and how many other people — would suffer for his stupidity in allowing Luthor to get his powers in the first place, and his failure to capture the man since that mistake?

"You can use the open window around the back," Nigel St John's supercilious voice intruded on his thoughts. Clark merely nodded, not feeling any urge to be polite to the man. He flew into the house and, maintaining a very tight grip on St John, moved at near Super-speed through the building until he reached the room where he'd seem Jimmy.

He threw the door open, preparing to rush in, dump St John — preferably on top of Lex Luthor — and grab Jimmy, and fly out again immediately. But as he hurried in, he heard Jimmy cry out to him weakly, "No… Superman, no… get out!"

Clark turned his head, seeing Jimmy curled up in a foetal ball on the floor, pain showing in the lines on his face, but with a frantic expression in his eyes. At precisely that moment, waves of a familiar, sickening pain coursed through Clark, and he dropped St John in shock.

Luthor had Kryptonite.

He should have known, should have expected that Luthor wouldn't try the same plan twice. He had failed to overpower Superman last night, so it was only to be expected that this time he would have made sure the odds were unfairly in his favour. That Nigel St John was now in the picture ought to have alerted Clark to the possibility that Luthor had been able to get his hands on some Kryptonite.

And he could see it now: not a very large piece, but it was glowing fiercely as Luthor idly tossed it up and down in the palm of his hand. The man was enjoying this, Clark could see. Luthor's mouth was curved into a very self-satisfied smile as he watched the man he regarded as his arch-foe stumble and strive to keep his balance.

"Well, Superman, I see your reaction to this little souvenir of home hasn't changed since I previously made you acquainted with it," Luthor drawled then, stepping closer.

Clark took a step backwards; time seemed to go into slow motion as he felt his strength draining away faster the closer Luthor got to him. Frantically he tried to think of a way out. Was he already too weak to run? He knew he couldn't fly; his powers were already gone, he suspected. If he ran, what would happen? Luthor would come after him, that was for sure. And this time, Luthor would kill him.

But there was still Jimmy, who was still lying, barely moving, on the floor. Once he'd failed to prevent Superman from coming into contact with the Kryptonite, the young man had seemed to lose what little strength he had. Clark raised pain-filled eyes to Luthor. "Let Olsen go. He's not part of this, and he needs help."

"You're in no position to demand anything, Superman," St John snapped curtly. "The boy stays, as guarantor of your good behaviour." As if in illustration of this, St John strolled over to Jimmy, kicking him hard in the ribs. A low, pain-filled groan emanated from the huddled figure on the floor.

Clark's strength was ebbing fast now, and as Luthor came ever closer to him he felt his vision blurring and excruciating pain washing over him. He reached out blindly, gripping at the back of a chair to steady himself, and he heard Luthor emit an exclamation of triumph.

"Prepare to die, Superman!" Lex cried exultantly, and Clark forced himself to focus, to concentrate on what was happening and to fight, *fight* against the overwhelming pain and the weakness and the nausea. He had to get out of this — he had to! How else was Luthor to be stopped? And anyway, he had to sort things out with Lois — he couldn't leave her while she was still angry with him, could he? He needed to talk to her, so he couldn't die just yet…

He was vaguely aware that he was being irrational, but he wasn't in any frame of mind to care. Dimly, he registered that Luthor had put the Kryptonite down somewhere, since Luthor was standing very close to him and yet the pain had receded, very slightly. Not that it mattered at all, since he was so weakened that Luthor could snap his neck with one tiny squeeze. He was so close to dying now; he could sense the murderous intent in his enemy's mind, feel Luthor already anticipating the joy of having his arch-foe's dead body laid out in front of him.

Suddenly, in a confused, blurry succession, several things seemed to happen at once. Luthor was beginning to talk about the various ways he'd considered putting an end to Superman's existence, when there was a movement from behind the domino-clad man. That was swiftly followed by the loud crashing of breaking glass, and immediately after that splinters were flying everywhere; Clark was vaguely aware of St John muttering and ducking. A couple of splinters hit him, and with a sort of dazed fascination he stared at the pin-pricks of blood appearing on his arm.

Then Luthor had moved away from him, and he could hear snatches of conversation…

"You *idiot*! What were you…"

"…the Kryptonite…"

"…that fool Olsen…"

"…gone… thought he was too badly hurt to…"

"…why didn't you *stop* him?"

"…not the one with Super-powers…"

Footsteps, people blocking the light at the window… more voices…

"…can't see him anywhere…"

"…has to be dead… couldn't possibly have survived… twelve feet or more…"

Slowly the wooziness in Clark's head was beginning to clear, and he was able to work out what had happened. Jimmy — poor, brave, *generous* Jimmy — had grabbed the Kryptonite and thrown it — and himself — out of the window in order to save Superman. And had no doubt killed himself in the process, Clark realised, a sense of deep sorrow washing over him at the thought of his friend's fate. There was no way an already badly injured Jimmy could have survived such a fall, surely? Jimmy had to have given his life to save Superman.

With that realisation came sudden, furious anger. Lex Luthor had caused Jimmy's death. And if Jimmy had given up his life in order that Superman might have a chance at living, then Superman fully intended to seize that chance.

Luthor and St John were still conferring at the window, Luthor bemoaning the loss of the Kryptonite and ordering Nigel to go out in search of it. Clark knew he had to move rapidly while their attention was elsewhere. He dearly wanted to march up to the pair of them and extract his own form of revenge for their actions: not for Jimmy alone, though his young friend and colleague was yet another mark on the tally Clark was keeping of Luthor's evildoing.

But he knew that he didn't stand a chance at the moment against a fully Super-powered Luthor. If he tried to fight Luthor now, he would be killed. And that was not what Jimmy had died for. Much though his will rebelled at it, Clark knew that his best option for the moment was retreat. And quickly, before his would-be captors realised that he'd recovered.

Silently, swiftly, despite still feeling extremely weak, he padded towards the door and exited the room, moving equally quietly and quickly through the house and letting himself out a back door, then finding a shadowed corner in which to hide while his strength returned. The whole encounter, he realised dazedly, had taken less than two minutes.

A few moments later, he heard a roar of sheer rage and frustration. His absence had been discovered, and clearly Luthor hadn't been able to locate him. Holding his breath and hoping against hope that it wouldn't occur to Luthor to use X-ray vision to sweep the area, Clark was rewarded a minute later by the sound of a sonic boom. Luthor and St John were leaving.


Presumably Luthor had no idea how long it took him to recover his powers after Kryptonite exposure, Clark thought as he leaned back against the wall, breathing heavily, hoping Luthor wasn't about to return any time soon. Luthor must have thought Superman had flown off; well, if so, that was good.

Perhaps it was safe to move now, to get away from this area — but there was Jimmy. He had to find Jimmy.

But Jimmy had the Kryptonite with him — if he found Jimmy, he'd be in pain and incapacitated again, Clark reminded himself. But he pushed that thought away. Jimmy had sacrificed himself to save Superman, and there was *no way* that he would leave his friend here, to rot in the undergrowth or to be found by strangers.

But where should he start looking? St John and Luthor hadn't been able to see Jimmy when they'd been looking out of the window, and Luthor had the benefit of telescopic vision. Clark walked over to the ground beneath the window, noting the shattered glass littered around. But what was…?

He bent down to look more closely at the dark patch which had caught his eye. It was blood… and what was more, it was fresh. It looked as if it had fallen onto the broken shard of glass *after* the glass had landed on the ground, rather than having been there by virtue of the glass cutting into Jimmy as the young man had jumped through it.

And… there was more blood — there, and there too! Now that he started looking, Clark was able to see a trail of dark spots, and he began to follow it. It led to a clump of trees further down the garden — the perfect place to hide, he realised.

A few more paces, and he could see the outline of something lying on the ground. There was a flash of yellow — the yellow sweatshirt Jimmy had been wearing! In less than a second, he was crouched beside his friend, uncaring if the Kryptonite was still in Jimmy's hand.

"Jimmy… you were so brave, so unselfish… I wish I could've done things differently, that you hadn't needed to do this," Clark murmured, his voice choking up as he rested his hand on his friend's shoulder.

"C…K?" The voice was little more than a ragged whisper, but Clark heard it. Staring at Jimmy in amazement, he reached out his hand to feel the younger man's face. It was warm.

"My God, you're alive!" Clark exclaimed, barely able to believe it. How could Jimmy — who'd already been pretty badly beaten by the look of things — have survived a fall from that height, onto hard ground?

Jimmy blinked and looked up at him. "Super…man?"

"Yes, it's me, Jimmy."

"You're… okay? Luthor didn't…?"

"Thanks to you, no. I owe you my life, Jimmy," Clark said heavily, doing his best to keep his voice deeper, more formal than Clark Kent's. He was pretty sure Jimmy's initial identification of him as 'CK' was down to confusion and the fact that he was probably only semi-conscious at the time. But he couldn't afford to take any chances.

But another thought occurred to him: he realised the pain of Kryptonite exposure wasn't returning. "Jimmy- the Kryptonite?"

"…'s okay… threw it… drain, Superman," Jimmy explained between gasps of pain.

Shaking his head in disbelief at what Jimmy had managed to achieve, Clark said determinedly, "You need to get to a hospital." He hesitated, then tried his X-ray vision. To his surprise, it worked. He quickly scanned Jimmy's body, determining that he had a couple of broken ribs, an injured wrist which was probably just a sprain, a broken ankle, and numerous cuts and bruises, some more serious than others. A quick experiment told Clark that he could fly again, and he debated briefly with himself whether it would be better to call an ambulance or fly Jimmy to hospital himself. Would a Super-flight cause any further injury to the ankle? Probably not, he decided; Jimmy was wearing strong boots and as long as they stayed on the ankle would be supported. And he would try to hold Jimmy rigidly enough so that his ribs didn't receive any jolting during the flight.

His decision made, he gently and very carefully scooped his friend up and drifted cautiously into the sky, just hoping Lex Luthor was nowhere around.


Lois spent a restless night, punctuated by strange dreams in which Clark and Superman appeared in front of her, switching places back and forth and merging into one, only to separate and become two people again. One minute Superman was sitting next to her at the Planet in her dream as they worked on a story; the next Clark had scooped her up into his arms and was taking her flying.

Next, Superman was saying goodbye to her late one night at the Planet, and with a shock she realised that it had been *Clark,* her gentle, considerate partner, who had briefly become a hate-figure in Metropolis when he'd been accused of causing a heatwave. Clark had been held in contempt of court and ordered to leave Metropolis; no wonder he'd acted so out of character when he'd said goodbye.

In another dream, images from the more recent past replayed themselves in her mind, but with her new knowledge reality was altered. Suddenly it was Superman who told her, in Centennial Park, that he had been in love with her for a long time, and Clark who stood in her apartment and told her, his face frozen in an expression akin to pain, that he wished he could believe her, but he didn't see how he could.

But it *had* been Superman whose impassioned declaration of love she'd rejected, and Clark, in disguise, whom she'd told she would love even if he was an ordinary man with no powers at all. No wonder he'd looked at her as if she'd whipped him when she'd said it; no wonder he'd lashed out in that hurtful way when he'd arrived at her apartment.

No, now that the memories were flooding back and she could see the past in a new light, it was clear that Clark was by no means the only bad guy here. Okay, he'd chosen to adopt a secret identity and get to know her in both guises, but how had he been able to stand the different ways she'd treated his two identities? Dismissive of Clark; falling over herself to get Superman's attention. Treating Clark as if he was an idiot or worse; hanging on Superman's every word as if he was some sort of demi-god. And worst of all, taking Clark's genuine affection for her for granted and rejecting him as a possible romantic partner as if he wasn't good enough for her, while at the same time swooning over Superman and practically offering herself to him on a plate.

But Clark had… he had actually seemed to *dislike* Superman a few months ago! All those snide remarks whenever she or anyone else had mentioned the Man of Steel, the rolled eyes if she mentioned having seen him or going flying with him. She'd been convinced Clark was jealous of Superman — and not just because of her own feelings for the Super-hero. She'd thought that it had to be some sort of inferiority complex on Clark's part. And yet, more recently, Clark's attitude had changed and gradually she'd become aware that he, far more frequently than she, had access to Superman exclusives. Somehow, without her realising it, Clark appeared to have become a close friend of Superman.

Okay, that was all explained now that she knew Superman *was* Clark; but why the initial jealousy? Unless… unless Clark had still been getting his own head around the practicalities, as well as the implications, of a dual identity. It must have been very galling for him to experience people's differing reactions to him in his two guises. No, not *people's* reactions; Lois Lane's reactions. He must have been very chagrined, if not hurt, at the marked difference between the way she'd treated Clark and Superman. Because he wanted to be accepted, liked — *loved*? — as Clark, she understood that. *Clark* was who her partner really was; she hadn't needed Martha to tell her that. She'd instinctively understood it, which was why almost subconsciously she'd reached for the most hurtful thing she could have done to him as he'd left earlier: she'd called him Superman rather than Clark. Lois grimaced: she would have to make up to him for that. After all, no matter how much he'd deceived her, he was still her best friend. And why should she be unhappy to discover that Superman, the remote Super-hero she'd always wanted to get to know better, was really her best friend?

It was so easy to understand, now, why Superman had kept his distance so much. If he'd allowed himself to become close to her in that guise, he could have run the risk of Lois seeing through the disguise. Or, perhaps more dangerously from Clark's point of view, it could have led to Lois becoming even more infatuated with — no, in love with — the Super-hero than she already was, and thus leading her to ignore Clark still more.

Except that she hadn't been ignoring Clark lately…

Did this discovery make a difference to the possibility of a closer relationship between them? Lois wasn't sure. She hoped it didn't, unless it made such a relationship more rather than less likely. Apart from anything else, she now knew Clark's secret, understood why he kept running off at inopportune moments and seemed to be hiding something from her. That, surely, removed one major barrier to a closer relationship? He no longer had to lie to her.

How did he feel about her? *Did* he love her? Or did he really just see her as a friend? Was there any hope for a closer relationship between them, or should she just get accustomed to the idea that the best she could hope for was being his best friend?

He'd said they needed to talk; she hoped that meant he was as eager as she was to get this behind them and move on. There was so much she wanted to ask him, so manymemories of two men which she now had to merge into one, and it wouldn't be easy. But if he was willing to help her, to answer her questions and give her time to put it all together, it should be possible for them both to move on from this. And, she had to admit, it was going to be pretty exciting knowing from now on that she had Superman for a partner.

But that talk was going to have to wait. The most important thing, right now, was getting Lex Luthor out of the way. The man was not only ultra-dangerous, he was clearly deranged; in that state, there was no knowing what he might do. If their guesses were right, he had already caused three disasters, and the only reason there hadn't been very high losses of life in all cases was the quick reactions of Superman. Luthor had also killed six people, if not more by now, and he wanted to kill Superman. She had to think of a way to stop him.

Could Clark beat Luthor in single combat, if no-one else was around for Luthor to use as a human shield? From what she'd seen on the night she'd been hurt, she thought that was very likely. So they needed a means of drawing Luthor out, getting him into a situation and a location where there would be no observers, no-one to get in the way. That was something she could apply her mind to, she thought; she was feeling singularly useless stuck out here in Smallville, even though she agreed with Clark's reasoning about the need for her to stay there.

Just how was Clark feeling right now?

That question suddenly crossed Lois's mind for the first time since her discovery of his other identity, and she bit her lip as a surge of guilt flooded through her. Clark was no doubt suffering agonies over the trauma he'd been through the previous day, to say nothing of being very, very tired — did Superman get tired? she wondered suddenly. She'd have to ask Martha. It struck her suddenly that, while she might not know that much about Superman, she certainly knew Clark well. Clark had a very deep-rooted humanitarian streak. He really cared about other people; that was one of the things which made him so good at writing the kind of stories which touched the lives of ordinary people. And Clark would be torn up inside over the people who had died, all because Lex Luthor had wanted Superman kept busy for several hours.

And with that thought came the realisation that what Clark had really needed from her the previous evening was support and understanding, yet all she'd given him was a hard time. She'd run away — again — and then argued with him when he'd wanted to take her to safety; she'd forced him into a position where he had to tell her about his secret identity — and she did actually believe what he'd said about intending to tell her soon anyway; and then she'd been selfishly angry with him, treating him coldly and making it clear that she wasn't about to forgive him any time soon. After everything he'd been through, he hadn't needed that.

And her behaviour was such a contrast to Clark's idea of friendship. Oh, he wasn't perfect by a long way, but when she was upset, or frightened, or just needed someone to talk to, he was always there for her. She could call him in the middle of the night — and had done so on occasion — and he never minded. He was supportive and encouraging in a myriad of ways; and now, when he'd needed her support in return, she'd failed to provide it.

She would definitely make up for that the next time she saw him, or spoke to him — at least, she hoped he'd make contact with his parents, and she'd ask Martha or Jonathan to let her talk to Clark when he called. Explanations could wait, but she wanted him to know that she was there for him and that she intended to be a better friend than she had been in the past.


A couple of hours later, showered and dressed if not completely refreshed, Lois headed downstairs in search of coffee and breakfast. As she rounded the corner from the stairs and entered the living-room, she halted in surprise. Superman — no, Clark — stood in the middle of the room, talking to his parents. He looked haggard, she thought: very tired, unshaven, and as if he carried the weight of the world on his shoulders. Her guilt at being unsupportive intensified, and all the love she felt for him, in either guise, returned in one fell swoop.

His head turned, and the full force of his dark gaze hit her; he looked as if he was anticipating another attack from her. Unable to let him think that, she stepped forward quickly, laying her hand on his arm as she reached his side.

"Hi, Clark — you look tired." Deliberately keeping all emotion out of her voice apart from simple concern, she smiled briefly up at him.

He turned to look at her, his expression hesitant; it was clear to her that he thought she intended to fight with him again. "Lois… look, I'm sorry about yesterday, okay? I really didn't mean to tell you like that — "

"Clark, stop," she interrupted, her tone insistent, and she squeezed his arm for emphasis. It was hard; very firm and solid. How had she never noticed that before? "It's okay, Clark, really. We can talk about all of that another time. Right now, we need to figure out what to do about Luthor."

He seemed relieved, but she got the impression that his attention wasn't wholly focused on her or even Lex Luthor. "Clark, what is it?" she asked him quickly.

He sighed heavily, pain now evident in his eyes. "Lois, Jimmy's hurt. He's going to be okay, but it'll take a while."

"Jimmy? What happened?" She clutched at his arm again, and this time he laid his free hand over hers briefly.

They moved to the couch, and in a voice which rarely altered from a monotone Clark told Lois and his parents what had happened the previous night. At the mention of Kryptonite, Martha gasped in horror and Jonathan quickly demanded, "Are you okay, son?"

"I'm fine, Dad," he answered quietly. "It wasn't a very large piece, and thanks to Jimmy getting rid of it so quickly I wasn't exposed all that long."

"What did Jimmy do?" Jonathan asked. "You said he was in a bad way when you got there."

"He told me later he was pretending to be worse than he really felt, so that they wouldn't pay him any attention. Then, when both Luthor and St John were concentrating on me, he grabbed the Kryptonite and made a dash for the window."

"But you said you were on an upper floor!" Lois interjected, aghast.

"Yeah, but he jumped all the same. And he broke his ankle and got plenty of cuts from the glass, but that didn't stop him. He managed to throw the Kryptonite down a drain and then dragged himself over to some trees so he could hide. He was almost unconscious from the pain when I found him."

Lois bit her lip as Clark outlined the extent of Jimmy's injuries and related the story of his second visit to an emergency room with one of his close friends in as many days. It was only then that it hit her that it had been *Clark* who had brought her to the ER two days before, Clark who had handed her over to the medics, barely speaking but with a look in his eyes which spoke volumes about his concern for her. Now that she knew the truth behind the costume, Superman's silence was understandable; she knew Clark well enough to know that he'd no doubt been choked up with worry.

And now he'd had to do it again, with Jimmy, who by the sound of things was in a much worse condition. "Clark… you saw him later? You said you'd spoken to him, or was that on the way to the hospital?"

"No, it was later," he explained. "I had to leave him with the medical staff, and I flew back to Luthor's house to see whether he or St John had come back — I still have to catch the guy. But there was no sign of them. I guess now that I know about the place they won't go near it again, but I left a message for Henderson all the same, to tell him Luthor'd been there."

Martha shifted to sit on the arm of the couch, beside Clark, and wrapped her arm firmly around his shoulders; as Lois watched, she wished she'd had the courage to offer comfort to him in that way. But she still felt awkward after their fight last night.

"Are you sure you're okay, honey? Luthor didn't hurt you?" Martha asked.

"Other than the Kryptonite, he didn't get a chance," Clark answered reassuringly, though Lois could see that his eyes still held a tension he was clearly trying not to communicate to his mother. "I think he was savouring the moment — he had me at his mercy, I was weakened, beginning to feel dizzy, and he knew it. He was right in front of me, debating aloud with himself how he was going to kill me — and then Jimmy jumped out the window. That distracted him, and he and St John were so busy arguing with each other about whose fault it was that I was able to sneak out of the room."

Clark fell silent then, and Lois felt almost like an intruder as she watched the exchange of glances between him and his parents. She was sure that there was a lot he wasn't telling them, such as exactly how much pain he'd been in, and how he'd felt when he realised what Jimmy had done for him. He must have thought that Jimmy could be very seriously injured, even dead, and that would have torn him apart inside. And, of course, he'd have felt bad enough in the first place about Jimmy being used as bait to get him there.

Yet another reason to make her feel completely selfish for concentrating on her own feelings last night when Clark had brought her back here. He was her friend, and he needed her support right now, not rebukes. She loved him; why did she seem to find it so hard to behave as if she did sometimes?


Clark, for his part, was trying hard to keep himself together. He hadn't slept for several days now, and besides the inevitable weariness was beginning to feel very despondent about his chances of defeating Lex Luthor. Now that Luthor had Kryptonite, the task was so much harder — at least, assuming the piece he'd had the night before was not his only one. If it hadn't been for Jimmy's courage last night he would already be dead. He was well aware that the other occupants of his parents' living-room knew that, though they were all being very careful not to mention it.

Lois interrupted what were rapidly becoming very depressing thoughts. "So when did you talk to Jimmy, Clark? You didn't say."

"Later," he explained. "I went back to the hospital to see how he was doing, and he'd been moved to a room by then." He didn't add anything about the way he'd felt when handing the battered and injured Jimmy, who had been drifting in and out of consciousness during the short flight, to the duty ER doctor. He'd been assured that his friend's injuries were unlikely to be critical unless there happened to be internal injuries, but it was the possibility of internal injuries which had worried him. Clark's medical knowledge was competent for an amateur: he could spot a broken bone or a sprain, he knew a reasonable amount about head injuries and he had even learned enough to be able to deliver a baby safely, the latter very much an on-the-job crash course. But he was not very familiar with internal organs, and given the kicking to the ribs and stomach Jimmy had sustained, was very much afraid of serious damage.

But when he'd returned to the hospital in the very small hours of morning, having given up for the moment on his search for Luthor, the news from the doctor had been encouraging. No internal injuries beyond bruising, the three broken ribs and the broken ankle Clark had already known about, and a number of cuts, some of which had needed stitches. Jimmy would need a hospital stay of several days, followed by a period being cared for by family or friends after his hospital discharge.

Clark relayed this information, and Martha instantly responded, as he'd guessed she might. "He can come here, of course, honey. We'll look after him — he can't stay with you, it's too risky, even if -" She broke off without finishing, but Clark knew what she'd been about to say. Even if he had managed to deal with Luthor by then. And Jimmy staying with him would be too risky because he was Superman. He couldn't take the chance that he would somehow give himself away.

"It's okay, Mom, Perry's already offered," he answered quickly, and explained how, as Superman, he'd gone straight to see the Planet editor afterwards, since the doctor had asked him to wait half an hour or so before visiting Jimmy. If he hadn't been there as Superman, Clark mused silently, he wouldn't have been allowed to see Jimmy at all — Perry, who had arrived at the hospital as he himself was leaving, had been refused permission.

"I went to see Perry because — well, apart from the fact that we know Perry sees Jimmy like a surrogate son, even though he'd deny it, he's the only person I could think of who'd know how to get in contact with Jimmy's parents. Anyway…" He paused for a moment, grimacing and giving a faint shrug, "Perry said he has no idea where Jimmy's father is. The guy walked out on Jimmy when he was just a kid — I guess you knew that, Lois," Clark added, seeing Lois nod. "Jimmy never really talked about his parents to me. Perry's going to check Jimmy's file today and try to get hold of his mother."

"How did Perry take it?" Lois asked softly.

"Not well," Clark replied heavily. "He was angry — with me as well as Luthor — but that was just because he was worried." It had been quite a surprise for him to be on the receiving-end of a harsh diatribe from Perry when dressed as Superman; although Perry's attitude to the Super-hero could never be described as sycophantic — and there was no way Clark would want it to be — the editor was usually polite, if not openly friendly, and generally respectful. But Perry's normal demeanour had been breaking down under the stress of worry about his staff, that was clear.

In fact, Perry had also asked anxiously about Lois's well-being: it seemed the editor had called the hospital around eight-thirty or so to enquire after Lois, and had been told she'd discharged herself, but he then hadn't been able to contact her, either at Lois's own apartment or Clark's. He must have called after they'd left to return to Smallville, Clark had concluded, and had reassured his boss that Lois was somewhere safe.

"And Clark?" Perry had asked.

"He's fine," Clark had responded, again hating the lying and unable to come up with any convincing explanation for his absence from the scene.

Pushing that from his mind, he summarised his discussion with the editor, unable to resist a pointed glance in Lois's direction to emphasise that people did worry about her well-being.

"I'll call him later," Lois murmured. "But what about Jimmy?"

"Yeah, I saw him. He was pretty doped up, but awake." Awake, and lying propped up in bed, dark circles beneath his eyes because the medication hadn't dulled the pain completely. Jimmy's ribs were bandaged, and his ankle was on top of the bed-sheet, covered by a protective shield. His expression had brightened at the sight of his visitor, though he'd anxiously asked whether Superman was okay.

Clark was still amazed at his friend's courage and resilience: his refusal to call for help in the first instance because he knew that Luthor had Kryptonite, and his quick thinking in deciding to act as if he was barely conscious, hoping St John would ignore him. The jump out of the window had been an impulse, Jimmy reasoning that if he simply tried to run through the house his chances of escape were zero. Apparently Jimmy had been fairly athletic at school, and was well-versed in the correct landing techniques; this was how he'd managed to survive the drop with nothing more than a broken ankle and some additional bruises.

"We talked for a while," Clark continued. "Not long — the doctor only allowed me five minutes with him — but he told me how Luthor had grabbed him in the first place, and how he'd been determined not to be used as bait to get me there." He paused, then grimaced. "He wanted to know how Luthor got Super-powers. I said I couldn't tell him." Clark hadn't been altogether happy about having to be evasive on that point, since he'd thought himself, and he suspected Jimmy had as well, that he owed Jimmy an explanation after the young man had risked his life for Superman. But he was determined that no-one else should find out how it was possible to transfer Super-powers.

His mother got to her feet then, saying, "Go on, honey, you go upstairs and get cleaned up and out of the Suit. I'll have some breakfast ready for you when you come back down."

Shaking his head reluctantly, Clark stood as well. "Mom, I don't have time. I need to get back to Metropolis, to make sure Luthor isn't up to anything else I need to prevent. And I need to stop him permanently somehow. Assuming I can find him," he finished with a sigh.

"And you'll do that much better with a decent meal inside you," she retorted. "Clark, I bet you've barely eaten these past couple of days."

She was right, and he couldn't deny it. "Mom, you know I don't need to eat."

"You don't need sleep either, but after a couple of days without it you begin to notice the difference," she pointed out. "Now, you go on. Lois, I'll get your breakfast at the same time," Martha finished, already heading for the kitchen.

His father stopped and laid a hand warmly on Clark's shoulder. "You do as your mom says, son. You know she's usually right."

Clark couldn't help it: he grinned. "I know, Dad. I don't know why I bother trying to argue with her."

He caught sight of Lois's expression as he finished speaking: she was looking dumbfounded. She saw him watching her, and made an expressive gesture. "I'm just not used to seeing anyone bully Superman like that!"

"Apart from you, you mean?" he teased her gently, and was rewarded with a familiar smile.

Lois definitely seemed to have calmed down since he'd brought her back last night, he recognised with a distinct sense of relief. Of course, he knew Lois well enough to know that once she had got over her anger she could be very magnanimous, but he'd been afraid that in this instance she might not be. After all, her best friend had been deceiving her for a year and a half.

When he'd first heard her coming down the stairs he'd been half-tempted to leave before she could see him, and arrange to talk to his father in the barn instead. But then he reminded himself that he wasn't a coward, and that Superman was not afraid of five feet six inches of woman, even if that woman was Lois Lane. So he'd stayed, but he'd been prepared for more hostility. Instead, he'd got a soft hand on his arm and a concerned voice telling him he looked tired — and calling him Clark!

She seemed to want to save their much-needed talk and any recriminations for another time, for which he was grateful. It was what he wanted too, but he hadn't been too hopeful about getting it.

He was about to leave the room and head for the stairs, but Lois stopped him. "Clark, I need to talk to you."

<Oh, not now, Lois! You said another time…> He turned to her reluctantly. "Lois, can't we do this later?"

But it seemed he was wrong about what she wanted. "Not about that, Clark. Look, you need to find Luthor and get him somewhere you can deal with him, and I think I have an idea about how you can do it."

Wasn't that precisely what he'd been wishing he could do only a short time before? Lois was usually the main 'ideas' person in their partnership, and if she had a possible plan in mind it was certainly worth listening to.

Before he could respond, his mother called from the kitchen, "That's great, Lois! Why don't you go upstairs with Clark and tell him all about it while he gets ready?"

<Mom!> Clark thought with an inward groan. What was she trying to do — push them together? Didn't she realise how bad an idea that was right now? "Umm… Lois, I need to shower and get changed — okay, I know I can do that in seconds, but…" He trailed off with a shrug.

"I can wait in the bedroom for you," she insisted. "And we can talk while you shave."

They could… No. Bad idea, Clark thought insistently. He shaved with heat vision, and he had no intention of putting Lois anywhere near heat vision again just at the moment. Not while the memory of her being hurt by Luthor was still so fresh in his mind, and hers too.

"Hey, how do you shave, anyway?" she asked, clearly interested. "You know, there's all sorts of things I always wanted to ask Superman but never got the chance."

"Maybe I'll show you some time," he said, evading the question. "Not today, though. We can talk over breakfast — Lois, I really want to hear your ideas," he added, in case she got the impression that he was giving her the brush-off. "I could really do with your input here."


Deciding to let Clark have it his own way — this time — Lois wandered into the kitchen where Martha was busy making pancakes.

"They're his favourite," she explained as Lois dipped a finger in the maple syrup.

"He looks so tired, Martha," Lois said, concern evident in her voice. "I've never seen Superman look like that before — I don't think I've ever seen Clark look so exhausted."

"Like I said, he doesn't need to sleep as much as we do, but he does need to rest sometimes," Martha explained, moving away from the pancakes and getting out a first-aid kit. Continuing the conversation, she changed the dressing on Lois's arm while they talked. "And he's had hardly any sleep, plus he was working hard all day yesterday."

"Yeah, and he's had a lot to worry about," Lois added. "Don't worry, I won't give him any more hassle."

"I know." Martha smiled warmly at her. "For now, at any rate — I know things will be back to normal between you two soon enough."

"Yeah, except now I know he's Superman." Lois poured herself a coffee and leaned against the counter while sipping it cautiously. "It's going to be really strange, working with him while knowing that."

"I'm sure you'll get used to it." Martha surprised Lois by winking at her. "And I'm sure you'll find his powers come in handy from time to time!"

"Oh, I'll bet…!" Lois exclaimed on a soft sigh, as she considered the kind of circumstances in which a Super-powered partner would be very useful indeed. "But he's *got* to do something about those stupid excuses he uses when he runs off!"

"Oh, you've figured that, have you?" The sound of Clark's voice made Lois swivel her head quickly towards the kitchen door. Her partner had just entered: he was clean-shaven and dressed in blue jeans and a soft blue cotton shirt with the sleeves rolled up to just above his elbows; she suspected that it was the same one he'd worn when she'd been in Smallville with him over a year before. His hair was damp, and his glasses were tucked into the top pocket of his shirt; he looked like a very strange, yet very familiar — and incredibly attractive — cross between Clark and Superman. Again, she couldn't help catching her breath as the reality of the dual identity hit her once again.

Determined not to let him notice just how his appearance affected her, she pulled a face at him. "Come on, Clark, how many visits to the dentist in the last year? How many emergencies at your neighbour's apartment? And the *Cheese of the Month Club*?"

"Okay, so some of them were a bit dumb," he admitted, grinning. "But I did have to think them up on the spur of the moment — it wasn't easy!"

"Bet I could do better," she challenged him, almost without thinking; it struck her a moment later just how quickly she'd fallen back into their normal banter. And that was a relief: despite the hurt which she still felt to some degree, the last thing she wanted was to lose Clark as a friend.

He strolled to the counter to pour himself a coffee, his movements economical; watching him, Lois was suddenly aware of the restrained power in this man's body. She'd always known Clark had a great body and that he was pretty strong, but now, thinking of that same body she'd once seen dressed only in a towel displayed to perfection in his Superman outfit, she felt herself grow warm and had to turn away to avoid Clark seeing.

Martha interrupted then, putting the dish of pancakes on the table. "There you go. I'm sure you can help yourselves — Clark, I'm going to get started outside. I'll see you before you go?"

"Sure, Mom," Clark answered, already taking a seat at the table. He gestured for Lois to join him, sliding two pancakes onto a plate for her.

"So, Lois… you sleep all right?" He sounded nervous suddenly.

"Um… sure. But you didn't — Martha said you've barely slept since this thing started?"

Lois saw him shrug, but she wasn't entirely convinced. His "I don't really need to sleep much," didn't convince her all that much either. Despite his having showered and shaved, Clark looked very tired, and she ached to hug him and send him off to get some sleep. That was a very new sensation for Lois Lane: she had never before been tempted to mother any man she knew. But somehow Clark Kent seemed to bring out a latent — in fact, very deeply buried — protective instinct within her. And it was Clark, not Superman; that was strange too. Although for a long time she'd thought herself crazily in love with Superman, she'd never wanted to take care of him. If anything, she'd envisaged him sweeping her off her feet and taking care of her.

But Superman in the guise of Clark Kent certainly did arouse those instincts. Clark Kent was a real, living, breathing person who had somehow insinuated himself underneath her protective shell. And she wanted to tell him to take better care of himself.

But his response to her enquiry made it clear that he didn't want to be fussed over. So if she wanted to help him, it would be better to concentrate on practicalities. "Clark, I've been giving a lot of thought to the Luthor thing — how to catch him, I mean."

"You have?" Her partner raised his head from the pancake he was attacking with gusto. There was a flash of something like hope in his eyes, before he frowned. "Lois, you're not planning on getting involved, are you? After the last time, I couldn't take it — "

She shook her head quickly. "No, I've learned my lesson there, Clark. If he has someone he can use to blackmail you, or to distract you, he'll do it. You need to get him far away from anyone else."

He grimaced. "Like where? The Sahara?"

"Well, why not? Somewhere like that, anyway." Lois paused, took a sip of coffee, and launched into speech again. "Clark, I need to know, first — can you beat him, one on one, with no-one around to get in the way?"

He was silent for a moment or two, clearly thinking about her question. "Yes, I'm sure of it," he answered softly, firmly. "He may have my powers, but he doesn't have my length of experience with them. He misjudges how much, or how little, effort is needed. So he makes mistakes, and then he over-compensates. I took him down the other night, remember."

"Yes, I remember," Lois answered with a grimace. "And I'm sorry, Clark — I know if it hadn't been for me you'd have had him."

But he shook his head swiftly before she could continue, stretching his hand across the table to cover hers. "Lois, it's okay. I understand — if our positions had been reversed, I don't think I could have left either." The pressure of his hand was quickly removed, but although it had been brief it was immensely comforting.

"But he's prepared to kill you, Clark," she objected then.

"I know. But I think I can stop him getting that far," he returned quickly; too quickly, Lois thought. His response was almost glib, as if he was just saying it to convince her rather than as if he really meant it.

Her other major fear came to the fore then. "What if he has more Kryptonite? I mean, I don't know where he got that piece from, but who says it's the only one he has?"

This time Clark took longer to reply. "I don't know, Lois. I'm hoping it is, but I'll just have to take that chance."

"Where did he get it?" Suddenly Lois was avidly curious — no, not curious, so desperately worried that she needed to know everything there was to know about this situation.

He sighed. "I'm guessing from the Kryptonite cage he imprisoned me in months ago. No, don't ask me about that now," he added. "I'll tell you, when all this is over. Add it to the list of things I'm sure you want to ask me about."

A cage made of Kryptonite? — or, at least, coated in it, or with Kryptonite somewhere in its construction. When had that happened? It had to have been before Luthor's death, but how long before? And if Superman had been imprisoned in it, how had he survived?

Lois suddenly remembered the speculation, in the immediate aftermath of Luthor's death, about why Superman hadn't saved him. Not that she had been distressed about that at all, but there had been an attempt to stir up some anti-Superman feeling, and Luthor's death had been the focus for that attempt. Superman had actually said at the time that he would have helped if he could have, but he'd been prevented from doing so. What if it was because he'd still been weak from the Kryptonite?

<Think, Lois, think!> Where was Superman when Luthor jumped to his death? Holding her in his arms. Clark had been there — he had appeared outside LexCorp just as they'd all exited. He'd looked pale, now she came to think of it: could that have been from Kryptonite poisoning? He'd been holding her… and he'd almost pulled away from her, muttering something like, "I can't…". Couldn't fly? Couldn't use his Super-strength?

If her guess was right, Luthor had tried to kill Superman — tried to kill Clark — on the morning of their wedding. Or perhaps the night before: after all, she'd tried to call Clark, to make one last attempt to persuade him to come to the wedding, the night before, and he hadn't answered his phone.

"Lois?" Clark's puzzled voice entered her thoughts. "Are you okay?"

"Um… yeah, just thinking," she told him. "Look, what occurred to me before is that both times you've been confronted with him so far, he chose the time and the circumstances. You have to make sure that next time the meeting's on your terms."

He nodded slowly. "That makes sense, but how in the heck do I do that, Lois? Not without playing him at his own game and using some kind of bait, and I won't do that. Well, unless it was Nigel St John," he added dryly. "But somehow I guess Luthor would consider him expendable."

"I think you're right," Lois agreed. "But I wonder whether if we made him angry… Lex doesn't always think altogether clearly when he's angry, especially as I'm more and more convinced that he's not entirely sane now — what do you think?"

Clark grimaced, his eyes suddenly cold. "I never thought he was sane."

"Well, okay, you knew what he was up to and I didn't," Lois acknowledged, feeling a faint twinge of hurt that Clark *had* known more than he'd let on — because he was Superman — and he hadn't told her.

"Lois…" His tone was wry, and she saw the tentative apology in his expression, along with the hope that she'd save that one for later too. He was right: this wasn't the time.

"Anyway, Clark, you need to have this confrontation on your own ground, and we need to make him so mad that he'll just take the bait."

"How do you suggest I do that?" he asked.

"*We,* Clark," she reminded him. "Have you noticed how careful he's being to avoid being recognised? Okay, he let me see him, but I don't think he planned to let me go. Jimmy either. He's got that silly cloak and mask, so he doesn't seem to want major news stories saying Lex Luthor's returned from the dead."

"Yeah, that makes sense," Clark agreed, "but I'm not sure where you're going with this, Lois."

"The one thing Lex Luthor hates above everything else is not being taken seriously," Lois pointed out. "So if I was to write a story for the Planet about a Luthor-clone, a genetic and cybernetic experiment gone wrong, someone who looked and sounded like Luthor but was actually only partly sane and had turned openly to crime, using his powers as a weapon…?"

"It'd irritate him," Clark agreed, "but I don't know about making him mad. He might just decide to stage a demonstration of what he could do and announce himself to be the true Lex Luthor."

"With the police ready to arrest him if he did?"

"Yeah, and they'd have to catch him first," Clark pointed out dryly.

"Yeah, well, let's think about the detail as we go. The story would contain some Superman quotes. About the Luthor clone thinking he's as powerful as Superman, when he isn't?"

"That might work," Clark agreed slowly. "It'd make him more determined to kill me."

"Well, you give me a couple of quotes before you go, and I'll write up the story to send to Perry. It'll make the afternoon edition."

"I've got a better idea," Clark announced firmly. "Where's your laptop?"

"Upstairs in the bedroom — "

Lois broke off as, with a sudden rush of wind, Clark was no longer in the room with her. In barely more than a second, he was back, however, and she could only stare as he placed her laptop on the table, connected it up to the nearest power-point and switched it on.

He caught her staring at him and grinned faintly. "Sorry — no point hiding what I can do any more now that you know."

"Sure — it's just a shock to see Clark do Super things," she replied, trying to sound blase but knowing she was failing miserably. Clark was now sitting in front of her computer and was loading her word processor, however, so she hoped he hadn't seen her expression.

"Okay, let's write," he said firmly. "How should we start it?"

Lois began to dictate, only to stop abruptly as she watched her partner's hands fly across the keys at such a rapid pace she could barely see them move. He had to stop after a few moments, however, as the laptop bleeped alarmingly at him. He glanced up and gave her a wry grimace. "I long for the time when someone builds a processor which can cope with information at the sort of speed I want to feed it into a computer."

"You must go through a lot of keyboards," she observed in amused disbelief.

He shrugged. "I guess I've worn a couple out."

Shaking her head and trying to concentrate instead on the task at hand, Lois began to pace up and down the kitchen, her hands gesticulating rapidly as she sketched their article out aloud, Clark interrupting from time to time with alternative phraseology. About twenty minutes later, thanks to Clark's swift typing and the back-and-forth of their quickfire exchange of ideas, the article was written. Clark read it back aloud as they edited and finalised it; for something written in such a hurry, Lois was confident that it was excellent.

"You think this'll work?" Clark asked. "This bit: 'In this exclusive interview for the Daily Planet, Superman — on his way to investigate reports of strange events over the Bermuda Triangle — told us that the pseudo-Luthor is demonstrating megalomaniac tendencies even greater than those of the original.' Think that'll do the trick?"

"That should get him pretty mad at Superman all right!" Lois agreed. "I'll get it off to Perry and make sure he knows how important it is. This has to go on the front page if it's to work."


Lex Luthor glared angrily at Nigel St John, only barely restraining himself from wrapping his hand around the older man's throat and squeezing. It would only take a second for the neck to snap…

"How could you be so *stupid,* Nigel?"

"I would hardly call it 'stupid,' sir," Nigel objected in that smooth, ultra-high class English accent which, just occasionally, really aggravated Luthor. He suspected that Nigel knew it, too, which was why he cultivated it even though it had been many years since he'd set foot in the United Kingdom. "After all, you could easily have dealt with the Olsen boy once Superman had arrived, and this wouldn't have happened."

"You were supposed to be guarding him!" Luthor snapped. "And anyway, you still haven't explained why you only brought me one piece of Kryptonite. Where's the rest of it? That cage might not have been solid Kryptonite, but there was a lot of the meteorite used in the construction. I don't believe that insignificant piece was all that's left!"

St John's pitying stare only served to aggravate Luthor's anger. Didn't the man realise how simple it would be to dispose of him? Did he really consider himself immune from SuperLex's avenging wrath? But on the other hand, he did need Nigel for the time being. However, later, once he had no further use for his insolent underling…

"You may think that, sir, but do please consider how difficult it was to reclaim any of the Kryptonite from that cage, especially in the circumstances. The LexCorp building was crawling with police." St John's voice was full of distaste. "I simply had to seize what I could and make my escape."

"Just that tiny piece?" Luthor protested again.

"No, but then there was your ex-wife," St John drawled, a hint of triumph in his voice now. "You haven't heard about the former Mrs Luthor's attempt to kill Superman and frame the Lane woman for his murder?"

Arianna? Luthor stared in disbelief as his former assistant related the story of how his divorced wife had managed to create a double of Lois Lane, get hold of Kryptonite, and ultimately almost succeeded in getting rid of the SuperFreak and Lois simultaneously. "How do you know of this, Nigel?" he demanded snippily once St John had finished. "It certainly wasn't in any of the newspapers."

"Superman apparently persuaded the Lane woman not to mention the Kryptonite, or the murder attempt," Nigel replied. "And Mrs Carlin Luthor herself chose not to mention it, on the basis that her sentence would be shorter as a result."

"She told you about this?"

"Indeed. I visited her in prison, while she was awaiting trial," Nigel explained. "Heavily disguised, of course. I offered her my assistance in… arranging for her prison stay to be rather more comfortable than it otherwise might, if she agreed to tell me everything."

Unwillingly, Luthor found himself smiling in admiration at his assistant's actions. He knew there had been a reason why he'd kept Nigel on the payroll for so long. "And just what did you mean by 'more comfortable,' Nigel?"

"As far away as possible, sir," St John confirmed. "She is still alive, according to my last bulletin, but I gather she pleased my contacts on the inside rather more than they had anticipated. They will tire of her sooner or later."

"And the Kryptonite bullet?" Luthor demanded.

"Never seen again. I suspect that between them the Lane woman and the Man of Steel managed to dispose of it."

That news most certainly did not please Lex Luthor. Without Kryptonite, how was he going to succeed in overpowering that mighty paragon in the Spandex? He might have powers equal to Superman's, but he had no intention of relying on those alone. Superman had proven more resilient than he'd anticipated, and he wasn't going to risk that again.

And Jimmy Olsen had also managed to get away, which was an eventuality he had not wanted. He'd only revealed himself to Olsen because he'd known he would kill the boy once the alien was in his grasp and dying. He'd originally thought Olsen had to be dead, but when he and Nigel had returned to the house the previous evening, having given up on their search for what he'd been hoping was a weakened Superman, he had searched the grounds to no avail. There had been a trail of dried blood leading into the trees, and then a depression and plenty of flattened grass; that had told its own story. No doubt the Freak had found Olsen and carried him off to the nearest hospital.

As for the Kryptonite, a full search of the grounds had revealed precisely nothing, and Lex Luthor was justifiably furious. He had been tempted to kill St John, who he entirely blamed for last night's fiasco, to relieve his frustration, but for the fact that he needed Nigel at the moment. Once Superman was dead, though; once there were no further barriers to the domination of SuperLex, Nigel would become expendable. And then he would die.

And everything Lex Luthor wanted would be his… including Lois Lane, once he discovered where that interfering alien had put her.


Clark ran his hand agitatedly through his hair as he moved away from the laptop; he really needed to be getting back to Metropolis. But as Lois came into his field of vision, he remembered something he'd forgotten to ask about…

"Lois — how's your arm? Does it hurt still?"

She turned, her other hand automatically going up to cover the area of the burn. "It's not too bad — it doesn't even hurt now. Your mom changed the dressing for me just before you came down, and she said it's healing well."

"I'm glad," Clark replied huskily. "You know I really wish I could have prevented it? I was so worried about you at first…"

"I know," she assured him, and her softened expression told him that she was touched by his concern. "Really, Clark, it's not that bad. Sounds to me like Jimmy had a far worse time of it."

Bile rose in his throat again at the reminder. "Yeah. He… they were brutal with him, Lois." His words were jerky, but he couldn't help it. It wasn't just Jimmy: his friend's injuries represented a reminder of everything Luthor had done and had tried to do.

"Clark, you really hate Luthor, don't you?" Lois asked slowly as they stood facing each other, barely six feet apart, in the kitchen.

He swallowed. "Lois, I have always tried never to hate anyone. I've tried to believe that every person has good in them, no matter who they are. But Lex Luthor is the only man who has ever made that resolution hard." He paused, inhaled deeply, then continued. "Yeah, I hate him. For everything he's done over the past few days. For what he put you through when you found out what he was really like. And for what he wanted to do to you two days ago. And because he's put a look in your eyes I've never seen before as long as I've known you, Lois."

"What look?" Her voice was little more than a whisper.

"Fear." He shook his head, turning away and resuming his seat at the table; she came to sit opposite him again. "We've been in a lot of dangerous situations together — you've been in life-threatening situations far more times than makes me comfortable, but I've never seen that look of cold, hard fear that I've seen over the past couple of days. And Luthor's put that there."

Lois was silent for a few moments, and Clark wondered whether she was upset or angry at his telling her that he thought she was afraid. But it appeared that something else entirely was on her mind.

"Clark, when you do catch him, overpower him, what are you going to do with him?" she asked slowly, her gaze holding his firmly, her expression tense. The fear he'd referred to only moments earlier was still in her eyes, only this time something told him that she wasn't afraid for herself.

He drew a long breath; this was the eternal question to which he'd kept returning over the past few days. That one time when he'd actually had Luthor in his grasp, he'd had some thought of flying him back to the laboratory where the Tesla coils were, to try to reverse the transfer in the same way as he'd ultimately reversed Resplendent Man's power transfer.

But would he have actually succeeded? Clark knew that was highly unlikely. Luthor would not, unlike William Waldecker, have been a willing participant. He could figure out how to operate the Tesla coils easily enough, or get someone to show him, but he couldn't envisage Luthor letting himself be taken there. Unless Clark managed to render him unconscious first, which he wasn't even sure was possible, Luthor would cause as much havoc as possible on the journey there in order to force Superman to let him go. The thought briefly crossed Clark's mind that he could perhaps give some other people — trained soldiers, perhaps? — Super-powers, so that they could aid him in capturing Luthor, but he quickly dismissed it. He didn't want the fact that powers could be transferred getting out. And what if anyone he gave powers to refused to give them up afterwards? He couldn't allow himself to be the cause of, potentially, another all-powerful madman on the loose.

So the Tesla coils were out. Which left… what, precisely?

Only the option which he knew had been there all along; the option he had been trying to deny existed.

"Clark, would you kill him?" Lois's soft, insistent voice asked the question he had been trying to avoid asking himself. From her expression, it was clear that it hadn't been easy for her to ask him, but there was also something else, something which seemed to suggest that, for Lois, perhaps this was the most effective, most obvious way out of the situation, as reluctant as she was to suggest it.

Reluctantly, hesitantly, he tried to answer, to be honest about the thoughts he'd been having over the last couple of days, the strange, dark emotions he'd discovered within himself. Having discovered that he was capable of pure hatred, was it possible that he was now capable of worse? "No," he began firmly. "You know Superman doesn't kill."

But, as he gazed uncomfortably down at Lois, the questioning expression in her dark eyes made it impossible for him to prevaricate. And anyway, wasn't it an option which *had* occurred to him, much as he tried to deny it to himself?

Clark sighed heavily. Perhaps he needed to talk about this, and he felt sure that Lois would understand — so would his parents, of course, but he felt reluctant to unload his guilt about the scenario onto them. They had enough to cope with as it was; he'd seen their faces when they'd realised how close he'd come to dying the previous night. Lois, on the other hand, was his best friend and someone who also understood almost better than he did himself what Superman stood for. She might be able to help him exorcise those demons which were urging him to follow these unfamiliar murderous impulses.

"Maybe," he admitted. "I don't know… I've been wondering if it's possible that I might." Dropping his gaze, he added slowly, "I've never had this feeling about anyone before — a sort of burning anger, a *hatred* deep inside me… he makes me feel murderous. If I could have got hold of him yesterday, after I'd lifted that boy out of the car… he was a kid, Lois, just twelve. He and all those others died because it was *convenient* for Luthor to have me out of Metropolis." Clark spat the last half-sentence out, his tone vicious.

He felt a light touch, and looked down to see Lois's hand on his bare forearm. She didn't speak, just offered the comfort of her presence; wordlessly, he took her hand and steered her back to the table, where he sat opposite her and reached across for her hands; she offered them to him, stretching across the table to meet his half-way, and curled her fingers around his.

"I think I've been trying to have it both ways over this, Lois — saying 'Superman doesn't kill' as if Superman was really someone other than me, while at the same time admitting that *I* want to kill Luthor — yes, I do, or part of me does," he added quickly, seeing her expression of surprise at his words. "It's everything he's done. I think if I'd found him two nights ago, when you were in the hospital, I might have done it too." He finished on a whisper, almost as if what he was saying was so appalling that he couldn't speak it out loud. And that was true; up until Lois had teased the answer out of him, he hadn't even been able to admit it to himself.

Pausing for a moment, Clark swallowed before continuing. "You see, when he used his heat vision on you I really thought he'd killed you. And I just let him get away — I was too shocked, too torn up about you to think straight. I didn't go after him — I couldn't. I had to stay with you. But later, I got furious. And if I'd found him then, knowing he could have killed you, I could have torn him apart with my bare hands." Briefly, he glanced down at their joined hands.

"And now?" Lois prompted softly, her gaze still holding his, her expression understanding but tense.

"It's worse now. You know that," he told her. "After yesterday… I was battling my conscience all night, Lois. I've never believed in killing. I've always held the view that because I'm so much stronger than other people — than humans — it would be wrong of me to use my powers for any other purpose but to do good. I still think that. But now I'm almost telling myself that, as much as I hate the idea, by killing Luthor I *would* be doing good. I'd be preventing him from causing the deaths of any more innocent people just for his own convenience."

"And preventing him from killing you," Lois pointed out, but he shook his head.

"That can't be a consideration."

"It *has* to be a consideration!" Lois protested emphatically, and this time he couldn't miss the determination in her voice. "You're the only person standing between Luthor and whateverhe wants — world domination, even. If Luthor kills you," her voice cracked on the last two words, but she took a deep breath and continued, "then what hope does the world have? What chance is there of ever defeating him?"

She had a point, Clark thought soberly, and it was one he'd already thought of himself. But on the other hand, he couldn't allow himself to kill in self-defence — and yet, a tiny voice prompted him, self-defence was an acceptable defence in murder trials. And in this case, he would be fighting against someone of equal powers to himself, so he wasn't talking about a situation where his powers made him far superior in strength to his opponent.

So there was that, and there was the undeniable fact that with Luthor dead, his killing spree would be brought to an end. Many more lives would be *saved* by the death of Luthor, and if Clark had to kill the man in order to bring that about, then perhaps that was a necessary evil. If need be, Superman could stand trial afterwards, though he suspected that the police might not prosecute. In fact, Clark acknowledged silently, the last time he'd spoken to Henderson, the laconic detective had actually made it clear in his own oblique manner that he would be grateful if Superman solved the problem in such a way.

But thinking about it, rationalising it in this way was one thing; actually doing it was another thing entirely. He sighed heavily again as he refocused on Lois. "I just don't know if I can," he told her heavily. "I know — or at least a part of me knows — that it's the logical thing to do, and a part of me even accepts that there's justification for it. But I don't know if that's the part of me which would be required actually to *do* it." And, he knew, he wasn't sure whether his guilty conscience would ever let him rest afterwards if he did so far forget his ethics as to kill. He already felt guilty for even contemplating it.

Clark paused suddenly, frowning, as he remembered something. Tightening his grip on Lois's hands, he said abruptly, his tone almost forbidding, "You want me to kill him, don't you? You told me, yesterday morning — you said you wished Superman had killed Luthor."

Lois flushed, and her gaze dropped to the lap. "I thought I was talking to Clark," she muttered. "I mean, Clark, not Superman. The Clark Kent I thought you were, not the… the Clark who is also Superman."

Looking away, Clark closed his eyes briefly, sighing inwardly. Lois had a valid point, in a general sense: he had frequently allowed her to confide in him, in one persona, about his alternate self. He had even used Superman to direct her towards himself, and if she realised that she would be entitled to be angry with him. But in this case it genuinely hadn't been his fault. She had raised the issue, saying that she wished Superman had killed Luthor, and he'd been so taken aback that he had been unable to resist discussing it.

But he simply didn't want to get into an argument about his shortcomings right now. He was about to tell her so when she spoke again, pre-empting him.

"Okay, Clark, I said we should save all this until later, and we will. And anyway, I guess I can understand — well, sort of — why you did what you did. I mean, you had to make sure that no-one knew who Superman really was, because… well, because you couldn't have the secret getting out — "

"Lois, I've known for a long time that I could trust you with this," he interrupted. "Don't you remember me telling you, only a few days ago, how I was grateful that you hadn't published a lot of the stuff you know about me — about Superman?" As he watched her, she nodded and he could tell she was remembering the day he'd come and ended up giving her an unusual treatment for cramps.

"I do trust you, Lois. The thing with this is that once I decided I wanted to tell you, I had to find the right time — and then the Luthor thing happened and it all got so crazy…"

"It's okay, Clark," Lois interrupted. "I do understand that much. Anyway, this isn't getting us anywhere. Are you saying you would kill Luthor, or you wouldn't?"

He grimaced again, shaking his head. "Lois, I just don't know. I don't even think it's something I can make up my mind about in a rational way — if… no, *when* I confront him again it's not going to be something I'll have a lot of time to plan. It'll all be over very quickly, and I'll have to make some split-second decisions. If I hesitate for an instant…" He broke off, but Lois knew what he'd intended to say.

"If you hesitate, he'll kill you, Clark! You have to get in first."

"Kill him, before he kills me." Clark's voice was monotonic.

"*Yes,* Clark! That's what you have to do!" Lois insisted, her voice taut. She curled her fingers more tightly around his hands, and even despite his Super-strength and invulnerability, he could feel the pressure of her grip. "Please, Clark! I don't want him to kill you! If you die…"

If he died, Clark knew, then Luthor's next actions would be unrestrained by concern that Superman was looking over his shoulder. He was silent for a few moments as the implications of what he was considering doing played through his mind. Could he really set out deliberately to kill someone? Even if that someone was Lex Luthor, who would very probably embark on a campaign of mass murder, violence, intimidation and world domination if Superman was out of the way? He just didn't know, couldn't come to a decision. And his guilt over the very idea that he wanted to kill Luthor was threatening to overwhelm him at the same time.

Sighing deeply, he gazed intently at Lois, seeing the pleading, the naked fear in her eyes. He could understand it; after all, with him gone, she would be in even greater danger, as well as everyone else Luthor had a real or imagined grudge against. "Lois… I'll think about it. That's all I can say. I know what you want me to do, and I guess from your perspective I can understand it," he added, releasing her hands and standing up. "But you of all people know what Superman has always stood for — you have to understand how hard it is to do something which would change that so irrevocably?"

She nodded reluctantly, but then she was clutching at his arm again, not willing to let him to move just yet. "Clark, you said yourself — Luthor could have more Kryptonite. And if you allow him to get the advantage of you again, he'll use it — this time he could kill you! That's why this afternoon is so important — you'll be catching him off guard, making him lose his temper and his rational judgement. You have to make the most of the opportunity — if we're right, he'll come flying after you without stopping to think."

<So kill him this time, because you might not get another chance> The message behind Lois's words was coming across loud and clear to Clark. But even though he could see her reasoning, it still wasn't that simple…

He covered her hand with his again briefly before stepping back, drawing his arm away from her grasp. "I really have to go now. I have to do some things before this afternoon… see Henderson, check on Jimmy, call in at the Planet…" He shrugged in a helpless gesture, knowing that she wanted a more definite answer from him, but feeling unable to supply it right now.

But she was standing too now, in front of him, her hands reaching for him, her voice a ragged whisper. "Clark… be careful. Please. I don't want to lose you."

She was thinking of him, he realised, not just for the consequences if… Wrapping his arms around her, drawing her close in a brief but warm hug, he murmured against her hair, "I promise. I'll be careful. And I'll think about what you said."

She nodded and stepped back, her eyes shimmering — tears, for him? he wondered. "Call me — or come and see me — whenever there's… news."

<If you do come back> The words lay unspoken between them, neither willing to voice the real fear that he might not survive this time.

"Promise," he told her, then spun quickly into the Suit and went out to the barn to tell his parents he was leaving.


After Clark's departure, Lois had a busy morning, which suited her since it didn't allow her time to think about Clark, worry about his chances up against a Super-powered Luthor, or the possibility of more Kryptonite. First, she had to email the story to Perry, and then, in order to ensure that he understood its importance, she called him at the Planet. That was a lengthy conversation: to begin with, Perry wanted to know when Lois had seen Clark, since his name was also on the byline. Lois got around that one by simply saying she had talked to Clark, and leaving Perry to draw the conclusion that it had been by telephone. Still following Clark's advice to her when he had first, as Superman, brought her to Smallville, she didn't say anything about where she was. Much as she trusted Perry, she was well aware that Luthor had Super-hearing.

Perry agreed to run the article on the front page of the evening edition once Lois assured him that Superman approved of the idea. "But Superman told me this was Luthor," he objected, puzzled.

Lois grimaced; Clark had left her to make the difficult explanations here. A thought struck her suddenly: now that she knew he was Superman, would that be the case in future? Would he want her to cover for him whenever he had to run off to help someone? But… she would do it anyway, wouldn't she? she asked herself quickly. Not just to help Superman, but to help *Clark.* After all, she loved Clark…

Recalling herself to Perry's question, she cobbled together an explanation. "Yes, Superman does think it's Luthor, but he's having trouble tracking him down to bring him in. So he wants to use our article, and the interview with him in it, to provoke a confrontation."

"Hmmm. Yeah, I guess calling Luthor a mutant cyborg won't do his ego a lot of good," Perry drawled.

"That's what we thought." Changing the subject then, Lois asked about Jimmy; Perry had been in to see him earlier that morning and had found him awake, in some pain, but in general good spirits. It seemed the young photographer had been very pleased with himself for managing to save Superman's life and escaping with his own intact, and as a result was not too distressed at his injuries. Lois was glad to hear it; it might make Clark feel a little less guilty about his friend.

Ending the conversation with Perry, Lois then arranged for some fruit and chocolates to be sent to Jimmy from her, and only then allowed herself to think about her conversation with Clark. It had been good to see him, a relief that he was okay — her mood over the past night had prevented her from recognising that she was worried for him, though hearing that Luthor had used Kryptonite on him had punished her mightily for her selfishness. While she'd been abusing him for his concern for her, he'd been fighting death at the hands of the deadly meteorite. Lois knew only too well the effect Kryptonite had on Superman: she trembled again now at the memory of that time he'd asked her to dig a bullet made from the green rock out of his shoulder. That had been *horrible* — but she'd had to do it, otherwise he would have died. He'd been so weak, in so much pain. It tore her heart to think of Clark suffering that kind of pain again last night.

He was *alive,* though, thanks to Jimmy. He might not be, though, if Lex Luthor had or got hold of some more Kryptonite, or managed to take advantage of Clark's reluctance to kill. He had to confront Luthor, Lois knew that; Superman's sense of nobility and desire to do what was right was what made the Super-hero what he was. And now she knew that same Super-hero was her partner and best friend in disguise, Lois could see clearly where Superman's ethics came from. She'd teased Clark occasionally, calling him a Boy Scout, saying he was soft-hearted, cared too much. Would she love him so much if he cared less?

She shook her head; she knew the answer to that question. She loved Clark for the person he was, the nobility within him which it had taken her too long to see, his kindness, thoughtfulness, his caring nature, his loyalty. And these were the attributes which made Superman so special as well.

Lois remembered a conversation she'd had with Superman some weeks ago, in a rare moment when he'd confided to her his feelings of helplessness and self-doubt over a situation where, it seemed, he was unable to intervene. She'd assured him that he was far more than the Suit and the powers — and had his apparent suggestion that the powers were all he was come from Clark's own insecurities, she wondered now? — and had argued that in the hands of anyone else Superman's powers would not make a Superman. Now, the truth of her words was evident in Luthor's activities. But she remembered her suggestion that Clark was probably too soft-hearted to take on the role… and yet, before she'd come up with that excuse, it had occurred to her that, of everyone she knew, he probably came closest to her image of the good man who was underneath the Suit.

And yet it had never occurred to her… Stupid, Lois!

But she pushed recriminations aside. Yes, as Clark had said to her the evening before, she should have figured it out. It was amazing that she hadn't; except that no-one *expected* to find Superman working as a reporter on a Metropolis newspaper, earning his living like anyone else, turning up to work day after day, obeying orders and letting his quick-tempered partner push him around. No, it wasn't that surprising she hadn't realised, especially when she considered the way she'd treated Clark at times. She'd barely even *looked* at him for the first six months they'd known each other… apart, of course, from that time when she'd called to collect him from his hotel and he'd been dressed in… a towel…

She swallowed. Yes, Clark was good-looking — more than good-looking, he had a great body; that was even more apparent now that she appreciated that she'd been admiring it clad in Spandex for eighteen months. Yet she'd barely noticed how attractive he was, or perhaps had deliberately refused to notice.

She was noticing now…

Though, despite his undeniable physical attributes, it wasn't Clark's looks or his great body which really attracted her to him. It was those other attributes which she'd always known he possessed but hadn't really appreciated for a long time. Clark was the strongest man on Earth, and yet the gentlest. She'd never known how it felt to have someone really care about her well-being until Clark had become her partner.

But now Clark was in probably the greatest danger he'd been in his life. He was up against an opponent who was not only equally powerful as him in every respect, but someone who'd created both a criminal and legitimate business empire on cunning, a high degree of intelligence, the ability to strategise and plan. Luthor was no fool. On the other hand, Lois was convinced he was losing his sanity: but a barely-sane Luthor would be even more dangerous to Superman. Plus he'd got hold of enough Kryptonite in the past to build a cage, so how could they be sure that the small piece he'd had last night was all he had access to?

Luthor could kill Superman… could rip Clark limb from limb, utterly destroy the proud, noble, most courageous man she'd ever met. And Clark knew that, yet he'd been determined to face the man anyway, while still unsure about how far he would be prepared to go to ensure he got the upper hand. She could understand why Clark had been so reluctant to consider the possibility of killing. As he said, Superman did not kill. It was one of those immutable facts of life, along with the one which said most politicians are crooked or that lawyers were the scum of the earth. Superman did not kill.

And yet, if he didn't kill Lex Luthor…

Then he himself would die, if not today then some time very soon. Luthor would find a way to kill Superman — if he wasn't able to succeed in one-to-one combat, he would use some other weapon. He'd find another friend of Superman's to use as bait, a means of making Clark choose between his love for his friends and his own life — and the knowledge of what Luthor would do if there was no Superman.

How could Clark not kill him?

And yet Lois knew he wouldn't… couldn't. Not with deliberate intent. If Superman killed, it would destroy him. It would destroy Clark too, she knew that beyond any doubt. Despite what he'd said to her in their conversation just before he'd left, she'd been aware that he was, in his own way, merely humouring her. He wouldn't do it. She'd known it too, but had felt unable to break through his facade of apparent calm to get him to tell her what he was really feeling.

Was he scared? If so, he wasn't showing it. All he had allowed her to see was his anger at what Luthor had done; that, though, she supposed, was an advance, since Clark was in many ways a very private person, and Superman was even more so. She hoped he could hold onto that anger: it would help him in his battle against Luthor. Cold fury would lend Clark additional strength and determination, and perhaps give him more of an edge over a hotly angry Luthor on the edge of sanity.

But if he couldn't kill Luthor, how was their nemesis to be stopped? The thought of what Luthor could do sent chills through Lois. He had no morals, no scruples whatsoever; he would aim to gain control over every fabric of society, to destroy every freedom except those he chose to permit. He would be a cold, vicious dictator who would gain pleasure from killing and destroying — and with Nigel St John as his henchman, the cruelty would be intense. Even in the days when she'd trusted Lex, Nigel had always made Lois shiver. There was something about him… something creepy, something in the contemptuous way he looked at her, that way he had of looking down his aristocratic nose at others, sneering. What was a man like that doing working for Lex Luthor, anyway? Their backgrounds couldn't be less compatible… though their morals couldn't be more, she supposed.

The thought of what Luthor might also do to *her,* personally, also scared Lois. She knew he wanted revenge on her, and he'd made it clear the other night that he still wanted to possess her. He wouldn't be willing to forgo that; and, she thought, he would still be looking for her regardless of Superman's intervention. She was very glad that Luthor had never seemed to show much interest in Clark; it wouldn't occur to him, at least in the first instance, to consider that Lois Lane might be hiding out at the family home of her partner. He would be more likely to assume that Superman had stashed her somewhere overseas, or in some sort of hidden lair somewhere.

She was safe here… for now. Thanks to Clark, of course.

Clark… He'd looked so care-worn when he'd left, a mere couple of hours ago, though it already felt far longer to her. From the moment she'd seen him in the Kents' living-room, his expression one of worry and a deep weariness, she'd ached to wrap her arms around him and offer him comfort. And yet that was something she had never really done for Clark. In that sense, their friendship had always been very unequal. He was the one who was there for her when she needed comfort or caring for: whether as Clark or as Superman, he'd never let her down when she needed a friend. And yet she rarely, if ever, did the same for him. This time, she'd wanted to, but the knowledge that she'd cold-shouldered him only a few short hours before had stopped her. And it had been clear, when he'd turned to acknowledge her presence, that he also remembered her behaviour and expected more of the same.

In the kitchen, when they'd been discussing their plan and the question of whether Clark could kill Luthor, she'd longed to do more than just hold his hands. For the first time, she'd found herself wanting to smooth her hand along his forehead as if she could rub away the worry-lines she saw there; she'd wanted to curl up on his lap and have him assure her that he'd deal with Luthor and dispose of him permanently, and she'd wanted to hug him to her and tell him he was doing the right thing. As he'd turned to say goodbye to her, she'd been very much aware that it could be for the last time, and so finally she had given in to the desire to reach for him, to pull him into her arms. His hughad been like coming home, and she hadn't wanted to let him go.

Now, she wished she'd had the courage to pull his head down to hers; she'd wanted so desperately to kiss him — for luck, she'd told herself, but she knew the desire represented far more than that. It was strange: she'd rarely missed an opportunity like that with Superman (not that he'd given her many). But now, now she knew that Superman and Clark were one and the same, it seemed different. She and Clark just didn't have that kind of relationship. Sure, they'd kissed, but for different reasons: to throw villains off the scent; as a distraction from something else; or, once, simply to say goodbye. On all but one occasion he, not she, had initiated it. Lois Lane, who had no difficulty at all being very touchy-feely with Clark at work and even in private, just hadn't been able to take the risk of exposing her more intimate feelings for him by kissing him.

And yet, it wasn't that strange: Lois knew very well that her sometimes very physical behaviour with Clark represented more of an unspoken challenge than anything else. It wasn't a come-on, although it was flirting of a kind. By her actions, she was almost daring him to reciprocate, and yet she'd made it clear on more than one occasion that if he did reciprocate he'd be put in his place pretty darned fast. He was *safe* to flirt with, simply because she knew he'd never misread the signals, never treat her in the way she was, undoubtedly, inviting by her behaviour. She wondered whether Clark understood what lay behind her flirting with him, or whether he really didn't find her attractive enough to follow through. She had, she reminded herself, concluded the previous evening that he didn't have romantic feelings for her at all.

But she now dismissed that notion. Clark was attracted to her; she'd known that for a long time. She'd seen it in his face, in his eyes, on many occasions. He cared for her — of course he did. Apart from anything else, that was evident in his worry about her safety over the past few days. She now understood his anger of last night, and she was aware that she'd no doubt provoked him past bearing. As to whether he loved her… if he didn't, then he was certainly close to it, of that she was sure.

So… why hadn't he said anything?

Because she hadn't either, she told herself. She'd never given him the slightest hint that she might be interested in a closer relationship with him than that of best friends. And yet she'd known for some time that she wanted more. Of course, it hadn't helped that Superman kept getting in the way of Lois gaining a clearer understanding of her feelings; but Superman didn't represent an obstacle any more.

She needed to tell Clark how she felt about him, and the sooner the better. Always assuming that he survived the fight with Luthor… but she refused to contemplate the possibility that he might not. That would be too much to bear… she just couldn't allow herself to imagine that Clark might die. He would come back, later tonight, she thought. And once his parents had gone to bed, she would ask him to go for a walk with her, or take her flying, and she would tell him that she loved him, ask him to go out with her.

Smiling now that she'd finally made up her mind about Clark, Lois headed downstairs; it was lunchtime and Martha might appreciate some help in the kitchen. As she approached, it became apparent that Jonathan was already there with her. She hurried forward, about to push the door open and apologise for her tardiness in coming downstairs, when the sound of her name made her pause.

"I'm still not sure Clark did the right thing in telling Lois he's Superman," Jonathan was saying.

Lois froze, wondering if Clark's parents didn't trust her to keep the secret. Then Martha's answer reassured her on that at least. "Jonathan, Lois won't tell anyone. She can be trusted, you know that."

"Oh, I'm not worried about that," Clark's father answered. "No, it's the way Lois behaved around Superman — how she was infatuated with him for what he could do. You know how Clark felt about that — and is she going to transfer that to him now that she knows?"

Lois didn't wait to see how Martha responded to that. A huge lump rapidly growing in her throat, she turned and ran silently back to the stairs.


Superman strode confidently into the police station, stopping at the front desk to ask for Inspector Henderson. Moments later, he was being ushered into a soundproofed interview room again, the dour-faced inspector with him.

"You got anything for me, Superman?" Henderson asked, his melancholy visage appearing to slip momentarily. Watching him, Clark could see the lines of weariness on his face, and he realised that Henderson too had slept little in the last couple of days.

But Clark shook his head. "Not since last night, sorry. I haven't tried to track Luthor down since."

"Dammit, Superman," Henderson muttered. "Look, I'm sure you're doing your best, but apart from all the charges we already want to pin on this guy, I don't want him going on another killing spree. I think we were lucky he didn't do it yesterday."

"Too busy starting landslides and causing bridge collapses," Superman remarked dryly, before taking a seat at one side of the table. Henderson sat opposite him, now frowning.

Deciding to level with the Inspector a little more, since he was sure the officer could be trusted, Clark explained. "This is something I try to keep quiet, but there is a substance which can kill me if I'm exposed to it for more than a couple of minutes. Even a couple of seconds' exposure diminishes my powers and causes me a lot of pain." He saw Henderson's eyebrows almost disappear into his hairline. "Luthor knows about this substance," he continued. "And he had a piece of it, last night. The only reason I'm still here is because of Jimmy Olsen's bravery. He grabbed the — thing — and jumped out of a window with it."

"Olsen's safe," Henderson replied after a moment, not commenting on the rest of Superman's revelations. "I had an undercover guard posted at the hospital, like you requested — a few of my officers working as orderlies and admin staff."

Clark inclined his head in acknowledgement. "That's why I haven't gone after Luthor since. I had to be sure that I was fully recovered first, otherwise I'd have no chance against him."

"And now?" Henderson asked. "I'm on the point of calling in the military here, Superman — the only reason I haven't so far is that I have no idea whether anything they have is capable of stopping them."

"My guess is probably not," Clark told him. "I do have something in mind, however. Lois Lane and Clark Kent — and Perry White — have agreed to help." Concisely, he spelt out the details of the plan. "So the article will appear this afternoon, in the evening edition — the first edition normally hits the streets around three o'clock. If Luthor sees it immediately, then the confrontation should be not long after that."

"Is White taking out any extra advertising to cover this?" Henderson asked. "If not, then our PR people could hype it a bit, make sure the TV and radio news picks it up. Just to make sure Luthor sees it."

That sounded good, just as long as no-one had the story before the Planet hit the streets, Clark thought; Perry was already doing him a favour by printing the story — or, at least, Clark hoped it would be printed. But then, he had complete faith in Lois's ability to persuade their editor that this was important.

But he noticed that Henderson was focusing a hard, questioning look at him, and he raised an eyebrow at the detective.

"Okay, supposing this works, Superman, and you provoke the confrontation. What then?"

Clark hesitated: here was the ultimate question again. Just what was he prepared to do in order to rid the world of Lex Luthor? "I fight him," he replied firmly, with a note of steel in his voice which, he hoped, would deter any further questions.

But Henderson was too experienced a detective to be put off so easily. "With what aim?"

"With the aim of overpowering him and bringing him to justice," Clark answered briefly.

"Superman, you know that as long as Luthor has Super-powers no human authority has the power to restrain him. Unless you have a way of stripping him of the powers…?"

Briefly Clark again considered using the Tesla coils to take the powers away again, but although it wasn't impossible he knew the chances of success were minimal. "It's… possible, but I'm not sure I could do it," he admitted.

"But you can overpower him? You could kill him?" Henderson demanded.

Surprised at the direct question, Clark leaned forward in his chair, his expression resolute. "I *could,* but that's not something I do."

"Okay, I understand that, Superman, but in this case what choice do we have?"

Clark sighed silently. The last time he'd spoken to Henderson, some time in the small hours of the morning, he'd suspected the detective was implying that he'd like to see Superman kill Luthor. He hadn't expected Henderson to spell it out this bluntly. "You're asking me to do something I would simply never contemplate — and which is illegal. You're asking me to commit murder."

Henderson sighed, the intense weariness in his expression becoming more apparent. "This isn't murder — it's… it's…"

"It's execution. That's what you're talking about, isn't it?" Clark interrupted as the detective sought for words to explain what he meant.

Henderson blinked but didn't comment.

"Look, one thing which no-one in authority has ever discussed with me is my exact status in relation to the things that I do," Clark began wryly. "I arrest criminals and bring them into custody or stop them from making their escape. That might count as a citizen's arrest, but I go further than any normal citizen. I also, it has been said, deprive people — criminals — of their civil rights by using my X-ray vision and enhanced hearing to spy on them. Now, that's illegal, but no judge has ever told me to stop. I don't have a problem with doing that, because I am not doing anyone any physical harm. But I am neither a law enforcement officer nor a representative of the judiciary, Inspector. It's not my role to decide what someone deserves. I am not a vigilante, and don't want to become one. I do not have the right to kill anyone, even Lex Luthor."

Leaning across the table towards Clark, Henderson spoke rapidly. "I've had the mayor on the phone to me twice already this morning about these murders. You asked me not to tell anyone about Luthor and his powers, but let me tell you that I can't keep that promise for much longer. No-one's yet linked the murders to the mudslide and the bridge collapse and the fire yesterday, but once news gets out about Luthor and the Super-powers all hell is going to break loose. And I'm trying not to even think about what'll happen to me once my superiors find out that I knew about Luthor and what he could do and kept it quiet. They won't just have my badge, you know."

"I'm sorry I had to put you in this position, Inspector," Clark cut in, his tone sympathetic but firm. "I'd regret it very much if it led to problems for you — but that can't influence me one iota."

Henderson shook his head in frustration. "Superman, if you want legitimation, some form of legal authorisation, I can get onto the governor, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, even the goddamn President if you want someone to sign a piece of paper for you. Luthor has to be stopped permanently, and you're telling me there is no other way to do it. So… what else do you propose?"

Clark got to his feet. "I could just walk away from this, Henderson," he announced in a low voice. "I could tell you that I no longer consider the matter to be any of my business. After all, this isn't my *job.* I'm not employed by the City of Metropolis, or by the state, or by federal government. I'm not even a US citizen." Walking to the door of the interview room, he added, "You don't need to remind me that Luthor got his powers from me. But he isn't a free man because of me — that wasn't my doing. That was the fault of the authorities who believed for years that he was what he appeared to be, and who ignored allthe shady dealings going on beneath the surface. He lined too many people's pockets for anyone to start investigating him."

His hand on the door-handle, Clark fired his final shot. "But I'm not going to walk away, because I don't do that either. I *help.* And I do that because I think it's the right thing to do, and I'll keep on doing that until someone in authority tells me to stop. But I won't kill anyone. I'm sorry, but that's my final word."

He meant it, Clark realised as he strode from the police station. Despite his discussion with Lois, and his promise to her that he would at least consider her arguments, he knew that one of the things Superman stood for was non-aggression. He would not, could not, kill with deliberate intent.

So why hadn't he told Lois that? Because, he supposed, his conversation with her had been different. He'd been talking to her as Clark, even though they were both aware of his alter-ego — and it was such a liberating experience being able to talk to her knowing that she was in full knowledge of his powers — while his conversation with Henderson had been as Superman.

It was strange, he thought as he launched himself into the air. As much as he protested that he was *Clark,* there was no doubt that he seemed to adopt a different personality when he put on the Spandex suit. It had taken him a long time to realise that, but there were many differences between Clark and Superman. And, as Clark, he might well be able to kill Luthor, given what the man had done recently. As Superman… he knew he couldn't. Which of course meant that the confrontation later that day, assuming all went to plan as he and Lois had intended, would be probably the most difficult and dangerous thing he had done.

Lois had realised that, of course; while he'd assumed that her anxiety had been because she was afraid of what Luthor would do if Superman was no longer around to stop him, he'd later realised that she didn't want him to die. She *needed* him alive, couldn't bear the thought that she might lose him. Did that mean she loved him, after all? That she loved Clark, or Superman… or perhaps both of them. He *was* both of them, after all.

He could hope, and he could hold that hope in his heart as he fought Luthor; it would give him additional strength and determination for the battle which lay ahead.


"We must come to Paris for breakfast more often, Nigel," Lex Luthor observed with a self-satisfied air as the two sauntered along a faubourg just south of the Seine. "The French are so much more civilised." And, at the moment, Luthor mused, his face was not well known in the French capital, so he could stroll around unencumbered by any disguise.

"It's hardly breakfast-time here, sir," Nigel replied dryly. "Afternoon tea perhaps might be more appropriate."

Lex shrugged. "The pastries taste equally good regardless of whether they're served for breakfast or tea. Don't be so pedantic, Nigel!"

Nigel ignored the correction. "And do we have a purpose in coming to France, apart from sampling almond croissants and _pain au chocolate_?"

"We do indeed," Luthor explained, his expression deeply amused. "It's some time since I have admired the Mona Lisa, since I lost my own copy thanks to that irritating blue-fly."

"Indeed, sir. So… the Louvre, then? If I recall correctly, the museum closes early today," Nigel pointed out.

"Of course it does, Nigel," Luthor replied impatiently. "Did you somehow imagine that SuperLex would queue up among… *peasants* for the privilege of gazing upon such a fine work of art from a distance of several feet? Don't be ridiculous."

"As you wish, sir," was Nigel's non-committal reply.

"You may wait over there." Luthor gestured to one of the many coffee-houses which dotted the picturesque street. "And while I am gone, you may apply your mind to discovering where the interfering cartoon cut-out has taken Lois Lane. I am not prepared to wait much longer to have her. While you're at it, you can also work out how I may get my hands on some more Kryptonite. There has to be more -if it's really part of his home planet, then the likelihood is that it came to Earth with him. I want another piece by the end of the day."

Nigel inclined his head. "Your wish is my command, sir." His tone, however, was tinged with sarcasm. Luthor chose to ignore it, for now; he would deal with Nigel later, once he no longer needed the older man. Nigel was far too sure of his own indispensability, which was never a good thing. The only occasions when Nigel had shown himself to be at all intimidated by Luthor's powers were when flying, and Luthor had deliberately taken full advantage of his ability to frighten the older man. Apart from that, Nigel appeared to give no indication whatsoever that he recognised his own vulnerability; the fact that Luthor could kill him with one blast of his heat vision or a single hand movement.

But Nigel could wait. Right now, however, Luthor had a Da Vinci to acquire.


<it's the way Lois behaved around Superman…>

<…she was infatuated with him for what he could do…>

<…she going to transfer that to Clark now that she knows?>

Lois lay on the narrow bed in Clark's old bedroom, eyelids squeezed tightly shut to force back the hot tears threatening to fall, as Jonathan's words echoed over and over in her head. Overhearing that conversation had been very painful; each word she'd heard had stabbed her heart as if with a knife.

Not that she blamed Jonathan one iota; no, she recognised herself only too clearly in what he'd said. She *had* been infatuated with Superman, and although she'd told herself — told *him* — that it wasn't because of his powers, how was he supposed to believe that? How could he, when she worked alongside Superman every day of the week and had alternately ignored him and treated him like dirt for most of the first year of their acquaintance?

And he *hadn't* believed it either, she realised with another wave of deep shame and embarrassment. After the Planet had been destroyed, she had rejected Clark's declaration of love. She had told him she needed to see Superman… and then she had told Superman that she would love him even if he was an ordinary man, with no powers at all.

No wonder he'd told her he couldn't believe her. No wonder he'd looked… almost angry at her words. No wonder he'd been cold and sarcastic when he'd arrived: she'd already rejected him in his 'normal' guise and he had no doubt expected her to throw herself at his flashy, Super-powered guise.

It was hardly surprising that Clark's parents were questioning the nature of her interest in their son. If she was Clark's mother, she wouldn't even let herself in the house.

There was no way that Martha and Jonathan, much less Clark, would believe her now if she told Clark she loved him. And yet it was true, and she had realised how she felt about him several days ago. She'd loved him for a long time, and yet just hadn't admitted it to herself.

<If it was only the Super-powers I was interested in, I could have run off with Lex!> she thought savagely, rubbing at her eyes with the back of her hands to wipe away all traces of tears. But it wasn't the powers. Admittedly, his abilities were what had first made her notice Superman, but they certainly weren't what had attracted her to him, or made her respect him so much. He used his powers for good; he hated injustice; he was a symbol of something good and pure in a world where too much was based on greed, misuse of power, corruption and sleaze. Superman stood for something which too many people had forgotten ever existed: ethics, fairness, a sense of what was right.

And so did Clark… but it had taken her too long to realise that the qualities which she had admired so much in Superman were also possessed by Clark, in abundance. And that was hardly surprising, now that she knew they were one and the same.

But she'd left it too late to tell Clark how she felt. There was no way he'd believe her now… oh, *why* hadn't she told him when he'd visited her in the hospital? It had been on the tip of her tongue; all she'd had to do wassay the scary words: 'Clark, I love you.' Or maybe not even that, but something like, 'Clark, I realised when I was so worried about you that I care about you more than I ever imagined…' — that would at least have opened the discussion, allowed him to respond positively if he did feel similarly about her. Or she could simply have asked him out on a date, to be arranged once all the business with Luthor was out of the way.

Instead, she'd allowed him to speak first, and when he'd indicated he was leaving, she'd just let him go without telling him.

There was one consolation in all this, Lois realised suddenly, inconsequentially: Clark was unlikely to be dating Mayson Drake in any serious way. Not with the way she felt about Superman. There was no way Clark would be serious about a woman who couldn't accept his _alter ego_. Either they'd have permanent arguments about Superman, or he would simply never be able to tell her — what kind of a relationship would that be?

But at least Mayson had had the good sense to let Clark know she found him attractive. *She* hadn't ignored him, unlike Lois who had practically knocked him over in her haste to get to Superman. No; Mayson Drake had known what she wanted right from the start, and had been assertive enough to ensure that Clark knew it. She'd even been upfront enough to invite him to her weekend cottage in the mountains, although Clark had subsequently stood her up, which seemed to suggest that he wasn't as interested in Mayson as she was in him…

Wait a minute — he *hadn't* actually stood her up, at least not deliberately. That was the same weekend Superman had been blinded by that stupid laser pen. So Clark hadn't gone away with Mayson because he'd been stuck at her apartment while they'd been trying to find a cure for his blindness. Did that mean he would have gone with Mayson had he not been blinded?

But it was pointless speculating on what Clark might or might not have done, or the exact nature of his feelings for Mayson. Lois had had her chance, and had failed to take it. The best she could hope for, for the immediate future at any rate, was to be Clark's best friend. Maybe, if she proved herself in that role, he might come to accept that she cared for him — *loved* him — for himself and not for his powers.

Always assuming that he survived his planned encounter with Lex Luthor, of course. Always assuming that there was no more Kryptonite, or that Luthor didn't find some other way of getting past Clark's guard and… and killing him…

The reminder of what was indeed very possible made her shudder, and tears threatened to spill over yet again. But she forced herself to block out her fears; she wasn't doing anyone any good by brooding on what might happen. She had to trust Clark. After all, he'd been Superman for more than a year and a half now, and he'd — she assumed — had his powers for a lot longer than that. Those years of experience had to give him an advantage over Luthor. He *had* to survive; it just wasn't conceivable that there could be any other outcome.

And when he came back… she would be the best 'best friend' he could wish for. And she would never give him any reason to suspect her motives, to wonder whether it was Superman she was interested in, not Clark. And then, perhaps, if *he* made the first move towards something more, there could be a chance of a closer relationship.

Grimacing, Lois dragged herself into the shower-room attached to Clark's bedroom to splash cold water on her face before returning downstairs.


Clark Kent emerged from the elevator on the newsroom floor at the Daily Planet around noon, and immediately went in search of Perry White. He noticed that several of his colleagues were giving him curious looks; that was probably only to be expected given his almost complete absence from the newsroom over the past three days. He just hoped Perry wouldn't ask too many questions about his whereabouts this time.

"Kent! My office!" The editor's gruff roar took Clark by surprise; he hadn't observed Perry coming out of the conference room, accompanied by a couple of the paper's marketing staff.

"Chief — sorry I wasn't around earlier…" Clark began as he closed the door of the editor's office behind him a few moments later.

But Perry waved away his apologies. "Forget it, Clark. From what I can see, you and Lois have been busy." He picked up a front page mock-up from his desk so that Clark could see it. The headline read 'Mutant Luthor-clone highly dangerous, warns Superman'; Clark smiled inwardly at his editor's choice of words. The use of 'mutant,' in particular, was sure to infuriate Luthor.

"So you think Superman will be happy with this?" Perry asked. "Lois said he wanted us to run the story."

Unable to contain his reaction entirely, Clark smiled. "I think Superman will be very happy, Perry. My guess is this is exactly what's needed."

"Hmmm," the editor grunted. "I hope you and Lois told him the Planet's expecting the exclusive on this?"

"I can't think of any other newspaper more likely to get it," Clark replied, a dry tone to his voice. Lois would never let him give the story to another paper, even if he wasn't conscious of the need to ensure his own continuity of employment through helping the Planet keep sales up. Besides, he thought in wry amusement, who else would Superman talk to? The Star?

Perry lowered himself into his chair then, waving a hand at Clark to take a seat; Clark did so, wondering what was coming next and how quickly he could make his escape. There were other things he wanted to do before meeting Luthor. But the Chief's question took him by surprise. "So, Superman's going to confront Luthor this afternoon, huh? Somewhere off Bermuda?"

Cautiously, Clark replied, "I think that's the plan."

Perry nodded, and Clark realised in that instant that he'd said too much. "Look, Clark, I know there's more going on here than either you or Superman have told me. That's been obvious all along, and even more so once I saw that article you and Lois wrote. If the story was just Luthor coming back from the dead… well, okay, that's a pretty big story on its own, but it wouldn't have Superman in an all-fired hurry to catch him. And how would Luthor or anyone else get out to the middle of the Atlantic Ocean to find Superman?"

Yes, he'd said too much, Clark acknowledged. He remained silent, however; this was a tactic which had worked reasonably well for him over the past couple of years as a means of avoiding giving away too much about himself. It had earned him the reputation of being occasionally gormless, but that, he'd reckoned, was better than letting people guess at his secret.

"Come on, Kent — it's Resplendent Man all over again, isn't it? Superman never said how that guy got Super-powers. But Luthor's somehow managed to get Super-powers, hasn't he? And Superman's trying to stop him before he does any more damage?"

Clark leaned forward in his seat, his voice earnest. "Chief, we can't print any of that!" At Perry's quizzical raising of one eyebrow, Clark continued, "Look, if word gets out that Superman's powers can be transferred under certain circumstances, he'll have people following him around everywhere he goes, begging for powers like his!"

To Clark's surprise, Perry nodded. "I agree with you, Clark — and don't worry, I don't have any intention of putting this in the Planet. But what I do want to know is what Superman's planning to do with Luthor once he gets him where he wants him."

Clark shook his head. "I have no idea, Chief." It wasn't a lie; he still had to figure that one out.

"Well, he better have some ideas, I can tell you, Kent! It was Luthor who put both Lois and Olsen in the hospital, wasn't it?" Perry's expression was thunderous.

"Yeah," Clark confirmed. "And I know Superman's furious about that. Luthor used both of them as bait to get Superman to come to him so he could try to kill Superman."

Perry shook his head slowly. "Thank God he didn't succeed!"

"Yes, but he almost managed to kill Jimmy. And I don't think he cared whether his actions killed Lois or not," Clark answered.

"So — what's he going to do?" Perry asked again. "He sure better be planning to put an end to Luthor's miserable existence, is all I can say."

Not again, Clark thought with an inward sigh. Another close friend, someone he respected, telling him he had to kill Luthor. He could understand Henderson's perspective, of course: the detective knew that there was simply no way the police or even the military could capture Luthor, and even if Superman himself managed to bring the man in, where was the facility which could hold him?

He got to his feet abruptly. "Is there anything else, Chief? I need to be somewhere else in a few minutes."

"No, no, that's okay, Kent. You go," Perry replied wearily.

As Clark was walking to the door, the sound of Perry's voice halted him. "Be careful, son."

He turned, frowning in puzzlement. "Chief?"

"Uh… what did I say?" Perry's expression was a picture of bewilderment. "I meant, if you see Superman, tell him to be careful."

Trying to control his expression, Clark thanked Perry briefly and left the office, wondering in some alarm whether his boss's slip meant what he suspected it meant, or whether it was really just a slip. If it wasn't, then apart from anything else his boss had just been trying to incite him to commit murder, not a thought he particularly welcomed right at this moment.

Pushing the thought to the back of his mind — he could deal with it *later,* once he no longer had to worry about Luthor — he hurried into the stairwell. Seconds later he was on the roof of the Planet, and was airborne as Superman in under a second after that.

Landing behind a storage building near the hospital where Jimmy was a patient, he changed back into his Clark clothes under cover of the shadows, and walked swiftly towards the hospital entrance. Moments later, bearing a couple of paperback thrillers and a graphic novel from the shop just inside the entrance, he made his way to Jimmy's room.

Jimmy was sitting propped up in bed, much of his face purple with bruises and his pyjama jacket open to reveal thick strapping over his ribs. A cage protected his broken ankle. Thus confronted with yet more visible evidence of Luthor's evil intent, Clark swallowed, forcing back the blind rage which had resurfaced the instant he'd pushed open Jimmy's door.

He'd spent a lot of time fighting that rage over the past few days, he knew. And if Luthor had been unlucky enough to run into him at particular points — for instance, just after he'd left Lois in the ER department, or when he'd pulled the body of that teenage boy out of the car yesterday, or when he'd thought Luthor had kidnapped Lois from her hospital room — it was entirely possible that he could have snapped and done something he'd regret. Something, he was realising, which many people seemed to think he *should* do.

"Hey, CK! I didn't expect to see you — Perry said you hadn't been into the newsroom today!"

Clark approached the bedside, controlling his expression so that Jimmy saw only a light smile. "Yeah, I haven't been around the Planet a lot over the last couple of days. But Superman told me what happened to you. He said you were incredibly brave. You saved his life, and he's very grateful."

Jimmy shrugged, then winced. "Come on, CK, I couldn't let Luthor kill Superman! I had to do something!"

"It was still a very brave thing to do, and Superman asked me to tell you that he owes you a pretty huge favour. He'd have told you himself, but he said you were kind of out of it when he saw you last night."

"Oh well… he doesn't need to do that," Jimmy muttered, his voice sounding embarrassed; but Clark could see the delight his young friend was unable to hide completely.

Handing over the books he'd brought, Clark pulled up a chair and engaged Jimmy in conversation; he was mostly being sociable, but as he encouraged Jimmy to relate the events leading up to his arrival in the ER the night before, he was hoping that Jimmy might be able to give him some clues as to Luthor's weak spots. Assuming the man had any…

But, other than Jimmy's opinion that this resurrected Luthor wasn't entirely sane — which was also his own opinion and, he gathered, Lois's — Clark learned nothing of any real help. After about twenty minutes, during which he'd had to parry Jimmy's questions about how Luthor had managed to acquire his powers, he sighed and got to his feet, making his apologies to Jimmy; he really had to get going.

"Thanks for coming in, CK." Jimmy sounded pathetically grateful, and Clark wished he'd remembered to ask Perry what success he'd had in contacting Jimmy's parents.

"Hey, I was glad to," he quickly answered. "I'll try to get back later if I can — and if Lois is back in town by then I'm sure she'll come in as well."

"Oh yeah — where is Lois?" Jimmy asked, delaying Clark's departure.

Clark sighed heavily. "Jimmy, you saw Luthor last night, you know he's got Super-powers. Superman took Lois somewhere safe so Luthor couldn't get to her again — you realise he was responsible for her getting hurt the other night?"

"I hadn't realised, no," Jimmy replied slowly. "That guy's sure got a lot to answer for! I hope Superman's on his trail?"

"He will be," Clark insisted grimly.

"CK… if you see him, wish him luck from me, huh? You know, I really hope he's going to kill the bastard."

<Not you too, Jimmy> Clark groaned inwardly; but he acknowledged that he could hardly blame the young photographer. Luthor, or Nigel St John acting on his behalf, would have killed Jimmy last night had he not managed to make his escape.

Giving Jimmy a wry smile, all he said in reply was, "I don't know what's going to happen, Jim, but I know Superman's very angry. He's going to stop Luthor once and for all."

Jimmy nodded. "Good."

It was only as Clark was closing the door behind him on his way out that he realised how Jimmy had interpreted his comment. Did everyone think Superman's ethics were negotiable? he wondered as he made his way to the exist. Did people think that just because other people seemed able to compromise on points of principle that Superman would do the same?

Even if he took Henderson's line — and the one he'd argued to himself earlier that day — that killing Lex Luthor would represent the lesser of two evils, who was he to make that decision? Who gave him the right to decide that one person deserved to die? Superman could have the physical power over life or death for many, many people, but surely the fact that he was the only person — with the current exception of Lex Luthor — to possess that power meant that he had no right to use it? Nothing, surely, gave him the right to decide to end one person's life, even if the benefits which would flow from that death far surpassed the evil inherent in the killing?

But yet, if he didn't kill Luthor and Luthor succeeded in killing him, what then? Oh, *he* wouldn't be around to see it, but the world would be left with a very, very dangerous Super-villain which it would have no means to destroy. The National Guard, bombs, nuclear weapons… all were useless against the Super-powered Lex Luthor. Nor was Kryptonite of any use whatsoever.

And Luthor would take full advantage of the absence of Superman to do whatever he wanted: he would probably seize back control of his business empire, murdering anyone who stood in his way. He would destroy — or take over — the Daily Planet, most likely killing anyone who dared to criticise him. And Lois… would he just kill her, or make her his mistress first?

Clark swallowed as the horror of that scenario washed over him. How could he even contemplate allowing that to happen?

But, he reminded himself, Superman wasn't dead yet, and he had no intention of allowing Luthor to kill him if he could prevent it. Okay, if the man had more Kryptonite then he was in trouble, but he was pretty sure that was unlikely. The piece Luthor had had the previous night had been rather small; Clark felt sure that if Luthor did have more he wouldn't have used such a miniscule piece for his first attempt at using Kryptonite to kill the Super-hero.

So there probably wasn't any more, which meant that at least it would be a fight between two men of equal strength. Okay, Luthor wouldn't fight fairly, but the whole point of luring him to the skies over the middle of the Atlantic was to ensure that there would be no-one else around for Luthor to use as a human shield. <Better make sure I keep him well away from the islands> Clark told himself quickly. And he still felt sure that he could emerge the victor in a fight where he wasn't handicapped.

But what did that mean? He still came around to the inescapable question of what to do with Luthor if he did manage to defeat and capture the man. He couldn't personally hold him prisoner for ever. So just what were his options? As his closest friends had been telling him all morning, there really was only one option.

And if Superman did kill Luthor, what would that make him? A murderer? How would Superman be regarded from here on? Would he be treated with the same degree of trust and respect as before, or would he from then on be regarded with suspicion? Would people wonder whether, having killed before, he could kill again?

<Superman doesn't kill>

<That's not how I work>


He couldn't do it. No matter how many people pleaded with him to consider it, no matter how many advantages would flow from it — even if the President of the United States personally asked him to do it, he would not kill Lex Luthor.

What he was going to do, right now, was to fly out over the Atlantic, down to a deserted island in the Bahamas, and soak up some sun to boost his strength for the hour or so before, he imagined, Luthor would come in search of him.


Lois took a deep breath and pushed the kitchen door open, hoping that her earlier distress was no longer showing on her face. Jonathan was still sitting at the kitchen table, while Martha was putting the finishing touches to a salad.

"Lois, honey, I was just about to call you down for lunch," Clark's mother said cheerfully, her expression openly friendly. Whatever they thought of her for chasing after Superman, it was evident that Clark's parents didn't intend to hold it against her. They seemed to accept her as Clark's friend, and she was grateful for that.

"Sorry — I got caught up in finishing off what we were doing earlier, and lost track of time," she apologised, crossing her fingers behind her back for the white lie.

"Yeah, Clark said you two put together some story for the Planet to try to flush Luthor out," Jonathan interjected slowly. "Do you think it'll work, Lois? I mean, you know the man better than any of us."

"Jonathan!" Martha exclaimed warningly. "I'm sorry, Lois, just ignore him…"

Lois shook her head ruefully. "It's okay, Martha. Jonathan's quite right, I do — did — know Lex Luthor pretty well. Or at least I thought I did — I found out after I'd called off the wedding that I really didn't know him at all."

"Yeah, Clark told us you had no idea what he was really like," Jonathan replied sympathetically. "He and the others had a tough job coming up with the evidence to prove the guy was a crook. In public he always seemed so squeaky-clean."

"Lex is good at maintaining facades," Lois said dryly. "But he's also very proud of his reputation, and he hates not getting what he considers to be his share of the credit for things. So I think he'd hate the suggestion that he's only a clone of himself — and not just a clone, but a mutated one at that."

"I just hope Clark knows what he's doing," Martha commented grimly.

<So do I, Martha, so do I…> Lois kept her thoughts to herself, however, and smiled — she hoped — reassuringly. "He seemed pretty confident. And — well, okay, I've only just found out that Clark's Superman, but I don't think I've ever seen Superman confident without cause."

"He's never been up against someone this powerful, and this evil, before," Jonathan pointed out.

"Clark will be fine. He has to be," Martha said firmly as she served lunch. "There's no point sitting around here and borrowing trouble before it happens. He knows his powers and what he can do, and he's got the advantage of Luthor there. And since there's nothing we can to do help, we have to do what he wants us to do: stay here and get on with things. He'll come back as soon as he's able to and let us know what's happening."

Martha was right, Lois knew, but she wished that she could convince herself of it. Sitting around and waiting had never been Lois's way: she preferred to be in the thick of the action, or at the very least somewhere on the fringes getting enough information to write her story. Here in Smallville she had no idea what was going on, couldn't even be there to watch Clark — although, she asked herself silently, would that make it any easier? Even if she could see what was going on without Luthor being able to make use of her presence, could she stand to watch Clark fighting for his life?

It had been bad enough watching Superman struggling with Luthor, but somehow it seemed an entirely different ballgame now that she knew it was Clark under the costume. Superman had always been a little distant and formal; she'd never really known him. She knew Clark, though; she'd worked with him every day for the last year and a half. And despite his secrets, there was still a lot she knew about him. She understood his vulnerabilities, the things which made him upset or angry. And she loved him. No, she couldn't bear the thought of watching him fight Luthor.

But yet she felt so helpless, so *frustrated.* Lois was not used to being in this position, and it was made far worse by the fact that it was *Clark* who was in danger. And yet there was nothing she could do. She'd been through all the options in her mind: using her contacts to get to the President and asking him to call out the National Guard or the military, sending war-planes down to the area over the Bermuda Triangle so that they could shoot at Luthor before he even got near Superman. But Clark had already made it clear to her that Luthor was as invulnerable as he was. Therefore there was nothing which could hurt him — not even Kryptonite.

<Please come back to me, Clark…> she prayed over and over as she forced herself to eat, unwilling to allow Clark's parents to see just how sick with worry she was. He *had* to be okay. The world needed Superman — he couldn't just get killed, surely? The consequences of Luthor winning were unthinkable; and she'd already faced the thought of a life without Clark once. She couldn't bear the thought of facing it again.

Unable to choke another mouthful down, Lois excused herself to go and watch LNN; concentrating on the TV news might, she hoped, stop her mind from dwelling on the possibility of Clark's death at the hands of Lex Luthor. As she took a seat, pale-faced, in front of the TV in the living-room, she failed to overhear Martha's comment to Jonathan as the older couple started to clear away the lunch debris.

"Now try telling me that young woman is only interested in Clark because he's Superman, Jonathan!"


Luthor gave a grunt of satisfaction as the satellite he'd just kicked shot several yards away from its intended orbit. Causing destruction of this nature gave a small measure of relief for his frustration, but it still wasn't enough. He swooped back down to the roof of the LexTel building where he'd deposited Nigel St John a few minutes before, landing with a flourish and, this time, managing not to get his domino entangled around his ankles.

"You've finished playing football, sir?" Nigel's enquiry was superficially polite, but Luthor recognised the sarcasm underneath. Nigel was getting far too tiresome, he considered, and once again debated the merits of simply killing his assistant here and now. It would be a very satisfying thing to do; terminating the existence of his former enemies the other day had given him a taste for the ease with which he could end someone's life with the advantages of Super-powers. There were a number of methods he hadn't even tried yet, and it would be interesting to experiment on Nigel. Could he, perhaps, freeze the Englishman? Would that kill him instantly, or would he be in some sort of suspended animation until the external cold seeped through and caused arteries to rupture? Would it be a slow, painful death akin to exposure? Would Nigel be alert and capable of sensation through any of the process? And what would happen if he — for example — kicked or dropped his associate's frozen form? The ice would shatter, but would the frozen body underneath do likewise?

It was almost too tempting to resist the experiment. But Lex stopped himself; he still needed Nigel at the moment. Once Superman was dead, and there was no longer any need to hide himself, to resort to disguises, to send an errand-boy to carry out tasks for him, *then* he could use his imagination in any way he wished. Nigel's days were definitely numbered, and the former spy would pay for his insolence.

But just because he was sparing Nigel's life for the time being did not mean that the former spy could escape his censure altogether. He glared at the older man, a freezing stare which, in the good old days, would have had its recipient quaking in his shoes.

"Why have you not found Lois Lane yet, Nigel? This inefficiency is not like you, and I won't accept it."

"You haven't exactly given me time to go in search of her, sir," St John pointed out acerbically. "In any case, do we not have more important things to deal with than a mere woman?"

"Lois Lane is not a mere woman," Luthor snapped in return. "She is sheer physical perfection to gaze upon, despite her treacherous heart. She was also mine, and will be again." He paused, reflecting for a moment on the way Lois had looked at him when he'd found her in her apartment: the apparent lack of fear in her eyes, the way she'd stood up to him, challenged him. Yes, it would be a pleasure to strip her of her too-independent nature, to teach her to obey his commands… until he tired of her, too. "You will find her, Nigel."

"As you wish, sir. But I fail to see the urgency in any of today's activities so far. Why waste time and energy in acquiring a painting, or seeking out a woman who rejected you once before, when the greater exigency lies in destroying Superman?"

"The Mona Lisa is a work of art, and one which I desired to possess," Luthor mused aloud. "She also bears a striking resemblance to my Lois… the hair, the composed expression, her air of complete independence and cool detachment, the eyes which seem to capture one's every movement. With Lois, I long to rip away that cool facade and teach her the ways of passion and submission. Until I can do that, I need other ways of seeking distraction."

Rising up into the air suddenly, he reached down and grabbed St John's upper arm to tow him behind. "As for Superman, the alien appears to have gone into hiding — no-one has seen him since last night. I am not optimistic enough to assume that I was successful in killing him, but it is certainly possible that he has gone somewhere to overcome the effects of the Kryptonite."

"Then this would seem like a good opportunity to flush him out and kill him," Nigel shouted above the sound of rushing wind.

"You surely don't think he would fall for the same ploy a third time?" Luthor retorted scornfully. "Of course I could abduct someone like that minnow Kent — and it would give me great pleasure to do so. I could never understand Lois's fondness for the fool. But even Superman isn't so stupid as to come flying to the rescue again knowing that he would be placing himself in my hands."

"Then create another distraction!" Nigel snapped in return. "Start a fire, tear down a building — the Daily Planet, perhaps. We know the alien seems to have some regard for that publication, for some reason. I cannot believe he would stand by and see that building suffer serious damage and the people inside it get hurt. He will appear, and you can make your move while he's otherwise occupied."

The idea appealed, Lex thought; he'd been considering extracting revenge on Perry White, and this would suit the purpose admirably. Nigel did occasionally have some good ideas, he considered, altering his course to take them in the direction of the Planet building.

Landing on the roof, he dropped Nigel onto the flat surface while he considered his next move. Floating above the front of the building, he gazed downwards; the Planet globe caught his eye. That symbol was an affront to his sensibilities, he decided with a furious twist of his lips, and he immediately flew lower. The globe was affixed to the front of the building with a few metal supports; it was the work of a few seconds to sever those supports with his heat vision. Then, before the globe could work itself loose, he pushed it viciously and watched in satisfaction as it landed in the middle of the road, causing immediate traffic chaos. As he straightened, he was conscious of a momentary twinge of pain in his hand, almost as if he'd been scratched by the metal, but he dismissed the possibility. He was invulnerable, after all.

About to rejoin Nigel, something caught his eye; in a flash he shot downwards, grabbed a copy of the Planet's evening edition from the newsstand just outside the building, and flew back upwards, reading it as he went.

Flinging the newspaper at Nigel, he growled angrily, "Look at that! The *insolence*… how dare they!"

"Mutant Luthor-clone highly dangerous, warns Superman," Nigel read aloud, his voice carefully neutral. "Oh, I see it's by Clark Kent and Lois Lane," he added in seeming surprise, a faint emphasis on the second reporter's name.

"They'll pay for this!" Luthor snapped, now pacing about on the roof. "If Perry White is still alive at the end of this day, he will rue the day he ever agreed to run this… this pack of lies in that rag he calls a newspaper!"

"So Lane and Kent think you're a clone," Nigel drawled.

"Lois knows I'm no clone," Luthor retorted. "Either she's been duped into running this article, or she's part of the conspiracy — "

"Conspiracy, sir?" Nigel enquired, a supercilious note in his voice again.

"Yes, conspiracy, Nigel! By that devious, interfering blue freak! He's behind this, that's obvious to anyone except an idiot!"

"Yes, it is apparent that Superman has had some role in this," Nigel agreed. "But perhaps you should stop and consider just what it is he is trying to achieve by it. It would be my guess that he has some ulterior motive in mind."

"I don't care what he has in mind. He won't live to carry it out!" Luthor stormed.

"But do consider, sir. This is most likely a deliberate ploy to provoke you. We should take our time and reflect as to the most effective way of dealing with him — perhaps the most sensible response to this rubbish is to ignore it entirely," Nigel argued, his tone more reasonable than it had been for some time.

But Luthor was in no mood to listen to reason. He snatched the newspaper out of Nigel's hands and scanned the article again. "He will pay for this!" he pronounced. "This time, he will die."

"Lex, calm yourself!" Nigel snapped furiously. "This will get you nowhere!"

Luthor spun around to face his colleague, fury in his expression. "Do not presume to order me around, Nigel!" With one lash of the back of his hand, he sent the older man flying backwards, to land in a crumpled heap and a groan on the flat concrete of the roof.

Staring scornfully down at his assistant, Luthor curled his lip cynically. "Shakespeare understood my frustrations so well, Nigel — 'When we are born we cry that we are come to this great stage of fools.' I have had enough of fools, and I am about to rid myself of one more of them."

With that parting remark he shed the heavy domino and mask and took off, setting his course for the Florida coast and Bermuda.


Waiting for something to happen… it was a state which was almost unbearable, Clark thought. He'd been trying to suppress for some time the impulse to look yet again at the watch he wore hidden under the sleeve of his Suit. He didn't need to look at a watch to know the time; where he lay floating yet fully alert on the edge of the tiny clouds which fluttered over Bermuda, he could guess the time pretty accurately from the position of the sun. He had been here for over an hour now, and if his estimate was correct, the Planet's evening edition would be hitting the streets about now.

It had seemed much longer than an hour, this waiting; but it was what he had needed, despite his state of nervous tension and anticipation. Not only had his immersion in the sun's rays had its usual effect on him, rendering him alert and feeling at his most powerful, but he had spent the time thinking, without distraction.

He had needed time to plan his strategy, to anticipate his opponent's moves and to work out how to gain the upper hand. But he had also needed to confront the demons within himself, those insistent voices which had been telling him, with the help of his closest friends, that he had to kill Lex Luthor. He had come to realise, at last, why he had deliberately not raised that subject with his parents; it was because he had been afraid that they, too, would tell him that he had to kill. He could take that injunction from Henderson, from Perry White, from Jimmy Olsen and not allow it to bother him too much: they, after all, did not have a very close acquaintance with Superman. Lois did, and her pleas that he kill Luthor had hurt him, because she should have known both Superman and Clark well enough to realise that what she asked was impossible; unthinkable.

If his parents had urged the same course of action, it would have been a far worse betrayal. They had known him since he was a small baby; they'd watched him grow up and had instilled in him their own values and morals, which he still prized dearly. They helped him to retain a sense of normality in what, for him, had ceased to be a normal life when he'd been ten and had first started being… different. They were the solid foundation on which all of the massive uncertainties in his life found some degree of stability.

So he hadn't been able to bear the possibility that his parents might have turned to him and told him that Superman should kill.

He still hadn't come up with an answer to the inescapable question: once he managed to subdue Luthor, what would he do with him? But what was absolutely certain in his mind was that he would *not* kill. No matter how murderous he felt towards Luthor, no matter his degree of hatred because of what the man had done and would propose to do, he would not kill him.

Clark knew that this left him — and the world — faced with an impossibly dangerous threat. Luthor would not leave the field in honourable defeat when bested in battle. He would make his escape, if permitted, and would return to fight again, when he was sure that the odds would be in his favour. And in the meantime he would do whatever he wanted — more abductions, murders, destruction of land and property. The logical solution would be to ensure that Luthor could not escape alive; but logical solutions took no account of ethics.

But nor did ethics take any account of worst-case scenarios, Clark thought bleakly. What if Luthor flew away from here today and then destroyed half of Metropolis? What if he assassinated the President? What if… he found Lois?

The nightmare returned, in full technicolour: Lois, at Luthor's mercy, beaten, raped, and barely alive. Or worse, dead.

And if he'd let Luthor go when he could have ended the man's campaign of terror before it had even started, it would be *his* fault.

With a jolt, Clark realised that none of the people who had tried to convince him to kill Luthor had used that argument. Henderson had possibly come closest, but it was likely that the detective had recognised Superman's anger and decided to desist before he pushed the Super-hero too far.

Clark had told himself that he couldn't live with Luthor's murder on his conscience. Perhaps he should have asked himself if he could live with the consequences of Luthor staying alive on his conscience.

Before he could explore that thought any more closely, a dark speck on the horizon caught his attention. The time for thinking was over, he realised; the enemy was approaching.


Anger; furious, white-hot rage. Such feelings had been simmering within Luthor since two days earlier, when Superman had managed to get the better of him and had forced him to sacrifice his captive, Lois, in order to escape. His emotions had threatened to boil over the night before, when he'd had Superman in his grasp and under the influence of Kryptonite; then he'd been foiled by the actions of a worthless boy. And now, that libellous article which the alien freak had somehow managed to persuade his friend Kent to put into the Planet had brought Luthor to the point of eruption.

Superman was somewhere near Bermuda; he would find him and kill him.

SuperLex didn't need Kryptonite to rid himself of the interfering bluebottle. He had strength enough to match the alien's, after all, and he would tear the freak limb from limb. He would rip the clownish Spandex suit from the alien's torso, exposing his body to the world's view, and then hurl the lifeless, shattered body of the former so-called Super-hero through the front window of the Oval Office at the White House.

And then, he would start his campaign for world dominance. No-one would resist him; after all, he could kill at a single glance.

Against the azure blue of the sky, he thought he could see a flash of a deeper blue; he wasn't sure, and so he concentrated. Yes, it was Superman; there was a flutter of red behind him. The idiot was there: a sitting duck.

Increasing his speed, Luthor flew towards his target, his heat vision activated. If he was quick enough, a couple of swift blasts should take his victim off guard and make his task much easier.


The figure dressed in black, but without the cloak, was easy to spot against the clear blue sky and deeper blue of the sea beneath. Clark saw the instant Luthor put on a burst of speed, and mentally readied himself for combat. The flash of red, as the black streak came closer, was not unexpected, and he moved himself almost lazily out of the way. As an indication that he didn't intend to be an easy target, he sent a blast of heat vision of his own back towards Luthor, aiming at the man's left shoe. It fizzled, flared briefly and then melted, dripping away from its wearer's foot.

He heard a roar of anger and frustration from the older man, and immediately steadied himself for Luthor's attack. His opponent launched himself straight at him; but Superman employed the old matador's trick of sidestepping, and he smiled faintly as Luthor's momentum took him half a mile beyond his intended target.

He knew he wouldn't get away with such tactics indefinitely, and it was no real surprise when the edge of his cape flared suddenly; without looking down, he quelled the flames with one hand while focusing his entire attention on Luthor.

Luthor was circling him now, looking for an opening to mount an attack. Again, Clark was grateful for the man's taste in apparel, since the black clothing Luthor preferred was highly visible against the tropical sky. Lois had been right, he realised idly; choose his own time and place. Luthor's own attacks had been at night, in dark places, where it would be much easier for him to hide in the shadows.

Suddenly a foot launched itself towards him in a vicious kick. But Clark's reactions were too quick, and before Luthor had made contact with his body Clark had reached out and grabbed his attacker by the ankle. Holding tightly, he shot upwards, towing Luthor behind him, and then went into a triple somersault. He felt Luthor struggling, but Clark's response had clearly taken him by surprise and it was obviously difficult to counteract the momentum.

As quickly as he'd started spinning, Clark stopped and instantly released Luthor; the man fell several hundred feet before regaining his equilibrium.

"I'll tear you limb from limb, you freak!" Luthor yelled, rushing back up to where Superman floated, waiting for him.

"You'll have to get a good grip first," Clark drawled in return, favouring Luthor with one of his supercilious Superman-talking-to-criminals looks. He'd recognised that his opponent's anger was making him careless, and decided that the most effective strategy was to fan the flames of Luthor's temper. The longer he could avoid any direct hand-to-hand combat the better, too: let his opponent wear himself out rushing about, charging at Superman and missing each time.

Another Super-speed charge from Luthor; another fast-as-lightning sidestep from Superman, and this time he managed to trip up Luthor as the man hurtled past him. The sight of his opponent tumbling head-over-heels in mid-air made Clark laugh aloud despite the tense situation, and he was unable to resist taunting Luthor further.

"Haven't quite managed to keep your balance yet? You should have asked me for flying lessons!"

Luthor, panting now, edged closer again, his expression murderous. "You won't be laughing when I've finished with you, you damned alien!"

"I'm not ashamed of being an alien, Luthor!" Clark responded fiercely. "I'm proud of who I am — can you say the same?"

"Shut UP!" Luthor yelled, and launched forward again. Clark was about to dodge, but this time he felt a burning sensation on his forehead. He'd completely missed Luthor attacking him with heat vision again.

The momentary loss of concentration that caused enabled Luthor to make contact, and suddenly the two were wrestling. Luthor was desperately trying to get one hand around Clark's throat, while using his free hand to prevent Clark getting a grip on the hand clutching at his neck.

<Throw him off balance…> Clark shot into another somersault, but this time Luthor clung on, and as they came upright again Clark found himself being towed upwards at an alarming rate. However, the closer they got to the sun, the stronger he felt; and he also noticed his opponent blinking as the sun's rays hit his eyes.

He shook Luthor off him easily, readying himself for the next attack.

For close to two hours the two men fought, at times circling each other from a distance, at other times wrestling violently with each other, at other moments catching their breath and readying for the next bout. If he had set out with the intent of killing Luthor, Clark thought after a while, it would have been easy: he got the better of his opponent in most of their struggles, but he was forced to allow Luthor to free himself rather than deliver a killing blow.

<He wouldn't hesitate to do that to you!> the small voice of temptation urged him as, out of breath, he watched Luthor gather strength for the next attack.

<*I don't work like that!*> he insisted, kicking out ferociously as Luthor tried to grab him around his waist.

This time Luthor was aiming for more vulnerable areas on Superman's body, and Clark used every muscle he possessed to shake the man off before he succeeded; if Luthor even managed to wind him, the man would break his neck in seconds. The struggle went on for several minutes; Luthor was considerably more agile than Clark would have given him credit for, and he hung on to the Super-hero's lower body like a limpet. It took far more effort than Clark had reckoned on to push Luthor away, and he had to pause and catch his breath again.

Just for an instant, he lost sight of Luthor, and in that instant his opponent saw his chance. Hands locked around Clark's throat and squeezed.

Clark grabbed at the hands gripping him, trying to loosen Luthor's grasp. But Luthor had finally managed to get a secure hold and he had no intention of letting go. Trying a different strategy, Clark threw himself backwards and surged upwards, but Luthor still clung on; by now Clark was barely able to draw breath. He wasn't too worried about that: after all, he could hold his breath for twenty minutes. But he could feel the pressure on his trachea, on the bones which supported his neck, on his spine…

He launched a backwards kick, but hit only thin air.

He tried again to seize a firm grasp of Luthor's hands, and succeeded in securing one wrist in a vice-like hold. He pulled, and slowly, inexorably, Luthor's left hand came away. Remembering a move Lois had once shown him, Clark pulled hard on Luthor's left arm and managed to throw his opponent forward over his shoulder. He was free; he could breathe again.

Luthor was upright and floating in front of him again within seconds, breathing heavily. But something caught Clark's eye… a flash of deep red.

The back of Luthor's left hand was bleeding, from several gouges.

Clark glanced swiftly down at his own hand, and immediately noticed the traces of blood and skin under his fingernails. But… if Luthor was invulnerable, no matter how strong he himself was, he shouldn't be able to gouge lumps out of Luthor's flesh…


Clark caught his breath in wonder. Unless the power transfer wasn't permanent… unless Luthor's powers were fading!

Even as he watched, he saw Luthor follow his gaze and see the injury to his hand and wrist, the blood flowing fast and freely from what must have been an artery. The former head of LexCorp stared in disbelief. "What the…? How is this possible…?"

"If my guess is right, you're losing your powers," Clark called to him. "I don't think this is the safest place for you to be — "

"Then I have to kill you *now!*" Luthor yelled, propelling himself at Clark again.

Even as Clark fought his attacker off, his mind was whirling in disbelief. Luthor had to be insane. The man seemed to be losing his powers — his invulnerability was already going, so who knew how long his control over gravity would last? And yet, instead of getting himself to land and safety, he'd decided to make one last-ditch attack on Superman. And an attack it was; the man hadn't even thought of trying to drag his opponent somewhere in the Tropics where there might possibly be thunderstorms.

Luthor's strength was fading, and this time it was a relatively easy matter to thrust him back. This time, however, he didn't regain his balance; his arms and legs flailed and he began to fall backwards.

Clark hesitated, unsure whether this was a ploy to fool him into thinking that Luthor was helpless. When the man didn't regain control over his descent, however, he decided that it was genuine and he immediately swooped downwards, readying himself to catch Luthor before the man hit the sea beneath. <At this momentum, he'll either be killed instantly or drowned in seconds> Clark told himself, and some subconscious part of him wondered idly why he didn't just leave the man to his fate.

<Because I don't work like that!> he insisted once again, reaching Luthor's side. He reached out one long arm, wrapping it firmly around his opponent's waist. "Thought I'd let you die, did you?" he asked the wild-eyed and bleeding man he now held about twenty feet above the Atlantic.

"Let go of me!" Luthor yelled, kicking out viciously.

"What? You've lost your powers, and you can't possibly swim to shore — the nearest land is forty miles away!" Superman shouted back at him.

"Let me go — alien!" Luthor spat, aiming a brutal kick at Clark's groin. This time he connected, and it was clear that his Super-strength hadn't entirely diminished. Groaning, Clark's grip loosened, and Luthor fell.

Trying to catch his breath and focus, Clark stared downwards just as Luthor hit the water. He hadn't fallen from so great a height… Clark swooped down and prepared to scoop his enemy from a watery grave, when a streak of grey-white emerged from beneath the surface with a violent splash.

Before Clark could get a grip on Luthor's shoulder, the shark sank its teeth into the floundering black-clad man in the water.


Clark stared, frozen in appalled suspension, as a second shark joined its mate and attacked the torn body now floating lifelessly on the surface of the calm ocean. In the immediate vicinity, the water was already turning a reddish hue. He'd been too late to save Lex Luthor the instant the first shark had struck, he knew that; he was fast, but he hadn't been aware of the predator's presence and he wouldn't have been able to pull Luthor out of the water and out of the shark's reach quickly enough.

All the same, he felt as if he had failed.

But on the other hand, a tiny voice from within him was pointing out, this ends the problem he'd been wrestling with for the last few days. Lex Luthor was dead. No more super-villain flying around the country causing mayhem and murder. No more having to worry about Lois's safety and that of his friends. Things could go back to normal.

Wondering whether he should stick around to rescue whatever remained of Luthor's body, or even whether he should frighten the sharks away now, he gave a shuddering sigh. No. There was no point: there were no grieving relatives, to the best of his knowledge, and he couldn't imagine that it would help anyone to see Luthor's remains.

He turned around and set his course for Metropolis.


Clark was tempted to head for Smallville instead, partly because he wanted to reassure his parents and Lois that he was okay, and also because he felt the need for their reassurance that he'd done the right thing. But he forced himself to go to the city first; Henderson deserved to know that the threat Luthor posed was over, for one thing — regardless of what he'd said to the inspector earlier, Clark did feel somewhat guilty that Henderson had put his career on the line for him.

Flying over the Metropolis skyline a few minutes later, passing the Daily Planet, Clark noticed that the famous globe was resting on its side on the pavement in front of the building. He paused, frowning as he wondered how it had come to be there. If he hadn't had more important things to do right now, he might have stopped and re-affixed it to the front of the building, but…

Wait a minute… what was that on the Planet roof?

Curious now, Clark drifted downwards and realised that the huddle he'd seen from the air was actually a man. He landed and walked over to the figure lying awkwardly on the flat surface of the roof, and realised with a shock that it was Nigel St John. And the man appeared to be in some considerable pain.

"St John — what happened?" he asked sharply, unable to feel much sympathy for this cohort of Lex Luthor's.

The man raised his head, opening eyes which were dazed with pain. "Super…man… think my leg's broken…"

Clark visually swept St John, then nodded. "Badly broken, at least one compound fracture and some damage to your hip as well."

St John grimaced.

"Did Luthor do this to you? And he left you here?" Clark demanded. "I see his cloak's over there."

His only response was a grunt, which could have been pain but could equally have been disgust.

"I'll have to get help for you," Clark said. "I can't risk flying you to the ER myself — your leg needs to be stabilised properly."

He was about to take off, but St John's thready voice stopped him. "Luthor… where…?"

The question made Clark hesitate. He felt no sense of sadness himself over Luthor's death, merely regret that he had been too slow to save the man from his awful fate. But St John had been Luthor's personal assistant for many years, and had probably been closer to his employer than anyone else. He grimaced, then said carefully, "He's dead, I'm afraid. I was too late to save him."

"Not… sorry," St John muttered. "Good… ridd… ance."

The reaction made Clark blink, until he realised that the relationship between the two men had more than likely been one of convenience and mutual gain rather than liking or even respect. He wondered whether Luthor had been using his powers to coerce St John to help him, but then dismissed any sympathy which might have arisen as a result of that thought as he remembered what he knew about the older man's past.

Again, Clark was about to leave when something else lying on the roof caught his attention. It was a copy of the Planet's afternoon edition, with his and Lois's story on the front page. It looked good, he thought: it had certainly done its job, made Luthor furious enough to head straight for the location where Superman had said he'd be. The perfect lure… But wait, what was…?

In a split second, Clark was standing with the paper in his hand. Below the fold on the front page was a story about an art theft in Paris: the headline 'Mona Lisa Mysteriously Vanishes' had caught his attention. It seemed that the Old Master, which was displayed under conditions of very high security in the Louvre, had simply vanished from under the noses of the gallery's guards that morning — or afternoon, Paris time. A skylight had suddenly shattered, there had been a rushing sensation, like wind, and when the chaos had calmed again, the painting had gone.

His features tightening, Clark returned to St John's side. "I'm going to get help for you now. But first, where is the Mona Lisa?"

St John looked furious. "Told him… stupid…" He seemed to make a visible effort to summon his strength. "Where… your globe…" Grimacing in pain, he slumped back on the hard concrete.

Of course — the lead-lined basement of the old LexCorp building, Clark realised. And that was no doubt where Luthor had been hiding when he'd been unable to locate him.

Reminding himself that, no matter what St John might have done, this was an old man, cold and in pain, Clark picked up Luthor's cloak and draped it over St John like a blanket before taking off to summon medical aid.


Lois began to pace around the Kents' living-room for about the twentieth time since Clark had left. "Where is he?" she asked frustratedly, biting her lip. "He's been gone hours, and Perry said the paper hit the streets nearly three hours ago!"

"Lois, please!" Martha exclaimed, hurrying over to her. "This isn't helping any of us. We none of us know what's happening with Clark, but getting all worked up isn't the right way to deal with it."

"I'm sorry, Martha." Lois ceased her pacing and turned to face the older woman. "It's just… I can't concentrate on anything, I can't even think about anything other than… what he's doing and what might be…"

"Then don't stay in here. Come and help me feed the livestock," Martha urged. "It'll at least give you something to do."

Reluctantly, Lois agreed; it was better than hanging around inside the house feeling useless and getting ever more frantically worried about Clark. It had been far too long, she thought. He couldn't still be fighting Luthor, so if it was over and he was okay, why hadn't he come back to let them know?

The only reason she could think of — unless they were really still fighting — was that he was… dead.

She took a shuddering breath, refusing to allow herself to dwell on that possibility, and followed Martha through the kitchen and out into the yard. <Clark… be alive. You have to be alive!> she repeated to herself over and over, the words almost like a mantra.


Henderson led Superman straight into an interview room as soon as he was alerted to the Super-hero's presence. The door had barely closed behind the pair when the inspector's normal laconic expression disappeared, to be replaced by a tense look.

"Superman… am I glad to see you!"

Clark raised one eyebrow to demonstrate his surprise at the reaction, but said coolly, "I got here as soon as I was able."

"I'm sure you did — look, what happened this afternoon? Did you find Luthor?"

"He found me," Clark explained. "Just as I expected, he couldn't ignore what he'd see as an insult." The inspector had seen the Planet article, Clark knew: he'd noticed at least one copy of the newspaper lying in the main office as he'd walked through.

"And…?" Henderson prompted tautly.

"He's dead," Clark answered briefly, adding after a short pause, "I didn't kill him."

Henderson's expression relaxed into weary relief, and the detective leaned back against the wall of the interview room. It was as if, Clark thought, the man had suddenly stopped running on adrenalin. "Superman… I'm sorry about this morning."

Clark gave the man a wry smile. "That's okay. I understand that you're under a lot of pressure, and that my request that you keep the information about Luthor to yourself wasn't helping."

"So tell me what happened — and do I need to send a squad to recover the body?"

Clark winced involuntarily. "I don't think that'll be necessary." Succinctly, and in as detached a tone as possible, he filled Henderson in on events, noticing that even the hard-bitten detective couldn't suppress a grimace when he reached the circumstances of Luthor's death.

"Oh, there is something else," he added. "If you send some officers to the old LexCorp building and get them to search the hidden basement, they should find something the Louvre will be very glad to get back."

Henderson was unable to hide his surprise at this. "The Mona Lisa?"

"I was told that's where it is. I guessed Luthor took it as soon as I saw the newspaper article."

"Figures," the detective replied briefly.

"And one more thing. Nigel St John should be being treated in the ER at Metropolis General Hospital at the moment, for a badly broken leg. You might want to get some officers over there."

An impressed lift of one eyebrow was Henderson's reaction. "Thank you — that saves me another task. I don't suppose you rounded up Asabi while you were at it?"

"No, I never saw him. Perhaps Luthor didn't locate him, or didn't want his help."

Henderson straightened. "Thank you, Superman."

Clark held out his hand to the detective, anxious to show that there were no hard feelings; after all, Henderson had only been doing his job, and he had put his career on the line. "You're welcome. I'm just relieved it turned out this way." Pausing in the act of opening the door to leave, he added, "Bill — get some rest."

A flicker of surprise crossed Henderson's face. "I'd tell you the same, Superman, except you'd probably tell me you don't need it."

"You'd be surprised," Clark murmured, turning to leave.


Smallville… his parents' house. Home.

As he brought himself down to land on the soft earth outside the back door of the farmhouse, Clark realised that it was a very long time since he'd felt such an overwhelming sense of relief — no, *belonging* — to be here in this place. He was tired, so very weary. And he was also extremely glad that his ordeal was over, but in that sense of a massive burden having been lifted from his shoulders, he was also in great need of comfort and solace from the three people he loved most in the world.

His X-ray vision told him that all three were in the barn: apparently Lois was being shown how to hand-milk a cow. Clark's lips twitched; he bet his father had omitted to mention that the Kent farm had used electric milking equipment for at least the last twenty years.

"Hey, anyone around?" he called, now anxious to be noticed.

Suddenly he heard shouts and exclamations of relief, and his parents and Lois emerged running from the barn. There was no doubt about the joy and sheer relief on their faces, and in spite of his tiredness Clark felt warmed inside. Unable to prevent himself, he strode in their direction.

Lois was just in front of his parents; he spread his arms wide to her, recognising the delight in her eyes at his return. But just as she seemed about to run into his embrace, she halted.

As he stared, confused and hurt, her expression became wary and she avoided his gaze. "Clark… it's good that you're back — that you're safe. I'm… glad," she stammered awkwardly, then stepped aside so that his parents could hug him.

He returned his parents' embrace, all the while stinging inside from the pain of Lois's rejection.


Clark was back! Afraid for one brief moment that she'd imagined the sound of his voice, Lois knew it was real when she saw the sheer joy on the faces of Martha and Jonathan. Then all three of them were racing out of the barn to meet him; she'd been closest to the door when he'd called, and so she was in front.

And there he was, standing there in his Superman suit looking at them, looking strong and tall and powerful and *alive*… and yet also so very weary. Her heart turned over and she longed to draw him into her embrace and hold him, offering him whatever comfort she could.

As he began to stride towards her, his arms opening to enfold her, Jonathan's words came back to her with the force of a slap in the face. <… the way Lois behaved around Superman… infatuated with him… what he could do… transferthat to Clark?>

No… she *couldn't* allow Clark to think she was only interested in his powers!

If she threw herself into his arms now, showed him how much she cared, he would be perfectly justified, afterwards, in assuming that her changed behaviour towards him was all because she knew he was Superman. Okay, she'd hugged him earlier, to wish him luck, but… But then she hadn't realised how her behaviour could be interpreted. And she had no wish to allow Clark or his parents to misinterpret her now.

Forcing herself to slow her pace, to stop herself running into Clark's arms, she told him stiffly that she was glad he was safe, and then moved aside to let his parents welcome him. That was as it should be, in any case, she told herself. They were his parents; they were the ones who had the right to be with him. She was just a friend, after all; no-one special.


As Clark embraced his parents and responded in brief half-sentences to their barely-coherent demands to know whether he was okay, his mind was whirling, his heart aching painfully at what had just happened. He couldn't understand it. Why had Lois acted like that? Was she still angry with him? Did she hate him for deceiving her and for the way he'd told her his secret? Was she punishing him…?

But he didn't think that was the case. That morning, after all, she'd been friendly and supportive — she'd even been worried about him! She'd made it clear that she cared about him; she'd even told him she didn't want to lose him. Okay, she'd said she was leaving everything else aside until the Luthor threat was dealt with, but she didn't even know at the moment that Luthor was well and truly out of the way.

So why had she just rejected him so pointedly?

He couldn't make sense of it. It was so completely at odds with her earlier behaviour, and with the way they'd been behaving as friends and partners for the last year or more. It was certainly so out of line with the way she'd been behaving with Superman ever since she'd first encountered him in that guise.

And he could have sworn that when she'd first emerged from the barn her intention had been to fling herself into his arms. Her expression had seemed to say as much: she'd been overjoyed to see him. She had to have known that he needed her embrace too; she knew what he'd had to face, after all. But somewhere between coming out of the barn and getting up close to him she'd changed her mind. It was almost as if she'd had a sudden, dramatic change of heart.

Or suddenly remembered something…?

A germ of a theory began to build in his mind. He was here dressed as Superman, while for most of their discussion that morning he'd been dressed as Clark. Perhaps it was the blunt reminder, therefore, that Clark and Superman were one and the same which had jolted her into rejecting him like that? But on the other hand, he'd been dressed as Superman when she'd first seen him that morning, and she'd treated him normally. In fact, she'd called him Clark. And even when he'd been dressed as Clark, later, her behaviour had made it clear that she accepted him as both Clark and Superman.

So it didn't seem to be that either.

Then it hit him. He was Superman. She'd had a very direct, and extremely unpleasant, encounter with Super-powers only a couple of days earlier. For the first time, she'd seen the harm his powers could do. Could it be that she was… afraid of him?

The possibility was almost too painful to contemplate. *Lois,* the woman he loved more than anything else in the world, afraid of him? But it was the only thing which seemed to make any kind of sense at all. It would explain why she'd shied away from him just now, and it would also explain why she'd initially seemed to welcome his presence. She still cared for him, as her friend and partner, but after her experiences with Lex Luthor she was scared to get too close to him, in case he hurt her in a similar way.

How on earth was he going to convince her that he could no more hurt her than he could kill Lex Luthor?


Finally, the small group adjourned to the kitchen and sat down to hear Clark's story. Before he joined them at the table he disappeared upstairs to wash and change, though even with the memory of his speed earlier that day Lois was stunned when he rejoined them in under a minute, dressed in jeans and a T-shirt. It was so good to see him — and to see him apparently unharmed — that at first it was difficult for her to concentrate on the initial exchange of questions and answers between him and his parents. Instead, she was tempted simply to sit and gaze at him, taking in the sight of him safe and well.

But then something he said dragged her out of her introspection with a rapid jolt. "Luthor's dead," he announced flatly.



Martha and Jonathan spoke at once, their expressions a picture of shock, their gazes focused completely on Clark. Lois had bitten back her own instinctive question, which had been to ask Clark whether he had killed Luthor; a split second's thought assured her that he would not have done so.

He breathed deeply, then explained. "His powers were draining away, and he… fell. Into the ocean."

He'd drowned? Lois asked herself silently. But… from everything she knew of Clark, and of Superman, she was sure that he wouldn't have left Luthor to die like that. There had to be more to this than Clark was saying.

"Was the fight tough?" she asked quickly, wanting to know exactly what Luthor had done to Clark.

He gave her a sharp glance, then leaned forward, his elbows on the table. "Okay. It was like this. We fought for… oh, I don't know, maybe nearly two hours. It was almost like cat and mouse, in a way — he was the aggressor, but I wasn't letting him get the upper hand. He'd try grabbing me, or hurting me, and I'd either get out of his way before the blow connected, or I'd shake him off after a while. I figured maybe I'd manage to tire him out and he'd — oh, I don't know, maybe give up for today." He sighed suddenly, looking downwards and clenching his fists. "I still hadn't really figured out just what I was going to do about him, other than that I wasn't going to kill him."

"Well, of course you weren't, son!" Jonathan exclaimed. "We know you better than that."

"Yeah, Dad, I know," Clark acknowledged, and as he raised his head to gaze at his father Lois saw a tortured expression in his eyes. It occurred to her that while she had known he wouldn't be able to kill Luthor, she had argued fiercely that he should; perhaps she didn't know Clark/Superman as well as she'd believed? Would he resent her for urging him to kill?

Clark had resumed speaking, so she concentrated on what he was saying. "But what I couldn't find an answer to was the issue of how to deal with him. He had my powers — no-one else could stop him. He couldn't just be arrested and thrown in prison. So what other options were there?"

Martha smiled sympathetically. "I did wonder what you were planning. But on the other hand, killing people never solves anything. It just creates another set of problems."

"Yeah, Mom," Clark agreed. "Anyway, like I said, it didn't come to that." Lois and the elder Kents listened in silent horror as Clark described the way Luthor met his end, and as he reached the end of his story both Martha and Jonathan reached across to grip one of his hands.

"That must have been an awful experience for you," Martha murmured. "Are you okay, honey?"

Clark shrugged. "I'm fine. It's just… a man's dead, and although I've seen people die before, I've never had to watch anything like that."

"You couldn't have saved him, though," Jonathan pointed out. "You said Luthor managed to wind you, which cost you several seconds' reaction time."

Clark nodded. "Yeah. And by the time I'd recovered enough to fly down and grab him, the first shark was already there and it was too late."

"I know it sounds horrible, but I'm not one bit sorry!" Lois cut in, unable to remain silent any longer. "Clark, I know it must have been a pretty horrible experience, but Luthor was a cold-blooded villain. He'd have killed you without a second's hesitation if he'd got a chance. And you know he tried to." The news of Luthor's second death had in fact come as an immense relief to Lois, and not just because it meant that her former fiance would not be making any more attempts to kidnap and subdue her. It was also a huge weight off her mind to realise that Clark was safe. She wouldn't have to worry any more that Luthor might already have killed him, or that he might succeed in his next attempt. Clark was safe, and the source of the danger was dead. That was all that mattered.

"He came pretty close, too," Clark acknowledged quietly. "I thought I'd had it last night — I think it was only that he wanted to take his time about it. If he'd taken the opportunity he had the minute I started to be affected by the Kryptonite, he'd have succeeded. But he wanted to savour the victory."

"That sounds like Luthor," Lois concurred, watching her partner's grim expression. It was Luthor's hubris through and through: he would have wanted to enjoy his enemy's death, and a quick end would not have satisfied him. He would have wanted to watch Superman suffer.

But, in the end, his pride and vanity had been his undoing.

"Clark, why would he have wanted you to drop him?" Jonathan asked, puzzled. "If he realised his powers were going, surely he'd have wanted to hold onto you for dear life?"

But Clark shook his head slowly. "I really have no idea, Dad, except that by then I think he really was on the edge of sanity. All he could see was that I had him prisoner, and he wanted to get away from me."

"Makes sense to me," Lois said quietly. "I thought he wasn't completely sane the night he abducted me."

"Well, I'd guess stealing the Mona Lisa is a pretty insane thing to do," Clark replied with a humourless laugh. "Even Nigel St John couldn't understand why he did it."

"The desire to possess beautiful or unattainable objects," Lois said thoughtfully. "That's what it always was with him, wasn't it?" She'd seen an LNN item on the art theft earlier that day, and from the circumstances of the painting's disappearance had figured out that Luthor was responsible. That reminded her of something else…

"I guess we have a story to write, partner," she said, wondering as she spoke just how they were going to be able to write this one up.


Two hours later they had a couple of stories ready to email to Perry, to be published in the following morning's Planet. It had been a difficult task deciding what could be revealed and what had to be kept secret; in particular, Clark was anxious not to give any hint that the Luthor-clone — since they'd agreed to stick to that story — had powers which in any way resembled his own. So they'd maintained the fiction that the being was a genetically modified cyborg manufactured with some of Lex Luthor's DNA, and invented the tale of its destruction by Superman.

Clark was very reluctant to write about the discovery of the Mona Lisa, and after discussion Lois agreed with him. It would have been very difficult to explain how the painting had ended up in Metropolis, and ever more difficult to justify their knowledge of the situation. The police could explain it, if they chose; Lane and Kent had sufficient material for a front-page story as it was.

His parents had left them to it, understanding the reporters' instincts which drove the two partners to get the story and send it to Perry White as soon as possible. Clark had deliberately pushed aside his feelings of confusion and hurt at Lois's reaction, concentrating on the immediate task. Her manner seemed almost completely normal for their working relationship, but he did notice that she seemed to avoid touching him on her own account, although she didn't actually flinch away from him if he came close while passing her.

When they'd finished, he looked at Lois enquiringly. "What now? Do you want to be taken back to Metropolis straight away, or will you stay for dinner with me and my folks?" He held his breath, hoping that she wouldn't demand to be taken home immediately.

She glanced up at him. "You're not going home yet, then? I mean, if I wanted to go you'd take me and come straight back?"

He nodded. "Mom and Dad haven't seen much of me with all this going on, and I know they worry, even though they try not to show it. I'll stick around for a couple of hours at least, talk to them… you know."

"Well, if you think they'd rather be alone…?"

Quickly, Clark shook his head. "No, of course not! You know that's not true — my mom even told you you were family, that weekend I was blinded, remember?"

Lois nodded. "Yeah…" She frowned suddenly. "Clark, you didn't tell us the whole story about the fight with Luthor, did you?"

He shuffled a little awkwardly, trying to avoid her gaze, and she pounced. "I knew it! You're holding something back… come on, Clark, tell me. You need to talk about it, I can tell."

She wanted to talk — or, at least, she was offering to listen to him… maybe this was an opportunity to try to clear up a few things, Clark thought. Smiling wryly at her, he offered a suggestion. "Why don't we go for a walk? You said earlier that you had a lot you wanted to ask me about… well, me, and Superman. My parents are busy outside so we've got some time now, and you know how hard it is to get any proper free time when we're in Metropolis…?"

He was almost holding his breath waiting for her answer, hoping that she would give him the opportunity to talk, to break down this new and unwelcome barrier between them. He felt as if he'd been holding his breath when she nodded agreement.

Calling to his parents that they were going for a walk and would be back in time for dinner, Clark escorted Lois along a path which led to the furthest reaches of the Kent property, bordering on a small wood. It was a pleasant area for strolling, and — even better from his point of view — they were unlikely to meet anyone else.

Lately, whenever they'd had opportunity to walk somewhere, Lois had developed a habit of hanging on his arm in a way he secretly loved; she would loop her hand through his upper arm or rest it in the crook of his elbow in a completely unconscious manner. He therefore manoeuvred himself close to her, deliberately giving her the opportunity to do the same this time. But she moved aside, putting several inches between them. Even though he'd more or less expected it, her action caused him to experience something like stabbing pain. He sighed inwardly, hoping that his depression wasn't obvious to his companion, and resigned himself to having to spend a lot more time rebuilding Lois's trust in him. He resolved to respect her feelings for the moment and refrain from making any attempt at physical contact between them; he would leave it up to her to initiate any contact, if she wanted it.

"So… you wanted to know about Luthor, huh?"

She glanced at him briefly before replying. "Yeah… I mean, only if you want to talk about it, I mean it's not as if there's any reason why you should have to…?"

"Other than the fact that we're partners and… you're my best friend?" Clark suggested softly, hoping that she at least wouldn't deny that.

But she gave him a quick smile. "Yeah, best friends, right. I… uh, if you still want to be…?"

Clark stopped in his tracks and turned to face her. "Lois, you know — now — that I have to do a heck of a lot of things I hate doing. Some of it's been pretty rough. But what makes it bearable — has always made it bearable — is knowing that I have people who care about me. If you didn't want to be my friend any more…" He shrugged, trying to convey just what that loss would mean to him. "Well, I'd… miss you. A lot."

"Clark." She touched his arm lightly, before withdrawing it almost as if stung… remembering who he was and that he could hurt her? "Clark, finding out you were Superman was a shock. But I didn't mean the way I behaved towards you last night. Yeah, I was upset, and I felt… hurt. But I don't want to lose your friendship."

"You won't do that, I promise," he told her, unable to prevent a husky note from creeping into his voice. He stood and gazed down at her for a few moments, fighting the impulse to sweep her into the kind of hug they had frequently shared before today. But the way she'd pulled her hand away told him that such a gesture would be unwelcome.

He saw her swallow, before she turned and resumed walking along the narrow path; he had no choice but to follow, taking a couple of running steps to catch up with her. Telling himself to make an effort to behave normally, he began to speak. "Okay, you asked about Luthor. Yeah, there were a couple of things I didn't mention — the first being that he came pretty close to killing me again."

He saw, as well as heard, Lois's shock at that. "I'm okay, I promise," he assured her quickly, pleased to see that, whatever else was going on, she still cared about what happened to him. "But for a couple of minutes he had his hands locked around my throat and I couldn't get him off me." Seeing her appalled expression, he explained quickly, "It's okay — I can hold my breath for up to twenty minutes, so that wasn't a problem. I knew that if I gave him a chance, he'd try to break my neck."

"Were you scared?" Lois asked him softly. "I never asked you that this morning — well, we were sort of talking about other things."

Clark paused for a moment, wanting to answer her honestly. "When he got me by the throat, yeah. Up until then, it had been sort of cat and mouse, like I said, and I knew I wasn't really in any danger."

"But you made him let you go."

"Yeah, then we both realised he was losing his powers." Clark stopped abruptly and inhaled deeply. "Lois, I know you're glad he's dead and I understand that. I can't pretend to be sorry myself. But… I can't help wondering if some part of me wanted him to drown when he lost his control over gravity, if maybe I was slower to go after him than I should have been."

"Clark, no!" Lois exclaimed, shaking her head in rejection of his suggestion. "Come on, Clark, you caught him! You stopped him hitting the water! The only reason you let him go again was because he made you."

"Yeah, he didn't give me a lot of choice," Clark concurred. "And… yes, I would have pulled him out of the water, except the shark got to him before I'd caught my breath."

"Clark, Luthor died entirely as a result of his own pride, his own insane belief that he was immortal," Lois said insistently. "You saw what he was like — I think he'd really started to believe that he wasn't just invulnerable, but invincible and immortal too. And yeah, I'm not sorry he's dead, but not just because he won't be bothering me again. I'm glad because he won't be going on any more killing sprees, or trying to extract revenge for imagined slights, or… or trying to kill my best friend!"

She stopped and turned to face him, standing rigidly although her eyes held something akin to… Clark wasn't sure. Could it be concern, or something stronger? "Clark, you said Luthor had tried to kill you before. It was just before I was supposed to marry him, wasn't it?"

"Yes," he confirmed. "I mentioned the cage made from Kryptonite: he lured me — as Superman — to the wine-cellar in his basement on the pretext of talking about you, and trapped me in the cage. It took away my powers, and if I'd been there long enough it would have killed me."

Lois was silent for several moments, and to break the awkwardness Clark resumed walking; she followed. After a while, she said slowly, "And that's why you weren't able to save him when he threw himself off his penthouse balcony." As he was about to respond, she made a dismissive gesture. "I know, you would have if you could. And I'm still glad you didn't." In a different tone, she added, "What did he say about me? Anything?"

"You won't like it," he warned her.

"Would you want me to?" she threw back at him. "Clark, I know you didn't want me to marry him — and okay, I found out pretty soon that it was a crazy thing to do. I told you I changed my mind at the altar, didn't I?"

He nodded, not even daring to comment as he hoped she would enlighten him further as to the reason behind her decision.

"Yeah, well, I realised I just didn't want to be Mrs Lex Luthor — and that's what I would have been, even if he had been the benevolent businessman and philanthropist he pretended he was. I wanted…" she hesitated, and Clark waited, not even breathing, "I wanted to be me. I wanted my old life back, and my friends back."

"We were always there for you," he assured her sincerely, wishing he'd had the courage to replace the 'we' with a firm 'I'.

"Yeah, I know. It was only me who'd changed, who'd walked away…" she muttered, so quietly Clark wasn't sure he'd have heard it without Super-hearing.

A thought occurred to him then, and he thought for a moment as to how to ask the question without reminding her of his declaration of love; given how she now seemed to feel about him, he wasn't sure he wanted to remind her of that. Hesitantly, he ventured, "Lois… I've often wondered if I was partly to blame for your decision — accepting Luthor's proposal, I mean."

Her head whirled around, her hair swinging in an arc. "You mean what Superman said to me? The way you…" she faltered briefly, "the way you rejected me?"

"I could have been more tactful," he replied softly, not wanting to justify his behaviour that night in case it led Lois to wonder whether he really had meant his declaration of love, as Clark, that same day. "And I wasn't *rejecting* you; it's just that as Superman I couldn't…" He trailed off, hoping she would understand.

"Superman can't have a relationship with anyone. Yeah, I guess I understood that, later. At the time, it… hurt." She avoided looking at him as she spoke, and he longed to sweep her into his arms and tell her he'd never meant to hurt her, would never hurt her again.

"I'm… sorry," Clark told her softly. "Lois, I never wanted to hurt you…" He gazed at her, wondering whether she could read his feelings for her in his eyes, wondering whether she could come to trust him again.

But she changed the subject, leaving his question about Lex Luthor unanswered. "You didn't tell me what Luthor said about me."

"Oh — well, he told me that you were a little too independent for his taste, and that he'd have to take care of that once you two were married."

Lois snorted in disgust. "Figures."

"Yeah." They walked in silence for several paces, Clark unsure as to how to progress the discussion. Apart from wanting Lois to accept that he was still the same person she'd known before discovering that he was Superman, and that he wouldn't — couldn't — hurt her, he didn't know what she wanted him to say to her. The previous evening, and even that morning, it had been clear that they had a lot to talk about. Lois had even told him that she had a number of questions to ask him — and, he suspected, a number of charges to level at him. And yet she wasn't now taking advantage of the opportunity.

Maybe he should take the initiative, he decided; the silence was becoming uncomfortable.

"So… you still mad at me for not telling you I'm Superman?"

He waited anxiously for her answer; although he was pretty sure that he had identified correctly the reason why she was creating a new distance between them, she still hadn't actually told him she'd accepted his reasons for not telling her about himself sooner.

But she shrugged lightly. "I was. But I thought about it, and I talked to Martha, and I realised that you were telling the truth when you said you wanted to tell me anyway. And once I accepted that you hadn't just told me because you were angry…" She trailed off, giving another expressive shrug.

"I really did want to tell you," he insisted softly. "And I'm really sorry that I did it like that. I just…" He shook his head briefly. "I was exhausted, and angry and frustrated after dealing with the disasters Luthor caused, and then when I went to the hospital to see you and found you gone… Lois, my first thought was that Luthor had got you again — that that was why he'd made sure I was out of town all day."

She stilled. "I didn't think of that." A momentary pause, and again Clark had the feeling that she would have reached out to touch him but restrained herself. "I'm sorry. I wouldn't have wanted to put you through that."

"You were safe, and that's all that mattered."

"Anyway," she continued, "no, I'm not mad. I'm… well, I guess I'm a little hurt, and I'm angry with myself for not figuring it out, but I'll get over that. And I'm trying to reconcile all sorts of memories here, and that'll be the hardest part of all, I think."

"Yeah, I can understand that," he told her. "And… Lois, I know I've done things I shouldn't have, like let you confide in Clark about Superman and vice versa. It just… wasn't always easy to prevent that."

But to his surprise, Lois didn't seem to think that was particularly important. Grimacing, she said wryly, "Oh, I'm sure I'll have a few embarrassing moments when I remember some conversations we've had — but I'll live."

"I'm glad," he said softly. "I never wanted Superman to cause problems in my friendship with you, but at times it just seemed unavoidable. And there've been so many times when I wanted to tell you the truth, but…"

"But?" she queried. "You weren't sure I wouldn't want to use the information to win myself a Pulitzer?"

"Well…" He shrugged uncomfortably. "I guess this would be pretty newsworthy. But I haven't thought you'd do that for a long time now. It was just that… well, I'm just so used to the need to keep what I can do secret. My dad always used to say to me, when I was growing up and discovering new things I could do, that I'd have to be very careful, never tell anyone, or I'd be taken to a laboratory and dissected like a frog."

"Or killed because someone thinks you're part of an alien invasion," Lois added dryly.

Clark nodded; here in Smallville with Lois, the memory of Jason Trask seemed very fresh suddenly. Feeling the need to change the subject a little, he asked in a lighter tone, "So… you had some questions you wanted to ask me?"


Yes, she did, lots: just how Superman from Krypton came to be Clark Kent from Smallville, Kansas; how long he'd had his powers; what he'd done before he became Superman; why he preferred to work as a reporter instead of doing something much more glamorous or exciting, which with his abilities he could easily do.

That last question earned her almost the first smile she'd had from him since his parents had left them alone to write up their story. His lips twitched and he raised an eyebrow at her. "I never imagined I'd hear Lois Lane admit there's a more exciting way of earning a living than as a reporter! Isn't that the best job there is, according to you?"

She gave him a rueful smile in return. "Sure — but that's for me. You're *Superman*! You could do anything you want — go anywhere you want."

To her surprise, he shrugged lightly. "Ever since I worked on my high school newspaper, I've wanted to be a reporter. That's why I studied journalism at university. As for travelling, you know I did that. And for some of the time while I was travelling, I worked as a reporter — always in print journalism, I've never been interested in any other genre. I've done all the travelling I want to. My home is in Metropolis now — that's where I want to be."

She should have felt happy, reassured, at that statement, but it didn't help to lift the bleakness which she'd felt ever since she'd stopped herself running into Clark's arms and he had failed to make any move to hug her on his own account. It was looking very much as if her earlier reasoning was correct. She had no idea exactly what Clark's feelings for her were, but clearly he was anxious to ensure that she didn't have a chance to throw herself at him the way she had with Superman. The signs were all there: the way he'd hugged his parents and not her, his matter-of-fact behaviour when they'd been writing up their story, and the complete absence of his usual affectionate manner towards her now, while they were walking.

It was in the nature of their relationship that they were frequently tactile with each other. But they'd been walking together for over half an hour and he hadn't touched her once. And, as if to emphasise the barrier which now existed between them, he was maintaining a physical distance between them which actually hurt. Even when he'd told her how much her friendship meant to him, his body language had remained remote; the Clark she'd known before would have reached out to touch her arm, or tentatively stroked her hair, or even swept her into a one-armed hug.

This Clark was, in some ways, almost a stranger.

How much things had changed between them in the space of two days! She remembered Clark as he had been when he'd visited her at the hospital: he'd been very concerned about her, apologetic about having worried her, and otherwise his usual affectionate, teasing self. He *had* hugged her. He'd even kissed her… on the forehead, though, not on the lips as she'd thought — hoped? — he'd intended. But even that hadn't concerned her too much: she'd felt confident, then, that he loved her.

But now… Well, ever since Clark's normal mild-mannered demeanour had slipped and he'd made her see the truth about himself, she'd had no idea how he felt about her. Her first reaction, of course, had been to decide that he didn't, couldn't, love her. Later reflections had led to think that perhaps he'd just been angry, and that once he'd calmed down things would return to normal — well, as normal as they could be now that she'd discovered that the two men who meant most to her were actually one man.

Even this morning she hadn't been concerned, knowing that he was preoccupied with worry over Jimmy and blazing anger against Lex Luthor. Clark had had far more important things on his mind than his relationship with Lois Lane; but while they'd been working together on their story, and later when they'd been talking, she had felt cocooned by the knowledge that she was important to him. Very important.

But she now knew just where her importance to him lay. She was his friend — his best friend, he'd told her. And she supposed that now her friendship could be even more important to him, since she'd joined the ranks of the very few people with whom he didn't need to maintain a masquerade. With her, he could be himself, Clark Kent the Super-hero.

And, while she wanted him as her best friend, that was no longer enough. She wanted him to love her, as she loved him. She wanted him as her life partner.

She sighed inwardly, trying to focus on their conversation; she didn't want to give Clark any suspicion that she wasn't happy about something. After all, this situation was entirely her own fault. She was the one who had behaved like an infatuated teenager around Superman, while treating Clark in a casually dismissive way. It was up to her to earn his trust, to prove to him that she liked him — *loved* him — for the man that he was, and not because of his special abilities.

Quite how she was going to do that, she didn't know. But she was determined to try; no matter how long it took, Clark Kent was going to believe that Lois Lane loved him, and he was going to love her back.


Three weeks later, Clark was getting more and more despondent about ever getting Lois to accept that she didn't need to be afraid of getting close to him. Oh, she was still his friend, and in some ways she was a far better friend than before, because not only did she know about him, which meant that he could talk to her about things he'd never been able to discuss with her before, but she also seemed to have become much more empathic, more concerned for him than ever before. Since their return to Metropolis, he had come to visit her late at night on several occasions, as Superman, and they'd sat and talked for hours: about rescues he'd been involved in, about what Superman meant to the world, about the difficulties of balancing his life as Clark with the demands made on his time by Superman.

It was wonderful being able to have those conversations with Lois: in many ways, she was helping him to come to terms with issues which had caused him to obsess far too frequently since becoming Superman. She pointed out to him several times that Superman couldn't be expected to be everywhere, that he shouldn't blame himself for lives he couldn't save, and that since the very idea of Superman gave the world something to believe in, he should be content with what he was able to do. As she told him, many thousands of people were alive today because of him. Oh, Lois's reassurances were nothing his parents hadn't said to him over and over, but somehow Lois's pragmatic nature got through to him in ways his parents couldn't quite manage sometimes. Maybe he just needed to have someone else tell him this: after all, he expected to hear it from his parents, and so perhaps it didn't have quite the same impact coming from them.

She was the best friend he'd ever had… but yet the physical distance between them was greater than it had ever been. He could sense her physical withdrawal from him every time they were together, whether at work or alone in one or other's apartment. No more sitting close together on his couch if they were watching a video; no chance of her allowing her head to rest on his shoulder, or of her snuggling up to him. Even when they were working together at his desk or hers, she was careful to maintain her personal space; gone were the times when she'd lay her hands on his chest as she teased him, or when she would touch his arm to get his attention, or hug him exuberantly when a story came together.

He missed that closeness, the day-today gestures of affection, so much, and even the greater comfort and support he gained from her knowledge of his true nature didn't compensate for its absence.

He was distancing himself too, in a physical way; an almost instinctive, reflexive response to her avoidance of any contact between them, but it was also a deliberate act. Let her get used to her new knowledge of him, he'd subconsciously decided. Show her that she had nothing to fear. Don't make any attempt to be physically demonstrative towards her — leave any moves in that direction entirely up to her. She had to realise, sooner or later, that he would never use his powers to hurt her; she had to see, from his everyday behaviour, that he was perfectly capable of controlling what he could do.

And yet she had been very supportive; the distancing seemed to be purely on a physical level and not at all on an emotional one. She was a sympathetic and understanding listener when he needed to talk about the demons which haunted him, and she made him welcome whenever he needed comfort and companionship; she actively encouraged him to fly over to her apartment after his late-night patrol and share conversation and hot chocolate — made by him. Ironically, she appeared entertained, rather than alarmed, by his casual use of his powers in such circumstances.

She'd certainly helped him come to terms with the aftermath of Luthor's death. That had been difficult… for several nights after the fight, he'd woken sweating from a nightmare in which he saw, vividly, the shark attack and heard Lex Luthor's agonised cries before death finally, mercifully, silenced him. It didn't help to remind himself that Luthor had almost certainly died instantly following the first shark's attack; there had in reality been no cries. It didn't stop his dreaming sub-conscious from telling him that there had been.

He couldn't tell his parents about the nightmares; he wasn't sure why, since he'd talked to them about almost every other trauma he'd had to face as Superman. This seemed different, somehow. Actually, after a couple of weeks' reflection, Clark had concluded that the reason it seemed easier to discuss Luthor with Lois was the fact that she had understood the conflicting desires which had threatened to tear him apart. He *had* been tempted, for the first time in his life, to kill. She had realised that when she'd initiated the conversation in his parents' kitchen. True, he hadn't raised the issue with his parents; but when it had come up, after the event, their reaction had been unhesitating. They had never imagined that the thought of killing would cross his mind. It hadn't occurred to *them* that killing Lex Luthor could be a legitimate way out of what had become an impossible, dangerous situation. It wasn't that his parents saw things in black and white, precisely, but he suspected that they might have had difficulty understanding his internal conflict.

He *hadn't* killed Luthor, nor had he been intending to in that final fight; and Lois was right to remind him that he hadn't even been tempted to yield to the urge to leave Luthor to his free-fall when the other man's powers had deserted him. He had, without a second's hesitation, flown down to save Luthor. It was Luthor's own manic rage which had caused Clark to drop him, and had led to Luthor's death.

So he had no remaining concerns about the manner of Luthor's death; his conscience was clear. What did bother him were the endless 'what if' questions. What if Luthor's powers hadn't failed? What if the transfer had actually been permanent? What if, in the future, some other villain managed to figure out a means of achieving a permanent transfer? The moral high ground might be a lofty place for Superman to retreat to, but what of his responsibilities to the people around him? If Luthor hadn't died, how could Clark have lived with the consequences of his next acts? It was hard enough bearing the weight on his conscience of the knowledge that people were dead merely because Luthor wanted Superman to be otherwise occupied. What if mass murder and destruction was made possible by Superman's failure to stop Luthor permanently? What if Luthor had achieved his goal of killing Superman — which could only have occurred if Clark hadn't taken steps to prevent it — had made it possible for Luthor to become a violent dictator, achieving the kind of power he could only have dreamed about in his previous life?

Lois had forced him to talk about these thoughts and what-ifs, sitting calmly on the couch while he'd paced back and forth around her apartment explaining semi-coherently how he felt. She'd made no attempt at all to judge, never telling him what he should have done — which he appreciated more than he could say — but her logical, analytical comments on the situation did help him to accept what had happened, even if neither of them could ultimately come up with any convincing solution to the what-ifs. As far as the moral dilemma went, he simply hoped he would never again be faced with such a choice. And at least Lois understood how he felt, and that meant a lot to him. They had even discussed the fact that she had pleaded with him to kill Luthor; he had explained his resolution not to kill, and he'd even admitted that her strong advocacy of killing had been a little hurtful.

How could she be so understanding, so supportive emotionally, and yet cringe from him physically? On the other hand, he reminded himself, why shouldn't she? She owed him no commitment in that respect. They were best friends. And, in so many ways, she was the best friend he could ask for.

And it wasn't as if things were all bad, or even frustrating. As friends, they were closer than ever. Their old banter and teasing was back, stronger than ever in some ways though without the casual gestures of affection they used to make towards each other. In his apartment one evening, when he'd invited her over for a meal while they worked late on some research, she had even called him 'Flyboy' in the middle of a discussion about their work; he'd blinked and given her a surprised look, in response to which she had laughed and told him that 'Farmboy' just didn't seem right any more. She seemed to enjoy his teasing, though she grimaced at his bad jokes, and she generally made it apparent that she really enjoyed being with him. As he did with her.

Maybe he should be thankful for what he had, and learn to settle for it? It had a lot of advantages.

At work, he no longer had to flounder around for semi-plausible excuses when he had to go and be Superman. Frequently now, when he returned from such an absence, it would be to find that Lois had covered for him, either with a story as to where he'd been, or by insisting that he'd been working on one of their joint stories.

A couple of times, when he'd had to be absent for a few hours at a time, she'd even added his by-line to a story she'd written solo; he had been extremely touched, as well as feeling guilty at taking credit for something to which he hadn't contributed. Though she'd laughed that off by pointing out that she expected the occasional Superman exclusive in compensation. She'd claimed that, too, on one occasion summoning him into the conference room to get some quotes and exclusive details from him, and on another, cornering him during one of their late-night talks to demand that he owed her a story. He'd been happy enough to comply, figuring that it was fair exchange; it was also probably just as well that Clark Kent wasn't seen to be the only reporter who consistently had exclusive Superman stories.

Clark was, however, also very much aware that he had less need to explain himself at work than he'd previously thought. He'd come to the conclusion that Perry's slip, on the day he'd had his final encounter, did indeed indicate that the editor knew about his senior reporter's part-time job. Perry had said nothing since, and Clark had simply decided not to confront him; it was simpler to continue on the unspoken understanding that Perry knew, and that Perry knew Clark was aware of his knowledge. It didn't bother Clark that the Chief knew; he'd no idea how long Perry had known, but he had no doubts about his boss's discretion. Perry had shown that he could be trusted over the Lex Luthor affair, and Clark was sure that he could rely on Perry to continue his silence.

Accepting the fact of Perry's awareness was different, though. Lois, in many ways, seemed to delight in her knowledge of Superman's true identity, although she was proving herself to be utterly dependable in terms of keeping the secret. He had come face-to-face with her when he was in his guise as Superman and she was a reporter covering the story and she'd behaved just as she always had, ever eager to ask the first question and refusing to be fobbed off with excuses or no-comments. And yet her behaviour had altered subtly; in the past there had always been an undercurrent of 'notice me, please!' to the way she'd conducted herself around Superman. Now, without much obvious change, her behaviour was more professional.

She did seem to have little difficulty getting accustomed to his casual use, as Clark, of Super-powers. He'd been a little worried that her fear of him might mean that he'd have to ensure that she never saw Clark do anything Super, but that didn't seem to be a problem. In fact, on the first occasion on which they'd been away from the paper doing some undercover research, she'd actually demanded that he use his X-ray vision to get some vital information, and later she'd insisted that he listen to someone's phone conversation with his Super-hearing. Now, he was getting used to being hauled into the conference room whenever she was tired of the lengthy job of sorting through piles of documents; she simply handed them to him, told him what she was looking for, and expected him to work at Super-speed for her.

He didn't mind that in the least; in fact, he found it highly amusing and he enjoyed teasing her about getting lazy. He just wished that she would relax with him, and at least allow them the kind of easy affection they used to demonstrate with each other.

Sometimes he had been so tempted to explode, to remind her that he'd never once hurt her in the eighteen months they'd known each other and to demand to know why she imagined he might do so now. But then he'd remember the way she'd looked after Luthor had hit her with his heat vision, remember thinking that she was dead, and he'd think better of it. Lois's own words, when he'd gone to see her in the hospital, also came back to haunt him on such occasions… <it'll teach me never to get in the way of a Super-powered man…>

And her lack of emotional distance, the way she had been so supportive and encouraging to him over the past weeks, the way she welcomed him and listened to him for long periods when he needed to talk, the many ways she had reminded him what Superman stood for, couldn't help but give him some hope. She wouldn't be so open with him if she didn't care about him, he told himself. And if she cared, then… perhaps…?

No, he had to be patient. He just wondered how long he was supposed to be patient for, and whether he could take much more of this friendship without closeness to which he seemed to be condemned for the foreseeable future.


Lois leaned back in her chair, stretching the muscles in her back and shoulders; she had been bending forward over the papers on her desk for too long, and she was beginning to ache. Rubbing her tired eyes with the back of her hand, she wondered where her partner was: Clark's presence would be really helpful right about now. They could take these printouts into the conference room and he'd have found what she was looking for in under five minutes. But he was out somewhere dealing with an emergency, and so she would just have to do it the slow way, on her own.

Most of the time, though, having a Super-powered partner had a lot of advantages, and these were benefits she hadn't failed to make use of since their return to Metropolis after Lex Luthor's defeat and death. Now that she knew Clark could hear or see danger coming, she trusted his instincts in that regard when they were undercover; if he said they needed to hide or get out, she took his word for it, and otherwise concentrated on finding out what she needed to know. He came in pretty handy there too: his Super-hearing, X-ray vision and speed were very useful accessories.

And at least she now knew where he went to when he disappeared abruptly, or couldn't be found in the first place; she'd now got into the habit of checking the TV news before leaving her apartment in the morning, just to check whether her partner was likely to make it to work first thing. If he was busy somewhere as Superman, she would come up with an explanation for his absence — she knew that Clark was very grateful for that; though he didn't say much other than a brief 'thanks' on most occasions when she told him where he was supposed to have been, his appreciation was evident from the quick smiles he gave her at the same time.

She found his lack of any other reaction a little disappointing, Lois reflected; after all, this was all part of her strategy to get Clark to realise that she cared about *him,* Clark Kent, the whole person. Not that it was an effort to do such things: she wanted to, because she loved him. And she received satisfaction from the knowledge that, in some small way, she was helping Superman in his daily duties.

On a personal level, though, things hadn't been so good between them. The physical distance which had become apparent that final evening in Smallville had grown as time passed. Lois had been determined that she was not going to give Clark cause to suspect that she was changing her intentions towards him as a result of knowing he was Superman, so she had taken care to avoid seeming to demand anything from him but friendship. No touching, no flirting with him — in either guise — in the manner she's previously been accustomed to, no casual bumping her hip against his in a teasing manner as they walked; nothing which might imply that *she* hoped for more. But she had hoped that he might take the initiative. He hadn't. In all the time they'd spent alone together over the past three weeks — and there had been many late nights of long, intense discussion — Clark had never made the slightest move to touch her, much less anything more. He hadn't even offered to take her flying since that night he'd brought her back to Metropolis. He had retreated physically, although he now confided in her far more than ever before.

She was gratified, as well as happy, that Clark was willing to talk to her about so many things which, previously, had been a closed book to her. Superman had rarely discussed anything personal to him with her, and she'd always been aware that Clark was keeping things back. On the memorable occasion when she'd demanded that he share with her his deepest secret, she'd known very well — and been hurt — that he hadn't honoured her confidence with his own. Now, she understood only too well why he hadn't given her the truth on that or other occasions.

Their intimate conversations were very precious to her. She had told him, that night he'd flown them back to Metropolis and left her at her apartment, that he was welcome at any time, as Superman or as Clark, if he wanted to talk or just wanted company after a difficult rescue. He'd made no secret of how difficult he frequently found his 'solitary Super-hero' role; that had formed a major part of the dinner-table conversation between the four of them before Clark and Lois had left Smallville. Lois had hoped that, by encouraging Clark to talk to her and by being sympathetic and understanding, Clark might come to realise how much she cared about him.

Still, it was a major advance in their relationship that he trusted her enough to confide in her. She had seen him in a range of different moods since the demise of Lex Luthor: cheerful, despondent, humorous, anguished and tormented; and he no longer tried to hide his feelings from her. At least, his feelings about what he had to do as Superman; she had no idea about his feelings for *her* other than the fact that he considered her his best friend.

But as his best friend, she felt in some ways excluded — in a different way than any previous sense of exclusion. Previously she'd been aware that there were things he wasn't telling her; now, she knew that, while he was telling her everything, he was holding himself back physically. Even if she wasn't in love with him she would have missed the everyday casual contact: the hand on her shoulder as he stood behind her reading what was on her screen, the light touch to her arm to attract her attention, the hand at the back of her waist to guide her out of a room, the very occasional goodnight kiss to her cheek or forehead.

There had been many times, during those late-night conversations, when she'd wanted to go him and take his hand between both of hers, or to wrap her arms about his waist and hold him close to her, or just to stroke his hair and tell him that she would always be there for him, in whatever way he wanted. It was so hard, now she knew what she wanted from him and from their relationship, not to tell him how she felt. But she was scared: frightened that he would reject her in the way she'd been rejected so many times before, scared that he would tell her again that he just couldn't believe her claim to love him in the circumstances, scared that she would lose him altogether as a friend.

So she kept quiet and kept her hands to herself, not even walking to the window with him when he left to fly home. She'd always accompanied Superman to the window, hoping for some gesture of affection from him: a touch, perhaps, or if she was really lucky, a kiss on the cheek. By not seeing Clark off in that way, she was trying to convey to him that she didn't expect anything like that, that she was leaving any moves towards a closer relationship up to him.

Which should have been okay, only he wasn't taking the hint. And it was very frustrating, as well as making her miserable.

Only it wasn't all miserable, she had to admit that, and it was only her need for more from him which was making her unhappy with the situation — for all she knew, the _status quo_ was exactly what he wanted. And she couldn't deny that they'd had a lot of fun over the past three weeks, once they'd both recovered a little from the emotional stress of both the danger presented by Lex Luthor and Clark's revelation. He was still a very humorous guy, a lot of fun to be with; he still kidded around a lot with her, both at work and when they socialised together, which was frequently. Now she knew about him, he also enjoyed relaxing with her and using his powers in a casual manner, which had initially made her gasp in amazement, but now she only laughed when he sat, cross-legged, in the air opposite her while they played Scrabble across the coffee-table in his apartment.

And at least he didn't seem to be seeing Mayson Drake any more, which had to be good news…

But she was trying not to let her yearning for Clark's love get in the way of being the best friend she could be to him. She needed him as much as he needed her: she was well aware of that. It had been difficult for her to return to her apartment and to the Planet in the aftermath of the Luthor episode. Sure, she'd been aware that Luthor was dead and would therefore be unable to harm her ever again. But a necessary part of defeating him had, after all, been resurrecting him as a news story. Their story in the Planet had caused other news organisations to write follow-ups, and one of their major areas of discussion had been the wedding which had been interrupted by the police, on the day of Luthor's suicide. This had meant that for a couple of days Lois had again become the subject of news stories, which she hated anyway; but when the stories were about her relationship with Luthor she loathed it even more. They brought back uncomfortable memories for her, in exactly the same way as seeing Luthor again had done; she now found it impossible to credit that she had been so naive, so avaricious, as to accept Luthor's proposal. Clark's revelation that Luthor had wanted to control her had been no surprise, but had served to remind her yet again what a very lucky escape she had had.

Clark had been a wonderful support during those first couple of days, fielding calls at her desk and throwing out a couple of tabloid reporters who had staked out her apartment building. She knew that he'd also kept an eye on her apartment from the air, and he'd assured her that if she needed help at any time she only had to call and he would be with her within seconds. And she knew she could rely on him to keep his promise, if it was Super-humanly possible.

They'd had a lot to do themselves, both officially and covertly, to deal with the remainder of the problems caused by Luthor. Nigel St John, his leg and hip in plaster, was in a prison hospital and had been visited by Superman, who wanted to know whether St John was going to deny the 'official' story that the resurrected Luthor had been a clone. Apparently, Nigel St John wasn't particularly interested in going public with his side of recent events; in perhaps the first honest thing he had said to anyone in years, he'd told Superman that he despised Lex Luthor and wanted to forget that he'd ever seen the man again. Henderson had offered St John a choice between deportation to the UK — where he would have faced charges for duplicity related to his having gone rogue as a spy — or trial in Metropolis. But two days later the ex-spy had been found dead in his cell; poison, Henderson had told Superman. "Probably kept it in a secret compartment in his glasses," the cynical detective had commented.

For some reason, Clark had taken St John's death more personally than Luthor's, and Lois had at first found that hard to understand: it hadn't remotely been his doing. But she thought she'd figured out the reason behind his feelings: St John had in some ways been another victim of Luthor's villainy. Luthor had in effect left his former personal assistant to die on the Planet roof. Clark had ensured that he got medical help, only for the man to commit suicide a few days later. And Lois knew Clark, in both his guises, well enough by now to understand what a criminal waste of life he considered suicide to be.

More important, though, had been the aftermath of the disasters Luthor had caused. Although those were old news by the time Lane and Kent returned to the Planet, Clark was anxious that the true cause of the mudslide and the bridge collapse should not be known. It was one thing to have the public know that a cyborg Luthor had existed, but quite another to realise that someone, or something, had possessed Super-powers equivalent to Superman's. The fuss over Resplendent Man had been bad enough without more clamour to find out how powers could be transferred. But Clark, as Superman, had also made secret visits to both locations in order to help repair some of the damage, and as himself had lobbied a number of big business interests to contribute to the emergency funds.

Jimmy was recovering well; he was now walking on crutches and looking forward to the flight Superman had promised him once he was fit and well again. He'd also agreed to keep quiet about what he knew of the Luthor incident. Perry, too, was maintaining close-lipped silence about the affair.

Perry was a dark horse in more ways than one, Lois reflected silently as her gaze briefly fell on the editor's office. Clark had told her of his suspicions that Perry knew he and Superman were one and the same; Lois had initially been highly chagrined that Perry had figured out something she hadn't even guessed at. But Clark had reminded her that Perry had many more years of experience at sniffing out news stories, and he was also in more of a position, perhaps, to notice the comings and goings of his reporters. She'd wondered why he seemed unwilling to confront Perry about it, but he'd insisted that he preferred it this way. Which meant she couldn't say anything about it either, and she had to continue to maintain the fiction that Clark was somewhere else when he was absent on Superman business.

"Lois? What are you still doing here?" Perry's voice interrupted her thoughts and reminded her that she should really be on her way home.

"Chief… just some research — " she began.

"Now, Lois, you know I'm expecting to see you — and that partner of yours — at the Metropolis Carlton in just over an hour. So you need to git on out of here and go home and get all dressed up."

"Chief… do I *have* to go?" she protested. Tonight was the Metropolis Press Association's annual dinner, a formal and very boring event which every reporter Lois knew dreaded. But the Planet, like other papers in the city, took a table every year, and so every year a dozen reporters had to accompany Perry to the function. "It's not as if you couldn't manage without me…"

"Now, Lois, you know you pulled this one on me last year. It's your turn this year, and you better be there, with your brightest smile on your face, okay?" He glowered at her before turning back to his office, and Lois groaned inwardly. She really did not feel like going to a formal dinner tonight, but Perry was clearly not going to allow her to cry off.

Sighing heavily, she got to her feet and headed for the elevator. Clark Kent just better show up, she thought resentfully as she waited for the car; it would be grossly unfair if he managed to escape his responsibility to keep her entertained because Superman had somewhere better to be.


Clark slid into the vacant seat next to Lois just in time for the first course, earning himself a raised eyebrow from Perry and a glower from Lois, who was dressed in a stylish linen dress in a flattering shade of pale blue. He bent his head towards her under the pretext of arranging his napkin, and murmured an explanation. "Train derailment upstate — lots of people hurt. I'll give you the story later if you want."

Her expression softened, and she poured him a glass of wine. "Was it rough?" she asked him, keeping her voice low.

Under cover of thanking her for the wine, he gave a half-smile. "No worse than most, and better than some. Only one fatality, and I couldn't have done anything to help him anyway."

"I'm glad you're here anyway," Lois added, still in an undertone since she knew he could hear her. "Look at the company — did Perry *have* to let Ralph come? And half the stocks and shares section… ugh!"

Clark did his best to compose his expression; it wouldn't do for Brad, who wrote the Hot Tips column and who was sitting on his left, to ask what he was laughing at. But he sympathised with Lois's sentiments. This was the first MPA dinner he'd been to — he'd been fortunate enough to have escaped last year — but he'd heard stories from some of his Planet colleagues about how tedious an event it was. The food was rarely up to much either, he'd been told; he glanced down at the seafood salad, surrounded by limp lettuce and swimming in an over-bright pink dressing, which had been placed in front of him and decided that this year was no exception.

Conversation became general around the Planet's table then, largely gossip about the likely fate of the editor of another Metropolis paper whose sales had taken a recent tumble. There were formal speeches between courses, however, and as the waiting staff collected the crockery from the starter, the first speaker began a lengthy, dry ramble on the subject of newspapers and the Internet.

"I'll bet he's never looked up a web-site in his life."

Clark had to prevent himself from laughing aloud as Lois's _sotto voce_ remark came through to him via his Super-hearing. He stole a swift glance in her direction: she was sitting demurely in her seat, a napkin pressed to her lips. As he turned back to face the speaker, she spoke again.

"He probably thinks WWW stands for Wonderful World of Work!"

He stifled a choke, turning it into a cough, and then 'accidentally' dropped his napkin on the floor between his and Lois's chair. As he bent to retrieve it, he muttered, "Lois! Please… I can't keep a straight face if you keep that up!"

"Got to relieve my boredom somehow, partner," she retorted, still in an undertone. He poured her another glass of wine and turned his back on her, hoping that she would take the hint; but then he heard a muttered, "Coward!" coming from her direction.

Finally the speaker sat down, and the main course was served, during which time Brad dominated conversation at the Planet's table with lengthy boasts of the occasions on which he'd spotted an undervalued stock, bought substantial numbers of shares, and made a killing as a result. Ralph seemed particularly impressed by this, but again Clark was distracted by Lois saying under her breath, "If he's really made a fortune as many times as he claims, then why's he still a wage-slave?" Clark couldn't help but be pleased that Lois seemed so comfortable with taking advantage of his special abilities, but he resolved to have words with her later about picking her moments.

The main course was, if that was possible, even worse than the first; Clark found himself wondering how the Carlton actually managed to attract large events to its function-rooms. The salmon _en croute_ was cold and congealing, and while the only slightly warmer carrots and baby sweetcorn were overcooked, the new potatoes were still solid. Lois speared a piece of corn on her fork, caught his eye, and held her fork with the tines upwards; the sweetcorn hung limply either side of the fork. Clark stifled an involuntary laugh, then, pretending to scratch the bridge of his nose and knocking his glasses slightly awry in the process, gazed down quickly at Lois's plate and his own. Steam rose from both.

"Thanks," she murmured with an amused grin. "Shame you can't do anything about the vegetables!"

"I'm afraid they're beyond even Super help," he murmured in response, turning back to reach for his wineglass.

A few minutes later, Lois got up from her seat abruptly and walked out of the dining room; he would have thought nothing of it except that she seemed irritated and, as he glanced towards her neighbour, he realised that Ralph was looking flushed. The man had obviously had too much to drink already, and Clark could guess what he had been up to with regard to Lois. Deftly he swapped Lois's place-settings with his and by the time she'd returned he was sitting in her chair.

"Thanks — his wandering hands were getting a bit too persistent," Lois said quietly as she resumed her seat. "I finally dug my heel into his instep, but knowing him he still wouldn't have given up."

"You should have told me," Clark protested immediately, before turning to answer a question from Perry; the conversation became general again until it was halted for the second speaker.

Two further speakers followed in between dessert and coffee, and as coffee was being served Clark glanced in Lois's direction again. He had thought she looked tired earlier; now she seemed positively weary and lacking in any of her usual spirit. Leaning towards her, he said in a voice loud enough to be overheard by most of their table, "It's been a long day — think I'll get off home now. Lois, if you're ready to go maybe I could catch a ride?"

Lois didn't waste any time; she got to her feet with a bright smile. "Sure, Clark. Well, goodnight everyone!" On the way to the door, she muttered, "If Perry ever makes me go through a night like that again I'll quit!"

Clark laughed softly. "Have to admit, lots of people warned me but I didn't believe it could be as bad as they said."

"And what do you think now?" she threw at him.

His mouth turned down at the corners. "Worse. Far, far worse."

In the reception area, she paused and grimaced at him. "I didn't drive tonight because I knew I'd be drinking, so I can't give you a ride."

Clark shrugged. "Come on, you know I only said that to get you out of there. It was pretty obvious you were looking for an excuse to leave."

"Not that obvious, I hope. Perry's very keen on putting on a good show for the MPA dinner — who knows why!"

"Only to me," he reassured her. "But then, I do have some advantages most people don't have!"

"I guess you do," she agreed with a fleeting smile. "Damn — there's no taxis. We'll have to wait."

Clark caught his breath, unsure whether to suggest what was in his mind. Since bringing her back to Metropolis he hadn't once taken her flying in the last three weeks; he'd been afraid to offer in case she rejected that as well. She'd held herself so stiffly in his arms on the return flight…

But he looked at her again, taking a closer look this time, and for the first time he noticed the lines of tension around her forehead and the weariness in her eyes. Touching her arm as gently as he could, he voiced his suggestion. "Lois — you don't have to wait for a cab. I can fly you home if you'd like."

She turned to face him fully, her expression surprised and… was that a spark of pleasure in her eyes? "You wouldn't mind?" she asked him hesitantly.

"Why would I mind?" Shaking his head as if the answer wasn't important, he began to lead the way out of the hotel. "Come on — we need to find somewhere quiet."

There was an alley half a block away and, checking that there was no-one in sight, he swiftly guided Lois into it. Gesturing to her to stay back, he spun quickly into the Suit, then beckoned her over.

"Sorry — have to be quick in case anyone sees us," he explained, before swiftly scooping her into his arms and taking off.

To Clark's surprise, Lois relaxed against him this time; but then he remembered the weariness in her expression and posture, and told himself that it was just her exhaustion. Deliberately he altered the pace and motion of his flight to make it as smooth as possible; if she was tired, he would just lay her on her bed at her apartment, remove her shoes, and leave her to sleep. Her head fell to his shoulder, her hair brushing his jaw and trailing across his lower face; it smelt of apples and of Lois, and all his damped-down yearnings came to the fore again. He wondered whether she was sufficiently drowsy for him to risk dropping a kiss on the top of her head. But she began to stir again and he decided not to take the chance.

Approaching her building, he bent to ask whether her window was open.

"Yeah… it's closed, but not locked. You should be able to push it," she told him, her voice sounding faint and drained.

She was right; it opened easily, and he landed softly in her living-room. "You look worn out," he told her gently as he set her on her feet. "I'll go and let you get to bed." Turning, he strode towards the window, telling himself to leave now and not to read anything at all into her willingness to fly with him tonight.

"No…" He turned at her soft protest. She was standing where he'd left her, her hair wind-blown but still beautiful, her eyes silently asking him not to leave."Clark… I wanted to ask you…"She faltered then, and he wondered whether he'd perhaps seemed too eager to go. In an altered tone then, she said, "You'll stay for coffee, at least? Mine's got to be better than…" She trailed off awkwardly.

"Yeah, I'll stay," he agreed and, because he felt a little self-conscious about being himself when in the Suit, he spun into his Clark clothes, the suit he'd been wearing at the dinner. Lois had gone into the kitchen to start making the coffee, but instead of joining her he went to the window, gazing out into the dark night. How much more of this could he take? he wondered. Being so close to her, and yet unable to tell her how he felt, not even able to take her into his arms for an embrace?

"Oh, Lois… I really wish I could show you that you don't need to be scared of me," he sighed, barely realising he'd said the words aloud.

"Clark, can you open this…?" Lois spoke from behind him at almost the same instant, and he turned to see that she was holding out a fresh container of coffee. He accepted it automatically, then noticed the shock in her expression. She seemed completely dumbfounded, utterly confused.

"Clark… what do you mean, scared of you?"

He halted in his task of opening the container and simply gazed at her. She was standing in front of him, shaking her head slowly in confusion, her expression as stunned as her voice.

"Lois… I…" He faltered, not knowing how to answer her without revealing too much. It was strange; over the past three weeks he had bared his soul to Lois in so many ways, talked to her about things he had never told another living soul, not even his parents… and yet he was unable to verbalise his feelings for her.

In case she didn't return them, told him she could never return them — after all, he was no longer 'just Clark' to her, but a Super-powered alien who was capable of hurting her badly with one careless touch.

Suddenly her expression altered, and she winced and seemed to crumple slightly. Without thinking, he reached out and supported her with one hand behind her shoulders. "Lois…? Are you okay?"

She gave him a wry smile. "Sort of — this is kind of why I wanted you to stay." She gestured awkwardly towards her bedroom. "I was wondering… well, do you remember about a month ago, just before all this happened, you gave me an, um, unusual cure for…?" She trailed off, looking and sounding embarrassed.

At first Clark was confused, trying to work out what she meant and why she seemed discomfited; then suddenly he remembered his visit to her apartment on the very day the power transfer had happened. *That* explained why she'd looked so strained for much of the evening, he realised. But she couldn't possibly want him to do… *that,* could she? Surely not…?

But she was looking at him, her expression silently asking him to agree. Hesitantly, he said, "Lois, are you… sure about this? I mean, aren't you afraid that I'll… hurt you?"

Again, there was that look of confusion before her expression cleared and she shook her head firmly. "Clark, why on earth would I think that? I have *never* felt so safe with anyone as I do with you!"

He felt as stunned as if someone had dealt him a blow to the solar plexus. Of *course* she was afraid of him — that was the only explanation which had made any sense at all of her recent behaviour. But how could he explain this…?

"Lois, I… but I thought… my powers, I could really hurt you!"

Still shaking her head in denial of his words, she said, "You never hurt me before. I've always trusted you, Clark — as Clark and as Superman. Why should things be any different now?"

Almost mechanically, he reached out to touch, very lightly, the faint silvery scar on her upper arm.

Her gaze followed his action, and then shot up to meet his. Her eyes wide, her words were a complete rejection of his implication. "Clark — that was *Luthor*! That had nothing to do with you!"

"You said 'that'll teach me never to get in the way of a Super-powered man…' — I thought…?"

"Oh, Clark!" All impatient, frustrated denial now, and he finally realised that his assumptions had been completely wrong. "Not you — *never* you! Do you think I don't know you'd cut off your right arm rather than hurt me?"

Still trying to absorb this altered reality, Clark began to speak, to search for an explanation, but he broke off as he saw a flash of pain cross her face again. Stuffing his hands into his pockets, he jerked his head in the direction of her bedroom. "Go on, get into something more comfortable. I'll make you some tea and be with you in five minutes, okay?"

He was grateful for the respite. His head still whirling from this unbelievable discovery, he put Lois's kettle on to boil and tried to make sense of what was happening. She *wasn't* afraid of him? Then… why…?

These past three weeks, she'd been so careful to keep her distance from him. She hadn't once touched him voluntarily, and she hadn't seemed to invite him to do so either. That day back in Smallville, when she'd been rushing to him… and had then stopped dead. If she wasn't scared of him, how else was he to make sense of that?

Because she was repulsed by him, because he was the alien Lex Luthor had insisted on calling him?

But he didn't believe that for one second. She'd always known Superman was an alien. That had never bothered her — and she'd kissed Superman of her own volition on a number of occasions. She had also told Superman she loved him. No, it wasn't that.

So… what? How else could he explain her behaviour?

Maybe she wasn't telling him the truth; maybe she'd denied his accusation just to make him feel better. His body slumped as he considered that possibility.

But then he made himself remember the way she'd looked at him as she'd said it. Completely amazed that he could think such a thing. Almost annoyed with him for believing it of her. Impatiently insisting that she trusted him absolutely not to hurt her. She had been totally sincere. He knew that; Lois would not lie to him about this, even if it was to spare his feelings. And anyway, she'd just asked him to use his heat vision on her, for heaven's sake!

This time, he would not jump to any further conclusions. It was time to come straight out and ask her what had been going on between them for the past few weeks. Determined now, he finished making Lois's tea and walked resolutely towards her bedroom.


Lois quickly found a loose T-shirt and a pair of baggy shorts, and shed her dress in order to pull them on. Her request to Clark had initially been little more than an excuse, a means of *making* him touch her, notice her; although she was in some pain, it was certainly nowhere near as bad as the previous month.

Now, though, her stomach-cramps almost forgotten, she was trying to make some sense of Clark's weird notion that she was somehow afraid of him. *Afraid*? Was he crazy? The one emotion she had *never* felt around Superman was fear!

And yet he clearly believed that she was afraid. So much so that he'd hesitated to touch her just now; he'd reached out towards the faint scar on her arm, but he'd barely made contact with the skin before withdrawing his hand.

And… he had not touched her, once, since returning from Smallville. He hadn't touched her in Smallville either, that day when he'd returned from fighting Luthor. He'd hugged his parents, almost ignoring her, and then they'd all gone into the kitchen. During their walk later, he'd avoided any physical contact. The first time he'd touched her since that day had been this very evening, when he'd offered to fly her home; although she'd flown in his arms, he'd held her almost as if she was a fragile creation of glass rather than a human being.

Was that all because he thought she was afraid he'd hurt her? But what could have given him that impression?

He'd quoted her words back at him: "That'll teach me never to get in the way of a Super-powered man…"

Could that have been it? But she'd said that to him while she'd been in the hospital. That evening, in his apartment, he'd hugged her; but he'd hugged her as Clark, and it had been before she knew the truth. So he'd have thought it was okay.

But wait a minute… the next morning, before he'd flown off to fight Luthor, she'd hugged him too, and it had been completely mutual. He hadn't held back at all. And he'd held her hand across the table, let her take his arm when they'd been standing… there had been no reluctance or awkwardness whatsoever.

There was something missing from the jigsaw, and she couldn't work out what it was.

But he was coming in now. She lay down on the bed, in the same position she'd adopted previously, and watched him approach. He placed a cup on her nightstand, then turned to face her.

They would have to talk about this, Lois resolved. Clearly he'd been under a huge misapprehension over the past three weeks, and by the look of him it had bothered him a lot. And since she'd been equally frustrated and unhappy at his withdrawal from her, it was something she wanted sorted. Even if he didn't love her, she really wanted a return to the kind of casual intimacy they used to have with each other.

Stretching out her hand towards him, she said, "Clark, we have to talk about what you said…"

At the same moment, he began to speak. "Lois, we need to…"

He broke off, giving her a wry smile. "Okay, I guess we agree on that, at least. But…" He hesitated. "You looked pretty worn out — and in pain — back there. Maybe I should just… you know…" he made a gesture towards her abdomen, "and then let you get some sleep?"

Leaning up on one elbow, she shook her head a little. "I'm not that tired. It was those boring speakers, and the heat in that room, and the awful food, and Ralph… I had to get out of there."

"Also, you were in pain," he prompted.

"A little. It's not as bad as last month," she assured him, since he seemed ready to believe she needed to be left alone to rest. She had no intention of allowing him to go before they'd talked: this was far too important to leave for another time. Clark, considerate as ever, would of course put her needs first and would go.

He hesitated. "Then… are you sure you want me to do this?"

She knew she had to reassure him; he still believed she could have fears for her safety. "Clark, are you kidding? You could make a fortune with that technique of yours — it's ten times better than Pamprin!"

That made him smile. "Okay, but I won't offer my services more widely, if you don't mind. I don't think I could stand the embarrassment!"

Lois shifted over to give him room to sit beside her, and he obliged, his hand gently probing her abdomen as he had before. He removed his glasses and then, an expression of intense concentration on his face, his gaze moved slowly over her. Heat streamed through her, and she began to feel relaxed and languorous rather than tired, stressed and uncomfortable.

"Clark, that's wonderful," she murmured, her voice almost a purr. "Will you come back tomorrow morning and do it again?"

He did whatever he had to do to stop his heat vision and turned to smile at her. "Lois… you know I'll do just about anything you ask." The soft intensity in his voice, along with the heat of his dark gaze, made her heart skip a beat.

She'd been about to ask him why he thought she could be afraid of him, but this was too good an opportunity to miss. There was no doubt about what she was seeing in his gaze; he was very attracted to her. She hadn't been wrong about Clark after all. And he must have been keeping his distance only because he thought she was afraid.

She moved to a semi-sitting position and reached out with one hand, pressing her palm against his chest. It felt warm and solid under her touch, even with — she assumed — his Super-suit underneath the formal shirt. He remained perfectly still, watching her.

"Clark… if you mean what you just said," she began, and saw his expression alter to an insistence that he did mean it. "Then kiss me," she demanded quickly, before he could speak and make her lose her resolve.

His eyes widened. "Lois…?" Then he moved; suddenly his hands were cupping her face with a touch so delicate she could barely feel the contact.

"I won't break…!" she protested quickly, half-laughing.

His expression didn't change; the intensity was back in his eyes now as he continued to gaze at her. He hadn't replaced his glasses, and the effect was… breathtaking…

His lips closed over hers.

Lois had been kissed before. She'd even been kissed by *Clark* before; but nothing could have prepared her for the sweetness, the immense power of this kiss. Butterflies settled in her stomach, her heart started to turn somersaults and all of her senses became inflamed as Clark's mouth invaded her. His tongue had no sooner touched her lips than she opened her mouth to afford him entry, and her senses reeled again as his tongue touched hers.

He shifted on the bed, moving closer to her so that their upper bodies were in contact; one hand curved around her upper back and shoulders to hold her steady, while the other tangled itself in her hair. A low moan sounded in his throat as his lips left hers momentarily to claim a new position.

Lois clung to Clark, pressing her upper body against him, barely able to believe that at last she was with him in the way she'd longed to be. She still didn't fully understand what had been going on — she had no idea where he'd got the idea that she was scared of him — but if she was now managing to convince him that he was wrong, perhaps they did have a future after all.

"Oh, Clark!" she sighed against his mouth, raking one hand through his thick dark hair as she deepened the kiss further.


Clark's senses were swimming; he was completely lost in the kiss, threading his fingers through Lois's silky hair as his tongue explored the crevices of her mouth. This was something he'd been beginning to think would never happen; he'd been almost despairing of ever getting close enough to Lois to hold her in his arms again, much less kiss her. When she'd touched him, laid her hand on his chest, a few moments earlier, he'd felt almost like a man dying of thirst who'd finally been offered water. And now she had actually asked him to kiss her — had demanded it, and was participating with equal fervour to his own.

Whatever else she felt for him, she was clearly very attracted to him. As for being afraid of his powers, it was equally clear that she was nothing of the kind. She'd invited him to use heat vision on her, and now she was allowing him to crush her against him and kiss her deeply. If she was remotely worried that he might not be able to control his strength, she would never have allowed him to get this close.

Much as he was enjoying this, he really, *really* wanted to find out where this kiss was leading. Not 'leading' as in right this minute, but what it meant for their relationship…

Reluctantly, slowly, he drew back, ending the kiss. The look of intense disappointment on Lois's face was very flattering, and he felt sure that it reflected his own feelings, the sense of loss he'd felt as soon as he'd made himself take his lips from hers. He removed his hand from her hair and caressed her cheek with the back of his hand.

"We really, really need to talk, Lois," he explained softly. Much as he wanted to tell himself that talking could wait, much as he longed to pull her back into his arms and experience again that heady feeling of being swept away by passion and desire and love for this woman who was such an essential part of his life, they needed to work out what had been happening over the past few weeks. Why had she avoided contact with him to such an extent, if she wasn't afraid of him? And did the fact that she wasn't afraid, together with her demand that he kiss her, mean that she wanted… more? More than the very special friendship they already shared?

"I guess you're right," she agreed, her own voice sounding a little shaky. Her eyes seemed unfocused; he wasn't sure whether she was tired, or dazed from the kiss. He hoped it was the latter; oh how he hoped!

Smothering the urge to reach out and caress her kiss-bruised lips with his index finger, he stood up. A little awkwardly, he asked, "You want to go back to the other room?"

Lois's expression suggested that she was reluctant to move, and he supposed that she did look very comfortable where she was. "I can carry you, if you prefer — you don't need to do anything," he offered.

But she smiled and patted the bed again. "We can talk here. Anyway, you're right about those sofas of mine — they're really not all that comfortable."

Clark chuckled at that: Lois Lane admitting that he was right and she was wrong? "Hey, I can always fly us to my place and we can sit on *my* couch…?"

She swatted his hand. "Nope, I'm home now and I'm not going anywhere. So sit down!"

With a grin, he complied, although the sight of her half-sitting, half-lying on top of her spacious bed was almost too tempting. <Stop that, Kent!> he told himself firmly. <This is important…> "Sure — who am I to disobey the senior partner?"

"I'll remind you you said that next time you argue with me!" she teased in return as he sat on the edge of the bed, facing her, wondering whether she'd object if he held her hand. He wanted to…

Reaching for his hand and holding it prisoner in hers, Lois demanded, "So, Clark, you've got some explaining to do! What on earth made you think I was scared of you?"

Choosing his words carefully so as not to risk offending her — this was Lois, after all! — Clark began to explain. "Remember that day in Smallville, when I came back from fighting Luthor?"

She nodded. "I never told you, Clark — I was so scared for you that day. You'd been gone hours, and I couldn't help but imagine… I was so frightened he was going to kill you!" Her voice became high-pitched and she shuddered, her face pinched with the horror of her thoughts. His heart turned over at the realisation that she had been so afraid for him.

"Shh, it's okay," he soothed, reaching out with his free hand to stroke her hair. "I'm fine — he didn't manage to hurt me at all."

"I know — Clark, I was so relieved to see you that day! Even more than when you came to see me in the hospital when I thought Luthor might have got to you. I can't think… yes," she corrected herself slowly, "there is one time I was more relieved to see you — when you came back after those gangsters shot you."

Clark tightened his hand over hers briefly. "You know the truth about that now…?"

He received a quick glower for his pains. "Yeah, I realised after you left me in Smallville. And you owe me an apology and some major sucking up for that one, buster!"

"You got it," he promised, unable to suppress a smile. "I am sorry — and even more sorry that it didn't occur to me until some time after that you'd be upset. But since I really thought I was effectively dead as Clark, I didn't see the point in telling you I wasn't. There was nothing I could do, or so I thought."

"Okay, okay, I get that. Get on with telling me about me being scared of you!" she demanded impatiently.

He hesitated for a moment, inhaling deeply, then raised his gaze to hers again. This was difficult — more so than he'd expected. He'd buried his hurt at her behaviour inside him for three long weeks, not even telling his parents; he'd spent long hours with her, close to her, confiding in her about his deepest fears, but with the pain of her rejection still fresh in his mind the entire time. "Okay, Lois. Do you remember when you and my folks came out of the barn?"

She nodded, not really seeming to see the connection.

"You ran towards me, but then you stopped dead. Just stopped… and you avoided looking at me, and all you said was something stiff about it being good that I was back. I… I just couldn't make any sense of it, Lois. It hurt, apart from anything else; it hurt that you couldn't even give me a hug to say you were glad I was safe." He paused, blinking as the memory of the rejection he'd felt came back to him. Glancing at Lois, he could see that she remembered the incident; she was now chewing on her index finger as she stared at him in apparent disbelief.

"But when I thought about it, tried to figure it out," he continued, "I couldn't come up with any explanation for it, except that you had to be afraid of me. I mean, Luthor had hurt you with his Super-powers, and you'd heard about what he'd done to Gretchen Kelly and to his ex-associates. It was the first time you'd realised how dangerous Super-powers could be. So I guess I figured that you had to be afraid of *me,* afraid that I wouldn't be able to control my powers and that you'd get hurt."

"Clark… you thought that?" Lois sounded appalled, and he wondered just how badly he'd miscalculated.

"Yeah," he confirmed.

"Oh no…" she exclaimed softly. "Clark… I never imagined you'd think that!" Clutching his hand even more tightly, she added, "I could *never* be afraid of you! Even apart from all the time I've spent with you, I've been with Superman often enough to know you can control your powers. And I've seen you with your folks — and I've seen Superman with little kids. I *know* you could never hurt me. And… I'm sorry I made you believe I thought you could."

"Lois, you don't know how happy it made me to find out that you didn't… but please," he demanded, needing to know, "please tell me why you stopped like that! It felt… like you were… rejecting me," he added almost under his breath.

A spasm of pain crossed Lois's face. "Rejecting you, Clark…? No!" She blinked, then sighed. "It all made sense at the time — and I thought it made sense over the last few weeks as well. Clark, I was afraid that if I let you see how I felt about you, you'd think I was only interested because I know you're Superman!"

He could only stare at her, stunned. What could have given her that impression? And because she'd thought that — which was pretty crazy anyway — she'd put them both through emotional torment over the past few weeks? Why hadn't she said something, asked him? And why had she completely avoided even the most casual touch? Even when they were just barely friends, she'd always felt free to touch him, slap him on the back, pat his cheek, or otherwise do what she wanted to him.

"You really thought I'd think that of you?" he asked, incredulous.

She nodded miserably. "Clark… I know the way I behaved! I was throwing myself at him… *you* — making a complete fool of myself! And while I was fawning over Superman, I was ignoring you."

Clark was about to respond to that, but something else she'd said suddenly struck him. 'How I felt about you… only interested because…'

How *did* she feel about him? It sounded as if she was certainly interested; well, given that kiss they'd just shared, he'd be kidding himself if he tried to assume that she wasn't attracted to him. But this sounded as if it was more…

"Lois." He stared at her, his heart in his mouth. "How do you feel about… me?"

She ducked her head downwards, allowing her hair to obscure her face as she stared at the hand in her lap which was now pleating the hem of her T-shirt. The hand which lay in his gripped his fingers so hard that, were he not invulnerable, he suspected it would hurt. He held his breath, desperately hoping for an answer which wouldn't cause him to lose all hope of a closer relationship.

Then she looked up, her brown eyes seeming to bore into his. "This is crazy — I had the chance to tell you how I felt once before and I let you stop me. And then I stopped myself, because I… Well, this time I'm going to do it right, and if you don't feel the same way…" She trailed off, then shrugged. "Well, I'll live with it. But I just can't keep this to myself any more."

"Keep what to yourself?" Clark asked, trying not to sound as desperately impatient as he felt.

"The… the fact that I love you," she whispered.

Before he could respond, or even acknowledge the rush of excitement and amazement and sheer disbelief which flooded through him at her words, she was speaking again. "I mean, I love *you,* Clark. Not Superman, not the powers — just *you.* I love everything about you, and I need you to know that. I don't want you to think that I only -"

He'd heard enough; freeing his hand from hers, Clark reached for Lois and pulled her into his arms, finding her mouth again with his. They still needed to talk, but she *loved* him and he was going to give himself a few minutes to get used to that wonderful, amazing, deliriously unbelievable information. She wrapped her arms around him, kissing him back with fervour, until she ran out of breath and pulled back, laying her head on his shoulder.

Stroking her hair, Clark said, his voice thick with emotion, "Lois, you don't know how long I've wanted to hear you tell me that! I've loved you since the day we met, and I've hoped for so long…"

"Yeah, but I totally ignored you and made a fool of myself over Superman instead," Lois interrupted, her voice muffled against his neck.

He pulled back a little, catching her by the shoulders so she had no option but to look at him. "Lois, you never made a fool of yourself," he insisted softly.

She laughed harshly. "No? Sure seems like it to me! When I was chasing Superman all over Metropolis, and boasting to you about how this was *my* story and no-one else would have a chance of getting it — and when I stole *your* story too!"

Clark stroked her hair, silently transmitting his own feelings that the past was all over and done with as far as he was concerned. "Lois, our early acquaintance was… colourful. You were — still are — stubborn, tenacious, argumentative, competitive, absolutely brilliant and the best reporter I know. Trust me on that, Lois. You've taught me a lot, and I wouldn't have wanted to learn it from anyone else."

Her expression began to lighten; the impish smile he knew so well was stealing across her face. "Really? You think so?"

"I know so," he assured her. "Next time we're in Smallville, ask my folks what I told them about you the first time I visited after starting work at the Planet."

She smiled at that. "Glad to hear I made a good impression."

"Oh, that was just first impressions," he teased lightly. "Once I really got to know you, found out all your faults…" He paused deliberately, watching the chagrin creep over her features. "Then, I decided you were beautiful, passionate, loyal and the best friend I could ever wish for. As well as being the only woman I could ever love."

"Oh, Clark…" Lois reached for him, initiating the kiss this time, and for several minutes all attempt at conversation was abandoned. Then Clark remembered that he still didn't understand why Lois had been so worried that he might think she was only interested in him for his powers, and so he drew back.

"Talk first, kissing later," he pronounced, and reached out a long arm for the cup of tea he'd brought in for Lois. It was by now lukewarm, and he sent a dart of heat vision into the cup to warm it up. "Drink. Then tell me why you thought you had to prove you loved me and not Superman."

She sipped the tea for a few moments, and he got the impression that she was planning how to answer him. He wanted her to tell him the truth, so he tilted her chin with one forefinger. "Lois, I just want to know. None of this is important beside the fact that we love each other, but I need to know why… to understand why you ran from me that day," he finished, finding it difficult to stop a note of bitterness from creeping into his voice.

She met his gaze, but her eyes were troubled. "Clark… I overheard your father tell your mother that he was afraid I was going to start behaving with you the way I used to with Superman, now that I know about you."

"What?!" he exclaimed, appalled. His father had said that? And… but what had his mother said? And why had Lois paid any attention, anyway? When had this happened?

But Lois needed reassurance; his questions could come later. Drawing the back of one finger along her cheek, he said firmly, "Lois, I *know* you're not just interested in me for my powers or because of Superman. You didn't need to prove it to me."

"How do you know?" she demanded emotionally. "I never told you — I was going to tell you how I felt when you came to see me in the hospital, but then you said you were going and I lost my nerve, but you didn'tknow that! And I did treat Superman like some sort of god — I even told him — you — that I'd love him if he was an ordinary man with no powers at all, and you said you wished you could believe me but…"

She trailed off, and Clark quietly finished her quote. "Under the circumstances I didn't see how I could. Yeah, I remember." Before she could speak again, he continued, "Lois, I was hurt, and I guess a little angry too. Remember what happened earlier that day? When I told you I loved you?" She nodded. "I wasn't pretending. I lied, that day outside the Planet. In the park, I told you the truth. But you said you cared for me as a friend, and that you needed to talk to Superman. Then…" He paused, and sighed; he didn't much enjoy dragging up this element of their past, but he realised it was important to the way Lois was feeling now.

"Then when I came to see you as Superman you told me you loved me. Thinking about it afterwards, I really couldn't blame you — after all, you thought Superman was real, and I guess he was to you. So how could you encourage both Clark Kent and Superman? If you loved Superman, then you couldn't love Clark. It was as simple as that. But you said you'd love Superman as an ordinary man — "

"And I'd already rejected that same ordinary man, earlier that day," Lois interrupted him.

"Yes, but *you* didn't know that," Clark insisted. "Yeah, it hurt, and that's why I spoke to you the way I did. If you hadn't got engaged to Lex Luthor the next day, straight after Perry's retirement party, I'd have gone back to see you as Superman and apologised, and told you — as Superman — everything I knew about Luthor. I know I should have done that anyway, long before, but I suppose it hurt that you wouldn't believe me, *Clark,* I mean. And then you were engaged, and it was just so hard to even think about talking to you."

"I wish you had told me about Luthor," she told him softly. "I was crazy — I just don't know what I was doing when I said I'd marry him! Except that my entire life was falling apart around me. Nothing was the same any more — the Planet had gone, Perry'd retired, you weren't talking to me, and the only person who seemed to be there for me was Lex Luthor. And he was charming, and sweet, and I could see there would be advantages to being his wife…"

"He cut off all your support structures," Clark pointed out gently. "It was all part of trying to control you — he became your sole support, cut you off from your friends. And I let him do it!" he added, anger rising to the fore again. "I should have seen what he was up to, but I was too busy nursing my own hurt feelings!"

Now it was Lois's turn to grab at Clark's hands, squeezing them gently in reassurance. "It wasn't your fault, Clark! I'm an adult woman, I'm usually pretty intelligent too, and I decided to marry him! And I regretted it, too…" she finished quietly. "And I'm very glad I did too — remember you told me about him thinking I was too independent? I think if you'd told me about that six months ago I'd have freaked out. But after everything Luthor did once he got your powers, the way he talked when he'd kidnapped me, all the people he killed… well, it really didn't surprise me much. And I already knew how lucky it was that I came to my senses." She grimaced. "Just think — if I'd said 'I do,' I could have still been Mrs Luthor when he came back! Married to that… that SuperPutz!"

Clark's mouth twitched at her final comment, but he was well aware of how horrible that would have been, for Lois especially but also for him. But her words also reminded him of something else. "You told me — right when all this started — that you stopped the wedding. I never knew that."

She avoided his gaze, and her voice was so soft he needed his Super-hearing to follow her words. "I couldn't marry him. Not when all I could think about was you."

"Huh?" Clark stared at her. "Superman, you mean?"

"No, you," she contradicted him. "See, that's why you should have let me go first that day outside the Planet, Kent. I was going to tell you that maybe I'd been wrong to turn you down when we talked in the park — but you told me you'd lied about your feelings for me and you just wanted to be friends."

Clark was silent for a moment as he assimilated this new information. If he'd only allowed Lois to speak first, they could have been together six months ago! But on the other hand, he reflected silently, maybe it was just as well that he hadn't. She'd just been through an engagement and a wrecked wedding to another man — would he have trusted her feelings in the circumstances?

But something else occurred to him then. "See, Lois, even then you were more interested in Clark than Superman. So why should I be worried about your feelings for me?"

That made her grin. "Okay, I guess I was. But you couldn't have known that, and I wouldn't have blamed you if I'd told you right after you came back to Smallville that I loved you, and you'd assumed I only said it because you were Superman."

But he shook his head firmly. "Uh-uh. No way." He squeezed her hands again. "Not after the way you rushed back to Metropolis, completely ignoring the danger to yourself, because you thought I was in danger! I realised then that you cared about me. But anyway, I'd already decided that I didn't care whether you were more interested in Superman or Clark, because they're both me. You can't have one without the other, so I'd rather you cared for both parts of me."

Shaking her head, she groaned loudly. "I've been so stupid, haven't I?"

"No more than I have, by the sound of things," Clark reflected aloud. "I thought you were scared of me, remember?"

"Yeah, because I avoided touching you."

"Why *did* you do that, Lois? I mean, now that I know what you thought, I can understand you not telling me how you feel about me, but not even behaving normally with me? You're always touching me — at least, before three weeks ago. And I wouldn't have assumed you meant anything by it, because it's just normal for you. When you stopped — that wasn't normal. So… why?" It just didn't make sense, Clark thought, remembering the last few weeks when he'd been almost despairing of getting Lois to realise he wouldn't hurt her. And now he discovered that she'd just been trying to convince him of something he'd never doubted in the first place!

But Lois flushed. "It never really meant anything before, yeah. It was just… well, something I did with you, and you did it too. We were *friends,* we kidded around, and that was all it meant. I was comfortable with you in a way I hadn't been with anyone in a long time." She managed a half-smile, then continued a little awkwardly. "But once I realised I was in love with you — once I admitted it to myself — it was very different. I touched you because I wanted to, and I always wanted more. In your folks' kitchen, before you went off to fight Luthor, I wanted to hold you and never let you go. I *really* wanted to kiss you, but I didn't have the courage because it would've meant something to me this time and I didn't know how you felt. And then after I heard Jonathan… well, I was just determined to show you that I cared about *you* and not to rush into suggesting I wanted us to be more than friends, in case you did think I was only interested because of Superman. And I couldn't touch you because you never touched me, and… it was just too important to me to risk rejection if I tried."

That did make sense, he supposed. "And I kept my distance from you because I thought…" He broke off suddenly, laughing ironically. "What a waste!" But it wasn't really wasted time, he reflected then, considering what had happened tonight.

He reached for Lois again, holding her close in his arms, his chin resting against her hair. They were together, that was all that mattered. He loved her, and she loved him; nothing was important besides that. Tomorrow, they could talk about what this meant and where they went from here — and also how they were going to cope with the practicalities of a triangular relationship. He might be both Clark Kent *and* Superman, but as far as the world was concerned Lois Lane was dating Clark Kent, *not* Superman. And while his disappearances for Superman-related activities had previously only been a problem for himself — and, to an extent, his employment — now it would affect Lois in a much greater way. So they needed to talk about how to handle that, and whether he could scale back his attendance at some of the less urgent incidents he'd responded to in the past.

But that was for tomorrow; this was for tonight, and even though he knew he'd have to go home soon, right now Lois's lips were for kissing…


Lois clung to her partner, her friend and soon, she hoped, her lover as their kisses began to make her head swim again. This was quite literally a dream come true. She'd almost given up hope that Clark really did love her, and had almost resigned herself to being his best friend permanently; even when he'd offered to fly her home from the Carlton she'd just put it down to him feeling sorry for her.

She wasn't sure quite what it was which had given her the courage to demand that he kiss her; something in his expression, the way he'd been looking at her, the faintly husky note in his voice when he'd said he would do anything she asked… suddenly she had just been seized by a conviction that he did want her as more than a friend. And she'd known, too, somehow, that Clark would never do anything about it. After all, he'd told her once before that he loved her and been rejected; he'd become too accustomed to her treatment of him as simply her best friend. And he was too considerate, too nice, to risk upsetting what they had by pushing for more. So she'd subconsciously recognised that it was up to her to make the first move…

Now, she couldn't understand why she hadn't grabbed Clark and kissed him senseless on the first day they'd met. If she'd even had the faintest suspicion that kissing him would feel so good, that his body would feel so firm and responsive under her fingertips, that a look of desire from his beautiful eyes could make her want to melt into a pool of mush, she would have laid exclusive claim to him the instant Perry teamed them up to investigate Samuel Platt's claims. Instead, she'd dismissed him as an ignorant country hick, and on a couple of occasions had even risked losing him altogether.

But now he was hers, both the gentle, caring reporter from Kansas and the exciting, daring Super-hero from Krypton; and she never intended to let him get away from her again.

They had lots of talking and planning to do; she didn't know what Clark wanted from their relationship, but given his upbringing and his wonderful parents, she suspected that marriage and a family wouldn't be far from his mind. That was… well, a little scary. But on the other hand, since when had Lois Lane, intrepid reporter, been afraid of anything? Except in personal relationships; the mistakes and wrong assumptions she'd made in recent weeks with Clark were teaching her that maybe she should just run with her instincts and Clark's good sense. Her instincts were telling her now that she and Clark were meant to be together…

Okay, pretty soon he'd insist on leaving her to sleep and he'd fly off home, but before he did she was going to give him a good taste of what lay ahead of them. Raking her fingers through his dark hair once again, she concentrated all her efforts on showing him how much she loved him. Her farmboy, the Super-hero.