Purity

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

Rated PG-13

Submitted May 2001

Summary: Lois and Clark are about to face an enormous challenge that could have dire consequences for their future life together.

Warning: There are themes discussed in this story which some readers may find disturbing. There is also a certain degree of implied violence, both physical and psychological.

***

From the outside, the large, detached house appeared no different to any of the others in the neighbourhood. Situated in an affluent part of Metropolis, where discretion and studied disinterest in the affairs of one's fellow citizens was expected and mutually respected, it was only barely visible from the street. A passer-by, if they were so inclined, could peer through intricate wrought-iron gates, follow a curving driveway cut through manicured lawns, to glimpse part of the house itself; a white-washed two-story building with simple, classic lines.

A visitor to the house, and indeed there were visitors on this bright, sunny afternoon, would discover an elegant interior which spoke of understated wealth. The owner obviously had traditional tastes, tending towards large, heavy pieces of furniture, dark velvet curtains and thick Oriental rugs, but the overall effect was tasteful and easy on the eye. Naturally, visitors to this house were carefully controlled and monitored, but the devices were invisible to the casual glance; the owner was insistent that the trappings of modern surveillance techniques should not disrupt the ambience of the house.

***

On the other side of town, in a Metropolis town house, crisp white sheets rustled and undulated as the two lovers beneath moved in gentle exploration of one another. A glimpse of shoulder here, the curve of hip or breast there, light glancing off a head of dark hair; each cameo added to the peaceful picture of simple, unhurried love. The busy sounds of the city were banished from this oasis, and into the still air came only the quiet sound of soft kisses and contented murmurs.

***

In a basement room of the affluent, yet secretive house, ten visitors sat expectantly around a large, sweeping boardroom table, sipping coffee from gold-rimmed white china cups and murmuring quiet, polite conversation to one another. Each had a black folder in front of them; all were closed, and would remain so until permission was granted.

The double doors swung open, and their leader walked purposefully to the head of the table. She glanced over the ten faces turned towards her as she settled in her chair, noting with satisfaction the respect and admiration which shone clearly from each pair of eyes. Dedication and respect were excellent qualities to engender in one's subordinates; fear was useful, but could cloud judgement when used to excess. Blind devotion was so much more efficient.

A fresh, steaming cup of coffee had been placed to one side of her own black folder. Good; someone had reacted very quickly in order to have poured the coffee, added milk, and arranged it so neatly before she walked in.

"Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen," she began, in measured, deep tones. "Thank you for attending at short notice, particularly on such a gloriously sunny afternoon when you should be spending time with your families. However, I'm sure that when I explain the nature of our business here this afternoon, you will be as anxious as I was to take immediate and effective action."

She paused, and took a controlled sip from her cup of coffee. Laying the cup back down on the saucer, she looked up sharply. "Our subject today is extremely dangerous. He represents a threat more damaging to the fabric of mankind than any other we have had to face in our work together. Furthermore, his unique qualities make him a highly unpredictable and difficult target to gain access to and neutralise. Ladies and gentlemen, our subject is none other than the alien, Superman."

***

The lovers had melded into one, and the eternal, ancient rite begun. Their movements were languid, each savouring every precious moment of their joining on this lazy Sunday afternoon. They had set aside these few hours to spend in close harmony with each other, leaving behind their busy schedules to enjoy the simple pleasure of their own company.

Time stood still as they pulsed slowly together.

***

She watched closely as ten pairs of eyes widened in surprise, observing carefully which of those recovered most quickly, and which acquired blank expressions of ineffectualness.

Picking up a remote control and pointing it at a screen at the opposite end of the room to her own, she continued. "This footage has just come into our possession from an anonymous source."

The screen sprang into full technicolour life, depicting a scene outside Metropolis City Hall. Two figures were talking to each other under a tree.

"The woman with Superman is Lois Lane, a reporter with the Daily Planet. Notice how both parties are glancing around, evidently checking the immediate vicinity for onlookers. Notice also the familiar manner in which they address each other. It is clear that an interview is not being conducted here."

She froze the image for a moment. "You will be aware, of course, of the scandal which broke a year ago regarding Lois Lane's relationship with Superman. That scandal, based on a falsified picture of the two in a clinch, was squashed. However…"

She let the image continue again. The couple conversed happily for a few seconds more, and then Lois Lane placed her hand on Superman's arm with a warm smile. The contact lasted a few moments, and then was broken when they appeared to finish their conversation and Superman took off out of shot.

She stopped the image and ran it back to the beginning to replay it without interruption while she spoke.

"The footage has been analysed by a behavioural expert, and the conclusion, ladies and gentlemen, is inevitable. Lois Lane and Superman are engaged in an intimate relationship."

Murmurs broke out around the table. She allowed them to talk while the image finished running, and then used the remote to switch it off. Sitting silently, she waited as the murmurs quickly subsided and all ten faces were turned towards her again.

"You now understand the gravity of our situation. In blatant disregard for the continued purity of our species, it appears that the alien may be attempting to reproduce."

***

"Lois!" The soft gasp punctured the still air of the townhouse bedroom. Clark Kent, reporter for the Daily Planet and full-time superhero, poured his intense love into his wife, Lois Lane, and shuddered with deep, exquisite release.

Love in the afternoon.

A much neglected indulgence, he concluded, as he dipped down to kiss his lover once more. They should do this more often.

"You know, we should do this more often," commented his wife.

"My thoughts exactly," he answered, reflecting not for the first time that words were often superfluous; the real communication between himself and Lois happened at a completely different level.

"You're looking thoughtful," said Lois. "What are you thinking?"

He chuckled. "I was just thinking about how easily we seem to read each other's thoughts."

She smiled. "Well, if we could do it all the time, that wouldn't leave any room for enchanting mystery, now would it?"

"Hmmm…enchanting mystery. I like it."

"So how about wending your mysterious way down to the kitchen to fetch me an enchanting snack?"

"You want food?"

"What can I say?" She grinned. "Making love all afternoon with Superman takes it out of a girl. You want round four; you have to feed me first."

***

The leader read the appalled disgust writ large on the faces of her team. They had faced threats to the purity and integrity of the species before this — indeed, removing those threats was their primary function as a group — but none had been as perverted and degrading as this. Previous campaigns, such as their recent one to prevent humans of low intelligence from reproducing, faded into insignificance against the possibility of a mongrel race of krypto/humanoid conception. Once the alien began breeding, that would signal the beginning of the end for homo sapiens.

"Questions?" She glanced around and found a tall, balding man in his sixties raising a finger. "Judge Peters?"

"Do we know when the footage was taken?"

"A year ago, just after Superman received the Nobel Peace Prize. We believe it may have been the original seed for the Lois Lane scandal."

"So we have no evidence more recent? Do we know if they are still intimate?"

"No, but that matter will shortly be resolved. You, Mr Sayer," she looked across at a small, muscular man with circular wire-framed spectacles and a goatee moustache, "will be organising the usual full-time surveillance of both parties."

Mr Sayer nodded confidently. "Do we know where the alien lives?" he drawled laconically.

"No, but I'm sure it won't take you long to discover that, will it, Mr Sayer?" She smiled graciously at her chief surveillance officer. Tracking the alien would be a tough job, given his speed and strength, but if anyone could accomplish the task, it was most certainly Nigel Sayer, an ex-NIA operative.

A woman to her left spoke up. "Has the woman given birth since the footage was taken? Or before?"

"As far as we know, there have thankfully been no pregnancies. However, I expect you to verify that, Dr Scott."

"Directly or indirectly?"

"Direct medical examination would be preferable."

***

Clark's delving fingers explored and probed her, warm and soothing against her skin. He was lying beside her on his side, one arm supporting him as he stroked her languidly with his free hand. She sighed in deep satisfaction, reflecting that he was very talented these days at making the wonderful moments following their love-making seem to last for ever and ever. Actually, she decided happily, it felt as if he was still making love with her.

He dipped down and brushed his lips against her skin, sending a shiver of delight through her.

"Mmmm…that's nice," she murmured. "But what happened to my snack?"

He laughed. "I just gave you one."

"But I'm still hungry."

He looked up at her with a grin. "You're serious, aren't you? You want food."

"Certainly do."

He shook his head slowly. "You're incorrigible."

"And still hungry."

"OK, OK."

***

"Why don't we just interrogate her?" demanded a red-faced rotund man.

Of all the team, here was the one she least liked. He was hot-headed, arrogant, and therefore dangerous. "Colonel Robertson, much as I admire and appreciate your interrogation techniques, a more subtle approach is required here. Capturing her for interrogation will merely cause us to play our hand before we are ready. And don't forget that the real target is Superman, not Lois Lane."

"I vote we castrate him," interjected a thin, reedy man with a sunken face.

"How, exactly?" questioned Dr Scott dryly, the woman tasked with checking Lois Lane's reproductive history. "He's invulnerable."

"Yes, Professor Davies, how?" their leader repeated.

Prof Davies shrugged. "You find a way of making him vulnerable, I'll castrate him. Whether he's copulating with the Lane woman or not would be irrelevant if his ability to reproduce were neutralised, and anyway, who knows what other women he may have, or may be, inseminating."

"You have a point, Professor Davis. Expressed, as usual, in your own inimitable fashion. However, putting aside the question of his invulnerability, let us not jump too hastily to conclusions. We know nothing of his anatomy as yet — that will be your task, incidentally. There is little to be gained by discussing castration when we don't even know if there is anything to castrate."

"He fills those red briefs with something," muttered a woman near the end of the table.

The sly smile which crept over a few faces wasn't missed by their leader. "Ms Jones, in your capacity as a psychologist, do you have anything useful to contribute?"

Ms Jones smirked. "If we find out how to make him vulnerable, why don't we just kill him?"

The leader allowed her severe expression to crack into something approaching a smile. "An interesting professional viewpoint. But no. The alien is useful; he saves many valuable, quality lives. He is somewhat indiscriminate, of course, and an effective means of controlling him would be a bonus. Incidentally, it could also serve as an effective means of preventing his reproductive urges."

"I'll start some research."

***

"Tea and scones!" Lois laughed as Clark approached the bed carrying a tray. "That's not very sexy."

"Maybe I should have dressed up. Would you have preferred me in a parlour maid's outfit?" he enquired with a raised eyebrow, climbing back into bed with her.

"Nah. I prefer you as you are — au naturelle. Besides, I think we can make this more interesting."

"Are you saying my scones aren't interesting?"

"They're divine, Clark, if properly served." She made sure the tray was within easy reach and then climbed over him, straddling his torso and pushing his shoulders down into the bed.

"This looks promising," he commented happily.

"You wait 'til you find out what I've got planned for dessert," she answered with a wink.

***

"So, to summarise. Continuous surveillance will commence immediately, with a view to discovering whether the Lane woman is still in a relationship with the alien. We will establish whether she could have borne any of his offspring already, and if so, trace their whereabouts. Research will establish whether the alien can be made vulnerable, and in fact, whether he even has the necessary anatomy to reproduce with humans. Finally, we will find out if he can be controlled psychologically."

"We will meet in no more than two days time to discuss findings and formulate our plan going forward." She scanned each face in turn, making brief eye contact with all the members of her team. "Ladies and gentlemen, this is a threat we cannot afford to ignore. We have been remiss in failing to recognise it thus far; let us not waste any more time in neutralising it."

***

Lois stomped down the ramp into the newsroom vowing never to follow her husband's well-meaning advice ever again. Well-woman clinic indeed! After all those questions and poking and prodding, she felt ten times less healthy than when she had woken up this morning. All those nasty ailments which she didn't usually give a second thought to were now fresh and clear in her mind, and already, travelling back from the clinic, she could detect the early symptoms of at least three of them. It was only a matter of time before she died a horrible, painful death.

She would never have taken up the invitation which arrived completely unsolicited from her GP, and had been ready to discard it in the trash with a disparaging remark, when Clark had stopped her and given her a boring yet convincing lecture about prevention being better than cure. She still would have resisted, except for the mild curiosity she experienced every time she watched commercials on TV for these clinics — she wanted to discover for herself what went on at them. Well, now she knew, and she wished she didn't.

She arrived at her desk, ready to give Clark an earful, to discover his chair empty. Superman rescue or Planet business? She spotted Jimmy crossing the newsroom on the way to the darkroom.

"Jimmy!"

He changed tack and came towards her. "CK's over at Star Labs. Someone broke in last night — no, I don't know what they took, he left…" he glanced at his watch, "about five minutes ago, and Perry wants to know where the story on that kid who torched himself is. Oh, and your pictures are nearly ready." He grinned. "How'd I do?"

"You missed out the part where you say, 'and here's a cup of fresh coffee I just prepared for you'," she replied sardonically.

"Sorry, Lois, but you got the wrong guy. I do information, not food," he answered with a self-confident smile.

"Jimmy! Where's my low-fat yoghurt and freshly-squeezed orange juice?" Perry White's bark cut straight through the newsroom hubbub.

"Uh, coming right up, Chief!" Jimmy hurried away towards their editor's office.

Lois rolled her eyes. Low-fat yoghurt? Perry? Was everyone on a health-kick this week? She quickly hammered out an email to him about the spontaneous combustion story and then made her way up to the elevators again. If Star Labs had been broken into, she wanted to check it out for herself; there was too much personal information about Clark held in their files for her to leave it to him to assess the risk on his own.

***

"OK, she's leaving the Planet building now," remarked a motorcycle messenger into thin air. He was standing in the foyer of the Daily Planet, fiddling with his crash helmet.

"Got her," came the reply into his earpiece.

"Head Office report that the tracer was successfully inserted this morning."

"I won't lose her."

"Well, if you do, we can still track her."

"I won't lose her."

***

Clark pushed open the doors to Star Labs and walked out into the cold, sunny November morning with a very unsunny Lois in tow. He wasn't sure what had put her into such a murky mood, but it was clear from the moment she had arrived in the midst of his interview with one of the Labs' scientists that she was displeased with him.

Clark had just confessed to the Lab doctor that he hadn't understood a single word of the man's lengthy lecture on the finer points of super-cooled…thingy- something processor design.

"Perhaps if you imagine you're talking to a six year-old, Dr Carter, then Clark might understand," she had suggested with a clear undertone of sarcasm.

Resisting the urge to pull a very unprofessional face in front of Dr Carter, Clark had introduced Lois, and then listened politely while the doctor had repeated his explanation in much simpler terms, albeit with an irritatingly condescending air. Thus, Clark had learnt that what had actually been stolen were the specifications for a revolutionary new computer chip. Furnished with information he could actually relate to, he was able to steer the doctor through the rest of the interview, although the resulting facts he gleaned didn't look very promising in terms of a meaty news story. The specifications were apparently only at a very rough draft stage, rendering them largely useless to their new owner, unless that owner had access to similar resources to Star Labs, including someone who could interpret the allegedly obscure note style Dr Carter used. Could Dr Carter recreate the draft? Probably, given a few hours peace and quiet.

It looked, Dr Carter thought, as if the thief had been the victim of some mis- information; he or she had obviously thought the designs were further advanced than was actually the case. How would the thief have come by this mis- information? Dr Carter had shrugged carelessly — canteen gossip, cleaning staff, lab technicians, anywhere, really. So the designs weren't even particularly confidential? Yes, but not ultra top-secret.

Lois had remained silent throughout most of the interview, a brooding, dark presence on the periphery of Clark's vision. She had had just one question for the scientist.

"Have you ever done any work with Dr Klein?"

Clark had known why she was asking. Like himself, she was anxious to ensure the break-in had nothing to do with Superman's personal data, which Dr Klein kept stored at the Labs. Dr Klein always assured Superman on a regular basis that the data was well-protected, and that only he could gain access to it, but nevertheless they both knew that no security system was completely impervious to attack. However, Dr Carter had merely looked puzzled: why should he ever collaborate with someone in a completely different field to his own?

Still, just to be completely sure, they had paid a visit to Dr Klein, outlined their concerns on behalf of their friend, Superman, and been assured that the data was intact and that no-one unauthorised had accessed it. He had even checked the access records on the kryptonite vault locks and confirmed that all was secure there too.

Which left Clark feeling very reassured, but with a fairly dull story to report on and a very prickly wife to deal with.

Playing a hunch, he asked, "So, how was the clinic, honey?"

Bulls-eye. She shot him a venomous look. "Oh, I can think of marginally better ways to while away a morning — like being slowly crushed to death by a boa constrictor!"

He winced. "Not a pleasant experience, huh?"

"Not a pleasant experience?!" She stopped in the middle of the sidewalk and whirled on him. "Clark, the next time you want to do your 'prevention is better than cure' lecture, remind me to be somewhere else, would you?" She jabbed her index finger into his chest. "Or better still, you can be the one who gets prodded, poked and interrogated by sadistic women with cold — extremely cold — instruments. Okay?"

He winced again. "I'm sorry, Lois. I didn't realise it would be like that. Did they hurt you?"

A pang of guilt hit him. He knew she wouldn't have gone if he hadn't suggested it, but it had seemed like a good idea at the time. She didn't exactly take care of herself health-wise, except for her exercise sessions, and she was in a high-risk occupation — at least, the way Lois operated, it was high-risk — and so a free check-up to make sure everything was as it should be had seemed like good sense.

Also, although he hadn't mentioned it to her yet, just lately he had been mulling over their chances of having kids together. There had been a lot of advances recently in reproductive techniques; the Planet's 'Life' section had run an article a few days ago about some of them, and it had started him wondering whether any of them could be applied to his and Lois's situation. Of course, Dr Klein and her father had already pronounced negative results from their extensive tests and research, and he and Lois had accepted the fact some time ago that humans and Kryptonians just couldn't have children together, but still, Clark wondered…

So, when the well-woman offer had dropped into their laps, he supposed that subconsciously he had thought that it would do no harm to make sure there were no other barriers standing in their way. He was regretting that thought now; apart from putting Lois through a nasty morning's worth of medical tests, it wasn't a very honest way of returning to the sensitive issue of children.

Apparently his well-intentioned question was also misplaced. Lois's frown darkened. "No, of course they didn't actually hurt me," she answered angrily. "It was just really uncomfortable, okay? And actually, it was the questions they asked which really got to me — did I have kids, had I ever been pregnant, had I ever had any miscarriages, was I planning on having kids, was I having sex on a regular basis-"

"They didn't?!"

"No, but they might as well have. They asked just about every other intimate question imaginable. I nearly decked the one who asked why I wasn't planning on having kids."

"Oh, Lois, I'm sorry!" He reached out a hand to touch her arm; the gesture quickly melted into a protective hug as he realised how upset she was. "You should have called me — I would have decked her for you. They had no right to ask questions like that."

"Thank you, but I can do my own decking," she said in a muffled voice into his chest.

"I know you can, honey."

"I mean, it just brought it all back, you know?"

"I know, and I'm sorry I got you into it."

"So you should be. It's not like I even miss having kids usually, but being given the third degree on pregnancy and then sitting around that waiting room with all those women talking babies and swapping kid-stories made me feel like a freak: Lois Lane, apparently the only woman on the planet who is married but doesn't want kids."

Doesn't want or can't have? "Lois…*do* you want kids?" he asked tentatively.

She pulled away and tipped her head back to look up at him. "What sort of question is that? You know we can't."

"I know. It's just…"

"Just what?"

"Just…"

But his answer was interrupted by a distant cry for help. He sighed inwardly — sometimes being Superman really interfered with his marriage. "I'm sorry, Lois, but someone's calling for help." His hand was already fiddling with the knot of his tie.

"Go," she said flatly.

"We'll talk about this later?"

"Sure."

"Tonight?"

"Yes! Go! Vamoose! Get outta here!"

He gave her a quick peck on the cheek and rushed around the corner into an alley, scanned quickly for onlookers and spun into the suit.

***

Clark set the little boy down in front of his anxious mother and crouched down so that he could address his small charge face to face.

"You gave your Mom quite a fright, Barney. Are you going to stay away from the ice like she tells you from now on?"

"Yes, Superman," replied the boy earnestly. "But she's not my Mom." He cupped his hands over Clark's ear and whispered, "She's my Daddy's girlfriend."

Several scenarios flashed through Clark's mind, but he plumped for the middle ground. "I'm sure he'd want you to stay away from the ice too," he replied seriously.

Barney nodded vigorously. "Daddy doesn't like the ice."

Not sure what to make of that remark either, Clark straightened with a pat to the boy's shoulder. "He doesn't appear to have come to any harm, Miss," he told the woman.

She smiled gratefully. "Thank you for rescuing him, Superman. I don't know what I'd have told his father if anything had happened to him."

"Well, he's fine. I'll be g-"

"Barney, aren't you going to thank Superman?" interrupted the woman.

Barney stared up with a small, serious face. "Thank you, Superman." When Clark nodded and smiled, seriousness quickly turned into bubbling enthusiasm as Barney pulled a cylindrical object from his pocket. "You want to see my new kaleidoscope, Superman?" he asked, thrusting it upwards at Clark.

"That's all right, Barney, I'm sure-" began Clark.

"It's quite an unusual one, actually," butted in the woman. "You should take a look."

Clark shrugged with a smile. "Okay." He took the proffered instrument from Barney and held it up to one eye, screwing shut the other. She was right. The patterns were very unusual for a kaleidoscope; quite fascinating, in fact. He twisted the barrel around to make some different shapes and patterns, and found himself being drawn into the whirl of shifting colours as they seemed to take on a life of their own.

"Keep turning the barrel," instructed a voice from far away, and so he did. More shifting, hypnotic patterns evolved in front of him…all around him…

***

Clark blinked, disorientated for a second. The woman was walking away from him, hand in hand with the little boy beside her. The boy twisted around and gave him a foul look which took him by surprise. He stared in puzzlement, but then the boy's hand was jerked as he was pulled forward again and the moment was over.

Maybe the boy had just been told off for straying onto the thin ice. Clark shrugged mentally; it wasn't worth obsessing about. He took off and headed back to the Planet.

***

A few hours later, a loud shout broke the silence in a cramped, windowless office.

"Bingo!"

Nigel Sayer slammed his hand down onto the metal desk in triumph. He checked the recorders to make sure they had noted the momentous event. Yup, there it was, in digital perfection: Superman had just entered Clark Kent and Lois Lane's house.

And Lois Lane was already home.

Time to listen in…

***

It was always difficult to remain angry with Clark for very long, Lois reflected after a delicious lasagne, crisp green salad and bottle of extremely fruity Zinfandel. He redeemed himself so well, and anyway, she decided in mellow mood, he was completely guileless in his actions. He had only had her best interests in mind when he had made her attend the clinic, no more.

But she still wanted to know why he had asked about kids this morning.

"All done," Clark announced, strolling back from the kitchen into the lounge. "Who needs a dishwasher?"

Lois smiled. "Honey, you *are* the dishwasher."

"Ha!" He joined her on the sofa and she snared him with an arm around his shoulders. "So is that why you married me? For my super-fast dishwashing abilities?"

"'Fraid so. As soon as I found out you were Superman, I realised my dishwashing days were gone for ever. Marriage was inevitable."

"Hmmm. I seem to remember there were a few other details you missed out there."

"Well, we won't go into those now. Want some more wine?"

He winked. "We dishwashers run on wine — didn't you know?"

She poured some more wine into his glass and handed it to him. "Talking of not dredging up the past…"

"Mmmm…red wine *and* pasta. You do realise I may have to ravish you later?" He leant into her and kissed her lips. "Help — you even taste of pasta," he added in a low voice.

"Clark. Concentrate."

"Oh, I am…" He kissed her again.

And it was very nice — very, very nice, but she wanted to have a conversation and she wasn't going to let him deflect her. "Clark, we need to talk." She used her newsroom voice; the one she usually reserved for Jimmy.

It worked. Clark sat up straighter and cradled his wine glass between his hands. "Sorry. You were talking about the past?"

"Yes. I just wondered why you asked me whether I wanted to have kids this morning, when you know we can't."

"Oh, that."

"Yes, that."

He studied his wine for a moment, while she wondered what was going through his mind. She had thought that the issue of kids was closed; after all, it had been Clark who had consoled her when they had first discovered they weren't compatible. He had been the one who had told her that their love for each other was more than enough to fill their lives; that they could happily live a lifetime as a contented family of two. So while she knew that he had wanted children, she didn't think he had been obsessing about it ever since.

He looked up from his wine and faced her. "Did you see that piece in the Planet a few days ago? About recent advances in reproductive techniques?"

She frowned. "No. Where was that?"

"In the 'Life' section."

"Ah. The touchy-feely page."

"Yes. I guess you don't often make it onto that page."

"You're right. So what did it say?"

Although, she could already see where his mind was going. He had read about some new techniques, and he had got it into his head that they could be used to solve their conception problem. It was possible, she supposed, but she wasn't sure if she was ready to step into that particular arena; the couples taking part in these tests always seemed to go through hell and back before — and if — they conceived.

"Apparently they've achieved pretty good success rates in cases where they'd previously thought it was impossible to conceive. There was one technique I thought…well, maybe…"

"Yes?"

"Maybe it might work for us, Lois."

He was staring at her with that direct, honest, open expression of his which made it impossible for her to get mad at him. She was, though. She'd got over this; moved on past it, and she didn't like it being dredged up again. Why was he dragging it all out again?

"Clark, why? Why are you doing this?"

"Doing what?"

"Dragging us back into it. I thought we'd agreed on this."

"We have, Lois. Of course we have. I just saw the article and it got me thinking, that's all."

"So you haven't been obsessing about this all year? Because I would have hoped you would share that with me, honey." She reached up and cupped his face in her palm. "If you still wanted kids that badly, then we needed to talk about it."

"No, honestly — I haven't given it much thought at all. It was just that article."

"But you must have been thinking about it first for the article to have snagged your interest."

He sighed. "Well, I guess there was all that stuff a while back about that councillor — you know, the one who wanted to ban people of low intelligence from having kids?"

Lois sneered. "Oh, yes, him! If you ask me, he was the one with the low intelligence. And wasn't he having an affair with that police chief?"

"Ex-police chief," Clark corrected. "Remember, she resigned after all those rumours of racial harassment."

"What a pair."

"Yeah. Wonder what happened to them?"

"I think he went back to his wife and got rehabilitated by his party," Lois answered dryly. "It's amazing what you can achieve with a good image consultant these days."

"Sadly, yes. So she's stuck on her own someplace — probably the bastion of the local community."

Lois cocked her head on one side and regarded her husband. "Clark, since when did you get cynical?"

"It's your corrupting influence, sweetest. You robbed me of my innocence," he said with a smile.

"Ha. You mean I taught you how to survive in this dog-eat-dog world. Without me, you'd still be leaving your front door key under the mat."

"At least I always knew where it was that way."

"And so did every criminal in the neighbourhood. But you're side-tracking me again. What about this kids thing? — sounds to me as though you've been thinking about it for some time."

His smile faded as he took one of her hands in his. "Lois. I told you a long time ago that my life is complete with you in it; you, and you alone."

"But kids would be even better."

He sighed heavily. "Sure. I can't deny it — how can I? We both tried pretty hard to make it work, so I'd be lying if I said I don't want kids. But that doesn't spoil what we have together, Lois. We love each other, and that's more than enough for me."

"Okay." She looked into his eyes. "So what do you want to do? Do you want to take this to Dr Klein?"

"Not if you don't want it."

"Clark, I don't know. I thought I'd got over all this, and now you're asking me to open it all up again. It was bad enough the first time, finding out we couldn't have kids and then dealing with that awful woman from the adoption agency. I'm not sure I could stand it a second time around."

Besides, she would probably be the one who would have to submit to various nasty or humiliating medical procedures. He would donate a few samples — okay, she knew how much he hated doing that — but it wasn't invasive, unlike the things she had had to put up with only earlier today.

"Then we won't do it," answered Clark decisively. "The last thing I'd want would be for you to get hurt by all this, and if we can't make another little person with our love for each other, then that's fine. We just carry on with each other."

"You're sure?"

"Positive." He reached across and pulled her into his lap. "Have I told you lately how much I love you?" he asked with a smile.

"Yes. But maybe you could show instead of tell."

"You sound like my old English teacher."

"Bet she never did this."

"Mmmm…"

***

"Holy shit!"

Sayer turned down the noise of murmurs and gasps coming from his headphones and quickly re-ran the conversation until he found the right part. He had to double-check this!

Lois's voice rang out in the small office. "'Fraid so. As soon as I found out you were Superman, I realised my dishwashing days were gone for ever. Marriage was inevitable."

Clark Kent was Superman? Superman was Clark Kent? At least that explained why Superman had spent so long at the Daily Planet today.

Just to check, he reran a previous segment; the part where Kent announced he was going to do the dishes. Barely a second later, he was saying that the job was done. Sayer could check the tape from the kitchen later and analyse the sounds Kent made, but on the face of it, they appeared to have solid evidence that the guy really was Superman.

And right now, Superman was making love with Lois Lane…

***

The man's voice was deep and breathy. "OK?"

"Don't…stop," rasped a woman's voice. Gasps and heaving panting echoed around the room.

"Oh, God, Lois, I don't think I can hold…"

"Yes you can. Just…oh, yes, Clark, yes…yes…right…there!"

The room erupted into male and female cries of ecstasy.

"Thank you, Mr Sayer," interrupted a loud, dry, female voice. "I think we've heard enough."

There was an abrupt click, and the ecstasy was silenced. She glanced around the table, noting with distaste that a couple of the men were shifting uncomfortably in their seats and that Ms Jones was fanning herself with a sheaf of papers. Apparently they didn't share her disgust at the heinous act of human debasement they had just witnessed. She'd listened and watched some pretty disgusting evidence tapes during her career, but this was the first time she'd felt sick…no, not sick: dirty. Even her old precinct's investigation into a child pornography ring hadn't left her feeling like this.

It was an abomination: a woman who had sex — enjoyed having sex — with a non- human; an alien entity.

"So, thanks to Mr Sayer, we now know that Clark Kent is Superman. This explains the footage from the park, of course — clearly they have difficulty concealing their attraction to each other in public. It changes nothing, however, other than making our job easier. Their apparent inability to conceive is encouraging; it tells us that he is thankfully unlikely to have fathered any young so far, but — " she leant over the table towards her audience, " — and let me stress this most strongly to you all — the danger is still there."

She stopped and panned around the table with her gaze, seeing several nods of agreement.

"Professor Davis, I believe you have further information for us on this."

The thin, sunken-faced man stood up. "Yes. If you open your folders, you'll find my detailed report on page three. The Star Labs data was the prime source, although Ms Jones provided us with some direct, if largely unscientific, evidence," he added with scathing distaste.

Ms Jones smiled secretly.

He continued. "In summary, and as is now clear from Mr Sayer's tapes, the alien has the necessary anatomy to copulate with humans. In fact, on the outside at least, his anatomy is exactly the same as ours. A series of test results recorded by Klein indicated that Kryptonians are incompatible with humans for reproduction; however, these tests were somewhat unsophisticated, and unfortunately, as the alien speculated on Mr Sayer's tapes, it is entirely possible that a krypto/human embryo could be cultured and carried to full term."

"Who would be able to perform such a procedure?" asked their leader.

"There are a handful of specialist clinics dotted around the country; I believe one of them is based here in Metropolis."

"Mr Sayer, if you would be so kind as to begin monitoring this clinic?"

"Certainly, Madame Chairman."

"Dr Scott, tell us about the Lane woman."

"Pelvic examination, tests and direct questioning have established that she is fertile, sexually active-"

"I think we figured that," muttered Ms Jones, exchanging a smirk across the table with Nigel Sayer.

"-and in reasonable health," finished Dr Scott with a glare at Ms Jones. "There have been no pregnancies, although she would have little difficulty in carrying a child and giving birth to it. Of course, we don't know what complications a mixed species pregnancy might introduce."

"All of which is completely beside the point," drawled Professor Davis. "When will you people wake up and face facts? The only solution guaranteed to stop the alien reproducing with humans is castration."

"I suspect you'll find," answered Judge Peters, "that castration has a detrimental effect on his ability to do his job. Loss of virility can do that to a man."

"He's not a man," spat their leader with venomous intensity.

All eyes turned to the top of the table. She took a deep breath and recovered her composure; showing emotion in front of one's subordinates was a serious lapse in discipline. "Ms Jones," she began with self-imposed calm. "Enlighten us with your research."

Ms Jones used a remote control to lower the lights and start up a video recording on the screen at the far end of the room. "The instrument Superman is looking into is a specially adapted kaleidoscope. I've used it successfully with humans to induce a hypnotic state, and as you can see, it is equally effective with Kryptonians."

As they watched, Superman began to carry himself differently, as if he weren't completely in control of his own limbs. After a few minutes, he stood passively in front of Ms Jones while she talked to him.

"I told him to give the instrument back to the boy — as you see, he obeyed easily. I then gave him an instruction unusual enough that it wouldn't be mistaken for normal behaviour."

Superman abruptly kissed Ms Jones fully and passionately on the lips while a hand strayed over to her breast. At the same time, Ms Jones's hand went downwards in a clearly exploratory movement.

Ms Jones cleared her throat. "I took the opportunity to confirm that he has the requisite reproductive anatomy." She paused. "The examination also proved that his hypnotic state was not being faked; as you can see, he didn't even flinch."

The kiss ended, Ms Jones said a couple of sentences to her subject, then turned to walk away with the boy. Superman stood, apparently staring blindly straight ahead, until Ms Jones lifted a hand and clicked her fingers. At that point, he became more animated, gazing at the receding pair for a few seconds before launching upwards into the sky.

Ms Jones stopped the video and brought the lights back up again. "Further tests would be required, but all indications are that Superman could be controlled via a combination of brainwashing and auto-suggestion. I'd also concur with Judge Peters; castration is not a viable solution if we require the alien to continue to perform rescues and so on."

Dr Scott remarked, "If it can be done, vasectomy would be my recommendation."

"My dear Dr Scott," began Professor Davis with heavy sarcasm, "vasectomy can be reversed these days. Not in one hundred per cent of cases, I grant you, but the risk would still be too great."

Dr Scott smiled coldly at the professor. "I'm sure a skilled surgeon could ensure that the vasectomy was permanent."

"Very true, Dr Scott," agreed their leader. "An excellent suggestion, if it were not for the minor fact of the alien's invulnerability."

"That isn't necessarily an issue," announced Professor Davis smugly.

"I'm sorry?" asked their leader.

"Klein may be good scientist, but he's a lousy computer user. Like any good scientist, he keeps copious notes on everything he learns, and like any good scientist, he types them all into his trusty computer. Except he's na´ve. He thinks a couple of levels of encryption and a pathetically simple coding system are all it takes to protect his data."

"Professor Davis, do you actually have any useful information for us?" asked their leader impatiently. "Or is this simply professional point-scoring?"

The professor shrugged. "I don't know. Would you consider the existence of a substance which can kill Superman to be useful information?"

"Possibly, if it's obtainable."

"Oh, it's obtainable. Star Labs have very thoughtfully placed a supply of it in their vaults for us. Would you like me to obtain some for you?"

"Does it simply kill him, or are there options?"

"Oh, I understand it's quite flexible. Anything from mild discomfort to death is feasible."

"Then I believe you have your next assignment."

As the meeting wrapped up, Nigel Sayer sidled up to Ms Jones. "You want a copy of that tape?"

"What tape?"

He leered at her. "You know — the one of them doing it."

Ms Jones reddened. "Why would I want that?"

"Oh, I just thought you might want it for your research." He winked. "It's kinda long, though."

"Long?" squeaked Ms Jones.

"Let's just say if I didn't know he was Superman, I'd have to believe he was wired up to a constant supply of Viagra." Sayer grinned as Ms Jones's eyes grew as round as saucers. "Careful, Ms Jones. You're drooling."

She threw him a furious look and stormed out of the room.

"I'll put it in the post for you," he called after her, laughing.

***

Lois was deep in thought in front of her computer at the Planet when the noise first impinged on her concentration. Baby noises? She frowned and looked up to find the source.

"Hi, Lois!"

A smiling, blond-haired young woman wheeling a push chair full of gurgling baby bore down on her from the ramp leading down into the newsroom. Ann. Of course — the ex-staff reporter was working freelance for the Planet nowadays, having left a few months ago when she was expecting…whatever the baby's name was.

Lois stood up and came around the front of her desk. "How are you, Ann? And how's…" She looked down at the admittedly cute bundle in the push chair, waiting for inspiration to strike.

"Oh, he's fine," answered Ann breezily. "About to demand his lunch any second now, but I had to drop in to see Perry quickly. Is he around?"

"He's in his office," said Clark, who had joined them in the aisle between desks. "Alexander's looking well. Is he over that cold?"

Trust Clark to remember the baby's name, thought Lois. And his medical history — no doubt he could remember the exact day the kid was born, and probably his weight, too.

Ann exchanged a friendly smile with Clark. "Yes, thanks. Look, would you mind keeping an eye on him while I go see Perry? I'll only be a couple of minutes," Ann added, looking at Clark hopefully.

"Sure!" Clark hunkered down in front of the pushchair. "Hi, big fella. You going to come and help me write my story while your Mom speaks to Uncle Perry?" he asked with a beaming smile.

Lois laughed as Ann disappeared in search of Perry. "Careful, Clark. He might want to edit your copy." She went back to her chair and watched Clark pull the pushchair up beside his own chair.

Clark waggled his eyebrows at her. "He probably spells better than some people I know."

"Ha! Very funny."

However, the increasingly hungry Alexander wasn't interested in writing stories, and was soon wailing angrily in his chair. Lois glanced around the newsroom but couldn't see Ann; meanwhile Clark picked Alexander up and started bouncing him up and down on his knee.

After watching her husband try various distractions and games to quieten Alexander down, Lois decided Clark was handling the situation all wrong: obviously the child was miserable and needed comfort, not toys and silly games to play. "I don't think he likes your keys," she commented loudly over the wailing.

"Oh, really?" Clark asked. "You think you could do better?"

She stood up and crossed over to Clark. People were starting to glance over at their noisy corner of the newsroom, and it was time for direct action. "Come on, Alexander," she said, lifting the noisy, warm, wriggly bundle away from Clark. "Let's show Uncle Clark how we handle hungry babies."

Not, of course, that she had a clue what to do, she thought as she carried Alexander over to her desk and set his dangling feet on her lap and smiled into his tear-streaked face. Babies were not her strong point, even if she had a soft spot for them; they were cute at a distance, but scary and unpredictable in close proximity. "Has Mommy gone and left you all alone?" she asked him gently, ignoring the wails. "Don't worry, she'll be back soon, but in the meantime, you and I have to make a deal. OK?"

To her amazement, the wailing abated a little. Was it her voice? "OK, that's good, Alexander. Now, here's the deal: I won't cry if you don't. How's that? Sound fair?" She smiled encouragingly into the woeful eyes. Alexander looked at her uncertainly, but obviously wasn't convinced; the tears renewed full volume again.

"No good? OK, how about this: I promise I won't let Uncle Clark sing to you if you stop crying. That's a good deal, isn't it?" she asked him with cheerful gusto. "That's a very good deal!" She shook him playfully.

"I heard that," came a dry voice from across the aisle.

"Ooh, I don't think Uncle Clark likes us criticising his singing!" she said conspiratorially to Alexander. "Shall we see if we can wind him up even more by being really, really quiet?" she asked with a grin.

"Lois, you can't negotiate with a baby," commented Clark.

"Oh, yes I can, can't I, Alexander?" she said happily to her charge, who had in fact quietened down a lot and was looking at her — no, staring at her as if she was crazy. Well, she would buy that; she'd buy anything if he was going to be quiet. A pudgy hand reached up clumsily and grabbed her hair.

"Ow!" She caught his hand gently and prised it away…so small and warm…

"I'm sorry, Lois!" exclaimed Ann, appearing from around the corner. "Has he been a pain?"

"No, we're getting on just fine, aren't we, Alexander?" she said with a grin at the baby. "We didn't like Uncle Clark's keys, but we loved Auntie Lois's little chat."

"Here," Ann said, reaching over to reclaim her baby. "Thanks for looking after him, and I'm sorry I took so long. Perry wants me to do a follow-up piece on that story I did a while back on that councillor and his girlfriend. You know — the guy who said that people with learning difficulties made unfit parents?"

"I forgot you wrote that story!" Lois exclaimed. "Clark and I were just talking about it the other day. Do you know what happened to the woman?"

"Meg Patterson? The police chief from hell?" Lois nodded. "That's who Perry wants me to do the follow-up on. I was convinced at the time that she was the real brains behind that campaign, you know."

"Really?" said Clark, joining them at Lois's desk. "What do you know about her?"

"Ex-police chief, in her mid-fifties. Resigned to pursue other interests — ie, she left before she was chucked out. Lots of rumours and allegations of racial harassment, dodgy practices when dealing with suspects from racial minorities — that kind of thing. So she already has a rap sheet, so to speak, whereas that councillor didn't really, and there were times when he really just seemed to act like a puppet dancing to someone else's tune. She has money, too — her husband died and left her a fortune."

"So why the follow-up now?" asked Clark.

"I've heard a couple of rumours about a very right-wing, extremist group — very low key, very discreet, very effective, and I have a hunch."

"You think she might be something to do with it?" asked Lois.

"Yup," answered Ann, just as Alexander let out a wail. "Oops — someone needs his lunch. Do you know if the conference room is free?"

"I think so."

"OK. Come on, baby, let's find ourselves a nice comfy chair in Uncle Perry's conference room."

Lois watched Ann's retreating back, slowly becoming aware of Clark's eyes on her. She looked up into his happy, smiling face. "Cute, isn't he?" he said.

"If you can call a screaming, wriggling, messy thing like that cute, then yes, he was cute."

"Oh, come on, Lois," chided Clark playfully. "You loved him. And I've got to hand it to you — you were really good with him."

She shrugged coolly. "That was simple expediency, no more."

"Yeah, and I'm Father Christmas."

She noticed Ann had left the push chair with all Alexander's baby things on it behind, and wondered whether Ann might need any of them in the conference room. Making a decision, she stood up and wheeled everything over to the door.

"It's only me," she announced after knocking and opening the door to walk in. Ann was sitting on one of the conference chairs, Alexander suckling noisily at her breast.

Lois was caught off-guard. "Oh! Sorry, I didn't realise…I'll leave you in peace. I just brought these in — in case you needed them."

Not that she was embarrassed, exactly. It just felt as though she was intruding on a private moment between Ann and her baby.

Ann looked up calmly. "It's okay, Lois," she replied quietly. "And thanks."

Lois gazed at mother and baby for a moment, absorbing the serene picture — well, serene except for the incredibly noisy Alexander, who seemed to be enjoying his lunch very enthusiastically.

"He must have been hungry," she commented wryly.

"Oh, he's always like this. He likes his food."

Lois smiled. "Yeah, I can see." She turned to leave. "Sorry for barging in."

"Don't worry about it." Ann replied, smiling up at Lois contentedly.

***

A misshapen lump of rock, lying in the middle of the table. The team sitting around the table gazed at it in fascination, their faces tinged with a hint of the greenish glow which reflected off it.

"Star Labs are unaware of their loss?" asked their leader, Mrs Patterson.

"Absolutely," answered Professor Davis. "And a facsimile of the piece has been placed in the vault, should they have occasion to perform any visual security checks. So now can we please get on with the business of neutralising the alien? We have the means to make him vulnerable."

"Or kill him," interjected Colonel Robertson.

Mrs Patterson sighed. "Colonel Robertson. I have already ruled out killing him; he's too useful."

The red-faced man leaned forward in his chair towards her. "It's the only sure- fire method of stopping him from messing with our women. You see a threat, you eliminate the threat. Simple."

"Vasectomy would be just as effective," pointed out Professor Davis dryly.

"And what if you open him up and find you can't do the op? What are you going to do then?" exploded Colonel Robertson. "Close him back up and ask him politely if he wouldn't mind refraining from sexual relations for the rest of his life?"

"That will do, Colonel Robertson," said Mrs Patterson coldly. "When I need your opinion, I'll ask for it." She turned deliberately away from him: he was stupid, volatile, crude and she often wondered why she even tolerated him in the team. Other than his talent for interrogation, and his admittedly useful links with the Pentagon, he was a liability.

She scanned the other faces around the table. Nigel Sayer: loyal, efficient, and trustworthy — she wished all her team were like him. Professor Davis: a maverick, but a highly skilled surgeon and medical researcher, and utterly committed to their cause. Ms Jones: young and a little too flippant, but near- genius level in her field. Her commitment was undoubtedly sound…and she apparently had something to say.

"Ms Jones?"

"My recommendation still stands. Modern programming techniques are extremely effective, and I believe the subject could be easily trained out of the procreation urge. The procedure would be non-invasive, and has been suggested previously, the training could be extended to include useful control triggers. Superman could effectively become an extension of this team's activities."

"And just how do you expect to get him to sit still long enough for you to do all this brainwashing?" drawled Professor Davis.

"She's going to seduce him, aren't you, Ms Jones?" cajoled Nigel Sayer. "You enjoying that tape I sent you, by the way? I've got another one now, if you're interested."

Ms Jones glared at him but didn't answer. Instead, she looked at Professor Davis. "A small quantity of the kryptonite should keep him sufficiently submissive for long enough."

"In my professional opinion, I believe he'd be dead before you'd finished programming him," scoffed Davis.

"And in my professional opinion, Professor Davis, I believe he wouldn't."

"Enough!" barked Mrs Patterson. "I've made my decision. But before I give you my final instructions, does anyone have any further information which they consider useful to the rest of the team? And I mean facts, not petty point- scoring."

"That journalist has been poking around again," offered Sayer. "You know — the one who blew the previous campaign out of the water?"

"Is she a threat?" asked Mrs Patterson.

He shrugged. "Not yet."

"Deal with her if she becomes one — and don't forget she works for the same paper as Lane and Kent. I don't want this campaign failing just because some part-time hack gave the target even the merest whiff of a hint of our plans. In fact, I don't want this campaign failing, period. The future of the human race depends on us, ladies and gentlemen."

It did them good to be reminded of their noble purpose from time to time, she believed. Not that the human race would even know of their achievements if they did their job properly, but she wasn't doing this for the fame: she was doing it because it was right. Unassailably, incontrovertibly right.

She gave them a short pep talk, and then finished with the instructions which would put their final plans into action.

***

Lois had just looked so *right* with Alexander in her lap, Clark mused as he flew over night-time Metropolis. She pretended she didn't understand babies, but really, on the rare occasions when he saw her with kids, it seemed to him that she had a natural talent for dealing with them. Her no-nonsense, yet warm and unselfconscious manner always seemed to work just the right kind of magic to quieten them down or keep them amused. It was so easy to imagine her with her own baby; their baby, cradled in her arms…

But he had made an agreement with her, and he shouldn't let himself think like this.

Keys always worked with babies. At least, that had been his theory up until today. Give a baby a bunch of keys to play with, and they were usually so fascinated by the jangly, odd-shaped pieces of metal that they soon forgot their tears. Usually the main problem was stopping them from trying to stuff the whole lot into their gummy mouths. Not Alexander, though. Maybe he was wise to the key trick.

Still, it had been a nice interruption to their day, Clark remembered fondly.

And warm, fuzzy feelings about other people's babies were to be guarded against, he reminded himself. He should never have let himself start thinking about kids again when he knew the odds were so slim, and when they had already settled down to married life with just each other. It wasn't as if Lois didn't fill his life completely; every day he loved her more and more.

***

Every night, she found a new way of tamping down that tiny spark of worry which accompanied the knowledge that Clark was out on a rescue. Tonight, it was her continuing battle against culinary ineptitude; eggs a la Katie Banks was all very well, but a woman of thirty-something ought to be able to provide at least one edible evening meal for her husband. So Lois chopped bacon and onions, grated cheese and measured out spaghetti in preparation for a hopefully triumphal spaghetti carbonara — though, of course, if Clark was home early, he could do the cooking. Her zest for conquering kitchen skills only extended as far as the lack of a viable alternative.

All of which was another reason why she wasn't anxious to start a family. Mothers cooked: she did not.

Mothers also knew what to do with babies: she did not. Just remembering how Ann had been with Alexander at the Planet proved that — there was an effortless ease which accompanied the way she handled and talked to her baby, as if she had been born to it. Lois, on the other hand, was awkward and clumsy around babies.

Then there was the breast-feeding. Watching Ann feed Alexander had been quite beautiful — she had looked so content and calm, even though she had been in the middle of a hectic, chaotic newsroom. She had smiled serenely up at Lois while Alexander suckled at her breast, and Lois had felt…

No, not that.

Babies were messy, smelly things. They demanded attention all day long, they didn't let you have a life of your own, and if anyone was destined not to be a mother, it was her. She was no good around babies. Okay, so Alexander had quietened down pretty well today, but that was just because he had decided she was crazy: he already knew that the best way to deal with an unbalanced mind was to act calmly.

It had been fun playing with him, though, especially when they'd been kidding Clark together. Before he had yanked her hair, there had been a few moments when he had seemed like the most adorable little package of life, dangling his soft feet restlessly on her lap and gazing at her with those big, round eyes. Babies had this wonderfully innocent, slight stupid expression which they fixed you with and made you want to say and do the silliest things with them. But then Ann had taken him away, and she had felt…

Relieved.

Yes, definitely. Relieved.

Then noticing the push-chair beside Clark's desk and thinking that surely Ann must need all those mysterious baby things draped around it. Bursting in on her while she was feeding Alexander had been a surprise; Lois had expected to find a baby with a messy face and mucky bib, with one of those small bottles of brown goo on the table, and instead had found mother and baby enjoying some simple, peaceful moments together. Insidious suckling noises apart, Lois had felt…

But no. Not that.

It was crazy, because she had met plenty of Moms and babies before today and never felt like this, felt so… But for some reason, for the first time in her life, she had felt different at the Planet this morning. She had looked at Ann, and felt…

Envy.

Ann had something Lois could never have: a life she had created and nurtured; a child who was part of her; a bond which Lois could never experience.

Lois sighed heavily and chopped some more onions.

***

Clark arrived home, smelt the tell-tale signs of cooking, and wandered into the kitchen in search of Lois. All the ingredients for spaghetti carbonara were assembled beside the cooker, but the cook was missing.

"Lois?!" he called. "I'm home, honey!"

A quick scan of the downstairs rooms came up blank, so he jogged upstairs, faintly puzzled by her absence. He called to her again as he reached the door of their bedroom, and was just in time to catch a glimpse of her studying herself in front of their full-length mirror before she whirled around. She was just slow enough for him to see her whip the bundled-up pillow out from underneath her sweater.

"Hi, honey," he said, walking in to greet her, his mind busily processing the information his eyes had just given him. "I'm home."

"I was just changing the bedclothes," explained his wife, hastily tossing the pillow onto the bed before kissing him lightly on the lips.

He raised an eyebrow. "Personally, I thought you looked great."

"Come on, let's go downstairs. You have spaghetti to cook."

"Although probably two pillows would have been more realistic than one."

She tugged his hand. "I've done all the hard stuff for you — you just have to be like one of those TV chefs and throw it all together. Couldn't be easier."

"Of course, pillows are much softer than the real thing — or so I've heard."

"I haven't done the eggs yet, though. Or the milk."

Clark chuckled. "Lois, are we having the same conversation? Or is it just that one of us is lagged behind the other?"

"I don't know what you're talking about," she replied haughtily.

"I'm talking about the fact that you seem to be telling me what's for dinner, and I'm trying to ask you why you were standing in front of the mirror with a pillow stuffed up your sweater when I came in."

"You saw that?"

"Because it looked to me as if you were trying something out." He couldn't contain himself any longer; he was bursting to find out if he was right. "It seemed like you were wondering what you'd look like if you were pregnant."

Which had immediately set him hoping that she had reconsidered her decision. It was a forbidden thought, and one that he had actively avoided over the past couple of days. He knew that he had no right to want her to change her mind, especially after they'd agreed not to take things any further — but he just couldn't help it: he wanted kids.

"Clark, you couldn't be more wrong." Lois disappeared out the door, and he had to follow her downstairs to continue the conversation.

"Oh? So what were you doing?" He knew he shouldn't press, either, but he couldn't help it: he had to know.

"I was…trying to understand how overweight people felt. I thought I might write an article."

"Ah." He recognised the signs; Lois was in denial. He steered the conversation onto other topics while preparing their dinner, telling her all about the thwarted break-in at Magazines United, followed by the two muggings he'd dealt with.

"So," he said, carrying their plates into the dining room, "I told him I wasn't a taxi service and left him at the precinct. Is it me, or are criminals getting less respectful these days?"

Lois sat down, stabbed a piece of bacon with her fork, and pointed it at him. "Okay, I give in, Mr Wise-guy. You think you can bully me into telling you what's on my mind with that mild-mannered act of yours-"

"Bully you?" asked Clark in amusement.

"Yes, bully me. You know I can't stand it when you're kind and understanding with me."

"Would you prefer the strong-arm approach?" He put on a stern look. "Woman, tell me the truth before I strike you down with my ire." He bent across and ate the bacon off her fork. "And bring me a flagon of ale to wash this down while you're at it, wench."

"Clark, did anyone ever tell you your foreign accents are as bad as your singing?"

She was grinning at him, though. "No, I can't say anyone's mentioned it," he answered innocently. "But we digress. You were going to tell me something."

"Yeah." She began fiddling with her spaghetti. "I've been…reassessing."

"Reassessing?"

"You know — the kids thing."

"Ah, the kids thing." He nodded.

"I thought maybe we might…"

"Might…?"

"Reassess. It. The situation."

"The situation."

"Clark, are you going to repeat everything I say?" she asked testily, twirling a strand of spaghetti expertly around her fork.

"Sorry. I'll shut up. You were saying?"

"I think maybe…" She took a deep breath. "What would you prefer — a boy or a girl? Personally, I don't think it matters as long as they're healthy, although of course if it was a boy you could take him fishing and all those other male- bonding type things that men like to do with their kids. Not that you can't take girls fishing either — just don't expect me to come with you. I'll stick to shopping skills, and…well, you'll have to teach her how to cook — and him as well. I don't want my kids growing up with the same ridiculous stereotypes my Mom and Dad fell into." She paused for breath. "What do you think?"

"I think I need to make sure I understand what you're saying, honey," he replied, treading carefully lest he got overexcited. He wanted this badly, he realised with mixed feelings, but he owed it to Lois not to let it show too obviously. "Are you saying you want to try again for children? That you're willing to go through weeks, maybe months of tests and trials, so that we can have a baby together?"

She looked at him seriously, all trace of banter and joking removed from her expression. "Yes, Clark. I want us to try again."

He reached across the table for her hand, brimming over with joy, but exercising iron-clad control to avoid overwhelming her. "You're sure? You're not just doing this because of what I said the other day?"

"No. *I* want us to have a baby. Of course, it's kind of convenient that you do too…" she added with a half-smile.

He laughed softly. "It helps. But I want to be sure about this — you know what it could mean? We could go through the same thing we went through last time, and still not end up with a baby."

"I know. But I also know how strong you are, and how strong our marriage is, and I think we'd survive. I'm not saying it would be easy a second time around, but we'd get through it, just like we always do, Clark. I'm willing to take the risk if you are."

"You're sure?"

"Clark, stop back-pedalling. I know how much you want this."

"But this has to be *our* decision — we're looking at the possibility of a lot of heartache-"

"Or the possibility of a lot of joy. Let's not give up before we've even started." She paused and looked at him seriously. "So, Clark — are you willing to take the risk with me?"

He abandoned his dinner and pulled her gently into his arms. "You know I am, Lois."

***

The house stood dark and silent within its secretive grounds, lifeless but for a single lit window on the ground floor. All the preparations had been made, and the two rooms where treatment and recovery would take place were eerily quiet now that the workers had departed. No expense had been spared to equip the rooms with the latest technology, and at the same time strip them of any distinguishing features and install soundproofing to shield them from the outside world. The future occupant was to have no clues, visual or auditory, as to his location.

The room where there was light made a sharp contrast to the stark appearance of the prepared rooms. Here there was carpet; here there were soft furnishings and decoration; here there was comfort.

Mrs Patterson sighed and pushed her half-eaten meal aside, her appetite destroyed. Listening to the tapes from the alien's house while eating a late dinner had been a mistake, she decided. To hear one of her own kind express such repulsive ideas was more than she could stomach; a woman who wanted to carry the offspring of another species within her body was utterly disgusting. She'd heard of men and women who practised bestiality, but this was a hundred times worse than that.

She picked up her cell-phone and pressed the speed-dial button. "Tomorrow."

"Yes, Ma'am."

***

"Lois, Clark — in my office, please."

Just five minutes into their day at the Planet and already Perry was hot on their heels. Lois looked up from her screen to find a very sombre editor standing between their desks. She frowned; he looked very grim, and not at all like the animated boss in full command-mode that she had been expecting. "What is it, Perry?"

He regarded her seriously. "Not here."

Perry turned to go back to his office, and Lois stood up with Clark to follow him. Clark looked as pensive as she felt; their editor was rarely this lacking in spark and good nature unless he had very bad news to pass on. She began running through a catalogue of possible disasters in her head, trying to imagine the worst that could possibly happen so that when Perry told them whatever it was he had to say the blow was lessened.

"Shut the door and take a seat." Perry waited until they were all seated before continuing. "I received some very bad news this morning." He dragged his hands over his face in a weary gesture. "There's no easy way to say this — Ann Campbell was found dead last night in her apartment."

Lois went cold all over. She heard Clark mutter a shocked '"Oh, no!", but her own response was strangled in her throat. Ann. So cheerful and full of life, and only yesterday she had been right here in the newsroom with her baby. Lois hadn't known her very well, but those few minutes with Ann and Alexander yesterday had imprinted themselves very deeply on her mind. How could someone so vibrant suddenly be dead?

"How…?" asked Clark.

Perry shook his head sadly. "Apparently there was a note. I couldn't get much more out of Phil than that when he called."

"Suicide? But that's crazy!" protested Clark. "Not Ann. Why would she want to kill herself?"

"I agree, Clark. It just doesn't make any sense — she and Phil had a good, solid relationship, and she loved that baby of hers to pieces. God knows, I didn't know everything about her, but Ann was the last person on this Earth I would have expected to take her own life."

Lois couldn't believe what she was hearing. Who would want to kill themselves when they had a baby as adorable as Alexander to look after? It simply couldn't be true.

"She was murdered."

Her words cut across the other two's conversation, and she felt Clark looking at her in consternation, but she ignored him, because she knew she was right.

"Lois, you can't know-"

"I know. And Perry agrees with me, don't you, Perry?"

Her editor sighed deeply. "I don't know what I know, darlin'. I do know that something smells wrong here, and that's why I called you two in here. I want you to start digging." He held up his hands. "Now, I know it's gonna be hard — none of us like digging into the private affairs of one of our own at a time like this, but I don't know anyone who would do a better job than you two. Just go easy on Phil, won't you? He wasn't making much sense this morning, and he's got to be going through hell right now — not to mention coping with a young baby who's just lost his mother."

"You know we will, Perry," answered Clark.

Lois was still thinking about her murder theory. "Ann was working on that story about Meg Patterson, wasn't she? She told us she thought there might be a link between Patterson and an underground extremist right-wing group she'd heard of." She leaned forward. "Maybe she got too close."

Perry looked at her with a stricken expression. "I hope I'm wrong on this one, but that's why I'm assigning you two to the story as well as digging into what happened to her."

"Do you have any of her notes or leads we can use to get a head start?" asked Lois.

"Not really. I do know that her contact was an ex-army friend of her Dad's, so you might want to start there," Perry replied.

Lois didn't relish the prospect of asking a father for information when he was so recently bereaved, but she merely nodded. She still felt numbed by the terrible news, and the image of Ann feeding her baby in the conference room kept coming back to her again and again. It just wasn't right that a life so loving and caring should suddenly be stopped; cancelled out before it had a chance to flourish. And poor Alexander — motherless, and with a devastated father struggling to be two parents when he could hardly be one whole person.

She wondered what support Phil had available to him. Were there female relatives or friends who would rally round and help him take care of Alexander? The thought of him having to cope alone, especially at night, tore at her heart. Perhaps she and the rest of the Planet staff could organise some help for him, or at least start a collection to help with the extra bills which would start piling up.

"Lois?"

She blinked and looked over at Clark. "Uh, right. We should get started."

"I'll be telling the rest of the staff in a few minutes," said Perry. "Sorry you're gonna hear it all over again."

"Perry, I just wish you didn't have to go through breaking the bad news twice," said Clark. "It can't be easy."

Perry nodded sadly. "You're right there, son. But I wouldn't want them to hear it any other way."

***

Clark followed Lois to her desk and hunkered down beside her chair. Apart from her quiet outburst about Ann's possible murder, she'd been very quiet in Perry's office, and he sensed that she was taking the news very badly. He himself had been deeply shocked by the news; he believed that life was an extremely precious gift, and no matter how many times he saw it wasted through tragedy or design, he never got used to the loss. When it was a new mother, that was twice as terrible, and when that new mother was someone he had known — and only yesterday had held her baby in his own arms — then it bit very deep indeed.

Lois, he thought, felt an affinity with Ann even though she hadn't really known her that well. Looking at her stricken look, it occurred to him that Ann had possibly been part of the reason why Lois had decided she wanted to try again for kids. Ann, after all, had been in a very similar position to Lois: married for a couple of years or so, and a reporter at the Daily Planet. He also hadn't missed the fond looks she had given Ann and especially baby Alexander; hadn't he been reflecting just yesterday on how right Lois had looked with Alexander?

"I can't believe it," he said softly.

She shook her head. "Me either. Clark, she didn't deserve to die."

"No-one does, honey."

"But she had Alexander — why would anyone want to kill the mother of a young baby?"

"We don't know that they did, Lois."

"You're not buying that suicide crap?!" she spat in a low voice.

"No, but we have to consider all the possibilities."

"Well, while you're considering possibilities, I'm going to do something worthwhile," she said flatly, picking up her phone and dialling a number with sharp jabs on the keypad.

"Lois, honey…" He put his hand on her leg in a placatory gesture. He knew she was only lashing out because she was upset and angry, because he felt much the same way himself. He listened to her talk to Personnel and ask after Phil and Alexander's welfare: had anyone from the Planet contacted Phil to make sure he had enough support? She seemed satisfied with the answers she received, but before he could ask her what those were, Perry called everyone to attention and began to break the sad news to the staff.

The newsroom was a much more subdued place after Perry's announcement.

Jimmy appeared at their desk a few moments later. "CK, there's a package for you to sign for downstairs," he said quietly.

Clark frowned. He wasn't expecting any deliveries, and he didn't really want to leave Lois right now. "Can't they bring it up here?"

Jimmy shrugged faintly. "Front desk won't let couriers into the building any more."

"You can sign for it, Jimmy. They won't know the difference."

"Sorry, CK — Perry wants me to help him pull some stuff out of the archives."

"It'll just take you a couple of minutes," suggested Clark, putting on his most persuasive tone of voice.

"Look, you're not the only person with important work to do, okay?" retorted Jimmy belligerently. "Maybe writing Ann's obit is important too." He walked away without waiting for Clark's answer.

Clark kicked himself for his insensitivity and quickly stood up and jogged the couple of paces necessary to catch Jimmy up. "Sorry, Jimmy. I guess Ann's death has hit us all hard."

"Yeah," replied Jimmy dully.

"Do you need any help?"

"No, it's pretty easy to dig out. But thanks."

"Okay."

Clark went back to Lois's desk and explained his errand to her. "I'll be back in a couple of minutes," he finished, heading towards the elevators.

***

Downstairs, he crossed to the reception desk. "I was told there's a package for me to sign for? I'm Clark Kent."

The security guard frowned at him. "No package here, Mr Kent. Who told you we had it?"

"Jimmy Olsen — he said there was a courier waiting."

"Well, I'm sorry, but we haven't got anything here for you. All deliveries go direct to the postroom; if we get any couriers we send them over there."

Clark glanced over to the double doors the guard was indicating. "Maybe Jimmy got his wires crossed. Sorry to have bothered you."

"No problem, Mr Kent."

He turned away to walk over to the post-room doors.

"Clark! Long time, no see, big guy!"

A tall, broad man who had risen from one of the visitor's chairs intercepted him, clapping a large hand on his shoulder and smiling enthusiastically.

Clark recoiled slightly and looked at the man, trying to dredge up any memories of past encounters with him. "I'm sorry — obviously you know me, but I'm afraid I don't know you."

"Of course you do, Clark!" The man shook his shoulder vigorously. "Don't you remember your old college buddies?"

Before Clark could respond, another large man had come up close on his other side and slung his arm around Clark's shoulders. "Hiya, Clark!"

And suddenly there was pain. Sickening, excruciating pain coursing right through him.

The shock made him falter for just long enough for the second man to begin frog- marching him away from the post-room. He lost his balance a little, but strong hands held him up and forced him forward. By the time he'd realised what they were intending, the pain was beginning to bite deep into his body and his legs were buckling. By the time they neared the door, the man on his left was virtually holding him up with a powerful grip around his shoulders, and the other guy was walking close beside and slightly behind him.

"Hey, I knew you'd remember us, Clark!" exclaimed the man holding him up and propelling him towards the door. "A quick drink sounds like a great idea."

"There's a bar just around the corner, isn't there?" added the other man.

His vision was beginning to blur. He knew they were now outside on the pavement, and he was vaguely aware of the indistinct shapes of passers-by, but the pain and confusion was too much to handle. He knew it was kryptonite; the deep, cramping pain all over his body, stabbing headache and nauseating dizziness couldn't be anything else, and a distant part of him wondered where on earth they could have got it from. As far as he knew the only samples these days were at Star Labs…he suddenly remembered the break-in there. But they had checked the kryptonite vault, hadn't they?

He wanted to shout out; draw attention to himself any way he could, but all that he could muster was what sounded to his ears like a very far away moan. The men's conversation was blurring too, waving sickening in and out of his hearing, while his head spun and his body seemed to be detached from his brain. His footsteps stumbled along between the two men, and then he was being roughly manhandled into the back of some sort of vehicle. He glimpsed a blurry figure with a medical mask covering most of his face, and he tried to resist the pain long enough to identify the face and demand to know what was happening, but the blur grew darker and darker until there was nothing.

***

Three hours later, Lois walked into the conference room and turned on the TV. At twenty minutes past the time she would have expected Clark back from his errand downstairs, she had concluded that he had heard a cry for help somewhere. At two hours, she had decided it must be something fairly major, but by that time she'd been deep into background research on Ann's Mrs Patterson, and hadn't give his absence any further thought. Five minutes ago, Perry had walked past and commented mildly on Clark's absence, and she had automatically given one of her vast array of excuses for him, but the exchange had made her realise just how long he'd been absent.

For Clark to have been away this long, he must be involved in a very serious incident, unless it was several incidents running back to back, which in itself was unusual. So she began flicking through the TV channels, looking for news reports.

Nothing.

It was possible, of course, that he was in another country, and news hadn't filtered back to the US channels yet. If that was the case, however, then how would he have known there was anything which required his help? His hearing was good, but not that good. She ran through all the channels again, including a couple of international ones, but there were no incidents where Superman was helping out.

She glanced at her watch. Twelve thirty. Roughly three and a half hours since he had gone down to the front desk to sign for that package: time to panic, or not? She gazed blankly at the screen, weighing up the situation. He was well overdue from his original errand, he hadn't contacted her since then, and there was no evidence to tell her where he might be. On the other hand, he was Superman, he was the strongest man in the world, he could very ably look after himself, and the nature of his job meant he was often called away unexpectedly and not able to contact her from wherever he was.

Not time to panic, then.

No.

Definitely not.

She made a decision: have lunch, and if he wasn't back after that, she would start investigating this package he was supposed to have been collecting. Maybe that would explain everything.

***

Clark awoke feeling wretched. Slowly he became aware of an ache digging deep into his bones and muscles, and a constant throbbing in his head. He was lying in a bed somewhere, but when he tried to move, he found his wrists and ankles tethered somehow, and cautious experimentation revealed a debilitating weakness which made it impossible to break free.

Kryptonite.

He remembered the two men, and the sudden onslaught of pain. There had been a nightmarish journey across the Planet foyer and along the street, and then a van of some kind. He turned his head to one side to identify his surroundings, and found a young woman in her mid-twenties standing watching him. She looked oddly familiar, but he couldn't remember where he'd seen her before.

"Hello, Clark," she said. "How are you feeling?" She came nearer to him and put her cool hand on his forehead. "Your fever's down a little, I think. That's good — we reduced the exposure to get you stabilised."

"Who are you?" he asked, horrified at the croaky sound of his own voice.

"Don't you remember me, Clark? You were very polite to me and my friend Barney in the park the other day."

The woman with the kid who'd nearly fallen through the ice! But…he'd been Superman then, hadn't he?

"I don't know what you mean."

"Oh, yes, you were Superman that day, weren't you? I'm sorry — I forgot." She moved her hand down from his forehead and stroked the side of his face gently and then trickled her hand down his neck to his chest, where she let it rest for a few moments. Something wasn't right here, he began to realise; this woman, with her blonde hair tied back into a tight ponytail and a myopic gaze as if she usually wore glasses, had an agenda which left him feeling very uneasy. Her touch, and her manner, was almost lascivious.

Breathing was difficult enough while he was fighting against the effects of the invisible kryptonite, but the alarm he was beginning to experience made it even harder. She smiled suggestively down at him, and he reflected that at least he still had his shirt on — but then she undid a couple of his buttons with a sultry smirk and slipped her hand under his Superman suit and onto his bare skin.

He hated it.

"You're pretty handsome for an alien, you know," she remarked in a low voice.

"Why are you doing this to me?" he ground out. Inside he was panicking: they knew he was Superman! And who were they — how many of them were there?

"Because it's necessary, Clark. But don't you worry about that. I'm here to take your mind off things for a while — kind of help you relax." She winked.

Before he could figure out what exactly she meant by that, she had pulled her sweater off in one fluid movement, to reveal a very tight-fitting top with a deep, plunging V-neck which left little to the imagination. She put a hand either side of his head and leant closely over him.

"Do you like what you see, Clark?"

"Get away from me!" he protested as loudly as he could.

But instead, to his intense alarm, she was climbing onto the bed. He tried to sit up; to knock her away somehow, but the tethers made it impossible to get his elbows underneath himself in order to lever his body up, and anyway, he simply didn't have the strength. His head started swimming with the fruitless effort, and before he knew it, she was straddling his thighs, effectively pinning him down. Efforts to raise his knees and throw her off were useless; she was too heavy for him in his weakened state. He let his head flop impotently back onto the pillow in frustration, and the panic he had felt on learning that they knew his secret doubled: what was she planning on doing to him?

She leant forward, put her hands either side of his head again and dipped down to kiss him. He twisted his face away quickly, making his head throb harder. He felt her lips on his cheek and he shifted his head quickly again, ignoring the sickening throbbing and dizziness. This was a nightmare — worse than anything he had ever imagined whenever he had feared capture and experimentation.

He could feel her breath on his face. "Don't you like me, Clark?"

"No, I don't."

"Maybe you just need some encouragement," she said with a suggestive smile. To his relief, she withdrew and sat up again. He tried again to throw her off him, and she gripped the sides of the bed and forced him down with her weight. "Now, now, Clark. You'll just tire yourself out, and we can't have that, can we? Not yet, anyway."

To his horror, he felt her hands at his crotch, undoing his belt and unzipping his pants. He wriggled and fought under her until spots danced in front of his eyes and he could hardly catch his breath. "Stop it," he gasped.

But a hand had insinuated itself inside and was touching him. Fondling him.

"Stop it!" he gasped again angrily.

She pouted. "But this is your treat, Clark. Kind of like the condemned man eating a hearty breakfast." She grinned. "I'm your breakfast."

He screwed his eyes tight shut and struggled as hard as he dared in the circumstances — but it was useless. No matter what he did, she wouldn't let go, and wouldn't be thrown off. The hand moved over him, touching him where only Lois had permission to go; where the only woman he had ever wanted to touch him so intimately was Lois.

He had never felt so vulnerable in his life. The light was also dawning that perhaps this woman was actually enjoying his struggles…

He felt sick.

"Get off him!"

It was a new voice, another woman's voice.

The pressure on his legs lessened, and then she was off him.

"What the hell do you think you were doing?" asked the new voice.

"Oh, just running a small private experiment." That was the first woman.

"You're not even wearing your mask. Get out of here!"

There was silence, and then there were hands at his crotch again, but after a moment of panic, he realised they were fastening him up again. He opened his eyes, and found another woman leaning over him, wearing a surgical mask and a lab coat. There was a stethoscope slung around her neck, but essentially, it was impossible to identify her from only the expressionless eyes gazing at him while she readjusted his clothes.

"Who are you?" he tried again, not expecting an answer but desperate to register his protest any way he could.

She didn't even speak. Instead, she began to examine him methodically, listening to his chest, taking his temperature, his blood pressure and his pulse. He struggled at first, but then two very strong hands grabbed his shoulders and slammed him down into the bed. Exhausted and feeling incredibly ill, he gave up the fight and submitted; it didn't seem worth wasting his precious resources any further. When she was finished, she disappeared from his line of vision, but he heard her say, "He's ready."

Then there were men with surgical masks all around him, his legs and shoulders were pinned down, and suddenly his right arm was being grabbed tightly. "No!" he cried, knowing instinctively what was coming next.

A pinprick in his arm.

A horrible, confusing, swimming sensation crept over him. Dimly, he heard someone call his name, and he tried to answer.

Another pinprick in his arm.

The fuzziness got worse, then…

***

Lunchtime came and went, and still Clark's desk was empty. Time for decisive action: Lois took the elevators down to the foyer and crossed to the front desk.

"My husband, Mr Kent, came here this morning to sign for a package. I wondered whether you still had it, since I haven't seen him since then and I thought maybe he might have left it here with you?"

The security guard shook his head. "Sorry — we don't keep packages here. You could try the post-room."

"Is that where you sent him?"

He shrugged. "I wasn't on this morning."

"Oh, I see." Frustrated, she crossed to the post-room and walked inside to stand in front of the long, high desk behind which all the paraphernalia of post-sorting was arranged. A long, lanky guy sauntered over to her.

"Help you?"

"Did my husband, Clark Kent, come in here this morning to collect a package he needed to sign for? He's been out since then and I wondered whether he might have left it with you."

"Nope, nothing here."

She scowled at him. "You didn't even look."

"That's because I know there's nothing here."

She looked pointedly around at the stacks of envelopes, parcels, and post office bags littering the area. "You know where everything is in here, do you?"

"Yup," he answered with a stoic look.

"What about behind this desk? I bet you've got all sorts of rubbish stacked up behind here."

"Yup, but there aren't any packages for Clark Kent."

"How do you know?"

"Because it's my job to know."

"Does your job also include being as unhelpful, obstructive and rude as you can to your customers?" Lois asked angrily.

"Only on Tuesdays."

Her patience at rock-bottom, Lois reached up, grabbed his tie and yanked him towards her. "Who's your manager?" she asked, glaring directly into his eyes.

"Frank Baker. But he's having his lunch," replied the man, staring straight back at her.

"I don't care. Get him." She yanked on his tie again, jerking it viciously.

"Frank!" yelled the man from the corner of his mouth. "Lady wants to talk to you."

Lois saw another man appear from behind a screen with half a bagel in his large, pudgy hand. She pushed her captive away again.

"You assaulting my staff?" asked Frank casually.

"Just taking a closer look to see if he was actually alive or not," retorted Lois. "He seemed to have difficulty in understanding my request."

"Which was?"

"I'm looking for a package which my husband, Clark Kent, may have signed for in here this morning. A courier delivered it."

"Well, that's strange, because we haven't had any couriers in here today."

Lois looked at him incredulously. "None at all? We *are* a newspaper, you know."

"Oh, and there was I thinking we were a fishmongers. Damn, that explains a lot, that does. Thanks, lady."

"Does anyone here actually take a professional attitude towards their work, or are they all like you?"

He shrugged. "All like me. But hey, at least I'm here, lady. The couriers are all on strike — didn't you know? We *are* a newspaper, after all."

Lois stared at him for a moment, then turned on her heel and stormed out, brimming with anger and frustration — why couldn't they have said that in the first place, instead of wasting her time? And where the hell was Clark? She crossed back to the front desk.

"Who was on the desk this morning, around nine o'clock?" she demanded.

The guard blinked and pulled back from her. "Ian Smith."

"And where do I find him?"

"At home in bed. With the 'flu. Satisfied?"

"No." She walked away a couple of paces, trying to tamp down her frustration. All she wanted to know was who called Clark down to the front desk, and it seemed as if the whole world were conspiring against her. She turned back. "Can I borrow your phone?"

"Sure."

He lifted it up from behind the counter and she dialled a number. "Jimmy, who did you speak to this morning when you sent Clark down for that package?"

"Uh, Lois, I don't know. The guy on the front desk, I guess."

"What was his name?"

"I don't know — he just said he was calling from downstairs. Why?"

Lois sighed. "Never mind."

She replaced the receiver and took a deep breath. "Look," she began, trying a new, calmer tack with the security guard. "My husband seems to have gone missing and the last time I saw him was when he left to pick up a package from here this morning. If your colleague saw him this morning, then I really need to speak to him to find out what he knows — do you have his home phone number? Please?"

"Have you called the police?"

"No, not yet." She wasn't sure if she would, either. Things could get very complicated if the police got involved, and anyway, calling the police would mean she was admitting he was missing. She wasn't ready for that, even if she had just told the security guard the same thing.

"You want me to call them for you?"

He was all concern now, but she didn't want him getting involved in this either. "No — but thanks. Please, all I need is to talk to your colleague — do you have his number?"

He frowned. "Ordinarily, I wouldn't, but…" He pulled the phone around and dialled. After a brief explanatory conversation, he handed the receiver over to her.

"I'm really sorry to drag you out of bed like this. Did you see my husband this morning?"

"Yeah," said a bunged-up voice at the other end. "He wanted to know if I had a package for him to sign for. I told him all packages go to the post-room."

Fighting frustration again, Lois continued. "Did he go to the post-room?"

"Yeah, I sent him over."

"Because they say they wouldn't have had anything for him either."

"Oh. Well, I guess he didn't get his package, then."

A scream was welling up inside Lois, but she kept her voice calm. "Did you see where he went next?"

"'Fraid not. Sorry — I'm not being much help, am I?"

"That's okay. Thanks, anyway — I hope you feel better soon."

"Hope you find your husband — he seemed like a nice guy."

"Thanks."

She was putting the phone down with a heavy heart when she heard a squawk from the receiver. "Yes?"

"I just remembered — he left with a couple of buddies. They had pretty loud voices, and I couldn't hear what this guy was saying to me, so I looked up, ready to shut them up, but they were just walking out the door."

"What did they look like?" Lois demanded.

"Big guys, both of them. Kinda busting out of their suits, you know?"

"Tall, short, hair, no hair?"

"About the same height as your husband, I think." He sneezed. "Sorry. Dark hair, both of them."

"Did you see their faces?"

"No. I only saw their backs as they were pushing through the doors. Kind of a tight fit, I thought — don't know why they didn't go through one at a time."

"They went through together?" Lois didn't think that was possible, or likely, given Clark's bulk.

"Your husband went through with one of them, then the other guy. They must have been real close buddies, because they all had their arms around each other. Hey, maybe that's where your husband is — maybe they got talking, maybe went to a bar, maybe drank a little too much, or just forgot the time? He'll probably come back with his head in his hands, all sorry for himself."

"My husband doesn't drink," replied Lois coldly. And he didn't have friends who were bursting out of their suits and would walk arm and arm with him.

Clark had been kidnapped.

***

The image on the monitor screen was static and monochrome: the only colour in the white room was the rumpled dark hair of the man lying helpless in the stark hospital-style bed. White sheets and blankets covered his body, and his face had drained to a greyish white. The man occupied a twilight world in this white room, neither unconscious nor conscious, and into the unnatural dead silence of the soundproofing came a quiet female voice, speaking calmly and persuasively.

Now and then the man would murmur softly in protest, or his head would turn from one side to the other; whenever this happened the voice would soothe and comfort until he became quiescent once more.

Mrs Patterson turned away from the monitor to face her colleague. Ms Jones's voice droned softly in the background from the monitor's speakers, delivering its destructive message to her subject with calm and soft authority.

"So tell me, Professor," began Mrs Patterson. "How long will the procedure take? I was given to understand that this is a simple operation."

Professor Davis shrugged carelessly. "As you reminded us all the other day, he is an alien. The physiology is different."

She looked directly into his eyes; she didn't like the casual manner with which he was treating her questions, and experience had taught her that casualness often hid uncertainty. "Meaning?"

"Meaning I can't give you a definitive time-frame, given the unknowns involved.

"But you anticipate success?"

He met her gaze. "Of course."

"With no margin for error or uncertainty?"

"Absolutely none."

She studied his face and body language for a few moments. "I don't tolerate dishonesty in my team members," she remarked sharply.

"Mrs Patterson, there comes a point in any team leadership when you simply have to trust your team to do the professional job you employed them for," pointed out Professor Davis dryly.

"I'm aware of that, but the question is: have I reached that point with you, Professor Davis?"

He shrugged again. "Only you can answer that, Mrs Patterson. I've given you my answer."

"You certainly have, Professor."

She turned back to the monitor to observe the alien again, leaving the Professor to let himself out. His answer was inadequate, but she recognised the folly of trying to extract more precise information from him. In any case, there were other ways to verify his claim.

She heard the door open again behind her. "You wanted to see me?" asked a different male voice.

She turned. "Ah, yes, Mr Sayer. Where is the Lane woman at this point in time?"

He frowned. "I thought you understood that the tracer was only for short-term use?"

"Yes, Mr Sayer, I did," she answered, letting her impatience show. "However, you didn't tell me exactly when that term of use would run out."

"Well, it will have dissolved some time this morning."

"I see. No matter — as long as the house is still monitored, we will have the information we need to ensure that treatment has been successful. It would have been useful to know the location of the Lane woman, since she will undoubtedly be searching for the alien soon, but it isn't essential." She paused. "You can assure me that the devices in the house are still functioning, I assume?"

"Yeah, those babies will still be working when you and I are six feet under."

"Good." She didn't need to interrogate Mr Sayer as to his honesty: she knew without a shadow of doubt that he spoke the truth. "Then, after the procedure is complete, we can release the alien and begin monitoring."

And she would have her answer as to whether Professor Davis was telling the truth or not.

***

"Okay, Ms Lane. I'll get this description circulated to my men, and we'll start questioning people downstairs right away."

It had been a surprisingly easy decision, Lois reflected once she was left alone in the conference room. Calling in the police had been a risk, given Clark's unique circumstances, but as soon as she had realised he had been abducted, there had been no question in her mind: she couldn't possibly search for him on her own. She needed manpower to trace exactly what had happened in the foyer this morning, chase down descriptions of his captors, and find out what had happened outside the building, and that meant bringing in the police.

She had gone straight to the top: she had known Inspector Bill Henderson long enough to know that he wouldn't waste time pacifying her with meaningless platitudes. He also knew Clark, so that when she had described her reconstruction of Clark's abduction, he hadn't made stupid suggestions or asked stupid questions, but had immediately reeled off a series of rapid-fire queries, wanting to know what stories Clark was working on, who he might have made enemies of recently, and asking for any possible suspects Lois might already have in mind.

Of course, she hadn't been able to tell him the one piece of information which was actually at the centre of his investigation: whoever had kidnapped Clark had to know that he was also Superman.

If she wanted to, she could convince herself that Clark had actually allowed himself to be kidnapped. After all, it wouldn't be the first time he had done something like that, in order to discover who wanted to kidnap him and why. She could picture him feigning normal strength, putting up just enough resistance to fool his captors, and carefully taking in everything he saw and heard for further investigation. That was the comforting version of events, and one she would dearly like to believe, but for a piece of puzzle which had suddenly fallen into place: the break-in at Star Labs.

At the time, she had thought it a nonsensical act; a break-in to steal schematics of a chip which was so preliminary as to be virtually useless. Incompetent, mis-informed thieves were not unknown, of course, but she had felt something was wrong about the break-in as soon as she had first arrived at Star Labs. If she hadn't been in such a foul mood following that well-woman clinic, she might have done something about that gut feeling. Now she regretted not checking more thoroughly: she was sure that if she asked Dr Klein to check the kryptonite vault right now, there would either be a piece missing, or whatever was in there would be a fake.

So while Henderson and his staff investigated Clark's abduction, Lois was going to re-open that Star Labs investigation.

The door opened to the conference room again, and she looked up from the cold cup of coffee she'd been staring into.

"Lois, what the heck's going on? I come back from lunch to find the foyer swarming with police wanting to know where I was at 9am this morning, and when I come up here, all Jimmy can tell me is that I better come and talk to you. Please don't tell me this is more bad news."

"Clark's been kidnapped." She didn't have the energy to dress it up nicely, and it didn't become any easier to announce each time she had to tell someone, so Perry received the raw, unedited version.

"Kidnapped? Are you sure?"

She closed her eyes briefly. If one more person asked her that, she'd do something violent. Or start crying. One of the two.

"Hell, honey, that was a stupid question, wasn't it? Of course you're sure." She opened her eyes to find him sinking into a chair at the table beside her. "What happened? And is there anything I can do?"

"All I know is that two men grabbed hold of him downstairs, pretending to be friends of his, and dragged him outside. I don't know why." But I do know that they must have hurt him…

By the look of him, Perry was thinking the same thing. "Clark's a fighter, honey. And if they've kidnapped him for money, they won't hurt him."

"Thanks, Perry, but I doubt they've taken him for money. We haven't got any — at least, not enough to interest kidnappers. And there hasn't been any kind of ransom demand."

He rubbed his hand over his jaw thoughtfully. "I guess you've been through the usual list of suspects and checked who's been released from jail with the police?"

She nodded. "Nothing, really." She stood up; she'd been sitting idle for too long. "I've got to go over to Star Labs. There's something I want to check out over there."

"Star Labs? What in Elvis' name do you want to go there for?"

"It's just an idea…I'll tell you later." When she'd figured out a cover story to tell him. Right now she just wanted to get on with finding Clark.

He stopped her at the door. "You know that the Planet has pretty deep pockets, if it does turn out to be a ransom demand."

"Thanks, Perry — and I'm sorry that I won't be working on Ann's story until this is over."

"Of course, honey. Anything you need, you just let me know."

She nodded jerkily and hurried out of the room. His sympathetic eyes were too much to bear: she was far better off concentrating on investigating rather than thinking too hard about what was happening to Clark right now.

***

The voice had stopped. At least, he thought there had been a voice talking which wasn't there any more. Everything was muddled. He thought he was lying in a bed, but even that wasn't a certainty. He was fairly sure he had his eyes closed, and that his name was Clark Kent and…and that he felt faintly nauseous. Why would that be? No idea, except…he remembered a woman. Blonde hair scraped back into a pony tail, big glasses, looming over him with a predatory smile on her face — pinning him down, taunting him and touching him…

In a moment of searing clarity, his senses zeroed in on the place where she had been touching him.

And he remembered the pin-prick in his arm.

What had she done to him?

Suddenly his heart was thumping. What had she done to him? Why was he lying in this bed — he was sure of that now — his body so heavy and lethargic that he couldn't move it? What had she done? What had-

"Clark. Everything is all right." The calm, compelling voice was back again, but everything wasn't all right. He was scared. "Don't be scared. Everything is all right. Don't be scared. Everything is all right…"

The voice was his lifeline. He'd been all right until it had stopped talking to him, but it was back again now. It was comforting, if only he could hold onto its calm security and forget this rising panic. He listened to it.

"Don't be scared, Clark. Everything is all right. Don't be scared. Everything is all right. Don't be scared. Everything is all right. Don't be scared…"

The slow, soothing murmur gradually helped him calm down, and soon everything was all right. He wasn't scared.

***

Her visit to Star Labs confirmed her hypothesis that the kryptonite vault had been broken into and a sample removed; Dr Klein tested the pieces remaining, and one of the larger fragments was a fake. He was mortified by his omission, and was immediately eager to contact Superman to warn him, until Lois deflected him by breaking the news that Clark, the person he had hoped would be able to make contact, was missing, presumed kidnapped. His resulting sympathy and concern was kind and well-meant, but of little use to her: she was making a determined effort to concentrate single-mindedly on the investigation. Sympathy was distracting and only made it harder to ignore her own frantic fears for her husband.

The police officer in charge of the Star Labs investigation had little to offer her either — just a couple of descriptions and evidence which pointed to a very high-tech break-in. She would have expected no less, considering the Labs' advanced security systems.

Nevertheless, every tiny piece of information had to help in some way, she reminded herself as she waited for the descriptions to arrive on Dr Klein's fax machine.

"And you've no idea why Clark might have been kidnapped?" Dr Klein was asking.

At least this was a question she could answer truthfully for both Clark and Superman. "Not really. I mean, we've both got enemies — you can't help collecting them in our business, but there's no one person or group that seems to have it in for him right now." As Superman, of course, there were always going to be people who wanted to stop him doing his job, but she needed specifics, not generalities.

"Do you think they got the right person? Maybe they thought Clark was someone important — uh, not that Clark isn't important, of course! He's the most important person in the world to you, I know, but he's not-"

"They got the right person," she interrupted heavily, cutting him off before he dug himself an even deeper hole. "They lured him downstairs, remember?"

"Oh, yes. I forgot. So why are you over here, investigating our break-in?"

"Because I think the two are linked in some way."

"Because Clark knows how to contact Superman?" His face showed how far-fetched an idea he thought that was, although he didn't say anything.

<Because he is Superman>

But she couldn't say that. "It's just a hunch," she said instead.

The fax machine beeped and began rolling out the fax she'd been waiting for. "What now?" asked Dr Klein.

"Back to the Planet. Let me know if the police come up with anything more here, will you, Dr Klein?"

"Of course, Lois. And I hope you find Clark soon."

"Thanks."

***

Back at the Planet, she made straight for Jimmy. "See what you can dig up on these two, Jimmy," she said, dumping the faxed descriptions on his desk in front of him. "I know it's not much to go on, but see if you can correlate them with the last few stories Clark worked on."

"Sure, Lois. Although if you really think there's a link, why don't I see if they match the descriptions the police have of Clark's kidnappers?"

"They have descriptions?"

"I heard one of them say they had a partial description a while ago, but maybe they've got more by now."

She nodded. "Do it."

Slumping down behind her own desk, she noticed that the newsroom hubbub was thinning out, and realised that the working day was nearing an end. Which meant that Clark had been missing for almost nine hours. She gazed over at his empty chair.

<Where are you, Clark?>

Nine hours was such a long time. Anything could have happened to him in that time — he might not even be in Metropolis any more. He could be hurt, sick, or even…

No! She wasn't going to start thinking like that; she wasn't even going to let herself entertain that idea. There was no point. What she had to do was figure out why someone would want to kidnap Superman and hold him for nine hours.

"Lois, honey? Why don't you go home and let the police take care of this?"

She looked up at Perry. "I can't. I have to keep looking for him, Perry."

"Mr White's right, Ms Lane." It was one of the police detectives. "The best place you can be right now is at home. If the kidnappers release your husband, that's where he'll go, and if they try to contact you, that's where they'll look for you first. I'll send one of my men home with you so that we can put a tap on your phone."

"They won't be trying to contact me. I told you before — there isn't going to be a ransom demand for Clark." And she certainly didn't want the police tapping her phone!

"How can you be so sure? Kidnappers will often wait a few hours to soften you up before they make first contact, Ms Lane."

"I just know." Although, if they knew that Clark was Superman, then they probably knew that she was his wife…maybe it was possible they would try and contact her after all. She stood up abruptly. "I will go home though — on my own," she added pointedly.

Because he had also been right about Clark; if he did escape or get released, he would probably head for home if he could. With her laptop, two phones, and access to the Planet's computers, she could carry on her investigation just as well there as here, and maybe even more effectively without people like this well-meaning police detective to distract her.

"A phone tap is standard procedure in these cases, Ms Lane."

"Not in this case," she retorted, putting on her coat.

"It's for your husband's benefit."

"Look, if they contact me, you'll be the first to know, I promise you." She shouldered her purse and made for the elevators. "Mr White has my phone numbers if you need to contact me."

"Ms Lane!" protested the policeman from behind her, but she ignored him and kept going. At the elevators, she pulled her cell-phone out to check that it was still switched on. How many times was that now? Probably the third or fourth, but if Clark tried to contact her on it, she wanted to be damn sure he got through.

***

Mrs Patterson pushed open the door to the control room. "I gather you want to discuss something with me. Do we have a problem?"

Dr Scott turned from the bank of monitors displaying the alien's vital signs. "Yes. I can't keep him stable for much longer." She indicated one of the monitors. "As you can see, we're already seeing spikes of increased brain activity, typically coinciding with an increase in heart rate."

"And this can't be corrected?" asked Mrs Patterson.

"Not without putting an undue strain on his body. From the start, we've been working within very narrow parameters, between the kryptonite and the drugs we're using. Throw in a totally alien physiology, and, frankly, I think we're lucky to have got away with it for so long."

Mrs Patterson turned to Ms Jones. "How much longer do you need?"

She shrugged. "He's been responding well to the programming so far. Ideally, I'd prefer longer, in order to reinforce it with some auto-suggestion techniques, but I believe the work I've accomplished so far will do the trick."

Mrs Patterson gave her young colleague a cold look. "We are not performing a circus act here, Ms Jones. What you term a trick is, in fact, the neutralising of a dangerous threat to humanity."

Ms Jones smirked. "A very *large* threat."

Such a cheap, tawdry remark… "I'm sorry you don't take our work here as seriously as the rest of us," she snapped. "Dr Scott has already told me about your stupid prank earlier with the alien, which leaves me wondering whether you belong with our group or not, Ms Jones. Apparently you find the alien physically attractive."

Ms Jones shrugged carelessly again. "Only in an academic sense. As a scientist, I'm fascinated by such an usual and unique specimen. And I still think it's unnecessary to tamper with his physiology — my programming is more than adequate to prevent reproduction, whereas you could end up doing more harm than good if Professor Davis's procedure goes wrong."

"Well, thankfully the decision isn't yours to make, Ms Jones. Professor Davis has assured me that success in guaranteed, and I have the utmost faith in his abilities." She paused. "And, Ms Jones?"

"What?"

"Please confine your fascination to the cerebral rather than the physical in future. Is that understood?"

"Sure."

Mrs Patterson looked sharply at her young subordinate; she abhorred such casual, sloppy language, believing it to indicate a sloppy mind and a careless attitude.

"Yes," amended Ms Jones after a pause.

"Thank you. Dr Scott, perhaps you would be so good as to contact Professor Davis and ask him to prepare for surgery?"

"Of course."

***

The phone was ringing.

Lois burst out of the kitchen where she'd been making herself a cup of coffee and hurled herself at the receiver. "Yes?"

"Lois, it's Bill Henderson. I won't stay on the line long — I just wanted to give you an update."

She grabbed on to the coffee table with her free hand, momentarily dizzy from the sudden rush of adrenaline which had propelled her from the kitchen. This was the second time; the first phone call had been Jimmy, letting her know that he'd found a match between the two sets of descriptions. One of the men who had been seen carrying out some preparatory surveillance at Star Labs the day before the break-in was almost certainly the same man who had first approached Clark in the Planet's foyer this morning.

Once she had recovered from her disappointment that the call hadn't been from Clark, she had been grateful for the news. It confirmed her very strong suspicions, and it gave her a clearer profile of the people who had kidnapped Clark: they obviously had access to high-end security technology, given Star Lab's advanced security measures. They were also organised, with money and/or considerable resources at their disposal. And, while she had no concrete basis for her hunch, she suspected that there was a group of people at work here, possibly with a strong individual leading them. Whether that group had ties with officialdom, or was working privately, was impossible to tell, but again, her hunch told her they were privately funded.

"Lois, you there?"

She dragged herself back to the phone call. "Yes. Sorry."

"I thought you'd like to know that we've got a lead on the vehicle Clark was probably taken away in. A passer-by saw Clark being walked towards the back of a van parked just inside an alley beside Joey's Bar. She thought he was drunk, and that was why she noticed him — she has very strong feelings on the subject of liquor which she's only to willing to share with anyone who stands still long enough." Lois detected a dry note of suffering in Henderson's voice; no doubt he'd been on the receiving end of one of the lady's lectures. "Anyway, we have a partial licence plate."

"Will you be able to trace the van from that?" she asked, sinking down onto the nearest sofa.

"Well, we've got a colour. Our witness doesn't have much of an eye for cars, though, so no make and just a pretty generic description of the shape. I've got a guy showing her pictures of vans right now, so with a bit of luck, we might have the vehicle pinned down in an hour or so."

"That's good news. Did Jimmy tell you about the descriptions?"

"Yeah. You know, Lois, if you'd told us you thought there was a link, we could have done the matching ourselves."

She sighed; did it really matter? The result was the same. "Sorry I trampled on your investigative pride. I'm just trying to find my husband here."

"And so are we, Lois, so are we." He paused. "Look, are you sure you don't want one of my policewomen to come sit with you?"

"Why, so you can make sure I don't do any more of your work for you?" she snapped.

"No. To keep you company, that's all. I know how tough it can get, waiting on your own like you are."

"Oh."

"But I guess you'd rather be alone."

<No, I'd rather have Clark here beside me.>

She swallowed past the sudden lump in her throat. "Yes. But thanks, Henderson." Her emotions were all over the place, it seemed; one minute she was fiercely determined and controlled, then the next she was on the verge of tears.

"No problem," he replied gruffly. "OK, I'll get off this line now, but I'll phone you later if we get the car details."

"OK."

She replaced the receiver and sat staring blankly at it. Everyone was being so nice to her, but all she wanted was her husband back. It wasn't much to ask, to have the person you married by your side, was it? And he didn't deserve any of this — all he tried to do was to make the world a better place to live in; to help where he could. Why was there always someone around who wanted to stop him doing that?

Abruptly, she thumped the sofa cushion beside her in angry frustration and stood up. Feeling sorry for herself wasn't going to do Clark any good; she needed to focus, to think clearly about this mysterious group she had formed a tentative theory about.

***

Ms Jones glanced furtively up at the closed-circuit TV camera mounted in one corner of the alien's room. She knew it was switched off; she had done it herself, but she still felt as if she were being watched. There wasn't much time: Dr Scott and Professor Davis were having a brief pre-operative discussion, and the rest had disappeared off for a meeting she hadn't been invited to, so for now she had the alien to herself.

All to herself.

Of course, any one of them could walk in at any moment; they were all prone to turning up when you least expected them, but this wouldn't take long.

She walked across to the bed to gaze at the alien. Such beautiful, full lips, and gorgeous eyes — at least, when they were open they were gorgeous. Who would have thought an alien could be so attractive? She let her gaze sweep down his body, imagining the smooth expanse of chest beneath the white sheets and the strong shoulders; the powerful legs, and best of all, what lay nestled…just there.

Smiling, she removed her lab coat.

***

There was pressure on his legs. He flexed a muscle experimentally, but he couldn't move from under the weight.

It was heavy, warm pressure.

His senses were gradually awakening; he could hear someone breathing, smell…an antiseptic, hospital kind of smell, taste… a sour, unpleasant taste as if he hadn't brushed his teeth for too long. His body felt heavy and aching; his head…fuzzy. The breathing was close by…he could feel a presence near him; very near him. He tried to open his eyes, but everything was blurry for a second. There was a shape looming over him — he blinked, and the image cleared.

No!

The woman from before, grinning down at him again. He jerked to try and escape, and felt nausea rise in his throat. "Get off—"

Her hand clamped over his mouth.

Wildly, he shook his head from side to side, ignoring the sickening swimming sensation as he did so, trying desperately to shake her off. He made noise, as much noise as he could, but she was too strong for him; her fingers dug into his cheek and wouldn't let go. She was smothering him.

"Shhhh!" she commanded. "I'm here to help."

He didn't believe her. She had molested him, put him in this bed, and made him sick. How could he believe her?

"We've probably got about fifteen minutes before the others come back. Don't you want to escape?"

Escape to where? It had to be a trick…

"Look, if you keep struggling like this, you won't have enough strength to get out of here. Or maybe you'd prefer to stay here and let them operate on you?"

Operate? He stared, horrified, up at her. What sort of operation?

"Okay, I can see you don't. So will you trust me? If I let go will you stay quiet?"

He nodded: it occurred to him that there was no-one here to rescue him from her anyway if he shouted out. He didn't trust her, but if she was telling the truth, then he would do anything in his power to get away from here. As soon as she took her hand away, he asked, "What sort of operation?"

She shook her head. "Uh, uh. No questions." She grinned down at him. "But I have one for you, Clark. Just how much do you want to escape?"

He stared up her, wondering what on earth she was getting at. "I'm not interested in playing twenty questions with you," he answered harshly.

"That's a shame, Clark, because nothing in life is free — you should know that. You want to escape, you have to do something for me first."

He felt her hand delve downwards.

Seething anger boiled up inside him: how dare she?! "Get off me!" he spat. And just what did she mean — 'do something for her'? Surely she couldn't mean…

"Oh, come now, Clark," she purred, moving sinuously over him. "I'm sure you've got it in you — wouldn't you like to play away from home just once? Lois will never know."

This wasn't happening.

He realised with horror that she must have stripped the bedclothes off him, so that all there was between himself and her groping hands was a thin hospital gown. "You've got the wrong man," he gritted, willing himself to stare directly up at her with a cold, hard expression. Maybe she wanted him to show emotion, but he was damned if he was going to give her that satisfaction.

"Oh, I think I've got just the right…*man*. Come on, Clark, show me what you've got."

She intensified her motions, looking down at him with predatory, hungry eyes, but her expression only made him more determined to give her nothing in return. Instead of a physical battle, the nightmare was turning into a battle of wills; he'd tried and failed once before to shake her off bodily, so this time he was staring emotionlessly up at her while she tried to make him respond to her touch.

Never mind that seething anger was giving way to something he didn't understand; a crumbling of his emotional foundations, a quivering panic telling him that this was dangerous, that there was something he needed, something inextricably linked to this scenario. It was an equation, a balancing of one thing against another.

Where there was sex, there was…

"Is this what you need, Clark?"

She was holding up a thin, brightly coloured packet.

A condom.

The equation was complete, and the panic abated.

What?!

Confusion overwhelmed him — he had absolutely no intention, no desire, no *anything*; only disgust for this woman and her lascivious hands. Why had he cared whether or not she had a condom? It didn't make any sense. Was he losing his mind?

She was grinning down at him again. "Good, Clark." She dropped the packet onto his chest was a mocking smile. "I think you're going to do just fine."

And, abruptly, she stopped touching him. "I admit I'm disappointed though. Perhaps you're not as virile as our tapes led me to believe, if that's the best you can do."

Tapes? "What tapes?" he demanded.

She shook her head. "I told you, Clark. No questions." She leant over him, and for a split second he thought she was going to try and kiss him. He whipped his head to one side, immediately inducing lurching nausea which brought him out in a cold sweat. While he was fighting to bring it under control, he dimly felt her fingers fiddling first at one wrist and then the other.

His arms were free of their restraints.

Immediately, he forced himself upwards and grabbed her upper arms tightly, pulling her to him. "Who are you?" he ground out fiercely. It suddenly mattered a lot to know who had assaulted and abused him so thoroughly; who hated him enough to want to do this to him.

"I told you, Clark — no questions," she answered calmly.

And already his arms were trembling as he held her, losing the tiny burst of strength which had propelled him into this position. He fought against the weakness, staring into her cold eyes, but it was useless — he dropped back onto the bed, breathing heavily and feeling sick again. What had they done to him? This was far more than the usual symptoms of kryptonite exposure.

He felt her undo the restraints on his ankles, and then she was shifting off him.

Relief.

He concentrated on gathering his wits together for a few moments, and then cautiously sat up. His head felt as though it was detached from the rest of his body, swimming gently on an unstable base. It didn't help that the room was blindingly white wherever he looked, increasing his sense of disorientation.

"Put these on." She was handing him a pair of sneakers, which he took hesitantly and began to slowly fumble onto his bare feet. "I don't know where they put your clothes, so you'll have to make do with this."

A lab coat. To go with the hospital gown he was wearing. Well, at least he'd be decent from all angles. He pulled it on, swung his legs around and stood up shakily. The room lurched, but he managed to stay upright by grabbing onto the bed. The weakness was alarming, as was the fog in his head and the dull ache in his body.

"Come on." She grabbed him around the waist and pulled him forwards. His first instinct was to resist, to flinch away from this monstrous woman, but he quickly realised that he needed her support to stop himself tumbling to the floor. Every step felt as if it would be his last, but somehow they were through a door and into a corridor — a series of corridors and doors; through a large kitchen area, into some sort of utility room, and then they were outside. He was panting with the exertion, holding on to her for dear life while his legs trembled and shook and threatened to give way altogether. It had to be drugs of some kind, he thought, to make him feel so weak and sick. The dull ache was probably the after-effects of kryptonite exposure…he had a hazy memory of being dragged, helpless, across the Planet foyer. When had that been? How long had he been lying in that room — and what had they been doing to him during that time?

"Hey!" She shook him roughly and he tried to concentrate on what she was saying. "Go that way," she pointed into the gloomy night. "You'll find a door in the wall. It should be open — it was earlier."

"Why…why are you doing this?" he asked, his voice sounding very distant to his own ears. And was it a trick? More mind-games to taunt him with? Would they be waiting for him at the other side of the door to capture him again?

Abruptly, she grabbed the back of his head and pulled him down to her height, crushing his lips fiercely with her own while her free hand grasped at his crotch. Disgusted and shocked, he pushed her away feverishly with his hands. That unnerving feeling of violation, of being invaded, rose up like bile in his throat again, and in the dim light cast from the back of the house, he saw her smiling knowingly up at him. "Let's just say I don't like to see perfection tampered with. Now go, before they notice you're missing."

She gave him a shove which sent him stumbling in the direction she had indicated earlier. He teetered dangerously for a second, but managed to right himself and continued, as fast as he could, towards the open door she had promised. He desperately needed to put as much distance as he could between himself and the house, these people, and most of all, that woman.

***

The phone was ringing again, but this time Lois had learnt her lesson. She took her time leaning over to pick up the receiver, knowing that it would only be Henderson, calling to tell her the identity of the kidnap vehicle.

"Lois Lane."

But it wasn't Henderson, it was the operator, asking her if she was willing to accept a collect call. Her heart suddenly pounding, she agreed.

"Lois, it's me."

Oh, god! It was the most wonderful sound she'd ever heard in her entire life. "Where are you, Clark?"

"I don't know…"

His voice sounded shaky. Sick, scared, cold, or all three? "Outside or indoors?"

"Outside…on a payphone."

"Are you in danger?" That should have been her first question. Stupid, Lois!

"I don't know…I tried to get as far away as I could…I think so."

Okay, that was better, but she wasn't getting the positive responses she'd expect from Clark, which had to mean he wasn't well. "Are you sick, Clark? Should you be in hospital?" she asked, trying to keep her questions simple for him to understand.

"Can't go to the hospital…"

He was worrying about being exposed as Superman at a time like this? "Don't worry about that, honey — I'll make sure they don't find out." She had no idea how she'd do that, but that was for her to worry about, not him. "But if you're badly hurt, you need to dial 911 and call an ambulance for yourself right now."

She gripped the receiver tightly, waiting for his response. "I'm okay…just cold."

Yeah, Clark. She was sure that was a gross understatement, judging by his voice, but she would have to trust his assessment of his physical condition. "All right, honey. Now, all we've got to do is figure out where you are, and then I can come and get you. Okay?" She forced a calm, positive tone into her own voice, even though she was frantically trying to work out how on earth she was going to find him, and wondering just how bad his situation really was.

"Okay."

"Okay. So, is there a number on the payphone?"

He read it out to her, and she repeated it back to herself, memorising it. She had no idea if the plan she'd just thought of was going to work, but if it didn't, at least she now had some information about his location. The first part of the plan was the scary part…

"You need to dial 911 and ask them the location of the phone you're calling from. I think they should be able to trace your call."

"Won't they want to send an ambulance or something?"

"Just tell them you're lost and you thought this was the easiest way to find out where you are. If you sound lost enough, it should work."

"I'm not sure, Lois…"

"I know, Clark, but it's worth a try. Come on — you can do this. Just try not to sound as if you need rescuing."

She heard something approaching a laugh from him. "But I do need rescuing."

"I know, but…well, you know what I mean."

"Yeah. Okay, I'll call you back." The connection broke, and she waited.

She wasn't at all sure if he could pull this off with the emergency services. He needed to tread a fine line between sounding too flippant, and sounding incompetent and desperate. If they got suspicious, they could either refuse to help him, or go the opposite way, and send out a police car. She wasn't sure which was the lesser of the two evils.

Too long, too long…

She was about to start phoning people, emergency people, when the phone sprang to life at last. "Clark?"

"Fountain Road, West Metropolis."

"You did it! Great!"

"Yeah. Guess I'm a better actor than I thought I was," he said shakily.

"Must be. Okay, now I want to try phoning you on my cell phone so that we can stay in contact while I come and get you-"

"There's a notice saying this phone doesn't accept incoming calls."

"Oh. Okay, no problem," she said with false brightness. "Then you'll just have to call me. You can remember the number, can't you?"

He reeled it off for her competently enough, and a brief question and answer established that he had no means to write it down anywhere, so that meant she would have to trust his memory. After all, he'd remembered their home phone number, so why shouldn't he remember this number?

So once again she was left waiting by a silent phone. At least he had started to sound as if he'd gathered his wits together a bit better by the time he'd rung off.

Many nail-biting minutes later, her cell phone rang. "Clark? What happened?"

"Nothing, I just…nothing."

"Are you all right?" Because he sounded awful.

"I'm fine," he insisted in a stronger voice. "Although I could use a mug of Oolong tea and a hot water bottle right about now."

"How about a warm jeep?" she suggested, shouldering on her coat and hurrying to the door.

"That would be good, too."

She locked the door and rushed down the stairs to the jeep. "Just as well I drive one, then."

"Yeah, funny coincidence, that."

It was the start of a long, pointless conversation, but she didn't care. As long as he was talking to her, she knew he was okay.

***

West Metropolis was on the other side of town, but it was late, so the traffic was light. She kept Clark on the line the whole time she drove, awkwardly keeping the cell phone tucked under her chin while she manoeuvred the jeep as fast as she could through the darkened streets. He had told her he was concerned that the emergency services might send someone out to him, so she was trying hard to get there before anyone else did.

Suddenly, he interrupted her light banter urgently. "There's a car coming."

She was just rounding the corner into his street; it was a long, wide boulevard with large houses hidden behind walls and tall gates. Her investigative senses were asking why he had been taken here, to such an upscale, private area of the city. Her tentative theory, that whoever had kidnapped him was possibly led by a strong individual with private means, was suddenly looking less tentative.

"Sure, honey, that's me," she answered reassuringly. "Where are you?" The streetlights weren't very good, and it was difficult to see beyond the weak pools of light cast by them.

"No, it's not you. Lois, what if it's them?" he asked tightly.

She spotted the headlamps of the other car, right at the other end of the street. He was right — it certainly could be his captors, out searching for him. She floored the accelerator, senses on full alert, eyes darting everywhere, looking for Clark on the gloomy sidewalk, then darting back to the on-coming car. Was it getting faster?

Suddenly, a white figure emerged from the gloom, running towards her.

Clark!

She zoomed across to him, noticing from the corner of her eye that the other car was now coming much closer and definitely moving fast. Screeching to a halt, she dove across the passenger seat, ignoring the clatter of her cell-phone as it fell somewhere between the seats, grabbed the door handle and flung the door open.

"Get in!"

The other car was almost upon them. Clark scrambled inside, slammed the door shut and she dug her foot down on the accelerator, tyres screaming in protest as the jeep hurtled forward. She had to swerve to avoid the other car, catching a brief glimpse of two grim-looking men as she did so, and then they were driving at breakneck speed down the street.

Her eyes darted to the rear-view mirror. She could see the tail-lights of the other car, which meant they hadn't turned around yet. The end of the street came, and she hurtled around the corner and gunned the engine again. This road was even darker than the other one — good; that would make it even easier to see the other car since there was no other traffic on the roads.

She snatched a glance at Clark. He was panting hard; his chest heaving as he struggled noisily for breath. His eyes were screwed tightly shut, and his face was deathly pale. His clothes — she checked the rear-view mirror quickly and came up blank — his clothes weren't clothes at all. He seemed to be wearing some sort of hospital gown under a thin white overall, the sleeves of which were far too short for him. A lab coat? And his legs were bare.

What had been happening to him?

She checked the rear-view mirror again — still nothing. Maybe they weren't following after all. Still…she wove quickly through the streets, gradually taking them further and further away from their pursuers.

"Are they gone?" he asked anxiously.

She stole another hurried glance at him before concentrating on the road ahead again. His breathing was calmer at last, but he was shivering and he still looked unnaturally pale. Kryptonite usually made him feverish, but there was no sign of sweat on his forehead… "I think so. We're several streets away now and I haven't seen them once."

"They didn't follow us?"

"Doesn't look like it."

She sensed him huddle in on himself, and instinct made her reach for his hand. "Clark, you're freezing!"

It had been like touching a block of ice. She turned the jeep heaters on to full, wishing she had remembered to bring some blankets with her. Another glance in the mirror told her they were still safe, so she drew in to the sidewalk, wriggled quickly out of her coat and laid it over him as best she could.

"Thanks."

She smiled at him. "Just don't make a habit of wearing my clothes, okay?"

He nodded jerkily. "Okay."

She drew out into the road again, and headed swiftly for home, keeping a close eye on her rear-view mirror all the way.

***

Paradoxically, now that he was safe, Clark felt worse than he had since first waking up in that white, antiseptic room. Sitting beside Lois in the jeep, bundled inside her winter coat, he began to tremble uncontrollably and his head swam sickeningly. The roar of the heaters seemed to engulf him; invade his head, while in front of him, the streetlights flicking by created a throbbing mass of too-bright light.

Perhaps it was delayed shock. Perhaps his body had been storing up all this misery while he had been fighting for survival; putting the hurt on hold until he was safe to deal with it. Except he wasn't really dealing with it. He was suffering it.

"How did you get away?" she asked.

Not a question he wanted to answer right now; he wasn't ready to uncover the mass of raw emotions he'd placed a temporary lid over. That woman… He sensed Lois glance anxiously at him, waiting for him to speak.

"Someone helped me."

"Oh? Who?"

Of course she was concerned; needing to learn every little detail of what had happened to him. He'd be just the same if she had been the one to disappear for a whole day. But she'd asked the question he simply couldn't answer; couldn't bear to answer.

Her hand touched his leg. "It's okay. We'll talk about it later."

He glanced over at her gratefully and sank back into silence. Right now, he wasn't sure if he would ever be able to tell her what had happened; the humiliation and shame he felt every time he thought about that woman made him shrivel up inside…

It was too much.

***

Lois pushed their front door open, wrapped her arm securely around Clark's waist again and guided him indoors, kicking the door shut behind her. Her intention was to take him straight upstairs to bed, but he shook his head slightly and pulled away from her towards the nearest sofa.

She sat down with him and felt one of his hands; it was still icy cold.

"I'll get some blankets."

She gave him a quick squeeze around the shoulders and stood up again. He'd nodded slightly at her remark, but otherwise he was frighteningly quiet and unresponsive. She'd tried to draw him out into conversation in the jeep, but it seemed that every question she asked was a question he didn't want to answer. After the success she'd had in managing to keep him chatting on her cell phone during the drive over to his pay phone, his silence was puzzling and alarming. She desperately wanted to know what his kidnappers had done to him to make him so uncharacteristically quiet. Now, as she ran upstairs, he was sitting, motionless, on the edge of the sofa, staring at the floor.

Grabbing an armful of blankets from the airing cupboard, she rushed back downstairs and laid them over his shoulders, eased him back onto the sofa cushions and wrapped the blanket ends around him.

"Thanks, Lois."

An unsolicited remark — surely a good sign? "That's okay." She ran her hand gently through his hair. "How are you feeling? Any warmer?"

"A little."

"How about that mug of Oolong tea now? It'll help warm you up."

"Yes, please. That would be nice."

"All right."

She hurried into the kitchen. Suddenly the simple task of boiling a kettle, finding a tea bag and a mug seemed very complicated — she splashed water all over the place filling the kettle, dropped the box of tea bags onto the counter, and almost knocked over a bottle reaching for his mug. Telling herself roughly to pull herself together, she completed the job with careful, deliberate movements.

What was wrong with him? She'd seen him sick before, tended to him when he was ill from kryptonite exposure, but he'd never been like this; so…defeated. Clark was a fighter, just as she was herself — he didn't give up in the face of adversity, he just fought harder.

What had they done to him?

She carried the mug back into the living room. Clark was making his way shakily across to the staircase, a blanket half-falling off his back as he walked.

"Where are you going, honey? I've got your tea."

"I need a shower."

He teetered precariously as he said it, and she hurried to his side to support him, dumping the tea hastily on a table as she passed it. His abrupt switch in intentions unnerved and confused her, but she pushed away the feelings, trying to concentrate on helping him in any way she could, however oddly he behaved.

"Good idea — it'll help warm you up," she said encouragingly.

"Yeah. Warm me up," he muttered.

He sounded odd, as if it was a new idea to him. But why else…? Frowning, she supported him upstairs and into the bathroom, where she started to help him undress.

"No!" He pushed her away with his hands.

"I thought you wanted a shower?"

"I do."

"It's traditional to get out of your clothes before you get into the shower," she said with a smile, reaching up to ease the lab coat off his shoulders.

He grabbed her hand to stop her. "I can manage on my own."

"Clark, you can hardly stand on your own! You need my help."

"I'll manage," he insisted.

"But…" What if he slipped? Lost his balance?

"Just let me do this, okay? I'm not a baby!" He pushed completely away from her so that he was standing on his own, apart from her.

Something wasn't right. First silence, and now he was lashing out at her; distancing himself from her? She looked into his wounded eyes and tried to read what was going on behind them, but all she could see was a warning not to probe any deeper.

"All right. Just promise me you'll sit down the moment you feel dizzy, okay?"

He nodded.

She turned to leave. "I'll be in the bedroom if you need me." …trying to figure out what had turned her husband into this hurt, taciturn creature. She didn't even know exactly what was causing his physical illness; apart from the kryptonite she knew his kidnappers had used to capture him with, she hadn't managed to extract any information from him at all about what had been done to him. Which wasn't good; what if he was hiding a greater physical hurt which required medical attention?

"I'm sorry."

His quiet voice tore at his heart. Fighting against the tears pricking at her eyes, she turned around in the doorway and walked quickly back to him, wrapped her arms around his large frame and hugged him tight. "It's okay, Clark. Whatever it is, we'll get through it together. Just like we always do."

***

Her words made him want to cry, but no tears came. He felt empty inside, as if someone had severed the connection between his heart and wherever his emotions had gone to. Or maybe there was no emotion to feel — after all, what had really happened? Just a crazy woman touching him where he'd prefer her not to. She hadn't hurt him — well, okay, she had hurt him with kryptonite and possibly drugs, but he'd experienced worse than that, or at least as bad as. Spending a night in a kryptonite cage, courtesy of Lex Luthor, had to be as bad as this.

So he was probably just over-tired, and still sick from the drugs they had pumped into him.

"I'll drop your sleep-shorts and dressing gown just inside the door, okay?" Lois was saying.

"Thanks. And don't worry — I'll be fine," he added. "I'm feeling better already."

"Great!"

He waited until he was alone, and stripped off the strange clothes and sneakers, shivering in his nakedness even though he knew the bathroom was warm. For a moment, he was tempted to screw the clothes up into a tight ball and stuff them, out of sight, into the small trashcan under the sink. He never wanted to see them again. But they were evidence, and he supposed he should keep them for the investigation.

If there was an investigation.

Did he want an investigation?

No.

He shuddered, and reached up to turn on the shower. No, he didn't want to relive today, thank you very much. He wanted to bury it; pretend it never happened, and get on with the rest of his life.

And right now, he wanted to get clean. He wanted to wash away those invading, sinuous hands crawling over his body; wash away the smell of her breath on his face; rid himself of her fingers touching his skin…

A shudder, more violent than the first, made him grab for the side of the shower cubicle to steady himself. He was tired, that was all; just tired and sick. And as the hot needles of water rained down on him, he forced himself to relax and lose the trembling in his limbs.

***

Lois was on the phone when he walked into their bedroom. Conscious of her eyes following him as she spoke, he sat down on the edge of the bed, thankful that she'd thoughtfully pulled the covers down for him. Feeling self-conscious, and wishing she wouldn't keep glancing at him, he quickly slipped off his dressing gown and slid into bed, pulling the covers tight up around his neck. He still felt chilled, and for the first time in his life, wished he owned a pair of pyjamas.

Finishing her phone call, she came to perch on the side of the bed beside him. "Better?"

"Much."

"That was Inspector Henderson. I was just phoning him to let him know you're back."

"You called the police." Which meant statements, descriptions, interviews, identity parades…

"Yes, of course I called the police, Clark! I did everything I could to get you back, and that included phoning Bill Henderson and asking him to side-step all the usual crap the police go through in these situations. And he did, Clark — he pulled out all the stops for you. I could never have interviewed everyone in the foyer as quickly as they did, or found someone who could ID the van you were taken away in."

"So — everyone knows?"

"Clark! Yes, everyone knows." Her hand ruffled through his hair. "Because they all care about you, honey."

"I just thought…"

"I'd keep things quiet because of you being Superman?" He nodded. "I admit it was a tough call, but I decided I needed all the help I could get. Of course, you made things easy by escaping and finding that phone, but before that I was working on very little information." She paused, touching the back of her hand to his cheek. "Clark, I know you don't want to talk about it, but you still look very pale and I can tell you're not warm yet — are you sure you don't want me to call Dr Klein? I could easily spin him a Superman story to cover us. You know I've had plenty of practice," she finished with a soft smile.

"I'm fine, Lois, honestly. Just tired."

"You're not in any pain?"

He shook his head.

"Do you know what made you sick? Apart from the kryptonite, I mean?"

Well, there was this woman. She made me pretty sick, but not the way you mean… "I think they drugged me. I didn't think there were any drugs that could affect me, but they seemed to have found one."

"What did it do to you?" she asked, frowning with concern.

"Kept me knocked out, I think. I was definitely pretty out of it most of the time."

*Most* of the time.

"But you think it's working its way out of your system now?"

"Yes. I'll be fine by morning, I'm sure."

"Okay." She stood up and glanced at her watch. "I'm just going to phone Perry and Jimmy and let them know you're safe, then I'm coming to bed. All right?"

"Yeah."

He turned over on his side and closed his eyes, trying to let Lois's quiet murmur in the background lull him to sleep. He heard her say "He's fine," and "thanks," a couple of times, and then there were the comforting, familiar sounds of her preparing for bed. That was what he should concentrate on — the familiar security of being with Lois, and nothing else.

He felt the bed dip as she moved in beside him. Normally, he would roll over onto his back and she would cuddle up close to him, but something stopped him tonight. He loved her, he was more grateful than he could ever tell her for rescuing him, but he just couldn't-

She brushed his back lightly with her lips. "Night, Clark."

"Night, Lois."

***

The house stood silent and dark in its grounds. Earlier, it had been a blaze of light, as the occupants combed each and every room for their prisoner and went over every inch of its grounds with torches and guns. Men had been despatched onto the surrounding streets, on foot and in cars, and it was then that the report came in that he had been snatched away at the last minute by a woman driving a Cherokee jeep.

Now only the basement meeting room showed signs of life. The group had been called to order, and opening the double doors, Mrs Patterson marched straight to the head of the table.

"So which one of you imbeciles let him go?" she asked icily, glancing around the table at their upturned faces.

"Oh, for Christ's sake, do we even have to ask?" drawled Sayer sarcastically. "She's had the hots for the alien right from the start."

"Who, Mr Sayer?" asked Mrs Patterson.

"Her!" He nodded across the table. "Ms tight-ass Jones. What did you do, Ms Jones — assault him while he was still tied up and then let him go? Or can't you even do it when they're tied up?" he added nastily.

"Just because I didn't *do* you, as you so quaintly put it, Sayer, doesn't mean I don't *do* men who've got just slightly more than you have to offer a woman," retorted Ms Jones with a sneer.

A stunned silence followed her retort.

"Thank you for sharing that with us, Ms Jones," said Mrs Patterson eventually. "I'm sure everyone around this table is sorry to hear that any burgeoning romance between you and Mr Sayer has withered on the vine. Perhaps now you would be so kind as to respond to Mr Sayer's somewhat colourful accusation?"

"Which part? The part where he accuses me of being unable to have sex without-"

"Did you let him go — yes or no?" interrupted Judge Peters sharply.

She smiled at him. "Yes."

"Told you," muttered Sayer.

"Can I ask why?" continued the Judge.

"Because the vasectomy was unnecessary and dangerous. Professor Davis claimed it was a straightforward procedure, but the truth is that he hadn't a clue if the alien's internal physiology was even remotely like ours — especially in the area in question. He could have done immeasurable damage."

"That's ridiculous!" exclaimed an outraged Professor Davis. "The procedure is so simple I could do it-"

"That's assuming he didn't kill his subject first by botching the anaesthesia," Ms Jones continued, raising her voice above Prof Davis's objections. "We all know how difficult Dr Jones was finding it to keep the alien stable during the drug treatment and programming phase, so do you really think that anaesthesia would have been straightforward?"

"And just what, pray, does a psychologist know about anaesthetics?" fumed Professor Davis.

"Oh, just about as much as a surgeon who had to quit and take up research before someone noticed how many of his patients were dying on the table."

"That's a damned lie!"

Another pregnant silence filled the room, then Professor Davis muttered something inaudible under his breath and stood up. "I demand that Ms Jones retract that last remark," he said haughtily.

Sayer rolled his eyes heavenward. "For God's sake, Davis, sit down and shut up. No-one gives a toss whether you killed your patients or not."

"I have my professional rep-"

"Sit down, Professor," interrupted Mrs Patterson. "Your professional reputation is hardly going to be affected by anything discussed in this room. And Mr Sayer, kindly refrain from using that crass language in my presence."

"So sorry," he replied dryly.

She frowned briefly at him. Sayer was usually her strongest ally in the group, but something seemed to have changed him in the last few days; possibly his failed attempt to get Ms Jones into bed was the cause.

She turned back to Ms Jones. "Tell me, Ms Jones — is there any reason why I shouldn't have you killed? You obviously have your own agenda, you don't seem able to work effectively as a team player, and you've just demonstrated very ably how much you know about us all, so I can't just let you go."

"Very true. But I think you'll find that you can't afford to kill me."

"Bullets are cheap," muttered Colonel Robertson.

"Agreed, Colonel," said Mrs Patterson. "But I suspect Ms Jones meant something else, didn't you?"

"Yes. But actually, you'd better ask Sayer to explain it. He set it up for me," she answered with a self-satisfied smile.

All eyes turned to Sayer, who frowned in genuine confusion across the table at Ms Jones, until everyone saw the penny drop, and fury replaced confusion. "Bitch!" he said venomously.

"Care to explain that, Mr Sayer?" enquired Mrs Patterson.

"She asked me how I would set up a double-blind security system. I thought she was asking on behalf of one of you guys. Bitch!"

"More like you were trying to impress her so she'd let you into her bed! My God, man, don't you know that's the oldest trick in the book?" exclaimed Colonel Robertson.

"What's a double-blind security system?" asked Dr Scott.

Sayer answered stonily, "Where the person being protected doesn't know who or what is doing the protecting, and the system or person doing the protecting doesn't know who the target is."

"But you set it up, so you must be able to break in to it," objected Dr Scott.

"Too many variables. The system uses a randomiser to select all its settings. When I do something, I do it properly," he finished grimly.

Dr Scott still wasn't satisfied. "You keep saying 'the system'. Can't we just turn this system off?"

"Don't know where it is. All I know is that it's running on one or more computers connected to the Internet, somewhere in the world."

"And why didn't you just tell her how it worked, instead of actually setting it up for her?" asked Judge Peters. "Why the practical demonstration?"

"She said she didn't understand -"

"So she batted her big innocent brown eyes at you and you just caved in? Jesus, Sayer, just when was the last time you held a woman in your arms?" scoffed Colonel Robertson. "She's got about as much sex-appeal as a dead fish."

"That's enough!" barked Mrs Patterson. "We're here to find solutions, not throw petty personal insults around. Now, Mr Sayer, putting aside the question of whether you can actually stop this 'system' or not, tell us the worst that could happen if we dispose of Ms Jones."

He shrugged. "You said it yourself — she knows everything about us. So you can expect emails to the police or the press at the very least. At worst, our own systems here in this house could start coming under attack. Hopefully our own security systems would stop that happening, but I wouldn't bet on it."

Mrs Patterson sighed heavily. "Well, Mr Sayer, it looks as if you are a prime candidate for execution as well as Ms Jones. However, I need you to begin unravelling this mess you've got us into, so for the time being, you have a reprieve. Ms Jones, you too appear to have earned a stay of execution, but don't expect us to trust you."

"That's okay — I don't trust you either," replied Ms Jones carelessly.

The conversation moved on to discuss the effectiveness of Ms Jones's programming, considering that originally it had been merely planned as a safe- guard during the weeks following the operation. Ms Jones insisted she had delivered the programming with a view to permanency, but all agreed that careful monitoring would be required over an extended period to ensure its success.

Mrs Patterson wound up the meeting, and retired to her own office. It was now early morning, and the first grey strands of the dawn were seeping through the curtains. She sat down in front of her PC and opened up her email program. No new messages had arrived, but she had one very important message to send. Adding a single recipient, she typed her one-sentence command:

Recapture the alien.

***

"Morning."

Lois swivelled around from the sink where she'd been scrubbing hopelessly away at a pan she'd used the previous evening. Clark was strolling into the kitchen, dressed in his suit trousers, white shirt and tie. Surely he didn't think he had to go into work today?

He'd still been sleeping when she'd woken up earlier, and she had made every effort to keep quiet while she moved around the room. She had wanted him to get as much rest as he could before facing what wasn't likely to be a very pleasant day. For a start, Inspector Henderson would be calling around soon to take a statement from him, and quite apart from his obvious reluctance to discuss yesterday's events, it was going to be a tough meeting to handle without giving away too much about himself.

Still, he looked a lot healthier than he had last night: his colour was better, and he'd lost that fragile, unsteady look which had scared her so much.

She'd barely had time last night to process her own feelings, since all her energy had been directed at Clark and making sure she was taking care of his needs. But when she thought back to last night, she remembered the shock she'd felt on finding her husband in such a terrible state. Dressed only in a thin cotton hospital gown, with bare legs and, on his bare feet, shoes which weren't his own, he'd looked like a survivor from some sort of concentration camp, and it really hurt to see her normally healthy, vibrant husband reduced to the shivering, feverish, and very depressed man she'd cared for last night. She had expected him to be sick; their phone conversation had prepared her for that, but she hadn't been ready for the rest of it — just why on earth had he been dressed in that hospital gown? It implied medical procedures or operations, and that terrified her — what had they planned to do to him? Worse still, had they succeeded?

"Morning," she replied. "Want some coffee?" She moved over to the open dishwasher to pick up a mug.

"It's okay — I'll do it." He took the mug from her and started pouring coffee from the pot.

"So, how are you feeling?" she asked, moving back to her task at the sink. "You look a lot better."

"I'm fine," he answered briefly. "What are you doing?" he asked, joining her at the sink with his coffee.

"Oh, I burnt the soup I was heating up last night. I think it's fused itself permanently to the bottom of the pan." She scrubbed vigorously with her brush. "See?"

"Here, let me try."

She shifted out of his way as he moved in to attack the offending pan. "So you think that drug has worked its way out of your system by now?"

"Yes." He rinsed out the pan and dumped it on the draining board. "You know, I think we'll have to buy a new one," he said, emptying the sink. "You've killed this one."

"Looks like it," she agreed. "What about your powers? No sign of them yet, I guess?"

"No, but I'm sure they'll come back soon." He smiled reassuringly. "Have you had breakfast yet? Because I thought I'd make some French toast."

"Sure, that would be nice. So, no ill-effects whatsoever? No aches or pains, no dizziness or nausea?"

"Nope — I told you, I'm fine. How hungry are you, because it looks like we're nearly at the end of a loaf. I think there's another one in the freezer, if you want more than one slice." He started to move around her to reach the freezer.

"Clark…"

She laid her hand on his arm, but all he gave her was a wide-eyed blank expression. "What?"

She sighed. "Nothing. One slice is fine."

And maybe once he'd finished cooking, he would start talking to her.

***

Clark carried the plate of toast over to the kitchen table and sat down opposite Lois. Making the toast had been a good idea; he always found cooking was a great way to relax. Not that he was nervous or anything — he was home, he was safe, and he was ready to put yesterday behind him and move on with the rest of life. Last night seemed a very long time ago.

At least, it did, except for feeling as if someone had sucked all the life force out of him, but he was sure that would pass once he got out into the sunshine.

Of course, he realised now that he couldn't just ignore yesterday. The police were involved, and that meant he would have to give a statement, and descriptions of his captors.

Her.

Suddenly, he was back in the white room, struggling helplessly against his restraints while she leered over him, touching him…

"Clark?"

Her voice jerked him out of the scene and he realised he'd frozen half-way through laying the plate of toast down. He shoved it towards her. "Here — tell me if it's okay."

She didn't even look at it. "No, it's not okay, Clark. *You're* not okay."

"I told you, I'm fine."

To his surprise, she lunged forward and pulled his glasses off his face. "Now look me in the eye and repeat that," she said fiercely, sitting back down on her chair.

Why did she have to do that? He felt exposed and vulnerable under her determined gaze, and not in the least like baring his soul, as she seemed to want him to do. Why couldn't she just eat the toast, and give him some peace and quiet to deal with this in his own way? "What do you expect me to say, Lois?" he asked. "I got kidnapped: it wasn't a very pleasant experience. I'd have rather been at the Planet with you, working on Ann's story, but someone decided they had different plans for me. But I'm back now, and I'm fine. Okay?"

"Listen to yourself, Clark! You're not okay, otherwise you wouldn't be talking to me like that." She paused. "Ever since I found you, you've either said nothing at all, or you've lashed out at me for no good reason. That's not you, Clark; that's not the kind, considerate man I married. That's someone who's hurting; someone who came home last night dressed in a hospital gown and a lab coat that's far too small for him and could hardly bear to let his own wife touch him."

He stared at her numbly. "I…I let you hug me…"

"Only because I didn't give you time to stop me. But that's not the point, Clark. You need to tell me what happened, so I can help you."

Was that what he'd been doing? Had he really made it seem as though he couldn't bear her touching him? He thought back to last night — there hadn't been time to embrace when they'd made their escape in the jeep, but he'd let her hold him around his waist and he'd had his arm on her shoulder while he made his way into the house.

<Because you had to>

Okay, but he'd let her wrap him in the blanket, hadn't he?

<Because you were cold>

And then she'd supported him upstairs and into the bathroom, and-

<You wouldn't let her help you undress>

No. He'd had enough of being mollycoddled-

<You mean you didn't want her to see you>

No, it wasn't that. He'd just needed some time alone-

<You could have had that after she'd undressed you>

"Clark?"

He blinked, and found her watching him with a worried frown. "Sorry, what did you say?"

"I said I wanted to help you."

"I don't need any help, Lois."

She sighed heavily. "Fine, have it your way. But-"

"But I want to show you something." He stood up and moved the couple of paces necessary to stand over her. "Up," he commanded.

She frowned up at him.

"Come on, up." He beckoned her up with his hands.

When she was standing, he drew her into his arms and hugged her tightly. It felt good to hold her slim frame in his embrace and smell her familiar fragrance; he buried his face in her hair and breathed deeply, pleased and relieved that this had been easy. Remembering his behaviour last night had made him wonder whether he really did have a problem touching her or not.

"Thank you for rescuing me," he said softly.

"Any time, flyboy." She drew her head off his shoulder and came forward towards his face-

He flinched away.

Why?

He'd kissed Lois a thousand times. He loved kissing Lois; he loved Lois. So why had something turned inside him and made him avoid her?

She looked upset, and rightly so.

He took a deep breath and made himself kiss her briefly on the lips. "I'm sorry," he whispered, laying his head on her shoulder again.

"It's okay. But Clark, you're going to have to talk about this soon. Bill Henderson will be coming around this morning to take your statement."

"I know."

"So wouldn't you rather talk it through with me first, before you try telling him? Bearing in mind you're going to have to be careful how you answer some of his questions."

"Maybe, but I'd rather just do this the once."

"Well, if you're sure."

"I'm sure."

What he wasn't sure of was why he had ducked away when Lois had tried to kiss him.

Well, no, he corrected himself, that wasn't exactly true: he knew why. For just an instant, he'd been reminded of another face lunging towards him, another set of lips rushing towards him which had made him jerk his head to one side to avoid direct contact. But this was Lois, the woman he loved, not some sex- crazed woman straddling him and pinning him down to the bed. It wasn't even as if that was the first time he'd been kissed by a strange woman — there was Cat and Penny Barnes, for a start. He was being pretty pathetic if he was going to start behaving like this every time someone else except Lois kissed him when he didn't want them to.

Just to prove himself, he kissed Lois again, for longer this time, reminding himself of how much he enjoyed the feel of her soft lips against his, of the way her body moulded to his as they kissed. How could he ever be afraid of this?

Resting his head on her shoulder again, he projected forward to the statement he would have to give Henderson soon. He understood completely why Lois had called the police yesterday, but it left him with a horrendous problem to solve. The closer the police got to solving the case, the closer they would get to discovering his identity, as there was no doubt in his mind that those people had kidnapped him because he was Superman.

They knew who he was.

The thought terrified him: he didn't even know exactly how many of them there were, or who else they might have told. He had no idea whether they guarded their information jealously, or whether they were happy to tell anyone who showed an interest. So, if the police got hold of any of them, his secret would be out — if it wasn't already.

Perhaps he could stop the investigation. If he appealed to Henderson; asked him for a favour, maybe the Inspector would be prepared to call it off. They knew each other quite well, after all, and he knew Henderson respected him and Lois.

But he was clutching at straws. Henderson couldn't possibly call off the investigation after so much police time had been invested in it; how would he explain it to his superiors? So Clark would have to go through with the interview, and the intervening police case, somehow treading a careful line between being helpful and withholding information which would lead to his discovery.

One thing was sure: he only wanted to re-live yesterday's experience the once, and he was even more sure that no-one but himself was going to know everything which had happened in that white room. No-one needed to know what that woman had done, any more than they needed to know how pathetic and helpless he'd been: he was positive now that he could have thrown her off if he'd tried hard enough. But no, he'd lain there submissively, especially the second time, when she'd touched him through the hospital gown, and invited him to 'play away from home'.

He'd even felt himself beginning to respond.

The memory came slamming out of his subconscious; he'd been denying it ever since it had happened, but now he remembered with sickening reality. Just before she'd accused him of not being virile enough, he'd felt the familiar tightening in his groin. She'd even referred to it — something like 'is that the best you can do?' He cringed inwardly, feeling suddenly sick and disgusted with himself.

What did it mean? That he'd wanted it? That, deep down, he'd been turned on by her offer — even worse, that he'd been turned on by the situation? Tied up, and domineered by a lustful woman, like some sort of sado-masochistic pervert?

No. He could remember very vividly how disgusted he'd been by her suggestion. But he didn't have an explanation for his response, and that was why he was never going to tell Lois what had happened. After all, it was hardly likely to happen again, and he knew without a doubt that he loved Lois with all his heart, so there was no question of him being unfaithful to her. Absolutely none.

<You're no better than a cheap prostitute>

His subconscious hurled the thought at him, and reflexively, he tightened his hold on Lois, reminding himself of how much he loved her; how she was the only one in his life; how he'd loved her from the day he met her.

"Clark? That's a little too tight, honey."

Shocked, he released her immediately. "I'm sorry! Did I hurt you?" He ran his eye over her in a panic, looking for tell-tale signs that she was in pain. Was he losing control of his powers, along with everything else? But he didn't have any powers right now, he reminded himself; in fact, he still felt pretty washed- out. So he couldn't have hurt her, could he?

"No, don't worry. You were just kind of squashing the air out of me a bit. Don't worry about it," she repeated, stroking his arm reassuringly.

"Are you sure?"

"Positive. Look, why don't we sit down and eat this wonderful French toast of yours before it goes cold?

His stomach turned at the prospect; food held no appeal for him at all now. But he forced a smile. "Sure."

***

Lois heard the doorbell and hurried to the outer door, anxious to catch Henderson before he came inside.

"Morning, Lois. I tried to leave it as late as I could, but we've got a busy day ahead of us, and the sooner we get Clark's statement, the sooner we can get on with catching the bad guys. Is he up?"

"Yes — come in." She was relieved that Henderson hadn't brought anyone with him; that made it easier for Clark, and for her. If he had brought anyone, she would have asked them to leave. "Look, go easy on him, would you? He's still a little shaky."

Henderson raised his eyebrows. "Doesn't sound like Clark. He's always struck me as pretty tough under that mild exterior of his. They must have been pretty rough on him — what did they do?"

Lois sighed. "Henderson, I have no idea. He won't tell me."

Henderson's eyebrows disappeared into his hairline. "Is this Lois Lane I'm talking to? The woman who eats corrupt senators for breakfast?"

"This is Clark, not a corrupt senator. And he's my husband."

"I guess that makes a difference," Henderson conceded, nodding. "Okay, softly, softly it is."

She gestured for him to precede her through the inner door. Clark was standing up as she followed Henderson into the lounge.

"Morning, Clark," said Henderson, extending his hand to shake Clark's. "It's great to have you back."

"Thanks, Inspector. And thanks for coming here yourself; I know what a busy schedule you must have," replied Clark.

"Call me Bill — you, too, Lois. I think we've known each other long enough."

"You want some coffee?" asked Lois. For once, she'd made a pot and brought it into the lounge instead of leaving everything in the kitchen, because she didn't want to leave Clark alone with Inspector Henderson. It wasn't that she didn't trust Henderson…Bill…to treat Clark with sympathy, but that she wanted to be there to help Clark and make sure he didn't trip himself up when he answered Henderson's questions. She felt sure they were taking a huge risk by not rehearsing what he would say beforehand.

"Sure — black; without. Thanks," answered Henderson.

"Have a seat," invited Clark.

"Okay," began Henderson, sitting down. "You don't mind this, do you?" He produced a small Dictaphone. "I can promise you the tape won't be listened to by anyone but me."

"I guess so," said Clark, eyeing the machine uncertainly.

Lois wasn't happy. "Do you have to? Surely-"

Suddenly Clark stood up, his face ashen. "Sorry, I just remembered I left a tap running in the bathroom. Back in a minute." He turned and strode over to the stairs.

Lois glared at Henderson and stood up. "Clark, you don't have to-"

"We don't want to waste water, do we? Sorry, Bill — I'll be right back," he replied, already jogging up the stairs.

Lois whirled on Henderson. "So much for the softly, softly approach. Why did you have to produce that thing?"

"How was I to know he wouldn't like it?"

Lois glared at him again. To be honest, she'd been as surprised as Henderson at Clark's extreme reaction, but she felt essentially the same as he did — they definitely didn't want a tape of this conversation, even if Henderson claimed he'd be the only person to listen to it.

She gazed anxiously at the stairs; two minutes, and then she'd go up and find him if he didn't come back down on his own.

***

Clark shut the bathroom door and leant against it for support, closing his eyes against the wave of sick shock running through him.

Tapes.

That woman had mentioned tapes.

"Perhaps you're not as virile as our tapes led me to believe." It could only mean one thing: their bedroom had been bugged. That was how they knew who he was.

And they had tapes of him and Lois…

He let his back slide down the door until he was sitting on the floor and buried his face in his hands. The most private, tender moments they shared together, captured on tape and no doubt replayed over and over again with great relish. If being molested by a woman when he was helpless felt dirty and degrading, then this…this felt like rape.

He felt crushed. They had won: they had finally succeeded in breaking his spirit — because this didn't just hurt him, it hurt Lois. How could he tell her that her privacy had been invaded so completely, that every sweet sound, every murmur and kiss of their love-making had been turned into lewd entertainment for some perverted group of violent kidnappers? How would she feel when he told her that wherever she went in this house, someone was listening to her? How would she feel when he told her that someone had been assessing his virility based on the sounds coming from their bedroom?

Well, he would never tell her *that*.

They had no right, no right at all…

If he hadn't been acutely aware of Henderson and Lois waiting downstairs for him, he might have sat there for hours, reeling with the shock of his discovery. As it was, he needed to do something — he needed to get them all out of the house, for a start, and preferably without alerting the people listening in. Then he needed to figure out who he was going to tell what to.

God, this was a mess!

"Clark?" Lois's voice came softly and gently from behind the door. "It's all right — Hender…Bill has agreed to put the tape recorder away. You don't have to talk into it. It'll just be you, me and him having a quiet chat."

Clark winced. She thought he was frightened off by the Dictaphone? Did he really seem that fragile to her? Yes, he wasn't happy about having their conversation recorded, but he wasn't so far gone that he wouldn't have been capable of telling Henderson to get rid of it if that was what he'd wanted.

"Clark? Please come out, honey."

He scrambled to his feet and started hunting around the bathroom for the things he needed.

"Give me a minute," he called, flushing the toilet as he passed by it. Toilet paper, something to write with…Lois's eye-liner would have to do. His first attempt tore the soft paper, so instead he turned to the mirror over the sink, scribbling hastily. Then he crossed to the door and opened it.

It was an awful moment, finding her standing in front of him wearing a deeply worried, strained expression: he had put that expression on her face. Worse still, he could see that she was trying to cover up her feelings with a gentle smile, but it wasn't really working; he had scared her too badly with his crazy behaviour.

"I'm sorry I bolted like that. It was just…seeing that tape recorder…" He drew in a shaky breath. "Lois, would you just hold me for a minute?" "Oh, Clark…" She reached up and hugged him, and his conscience twinged again. But although he had an ulterior motive in asking her to hold him, he wasn't faking his real need for her closeness. His whole world seemed to be shattering into tiny little pieces, and Lois was a constant that he could cling on to and draw strength from.

"Look in the mirror," he whispered in her ear.

"What?" she asked, thankfully not too loudly.

"Look in the mirror behind me." He raised his voice. "I need to sit down, honey. I think last night is catching up with me."

He pulled them backwards into the bathroom, sensing Lois's alarm as he held her. No doubt the haste with which he was moving made her think he was on the verge of collapse, but he needed to move quickly before she had time to object. When he thought they were close enough, he pulled her away from himself and turned her towards the mirror.

I THINK THE HOUSE IS BUGGED.

Her eyes widened and she turned to him in shock. "Are you sure?" she mouthed. He nodded. "I'll be okay in a minute, I'm sure."

For a split second, she looked utterly confused. Then she nodded swiftly, and answered, "Take a couple of deep breaths. It'll help," while yanking off a long strip of toilet paper and beginning to write with a lot more success than he had had.

He watched her silently for a moment, and then she held up her handiwork. HENDERSON, THE HOUSE IS BUGGED. MEET US IN AN HOUR AT THE PLANET.

Clark gave her a thumbs-up sign. "Look, honey, I don't think I can cope with Henderson right now. I really feel pretty out of it still."

"Okay, don't worry — I'll get rid of him for you. Why don't you go and lie down for a few minutes?"

"Thanks. I think I will."

They exited the bathroom, Clark heading for their bedroom while Lois went downstairs with her toilet paper message.

***

Half an hour later, Lois was steering the jeep through the morning traffic on the way to the Planet. Glancing over at Clark, she caught him staring pensively through the window again. He seemed to have such a lot on his mind that he just wasn't telling her about.

"What made you think the house was bugged?" she asked finally.

He dragged his gaze away from the window and turned to her with a carefully neutral look already in place. Why couldn't he let her see his feelings, like he usually did?

"Oh, just something one of them said."

Extracting teeth from a shark would be easier… "What did they say?" she asked, trying to keep a hold of her patience.

He went silent until she glanced over at him again. "Lois, I know it looks like I'm holding out on you again, but this really isn't the best place to tell you. Do you mind if we wait until we're at the Planet?"

Something snapped inside her. "Yes, I do, Clark. I mind a lot. You can't go telling me our house is bugged and then not tell me how, why, or for how long it's been going on, or even why you think you're right. You've been acting so strangely since you got back, for all I know you're imagining all this, or making it all up!"

"Lois-"

"And don't you think that as your wife, I rate just a little more information than Bill Henderson gets?" she demanded, finally realising what bothered her the most about his weird behaviour. Fine — he only wanted to go through everything the once, but that was highly convenient for him, and completely useless as far as she was concerned. Surely he could share more with her than the bare facts he would give to the police officer?

"Of course you do, but I just don't want to tell you while you're driving-"

"Fine!" She checked quickly in the mirror, pulled the car into the side of the road and turned the engine off. "I'm not driving now. Tell me."

"Lois…"

"What did they say?" she asked sharply.

His mouth went into a firm line. "I'm sorry, honey, but I can't tell you here."

"Can't or won't?"

"Lois, don't start playing games-"

"Games?" she repeated incredulously. "Games? You're the one playing games, Clark! Why are you doing this to me?"

"Because…because I love you."

"Oh, that old chestnut! Don't patronise me, Clark. Just give me a straight answer to one of my questions — just one. Is that so much to ask?" He eyed her silently for a long time, apparently in so much conflict that he couldn't find any words for her, and once again, she wondered what on earth had happened to him. She had found him in a hospital gown, so did that mean that they had done more than drug him? He didn't appear to be in pain; at least, not any specific pain — he had been moving easily since he got up, albeit rather more slowly than usual, but she had guessed that was the after-effects of the drugs and kryptonite. She also suspected that his comment in the bathroom about feeling pretty out of it had only been half a lie.

But feeling rough didn't account for his refusal to talk to her. Did he blame her in some way for what had happened?

"One of them kept calling me Clark, " he said at last. "And they used kryptonite on me, so that meant they know that Clark Kent is Superman. The only way they could know that is by bugging our house."

She stared at him. "That's it? They called you Clark, so you think the house is bugged?"

"Yes."

"You don't think that bugging the Planet, or seeing you change into Superman or back into Clark, or finding the hidden compartment for your suits, or about ten other equally plausible scenarios, could have made them reach the same conclusion?"

"Maybe, but I know I'm right, Lois."

"Because…?"

"Because I have a strong hunch," he answered intently. "Lois, you weren't there. You weren't the one being dragged half-conscious across the Planet foyer, you weren't the one forced into the back of a van against your will, you weren't the one tethered to a hospital bed in a white, soulless room with only a…a lump of kryptonite for company. You weren't the one being probed and tested and then held down while someone jabbed a needle in your arm."

"Clark-"

"You didn't meet them; I did. They're intrusive, they're direct, and they don't care how they get results, so I just know they're the kind of organisation that would bug our house. Okay?"

At last he was beginning to open up to her about what they'd done to him. And what a terrifying, horrifying ordeal he had given her an insight into; no wonder he was so upset and agitated. So she put aside her annoyance with him and reached across to cover his tense, bunched up hand with her own. "Okay," she soothed. "Okay, Clark."

Anyone would find it frightening to be rendered so completely helpless and at the mercy of people who obviously intended you harm, but for Clark, with his ingrained fear of being dissected and studied like a laboratory animal, it must have been ten times worse. She was beginning to understand why he had taken so long to talk about it, when the little he had just told her had obviously cost him a great deal.

But he was hiding something, she was sure of it. His explanation made no sense at all, and worst of all, he knew it, which made her faintly annoyed that he thought she would buy such a thin rationale. So he had more than a hunch, and his extreme reaction when Henderson had produced his Dictaphone just proved it — he had been absolutely horrified by his sudden discovery. You didn't turn white and go bolting upstairs because of a mere hunch.

He put his own hand over hers and looked at her, apparently frustrated by her attempt at kindness. "I'm not trying to get your sympathy, Lois. I'm just trying to explain why I know for certain that they bugged the house." "And I believe you, Clark. I'm sure you're right."

"Now who's patronising who?" he muttered.

A couple of years ago, she would have flown off the handle at a remark like that from him. These days, though, she knew better; she could let his words slide over her, knowing that they were just a symptom of his distress. "I'm sorry — I didn't mean it to sound like that," she answered carefully. "I just meant I know I can trust your judgement. Does that sound any better?"

He lifted her hand up and touched his lips to her fingers. His head remained bent over her hand for some time before he lifted it up to gaze at her. "Yes. And I'm sorry I snapped."

He still looked as though he was going through thinly-disguised hell, though.

"It's okay, you're entitled after everything you've been through." She paused.

"You say they tied you to the bed?"

"Yes. My ankles and wrists were in cuffs attached to the railings either side of the bed, so I could hardly move."

"Plus you were weak and sick from the kryptonite."

"I guess." He smiled briefly. "But I'm fine now. I just want to get this statement to Henderson over and done with so we can catch these people."

"Sure. But what sort of tests did they do? Did they hurt you?" She deliberately ignored his attempt to close down the conversation again; now that he'd started to open up, she was determined to make the most of the opportunity. Sitting in the car by the side of the road wasn't exactly the ideal place to take him gently through his ordeal, but she'd take what she could get at this stage.

"Not really, but let's not talk about this now." He glanced at his watch.

"Henderson will be arriving at the Planet soon. We should get going, or he'll be there before we are."

So much for the window of opportunity: he'd just slammed it firmly shut again.

***

Perry's office at the Planet seemed to be the best they could do in terms of privacy for the interview. Lois had suggested the conference room, but Clark hadn't wanted to run the risk of staff barging in unannounced, whereas it was an unwritten rule that if Perry closed his door, no-one entered without knocking first. Clark felt guilty about throwing his editor out of his own office, but Perry himself suggested it, and Lois had immediately agreed with thanks.

So now Clark was sitting alone in the office, waiting for Henderson to arrive. Lois was at her desk catching up on emails and phone messages, while he had come straight in here to grab a few minutes alone.

He took another sip of coffee to steady his nerves.

He'd been doing some very serious thinking since last night, especially after figuring out the bugging situation, and he'd finally reached a very tough decision.

The police investigation scared him: it was out of his control, just like the people who had kidnapped him had robbed him of control, and right now, he needed that; he needed things to happen the way he wanted them to happen, not how Henderson, Perry, his parents, or even Lois wanted them to happen. He wanted to get rid of the horrible feeling of helplessness that woman had inflicted on him.

So today was a day for firm decisions. No-one was to know what that woman had done to him in the white room, and no-one was ever going to know what his physical response had been; neither were relevant to the investigation. If necessary, he'd dig out a book or two to help him figure the latter out himself, because he was still appalled and disgusted by his reaction. The little voice in his head piped up again, telling him he had to be depraved; that deep down, he must have wanted it in some perverted kind of way, but he shut it up swiftly. He refused to believe that as deeply as he loved Lois, he could never want to have sex with another woman.

Lois… Lois certainly wasn't going to find out about the tapes the group seemed to have of their lovemaking. He would make sure they were all tracked down and destroyed before she could even suspect their existence. There was no need for her to go through what he was going through himself.

And finally, the police weren't going to discover his identity.

The more he thought about it, the less confident he was of being able to stop someone in the police stumbling onto his identity. After all, the whole thing would never have happened if he had just been plain old Clark Kent from Smallville; the fact that he was Superman was the focal point of the whole case. Sure, the police might never get that far into the case, but Henderson was a good cop, and Clark had every confidence that he would soon begin to piece the trail of evidence together. Clark could stall the case by withholding some of the clues, but it would soon become obvious that he was doing that, especially when they came back to him with questions and he refused to answer, or pretended he didn't know the answer: Henderson wasn't stupid. And when the police began wanting to establish a motive for the kidnapping, matters would become even more complicated.

So the whole thing could end up spiralling completely out of his control.

Which left one question: did he want to risk losing that control, and discovering too late that half the police force knew who he was, or did he want to minimise the risk by telling one policeman everything?

He stood up and walked to the window, lifting up one of the blinds to gaze at Lois sitting at her desk. He should tell her what he was planning to do, since his decision affected her as well as himself. But she would just end up talking him out of it, and he didn't want that. His mouth twisted: who hadn't wanted to oust Perry from his own office, and who had made the decision for both of them by accepting the offer? If he couldn't win his way on a simple issue like that, what chance had he on one of the biggest decisions of his life?

He crossed back to Perry's desk and sipped some more coffee.

"Henderson's on his way."

Her timing couldn't have been worse. His back to the door, he was taken completely by surprise by her sudden intrusion, and ended up choking on his coffee and spilling some of it over his hand, up his sleeve and onto Perry's carpet. He winced and hastily dumped the plastic cup down on the desk, holding his coffee-drenched hand away from his clothes.

"Are you okay? You didn't scald yourself?" Lois had hurried to his side and was holding his arm, dabbing carefully at his hand with a tissue.

He snatched his hand away in mild irritation; she was fussing too much, and he was annoyed with himself for being so clumsy. He wasn't used to spilling things: his superpowered reflexes meant he could always catch things before they fell or toppled over. "It's fine, Lois. Maybe you should check Perry's carpet."

"Oh…well, I'm sorry. I thought you were more important," she answered mildly, bending down to dab at the carpet with her tissue.

He'd done it again — snapped at her for no reason. He hunkered down to her level. "I'm sorry, Lois."

"Maybe sometime soon you'll start counting up the number of times you've said that," she remarked in a low voice.

He frowned. "What do you mean?"

"Then maybe you'll realise that everything is not all right and that you're not fine."

Anger flared briefly: wasn't he the best one to judge just how fine or otherwise he was? He sighed. "Okay, you got me — I'm not feeling one hundred percent fit right now, but I'm sure it's only a matter of time before I am." "That's not what I meant, and you know it. But, hey, I'm only your wife — what do I know?" She stood up abruptly and leaned over to throw the soggy tissues in Perry's trashcan.

After a moment spent staring at the carpet in exasperation, Clark put a hand on the edge of the desk and hauled himself upright. "How many different ways can I say this, Lois? I'm-"

The door opened after a quick rap and Henderson strode in. "I got here as soon as I could." He paused and eyed the two of them, obviously picking up some of the atmosphere between them. "Am I interrupting something?"

Clark offered his hand to Henderson. "No, just spilt coffee. Thanks for coming." "No problem," replied Henderson, gripping Clark's hand briefly. "I've got the boys going over your house now; should hear pretty soon if they've found anything."

Clark was caught mentally off-balance again; Lois hadn't mentioned this. Once again, things were running out of his control — what if Henderson had barged in and announced that he'd found microphones in their bedroom? "That's…great. Lois didn't mention you were going to start work so quickly."

"Quicker we act, the quicker we nail these guys. So — shall we get started on your statement?"

"Sure, but there's something I wanted to ask you first."

"Shoot."

Clark took a deep breath. "How difficult would it be for you to cancel the police investigation?"

Henderson stared at him. "Come again?"

"What would it take to stop the investigation?"

"That's what I thought you said. Okay, Clark, let me answer your question with another question: why would you want me to stop it?"

Clark glanced over at Lois, taking in her open-mouthed, incredulous expression. "Because I've just realised that someone was just playing an elaborate prank on me. Those two guys who kidnapped me yesterday were actually college buddies, just like they said. I didn't recognise them right away because they've filled out a lot since then, but I remember them now."

He'd never told such a blatant lie in all his adult life, and he hated it. He hated lying to a guy whom he respected and liked, and he hated lying to the organisation Henderson represented. But he had to try.

"So what you're saying," answered Henderson heavily, "is that these two college buddies made you think you were being kidnapped, all for a joke?"

"Yes. So you can understand why I want to stop the investigation — to tell the truth, I'm a little embarrassed about it all." He smiled ruefully.

"You're a little embarrassed," repeated Henderson. "Do you realise the amount of police resource that's been put into this investigation so far? The high profile it's gotten back at headquarters? Clark, men have been pulled away from other cases to work on this one. Important cases, with real people needing real answers so that they can get on with their lives, just like you want to. But I pulled out all the stops for you, because I knew that when Lois called me for help, it had to be a genuine emergency — maybe even a life-threatening one."

Clark winced. "I know, and I'm sorry — really sorry, for having wasted police time like this. Believe me, it wasn't deliberate." He glanced at Lois again, who was now looking thunderous, and he knew he had a lot of very tricky footwork ahead of him to explain himself to her later. Hopefully, if he pulled this off, and got the investigation stopped, she would listen more sympathetically to him.

"Deliberate or not, you've still wasted my time and a lot of other people's."

"But you'll stop the investigation?"

"No."

Clark's heart sank. Henderson had looked like he was going to buy his made-up story without too much explanation, but now it seemed that he had a lot more persuading to do. Okay, so the story was pretty thin, but he had really hoped he could make it work rather than have to tell Henderson the real story.

"Look, if it helps, I'll sign anything-" he began.

"It'll take more than your signature to stop-"

"How about if I got Superman to-"

"Clark!" Lois's voice was full of fury. "What are you doing?"

"Lois, honey, I'm just trying to help Henderson…Bill out any way I can."

To his utter chagrin, she fumed silently at him for a moment, and then turned on her heel and stormed out of the office, slamming the door shut behind her so hard that the blinds rattled loudly against the windows. He stared at the door, clenching his fists by his sides, anger at her dramatic departure mixing with guilt that he'd caused her to react like that. It seemed he couldn't do anything right this morning.

Henderson caught his attention by coughing gruffly at his side. "Come on, Clark. Sit down and we'll talk this through together."

He hesitated, wondering if he should go after Lois and apologise.

"You can apologise to her later when she's had a chance to cool down," Henderson added. "Come on — sit."

He looked at the police officer, expected to find anger in his eyes too, but instead found them steady and reassuring, patiently waiting for him to make up his mind. Maybe Henderson was right; Lois was often better left alone for a while when she was this angry.

He perched on the edge of Perry's couch, leaning his elbows on his knees. "I don't seem to be able to do anything right today," he remarked with an attempt at a laugh at himself.

"Well, let's start putting that right by forgetting all that college buddy stuff, okay? You know it's baloney, and so do I. How about we start with you telling me the real reason you want the investigation stopped?"

Clark buried his face in his hands. "I wish it was that easy."

"Sure it is. You've just taken the first step by admitting the other stuff wasn't true."

He supposed he had, by not disagreeing with Henderson. And he'd already thought all this through, hadn't he, and come to the conclusion he would tell Henderson if he had to? Except deciding to do it, and actually doing it, were worlds apart. And what of Lois? He'd already upset her very badly, and going ahead without telling her first would put a very serious strain on their marriage. When you're married you share everything.

Except it didn't always seem to work out that way. Sometimes you held things back from your partner, to stop them getting hurt. Not deceitful things, of course — if he ever did anything he was ashamed of, he would tell Lois. Maybe not right away, but eventually he would share it with her, because that way, nothing was hidden; she knew the bad parts about him as well as the good. He was ashamed of yesterday, but that was different. And anyway, this wasn't really about sharing, it was about consulting — consulting Lois before he did something. She didn't always consult him on everything she did.

"Clark? You okay, buddy?"

Henderson's concerned enquiry made him realise he must have drifted off for too long. "Sorry," he replied, looking up. "Got a lot on my mind."

"Well, how about sharing some of it with me?"

His heart was hammering even before he knew he'd made the decision. "You have to promise me that what I'm about to tell you goes no further than this office."

"As long as it's not material evidence, sure."

He shook his head. "I need more than that. No-one else knows, or I can't tell you."

"Then what?"

"Then I guess I'd have to stop co-operating with the investigation."

Henderson considered him for a long time before replying. "Okay, Clark, you got my word. This better be good."

"You're sure?"

"You want me to swear on my badge? It won't mean any more, because when I give my word, it's binding. Simple as that."

"Okay." Clark pulled his glasses off and looked steadily at Henderson. "The reason I need the investigation stopped is because I have an identity to protect. The kidnappers weren't after Clark Kent, reporter at the Daily Planet, they were after Superman."

Henderson frowned. "Superman? So you were the bait?"

Why was it that when he wanted to tell someone, they never caught on, and when he didn't want to tell someone, they figured it out right away? "No, I was the target."

"But you just said Superman was the target."

Clark nodded. "Exactly."

"So you're trying to tell me that you're…?"

"Yes."

Henderson stared silently at Clark for so long, Clark began to wonder whether he was planning how to contact the nearest mental hospital and have him admitted without making him suspicious. He stared steadily back, trying to look as much like his alter-ego as possible and as little like a deranged lunatic as he could. "I always knew he had a secret identity," Henderson began slowly, seemingly still half-musing to himself. "Otherwise how would he respond to emergencies so quickly? I thought maybe one of the emergency services, or even us. But a reporter — yes, I guess that would work even better. You don't have to account for yourself every minute of the day, and you've got the contacts; you're pretty hooked into breaking incidents from all over the world, aren't you?"

"It helps. Or I overhear radios or people's TVs, or if it's here in Metropolis, I can pretty much hear any cry for help."

"So, does White know?"

"No. The only people who know are Lois and my parents."

"Your parents? Oh, you mean Clark Kent's parents."

"No, I mean my parents. I really am Clark Kent — Superman is just someone I invented as a way of using my powers to help."

"But you are from another planet?"

"Yes, but I've been here since I was a baby." Clark went on to explain his history briefly, finding it easier than he had expected. In fact, it was easier than telling Lois, because he wasn't trying to protect a relationship at the same time.

Henderson leaned back in his chair when Clark was finished. "Okay, I can see why you don't want anyone to know who you are. I can also see why you want the investigation stopped, because you're scared that if my guys get too close, they'll find out who you are. But if I'm going to pull this off — and I'm not saying I'm going to at this stage — then you've got to tell me absolutely everything you know. I don't want something turning around and biting me in the ass after I've stuck it out half a mile for you. Deal?"

Clark heaved a sigh of relief. Henderson might still be hedging, but it sounded as if he had already made up his mind. Giving him the whole story, or as much of it as he knew himself, was a small price to pay. "Deal."

"You want to get Lois back in here before we start?"

"No. If that's okay?" Clark wanted to prepare the ground with Lois before he told her what he'd just done.

"Sure, I can take her through the part she was involved with later. So, let's start here, at the Planet. How did they first make contact with you?" Henderson took Clark through the kidnap, minute by minute, stopping him frequently for more accurate descriptions of places and people, and even any sounds or smells he had been aware of when he was conscious. He told Henderson about waking up in the white room for the first time; he even told him about the woman with the surgical mask who had examined him and then had had two goons hold him down while she injected him with something.

He didn't tell Henderson about the other woman.

He did his best to keep a clinical detachment throughout his narration, pretending that he was describing events which had happened to someone else, not himself. Henderson was a great help, remaining factual and precise, never showing an emotional response to anything Clark was telling him. By the time he reached the second time he woke up, he understood what Henderson needed from him, and was able to maintain a steady flow of information, feeling much more at ease with the process.

"Hold on there, Clark," Henderson suddenly interrupted. "You say this woman just walked in and calmly started undoing the restraints?"

"Yes."

"And you say this was a different woman to the first one?" Clark nodded. "Did she say why she was letting you go?"

"Not exactly."

"Not exactly. So she obviously gave you a strong hint."

Clark found he couldn't entirely lie to this man who had listened so attentively and calmly to everything he had told him so far. He looked up from the spot of carpet he'd been studying and saw someone who might understand, who could share a common feeling with him without any of the emotional baggage his friends and family would bring to the situation.

"I…I think she was attracted to me," he admitted finally with a self- deprecating laugh.

Henderson raised his eyebrows. "Oh? What made you think that?"

"Oh, just the way she behaved — you know," answered Clark with a shrug, beginning to feel a little uneasy. But at the same time, something was pushing him forward, making him take Henderson further into his confidence.

"What — she kissed you?" Henderson asked jokingly.

"Yes," he replied immediately, the answer given before he realised he was saying it. And to his discomfort, Henderson just looked at him silently, and he looked back equally silently, until he couldn't keep himself quiet any longer; the growing silence demanded to be filled. "I couldn't stop her. She just leaned over me on the bed and kissed me before I could stop her — of course, I turned away, so she only really caught the side of my face."

So he'd admitted it at last, and it hadn't been too bad after all. Of course, he'd had to add the last part, about ducking away, out of a pathetic need to prove that he hadn't been completely submissive.

<And to prove that you didn't want her in any way whatsoever>

"What else?" prompted Henderson.

<Even if you did>

"What do you mean?" asked Clark, ignoring the insidious, nasty little voice in his head.

"What else did she do to make you think she was attracted to you? You said she leaned over you on the bed — you don't mean she was actually on the bed with you?"

"No!"

But that was a lie. Why was he lying? He put his head in his hands again and fiddled obsessively with the hair at the back of his neck, trying to focus on the reason, and what to say next.

<He pricked your conscience, that's why, because you *were* in bed with her> But not like that. She had been pinning him down on the bed, taunting him and telling him that he had a bargain to fulfil. A bargain he had had no intention of delivering on, despite everything the nasty voice was implying. She had been quietly torturing him, and he now felt a wash of anger and resentment towards her.

"So she wasn't on the bed with you?" repeated Henderson.

"No. I mean…yes, she was on the bed with me." Because this woman deserved for someone to know how cruel she had been.

"Jeez, Clark, what did you do with her?"

For the first time, Henderson sounded shocked by Clark's admission. Clark looked up sharply. "It wasn't like that. I was still tied up, and she was sitting on me, pinning me down. She…did things."

Suddenly he was massively embarrassed, and stood up quickly to avoid Henderson's gaze, and go, go anywhere but here. "You don't want to hear this," he said, heading for the door. "I'll get Lois and we can go over the rescue together." "No, Clark." Henderson's authoritative voice made him pause with his hand on the door-handle. "I do want to hear this, and I think you need to tell me. Exactly what sort of things did she do to you?"

He laid his forehead on the cool of the door's window. One day, this was all going to seem like a far, distant memory, and he would laugh that he'd managed to get himself so tied up in knots over something so trivial. However, right now, Henderson seemed to have a peculiar knack of making him want to tell all, even if 'all' wasn't so very much. "She…touched me."

Her hand, moving sinuously up and down him through the hospital gown, while she smiled mockingly down at him. His own pathetic attempt to stare impassively up at her, while his body betrayed him — and that confusing, terrible moment when his mind suddenly clamoured urgently for protection, as if somehow, deep down, he had already decided to have sex with her but crazily, coldly, had wanted to ensure it was safe sex.

But he wasn't that person. He just wasn't that kind of person.

"Where?"

Clark almost choked. "Where do you think?" He paused. "She tried to get me to have sex with her," he said quietly.

"And did you?"

What a question! "Of course not!"

"I only ask because some rapists use that against their victims — the fact that men get harassed because of a purely physiological response." Clark digested that piece of information silently. Was that all it was — a physiological response to being touched in a certain way? It would certainly explain his body's response, and it confirmed his gut reaction; that he couldn't possibly have wanted sex with that terrible woman. But then why the desperate urgency to protect himself with a condom? He couldn't answer that question; couldn't explain it away as a purely mechanical response to stimulation.

But Henderson had called her a rapist, and that wasn't true. He hadn't been raped.

"She didn't rape me."

"Sounds to me as though she came pretty close," answered Henderson dryly. "Clark, come back here and take a seat. I need to go over a few things with you."

He walked back to Perry's couch, carefully avoiding Henderson's face. The policeman stood up and scribbled something on Perry's telephone pad and handed it to him. "That's the phone number of a rape crisis centre. They're very good, very discreet, and used to dealing with cases like yours."

Clark took the paper dumbly and stared down at it. "I don't need this." "They have professional counsellors there who can help you learn how to cope with what's happened. Call them."

"Even if you were right, I couldn't call them. What would I tell them?" "Just that you were sexually assaulted. You wouldn't have to tell them who you were."

Clark shook his head. "I doubt it would be that simple."

"It can be as simple as you want it to be. And another thing — you haven't told Lois about this, have you?"

"No, and I'm not going to. She doesn't need to know."

"Yes, she does. And you need her to know, so you can talk to her about it."

"I don't want her to get hurt."

"She'll get more hurt if you don't tell her."

Clark fell silent again, considering the undeniable truth of Henderson's words. Lois hated it when he kept things from her, and no doubt if she did find out he'd held this back from her, she'd be pretty annoyed. Except what, really, was he keeping from her? Okay, so a woman had sat on his legs and touched him in an overtly sexual manner — so what? So long as he could figure out why he'd started to respond, and Henderson had already given him a clue about that, then there wasn't anything else to talk about. Nothing had happened.

<So what are you so ashamed of?>

"Clark, I'm no counsellor, but even I can see that you need help with this. And, I'll tell you this for free: Lois is already hurting because you won't tell her what's going on. So my advice is to talk to her. Okay?"

"Okay."

"Right — last thing, and then we'll get Lois back in here to go through the rescue together. Now, you don't have to say anything, I just need a promise from you that you'll do as I ask." Henderson looked at Clark until he nodded. "I want you to promise me that you'll seek the appropriate medical attention if you need it. You understand what I'm saying?"

Clark nodded again, feeling a hot flush of embarrassment warm his cheeks despite Henderson's direct, no-nonsense approach. But at least that was one thing he didn't need to worry about — she hadn't hurt him physically. He looked down at the carpet. "You don't seem to think it odd that I…Superman could be attacked by a woman."

"Hell, no, Clark! I've seen it all, and believe me, you're not the first man to be attacked by a woman. Don't be so hard on yourself."

"But I should have been able to defend myself — push her off somehow."

"From what you've told me, you were sick, drugged, plus you were tied down. I don't see what on earth you could have done to push her off. But this is exactly why you need to talk it all through with someone, preferably a rape counsellor or Lois — to get all these things off your chest."

"I guess so," agreed Clark half-heartedly.

"I know so," replied Henderson. "Look, Clark, there's one other thing I wanted to say — should have said it before, really." Clark looked up when he realised Henderson wasn't going to continue until he did. The policeman was holding out his hand; Clark extended his tentatively and was rewarded with a warm handshake.

"I want to thank you for everything you've done for this city, both as Superman and as Clark Kent. I've got a lot of respect for Superman, and probably even more for you, Clark — that *is* the right way round, I take it?" Clark nodded dumbly. "There aren't a lot of honest reporters in this city who're prepared to stick their necks out for the right reasons, and you and Lois are two of the best. So don't wreck that by pretending this didn't happen. You get the help you need, you get your head straight, and then you get back to saving the world like you're supposed to." Henderson cleared his throat roughly and turned to the door. "Now I'm going to see if I can coax Lois back in here."

Clark could only stare at Henderson's departing back in numb shock. He'd always known he held the respect of the policeman, but he had never expected such unqualified support to come from someone he really only had a passing acquaintance with. The guy had just overwhelmed him with his rugged kindness. He went back to the couch and sat down, his head in his hands while he thought back on Henderson's words. One message came through loud and clear: he should talk to Lois, and soon. It wasn't fair of him to inflict his problems on her, and from the sound of it, that was exactly what he'd been doing: he'd been so wrapped up in his own feelings that he'd forgotten to consider hers. Putting himself in her position, he knew that he'd have been driven frantic with worry if she'd behaved like he'd been behaving ever since he came back last night. He'd hardly touched her, barely spoken to her, and when he had said anything, it had been harsh and snippy.

But talking to her wasn't going to be easy. There wasn't anyone in the world who knew him more intimately than Lois, or with whom he shared more private and personal feelings with, but somehow, sharing these few simple facts with her felt incredibly difficult. How could he tell her that he had let himself be attacked by a woman half his size? How could he tell her that he hadn't even been able to put up the tiniest resistance to her, but instead had become aroused by her rough advances? How could he explain the shame he felt; the pathetic sense of violation he felt even though hardly anything had actually happened?

Perhaps she would laugh at him.

Tell him he was blowing things all out of proportion and tell him to pull himself together.

Maybe she wouldn't even believe him.

Tell him he was making it all up to account for his bad behaviour.

But no. Lois was a good listener, and he knew that he almost always felt better after confiding in her.

And perhaps talking to Lois would be easier now that he'd told Henderson. Replaying that conversation made him shrivel up with embarrassment and shame — he had no idea how he had ended up telling a man he hardly knew such private things. Had he really just told Bill Henderson that a woman had fondled his privates and then tried to make him have sex with her? The words had just seemed to come tumbling out of him, as if he had been waiting all morning to say them. So saying it all again to Lois would be easy, wouldn't it?

Not really.

But he had to try, otherwise this really would end up being blown out of all proportions as he continued to protect his secret and she became more and more upset that he was keeping something from her.

Tapes.

He'd forgotten to talk to Henderson about the tapes. And the listening devices. He'd wanted to make sure Henderson didn't tell Lois about any which they found in the bedroom, and he intended to track down the relevant tapes and destroy them. He owed it to Henderson to let him know that that was what he was planning to do.

He made a mental note to signal to the policeman that he wanted a quiet word alone as soon as possible.

***

Lois flung Perry's office door shut and strode angrily over to her desk, sitting down with a thump. She eyed a newly-arrived pile of junk mail balefully, and then with a single hand, shoved the whole lot over the side of her desk, letting it land with a satisfying crash in the trashcan below. Some of it missed, but she didn't really care.

Why should she care? Clark didn't seem to care.

He didn't care if he kept her in the dark, fed her manure like some damned mushroom, pretended that he was okay when he patently was anything *but* okay, and then to cap it all, brought in Superman as a manipulative way of making Henderson believe his crazy story about college buddies and hoax kidnappings.

Anything to avoid the truth.

Anything to avoid talking to her.

Anything to shut her out.

Well, he obviously didn't need her, so she'd decided to leave him alone with Henderson to spin whatever crazy stories he wanted to. They were probably discussing alien spaceships and flashing lights in the sky right now.

"Rahalia prefers it when you put the trash actually in the trashcan, not scattered like the flower petals at Elvis's funeral around about it."

She hadn't noticed Perry sitting quietly at Clark's desk, using his terminal to do some of his own work. She scowled at him, and rose to pick up the errant envelopes and deposit them in the trash.

"That's better," said Perry. "I'd hate for you to get on Rahalia's bad side.

She's a fearsome woman when she's angry."

Lois sat down again and turned to her own terminal.

"Not as bad as you, of course," added Perry conversationally. "Mad Dog Lane is legendary for her sharp tongue, as you know."

Lois called up the Planet's main menu.

"Not that she's been spotted around these parts for some time," he continued.

She turned around slowly. "Do you have a point to make?" she asked poisonously.

"Oh, just that I haven't seen you this mad in a very long time."

"Well, get used to it, because this may last some time," she retorted and turned back to her terminal.

"Oh? Care to explain why?"

"No."

"Hmmm. Okay, sorry I asked," he answered mildly and went quietly back to his work.

She pulled down the work she'd been doing on Ann Campbell's supposed suicide and began to reread everything from the start, trying to get back into the story so that she could pick up from where she'd got to yesterday. She glanced over at Perry now and then, positive that he was watching her, but every time she looked over, he was engrossed in his own work and apparently oblivious to her. She shook her head — his tactic was so obvious, it was laughable, really. He was going to wait until her guard was down, and then ask her some seemingly innocent question to get her to open up. Well, she wasn't going to play that game.

"He just seems to be shutting me out," she mumbled plaintively.

"Hmmm? You say something, darlin'?" replied Perry in a distracted voice.

"Clark. He won't talk to me," she said, louder this time.

Perry stopped reading and turned to face her. "Talk to you about what?"

"About yesterday. About what happened to him."

"You mean he hasn't told you what happened?"

"He won't tell me what happened, won't tell me how he's feeling, won't tell me what they did to him — you name it, he won't tell me about it. But apparently he doesn't mind telling Henderson anything he likes."

"Ah." Perry stood up and came over to her desk, perching on the side of it. "So you're wonderin' why he's happy to talk to Henderson, but not to you?"

She looked up at him, tactics forgotten as she blurted out the main reason for her anger. "I'm his wife, Perry! He's supposed to be able to tell me everything."

Perry nodded. "Well, normally, I'd agree with you one hundred percent. You and Clark have one of the closest relationships I think I've ever seen between husband and wife, and I have to admit to being pretty envious of you from time to time. Maybe if I'd had that kind of marriage with Alice, things would have turned out differently to the way they did. But that's another story. What I'm saying is this: there's a few things a man finds it difficult to share with his wife, and maybe this is one of them. Has it ever occurred to you that maybe Clark is ashamed of what happened to him yesterday?"

"Ashamed? Why would he be ashamed?"

"He's a man, darlin'. We like to be in control, and we're supposed to be able to defend ourselves. Clark failed on both counts yesterday-"

"But that wasn't his fault!"

"You know that, and I know that, but maybe he doesn't know it yet. So maybe he thinks yesterday was all his fault."

"That's crazy. You're making him sound like some kind of macho he-man who needs to prove how big and strong he is. That's not Clark."

"I agree — Clark's different to a lot of men, and all the better for it. All I'm saying is maybe you should consider it. Why else do you think he hasn't said anything to you?"

She shook her head. "I don't know."

"Then maybe this is the reason — or at least part of the reason. Think about it."

Lois frowned. This wasn't the first time that Clark had been personally attacked, and he'd never shown any signs of shame before now. On the other hand, he was certainly a typical male in his reticence to admit to illness, and she supposed that was the same kind of thing — a reluctance to show weakness. So maybe this time was different somehow; perhaps it really was worse than any other attack, because it had been so direct and ruthless. He'd described his kidnappers himself in much the same way when they were parked by the side of the road earlier. Maybe that was a clue.

"Any more ideas on this, by the way?" Perry was indicating Ann's story on her screen.

Lois sighed. "Not really. I guess I'll have to interview her Dad some time soon and see if I can get a lead on this ex-army contact of his."

"Yeah, that's where I'd start. You know, I just can't believe two of my reporters have been attacked within hours of each other." Perry turned to her in consternation. "Just what the heck is this city coming to — am I going to have to send you out with bodyguards soon?"

"You better not!" retorted Lois. "Anyway," she continued wistfully, "Clark and I bodyguard each other." Not that she was getting much chance to do that right now, she added to herself.

Perry nodded. "You do just that, Lois — you look after that husband of yours and don't worry too much about this other story. I can always assign it to someone else — God knows there's no shortage of people lining up to do Ann's story justice."

"Don't reassign it yet, Perry," she said quickly. Perry's doleful comment about two of his reporters being attacked one after the other had just fired off an idea in her head. He was right — it was very unusual, and maybe there was more to it than just coincidence. After all, she'd already managed to prove a link between Clark's kidnapping and the break-in at Star Labs, so why not this, too?

Perry raised his eyebrows. "You got a hunch?"

"Maybe. I'll tell you after I've done some more digging."

"Dig away, darlin', dig away." He waggled his eyebrows happily at her and retreated back to Clark's desk.

***

The underground car park at the Daily Planet was usually deserted by mid- morning. The early morning rush was over, and everyone was hard at work at their desks. Today, however, a lone figure, dressed in black jeans and a black jacket, was working his way around the parked vehicles, searching for a silver Cherokee jeep with a specific licence plate.

When he found it, he reached underneath and fastened a small black box to the underside. Then he straightened and eyed the cars on either side. The green Ford looked the better bet, and sure enough, within minutes, he had sprung the door open and was settling down behind the wheel. He let the seat back to a more comfortable lounging position, shifted his gun-holster so that it wasn't digging into his ribs, and relaxed back to wait.

Nigel Sayer could wait a very long time indeed for this particular couple.

***

Some time later, Henderson appeared at Lois's desk. "Clark and I have pretty much gone through everything up to the point where you rescued him."

"He told you?" she exclaimed incredulously. The last thing she'd heard was Clark trying to make Henderson believe he'd been abducted by his college friends.

"Yup. So now we need you back to go through the rescue."

"But.." But what exactly had Clark told him already? What had happened to getting the investigation stopped, and if it wasn't being stopped, how had Clark left things regarding his identity?

"The police won't be involved in this in an official capacity after this morning, by the way," Henderson added quietly.

"They won't?"

"No. Look, I've got a lot of phone calls to make, so why don't you get Clark to explain it all to you and I'll join you in a few minutes. You don't mind if I borrow your phone?" he finished, already reaching for the receiver.

"Sure…go ahead. He told you everything?" she asked, standing up to let him take her chair.

"Yes."

"Right…" She strode quickly over to Perry's office, yanked the door open and closed it firmly behind her. "I hear you told Henderson everything," she accused.

He'd had his face buried in his hands, sitting on the edge of the couch when she'd walked in, but now he was looking up at her with a startled expression.

"Yes."

"He also told me that he's dropping the police investigation. Care to explain how these two facts are compatible with each other? Or don't I matter any more?" His look of shock, as if she'd slapped him across the face, made her regret her last sentence instantly. Of course she knew she mattered to him; she just couldn't understand why he was shutting her out of everything to do with the kidnapping.

"Of course you matter to me, Lois — you're my wife," he answered. "But you're not exactly making it easy, you know."

"Making what easy?"

"Talking to you. Lois, I want to tell you everything, but I can't if you keep…attacking me every time I open my mouth."

"When have I done that?" she demanded, resenting his implication. "All I've done is ask you simple questions, to which you either give monosyllabic answers or evade them altogether."

"Maybe, but…well, it's just not that easy."

She shook her head slowly in frustration. "You keep saying that. What is it, Clark? What's so terrible that you can't tell me?"

He stared at her for a moment, then gave a funny strangled sound and lurched off the sofa with his back to her. She watched him wander over to Perry's desk and begin fiddling aimlessly with the pens and pencils there, and guiltily, her recent conversation with their editor came back to her. Could Clark really think that yesterday was his fault, and could he be ashamed because of that? He was certainly behaving like someone with a guilty secret, and maybe she wasn't being exactly helpful by demanding answers when he was obviously having great difficulty in telling her anything at all.

"Clark, I'm sorry," she said in a softer voice. "Maybe I have been a little impatient with you. But you know it's only because I love you and I want to help you any way I can, don't you?

"Yes."

"And…well, you don't feel ashamed about what happened yesterday, do you? Maybe I'm way off beam here, and please tell me if I'm making a complete fool of myself, but if you do feel ashamed, then you shouldn't, because there's absolutely no way it could have been your fault. I know you, Clark, better than you know yourself sometimes, so trust me on this — you have nothing to be ashamed of. Especially when you're talking to me." She stopped abruptly, suddenly aware that maybe she'd gone on just a little too long.

He turned around with a deep sigh. "Look, why don't we both sit down and I'll try and explain everything."

"Okay."

She sat down with him on Perry's couch, he leaning forward as before with his elbows resting on his knees.

She waited.

A muscle worked in his jaw, but that was all.

Perhaps he needed reassurance. "Clark-"

"Sorry." He interrupted her as soon as she started speaking. "I'll get there in a minute," he said with a quick glance in her direction.

"Okay."

She waited again, watching the tense muscle in his jaw jump reflexively, wanting to help him when she knew she couldn't. He needed her to be patient, that was all.

Eventually, he drew in a deep breath. "I told you that when I came to I was tied to some kind of hospital bed in a white room. I was still wearing my own clothes at that point — you know, with the Suit underneath?"

He glanced at her for confirmation, and she nodded. It scared her to imagine what they might have been planning to do to him, but maybe he was going to get to that later — she wasn't going to interrupt him with questions now she'd finally got him talking.

"Okay. And I told you about the two guys that held me down and the woman who examined me and then injected me with something that made me lose consciousness again."

Trying to keep her voice calm, she replied, "Well, you didn't include all that detail, but yes, you mentioned that. It sounds awful, honey. It's almost your worst nightmare come true, isn't it?" she added softly.

"Yes." He laughed humourlessly. "Dissected like a frog, just like Dad said." For a split second, her heart stopped. "They didn't…?" Because although he had insisted he wasn't in pain or injured, but Clark was very good at concealing that kind of thing.

"No," he answered quickly. "No, nothing like that. But what I didn't tell you about was the other woman."

"Other woman?"

"She was there when I first woke up, watching me. All the others wore masks, but she didn't bother — and she knew who I was. She called me Clark and she called me Superman."

"She was the reason you thought they'd bugged the house?"

He nodded after a moment's hesitation. "Yes, she mentioned something about tapes."

"I see. Go on."

"Well, she started to act…strangely. I wasn't sure what she was up to at first, but then…" He paused, and she could sense him gathering the strength to continue. "Then she undid my shirt and started touching me."

"Touching you how?" she asked immediately.

"You know — like she was…coming on to me."

"While you were tied up?" asked Lois, aghast. She'd imagined a lot of things, but nothing remotely like this.

"Yes. She…well, actually, she climbed on top of me."

"She did what?!"

"Climbed on top of me. I tried to throw her off, Lois, I really did, but I just couldn't get any purchase with those ties holding me to the sides of the bed, and then if I struggled for too long, I just got so dizzy I thought I was going to pass out."

"Oh, Clark…" Lois was appalled, imagining him struggling desperately against this crazy, cruel woman. He was such a private person, her Clark; this invasion he was describing was a complete affront to his dignity and personal space. "So what did she do once she was on top of you?"

"Leaned over really close to me and tried to kiss me. She only caught the side of my face, though, because I managed to turn away in time." He took a deep breath. "But that wasn't the worst part — the worst part was when she started to touch me again."

"What happened?"

He blew out air quickly. "Let's just say she wasn't touching my chest this time."

Shocked, she laid a hand on his back in sympathy, and felt him flinch momentarily. "Sorry," she said, snatching her hand away again.

"No, it's okay," he answered roughly, throwing an agonised glance at her, making it clear that it, or more to the point, he, was definitely not okay. She withdrew to a safe distance, and looked at her husband, reduced to an isolated, hunched-up ball of tension and hurt, and wanted to beat this evil woman he was describing senseless. How dare she do this to Clark? Next to her own suffering, or that of his parents and close friends, Lois knew that this was probably the very worst anyone could do to Clark. He could withstand great physical pain and torment, but at heart he was still a simple, naive Kansas boy with very conservative morals and a very private view of sex and his own sexuality. So this kind of torment, mental, and very personal, was the kind he couldn't withstand or defend himself against. Other men might shrug an experience such as this off with a crude joke or two, but not Clark.

This woman deserved to suffer serious damage for what she had done to her husband.

Lois wanted to take him in her arms and rock him gently until all his demons were banished, but instead, it seemed that all she could safely do was offer him comfort from a distance, which didn't seem like enough at all. She was used to hugs and kisses, not anguished looks and awkward blanks in the conversation.

"There's more," he said after a few moments of painful silence.

"Clark, you don't have to-"

"No, I want to tell you everything. The second time I woke up, she was there again. Already sitting on my legs. They'd stripped my clothes off by this time, so there was only the hospital gown they'd put me in…she'd pulled down the bedclothes."

He was staring straight down at the floor between his feet now, reciting his words in a stony, emotionless voice.

"I didn't even bother struggling this time. She told me I had to make a bargain with her — have sex with her, and she'd let me go. I told her 'no way', so she decided to help me make up my mind; I think you can guess how. And don't ask me why, but she started to have an effect on me."

He paused.

"I don't know whether it means anything any more," he continued after another long silence, "but you have to know that I absolutely hated her touching me like that. I never want any woman but you to be that intimate with me. I hope you believe that."

"Of course I do, Clark," Lois whispered, her hand automatically moving towards him to offer comfort, until she remembered the invisible fence he was sheltering behind and pulled it away again. She wanted to let him know that no matter what had happened — and his last words left her terrified that he really had been raped — that she still loved him, still wanted to caress him, still wanted him just as much as she ever did.

But she couldn't even touch him.

So she had to sit powerless, reeling in cold shock from the devastating news that Clark had had to endure the threat of forced sex from an evil, callous, cruel woman who had already taunted him well beyond his limits.

"Anyway," he ploughed on, "she must have decided I wasn't responding quickly enough for her or something, because the next thing I knew, she was laughing at me and undoing the restraints. The rest you pretty much know."

He stopped, but continued staring at Perry's carpet in completely uncharacteristic silence — usually, he was animated even when quiet, glancing at her or touching her lightly. Lois felt relieved at first, knowing that at least he hadn't been raped. Her relief soon wore off as she watched him, and the brutal reality of his suffering began to sink in.

She didn't know what to do. She couldn't comfort him, she couldn't tell him everything was going to be all right, and she had no idea at all what to say to him — nothing she could do or offer him seemed adequate in the face of the terrible, harrowing experience he had just related. What she wanted to do more than anything else was simply hold him, but he seemed so fragile she was afraid he'd break if she even touched him. Although maybe that was precisely what he needed — to let himself break into tiny fragments so that she could start putting him back together again.

She reached out a tentative arm and curled it around his broad shoulders, becoming more confident when he didn't seem to resist this time. There was a long moment when she thought that was all he would permit her to do, but when she exerted just the tiniest pressure to encourage him to come nearer, he suddenly came into her arms and buried his face in her shoulder.

"I'm sorry," she murmured chokingly, clasping him tightly to her.

The door burst open and Henderson stood in the doorway. Lois looked up and shook her head violently at him, but he grimaced an apology. "Sorry, guys, but I have to go soon — we'll have to go through the rescue some other time. I just came in to tell you a few things before I go."

Clark extracted himself from her embrace, and she felt a stab of anger towards Henderson for timing his entrance so badly.

"That's OK, Bill," answered Clark roughly. Lois found his hand and squeezed it tightly. "You've already spent more time that we could reasonably expect of you on this."

"Well, first, I wanted to let you know you were right, Clark. My guys found your place peppered with bugs-"

"That's great," interrupted Clark abruptly. "Thanks for organising that. What else?"

"Hold on, Clark," said Lois, puzzled and mildly frustrated by Clark's blunt interruption. "I want to know where all these bugs were — just what exactly would these people have been listening to?"

"We don't need to know that, do we?" said Clark hastily. "I mean, it's bad enough knowing they were there, never mind exactly where they were placed. Anyway, I doubt Bill knows where they were, honey. So what else did you have to tell us, Bill?"

"Clark! I want to know. What if they had them in the bathroom? Don't you want to know if your daily routine has been recorded for posterity?"

"Not especially, no. Bill, th-"

"Well, I do. And what…oh, God, Clark, what if there were any in our bedroom?" "I'm sure they wouldn't do that, honey," he replied with a curiously anxious glance at Henderson.

"Clark's right, Lois," said Henderson, nodding. "We didn't find any upstairs." "Well, that's a relief! See, Clark — it was worth asking," she said, turning to her husband, who suddenly looked completely off-balance. "Wasn't it?"

"Yes…yes, it was."

He really seemed to be thrown by something they had said, though what that could possibly be, she couldn't imagine. Maybe it was just that his emotions were all jumbled up; after all Henderson really couldn't have come in at a worse moment. She squeezed his hand again, and was rewarded with a forced smile.

"The other thing was that we finally traced the van you were taken away in," continued Henderson. "It's registered to an Ian Findlayson — it took me a while to figure out where I'd heard that name before, and then it clicked-"

"The councillor in the middle of that fascist scandal!" exclaimed Lois, making the connection immediately. "Who was having an affair with Meg Patterson-"

"And who was being investigated by Ann Campbell," finished Clark.

"I knew it was all connected!" said Lois triumphantly. "Clark, we have to find that house you escaped from and see if we can connect that to Meg Patterson as well, and then we should talk to Ann's Dad's army contact. I bet you that extremist right-wing group of his are the people who kidnapped you, or my name's not Lois Lane."

"Sounds like a possibility," agreed Henderson. "Which brings me to my last point. You both know the police aren't officially involved in this any more, but I want you to know that unofficially, I'll give you any help I can to nail these bastards. They're criminals, and I don't like seeing criminals go free, especially when they've done the God-awful things they did to you, Clark."

Lois couldn't agree more. "Thanks, Bill. We really appreciate that," she said.

"God knows how I'm going to pull it off if you catch them," he added. "In fact, I'd appreciate it if you'd give that some thought. You're going to have to find a way for me to arrest them without involving you-know-who."

"You know who?" Lois seized on the cryptic reference immediately. She was still missing a lot of information here, and Henderson's little speech reminded her of just how much Clark was still keeping from her.

"Uh, Bill — I haven't…" Clark waved his hand vaguely in the air, raising Lois's suspicions. What hadn't he done?

"Oh, right. But you're going to?"

"Oh, yes." Clark nodded.

"Going to what?!" demanded Lois.

"I'll tell you when Bill's gone, honey. I promise."

"You better had!" she retorted, then relented on noticing his tense, cornered expression. "You better had," she repeated more gently.

"OK, folks, I'm off back to the salt mines," said Henderson. "I'll contact you later today to fix a time for us to go over the rest of the rescue."

"Thanks for everything, Bill," said Clark.

"Sure. No problem."

***

Left alone with Lois again, Clark felt exhaustion creep over him like a heavy blanket. Despite his optimistic insistence to Lois this morning, he didn't seem to be regaining any of his strength, and he felt bone-weary from baring his soul to both Henderson and Lois, and then desperately trying to keep one step ahead of Lois while she demanded to know exactly where those bugs had been planted. He still couldn't understand why Henderson had claimed there weren't any upstairs, unless the policeman had somehow understood that Clark didn't want Lois to know about the ones in the bedroom.

He turned to her. "I guess I'd better do some explaining."

"That would be a good idea. But, first, are you sure you want to stay here? I'm sure Perry wouldn't mind if we took the rest of the day off — we're not exactly getting much work done anyway."

"True, but there's no reason for you to take the day off, and to be honest, I don't feel like being on my own right now."

"It's just that you look so tired, honey."

He shrugged. "I'll be okay."

"Well, how about we go out after this, have some lunch, see if we can find that house, and then finish early? Maybe I can talk to Ann's contact on the phone from home."

"I guess Perry might buy that."

Lois's mouth curled up at one corner. "He will when I've finished with him."

An image suddenly sprang unbidden to the front of his mind: her mocking face laughing down at him, the deep, plunging V-neck sweater revealing too much of her cleavage, and her hand where it had no right to be, moving rhythmically up and down, while blinding whiteness surrounded him on all sides. He tried to dismiss the image, but it came back again, with the same feelings of panic and fear he had experienced at the time. Please make her go away…

"Clark?"

"What?" Lois's voice dragged him away from the image. "Oh, right, the explanation."

"No, what happened just then? That's the second time you've blanked out on me — are you sure you're all right?"

"Yes, Lois, I keep telling you! I'm fine!" he retorted with a sudden flash of irritation.

"Hey…" she said softly, laying a placatory hand on his leg.

"I'm fine," he repeated more quietly, the anger gone as quickly as it had come, and in its place came a sudden lump in his throat, making it impossible to say more. He swallowed to try and shift it and calm himself down; he really should stop wallowing in self-pity and get a better grip of himself. And be honest with Lois…after a moment, he took a deep breath and continued. "I keep getting these flashes back to yesterday, even when I'm not thinking consciously about it. Just bam! and I'm there, in the white room again." He shook his head. "I'm sure it's just because I'm not quite myself yet. When I've had a few hours to get my powers back, I'll be fine."

"I'm sure that'll help, yes. But really, Clark, I think this is your subconscious's way of telling you how you really are. You keep saying you're fine, and it's great to be positive like that, but maybe you need to give yourself a little more time. Maybe you need to stop pretending yesterday didn't happen."

"How can you say that, when I've just gone through it with you, from start to finish? That's not exactly pretending nothing happened."

"Okay, then maybe what I mean is that you need to stop pretending it didn't happen to you, Clark. You've told me the bare facts, but you haven't told me how you feel about them. How *you* feel, Clark."

"But that's just it — I don't know how I feel," he replied belligerently.

"Well, good, because that's a great start — you just told me you don't understand your own feelings. That's better than pretending you don't have any feelings at all. Clark, you were nearly raped. You can't expect to wake up the next morning after an experience like that and carry on as normal. You need to give yourself time to recover, and most of all, you need to stop bottling up your emotions as if there's no-one around to share them with. There's me, your parents, Bill Henderson, or even Perry to talk to, so use us, Clark. Talk to us."

She paused.

"Just don't talk to Jimmy — I don't think he could stand the shock," she said with a smile.

Clark grimaced. "Don't worry, Jimmy's last on my list of confidantes."

"But you will talk?"

Clark sighed — he felt as if he'd been doing nothing but talk all day long so far. And she'd used the same words as Henderson: 'nearly raped'. He didn't enjoy thinking of himself as a rape victim, particularly when the potential rapist had been a woman. It made him sound like someone to be pitied and treated with kid gloves, and he wished they'd just drop the word altogether. For the same reason, along with many others, he also had no intention of visiting Henderson's rape crisis centre. But he knew he wasn't behaving normally, and he hated the effect that was having on Lois and his ability to do his job, so he nodded. "I'll try."

"Okay. How about starting by telling me how you managed to work black magic around Henderson so that he dropped the investigation?"

He eyed her. She might think this was an easy place to start, but she couldn't be more wrong. "All right, but can you promise me you won't explode when I tell you? I don't think I could cope with that right now."

"Well, I'll try," she replied, frowning.

"And you have to understand that this wasn't some kind of knee-jerk reaction. I've been thinking hard about this since you told me the police were involved."

She blinked. "You told him, didn't you? You told him who you are."

Trust Lois to beat him to the confession. "Yes. Lois, I couldn't see any other way to stop the investigation. He wasn't going to buy my crazy story about it being a college prank, and he wouldn't have just called it off without some kind of convincing story, so I decided to tell him the most convincing story of all — the truth. Which he might have figured out anyway, if he'd gone much further down the line with the investigation."

"But he might not have, Clark. You could have waited."

"By which time half the police force might have known. At least this way, only one policeman knows — and we couldn't have asked for a better choice. Bill Henderson won't tell a soul, I know."

"Yes, but where does it stop? You tell Henderson because you were forced into a corner — does that mean you'll tell Perry the next time you haven't got a decent excuse to give him?"

"No! Of course it doesn't. And I thought you promised not to explode."

"I'm not exploding, I'm just trying to understand why."

"Because I didn't have a choice."

"You could have discussed it with me. That was a choice you had."

His temper flared. "That's what this is really about, isn't it? Me not asking your permission first before *I* tell someone *my* secret."

"You bet your bottom dollar it is. And I'm sorry, but I always thought it was our secret, not just your secret."

Clark winced internally — of course the secret belonged to both of them. He didn't know why he'd just come out with that stupid remark, and he also hated the way this was escalating into yet another argument. He'd hoped Lois would quickly see how he really hadn't had a choice, and that he'd made the right decision. Although, he remembered guiltily, he'd deliberately decided not to consult with her before telling Henderson, because he'd been afraid she would talk him out of it. So he'd avoided being honest with her in order to get his own way, and now he was paying the price.

But he was tired; tired of talking, tired of defending himself when he was supposed to be the one who had been wronged, and very, very tired of arguing. He stood up wearily.

"You're right, Lois. The secret belongs to you as much as it does to me. You're also right that I should have talked to you before I told Henderson. Maybe you're even right, and I should have waited a while before I told him at all. Basically, you're right, and I'm wrong. I think that just about sums up the whole of today so far."

He pushed open Perry's door and walked out.

***

"Clark, don't be like that!" she called after him, but the door shut and she was alone. Moments later, the door opened again, and Perry strode in.

"Clark says you're all done in here." He stopped and bent down to study her face. "Or not. Lois, are you okay, honey?"

"Oh, just peachy," she replied dryly, and stood up. "Thanks for letting us use your office for so long, Perry."

"Oh, it was just like old times there for a while, workin' out in the newsroom — I enjoyed it. Uh, anything more I can do for you?"

She knew what he was asking, but she didn't really want another pep-talk from Perry, she wanted to sort things out with Clark. "No, it's all right. Oh, by the way, I was right about that connection — it seems that the van Clark was kidnapped in is owned by Meg Patterson's ex-boyfriend."

"Great shades of Elvis! Could this right-wing group be the people who kidnapped Clark, then?"

"Precisely what I was thinking. So we're going to see if we can find the place Clark was taken to yesterday and try to link it to her as well, and then we'll be going home early. Clark's still pretty shattered after last night."

"Well, that's fine by me; you know I didn't really expect him in at work today."

"I know, but you know Clark — has to go to work unless he's at death's door."

Perry raised an eyebrow. "Not unlike someone else I know."

"Yeah, well…I better go talk to him."

***

She walked straight up to Clark's desk. "How about we sort this out over lunch?"

He looked up at her with a dull expression and shrugged. "If you say so."

Sulking really didn't suit him, but she didn't want to provoke another outburst. "Well, since we'll be going over to West Metropolis after lunch, how about we drive over to Luigi's?" Which was on the way there, and one of Clark's favourite eateries.

"Okay."

They rode down the elevator in silence, walked across the parking lot in silence, and got into the jeep in silence. Lois had given up trying to start a conversation, and had decided to wait until they reached the restaurant. Perhaps with a plate of his favourite linguini in front of him, Clark would start to unbend. She was just about to start the engine when he gasped and clutched at the seat.

"Clark? What is it?" she asked urgently.

"Kryptonite," he answered tightly. "Must be some…somewhere in the jeep."

She glanced around frantically, but couldn't immediately see any green glow anywhere. Besides, he'd been all right when they'd first got into the jeep.

"Are you sure it's Kryptonite?" She held the back of her hand against his cheek to test his temperature; it certainly seemed to be rising rapidly, as it usually did when he was exposed. His face looked flushed, too.

He gasped in pain. "Believe me, I'd know this feeling…anywhere."

He was beginning to double over, gripping the dashboard with white knuckles. She had to do something fast — maybe the best bet was to haul him out of the jeep and away to safety. Then she could search for the kryptonite later.

She had her hand on the door handle when she heard the unmistakable click of a gun being cocked.

"Don't move," commanded a sharp voice.

She froze, thinking rapidly. The voice and sounds seemed to be coming from below the car, which was very odd, because she couldn't imagine what good it would do anyone to threaten her with a gun from under there. Her eyes darted around the narrow field of vision available to her without moving, but she couldn't see anyone. And clearly, Clark's kryptonite attack was part of this set-up, but where was it?

"Look through the passenger window," the voice commanded.

She whirled to her right, and saw a dark figure standing outside Clark's door, wearing some kind of lightweight microphone headset. His face was obscured by a tight mask, but there was no mistaking the gun he was pointing at Clark's head.

"Yes, the bullet will go through the window," said the voice coldly, "and yes, it would probably kill him, so if I were you, I'd be very careful what you do next."

She glanced quickly at Clark, but he seemed to be oblivious to anything other than his own agony.

"What do you want?" she asked, buying time while she tried to figure out what to do. It was too far across Clark to get to the gunman in time before he fired, so she'd have to get out of the car somehow.

"Get out of the jeep, and come around where I can see you. If I lose sight of you, he dies."

How was she able to hear him so clearly? Was there some sort of device attached to the jeep — was that why he was wearing the headset? Not that it really mattered — all that counted right now was that he had instructed her to get out of the car, and that was precisely where she wanted to be. She opened her door and walked slowly around to the back until she could see the gunman clearly.

"Now what?"

"Now lay down on the ground. Face down."

She looked down at the ground and pulled a face. "You must be kidding. My dry cleaner would kill me if I lay down in that. Oh, and by the way, it's 'lie down on the ground', not 'lay'."

To her horror, he swiftly swung the gun around and fired a shot near her feet. The dull spit of the silenced gun left her shaking in shock.

"Do it! The next bullet is his."

Trembling, and quickly revising her putative attack plan, she sank down onto one knee. As she was shifting to kneel, Clark's door shot open and Clark came rolling out, knocking the gunman in the shins and sending him flying. Alarmed by her husband's extremely risky manoeuvre, but delighted with the result, she scrambled quickly to her feet and ran over, just as Clark was losing his grip on the gunman's ankle. The gunman himself was struggling to his feet, apparently trying to escape, so she threw herself at him and managed to send him back down to the ground again, falling on top of him. Immediately, he began struggling to get away from her, and in the background, she could hear Clark warning her in a weak voice, "Gun. Watch the gun."

But the gun didn't really seem to be the issue; her main problem was simply to hold onto the guy. He was very strong; too strong. He was anticipating all the moves she was making to try and disable him, and part of her mind registered the fact that he must be trained, possibly even in Tai Kwon Do as she was herself. Eventually, an incredible powerful knee against her hip sent her rolling away from him, and he scrambled free and started running. She twisted to try and grab a foot to bring him down again, but he was out of her reach. Lunging to her feet, a stab of pain in her hip prevented her from chasing very fast after him, and soon he was completely out of her range.

Frustrated, she stopped running and hobbled back to Clark, who was trying to drag himself further away from the jeep, panting heavily. "It's still too close," he gasped.

"Okay — hold on."

She hurried around to the driver's side, got in and backed the jeep out of its parking space and zoomed over to the furthest-away point she could find in the parking lot. By the time she had hobbled back to him, he was sitting up, propped up on one hand.

"Better?" she asked anxiously.

"Yes, thanks. Are you okay?"

"I think I'm developing a king-sized bruise on my hip, but otherwise I'm fine," she answered, reaching down to haul him up, staggering slightly when he immediately grabbed her shoulders for support. "You took a big risk there," she commented mildly, as they began making their way precariously back to the elevator, holding on to each other. "He could have shot you."

"I think he was bluffing. If they'd wanted to kill me, they could have done it any time yesterday."

"Even so, he could have shot you by accident. You should have waited for me; I had it all planned out."

"You did, did you?"

"Oh, yes, down to the last nano-second."

"Yes, well, next time we need to escape from a crazy gunman with a stocking over his head, in an underground parking lot, at shortly after midday on a Wednesday morning, we'll do it your way, okay?"

"Ha — very funny. But let's hope there isn't any kind of next time."

"Yeah." They reached the elevator doors, and Clark paused with his hand over the call button. "Where are we going, by the way?"

"Back up to the newsroom. You can lie down on Perry's couch while I come back down here to get rid of the kryptonite from the jeep."

"I don't need to lie down-"

"Oh, that's why you're hanging on to me as if your life depended on it, is it?" retorted Lois.

"Nope, that's because I like hanging on to you. I've got a better idea — why don't I just wait here while you get rid of the kryptonite, and then we can drive home and get cleaned up."

She observed his unhealthy flush and reflected that a cold underground car park wasn't the best place for someone with a fever to loiter in. However, without him saying anything, she knew why he had suggested staying here — going back upstairs meant explanations and fuss, and he'd probably had more than he could stand of that today already. Perhaps if she was quick enough; she already had a good idea where to start looking.

"Okay, you win. I'll be as quick as I can."

She left him leaning against the wall, and began hobbling back to the Jeep. Her hunch paid off — as soon as she bent stiffly down and peered underneath, she spotted the black box attached underneath the passenger door. She reached in and tugged; with a little hard pushing and shoving, it came loose and she was able to examine it.

One end was open, and sure enough, there was a green-glowing lump of kryptonite inside. There was a spring-loaded lid which clicked shut when she tried it. The other end, which was lighter, was sealed but with a speaker grille. The whole device looked very home-made, but it had obviously done the job it was designed for very effectively. If her theory was right, the box was made of lead, or at least, the kryptonite end was, and the reason Clark hadn't felt its effects immediately was because it had been closed when they first entered the jeep. It must have been opened remotely.

It seemed such an elaborate set-up. Whoever had made it must have a penchant for gadgets, she decided. Was it made by the same person who had bugged their house, she wondered. And was the gunman who had run away once his kidnap attempt went sour that same person?

And could she take a risk, and drive over to Clark now that the lid of the device was closed? She gave it a good shake to make sure it wouldn't open on its own, then bashed it against the dashboard a couple of times for good measure. Satisfied, she put it into the glovebox and drove back to Clark, who was now sitting on the ground propped up against the wall. As she approached, he stood up and joined her in the jeep.

"Where did you find it?"

"In a box attached to the undercarriage." She described it to him. "I thought we could take it over to Dr Klein; maybe he can give us some clues on who could have made it."

"Good idea."

***

A few streets away, a car sat parked in a line of vehicles by the side of the road, its engine running. Nigel Sayer jogged up to it and climbed in on the passenger side.

"Drive," he commanded.

Ms Jones checked the rear-view mirror and pulled out. "What happened? Where's Superman?"

"That kryptonite must be defective or something. Maybe it reacted with the lead."

"You mean you screwed up again," Ms Jones observed dryly.

"No, you screwed up by giving me a crap piece of kryptonite. It barely had any effect on him at all," he retorted. She'd never know he was lying, so why bother making himself look bad?

"So he got away?"

"Yes, he got away, thanks to you."

"Sayer, you're pathetic — that was the same kryptonite we used on him at the house, and it certainly doesn't react with other elements, especially lead." She glanced at him. "So basically, not only have you lost the bugs in their house, but you've failed to recapture the alien. Think Patterson will give you a third chance?"

He sneered. "Personally, I don't give a damn whether she does or not. I've just about had it with her nasty little group — they're all a bunch of amateurs."

"Sounds like you're the amateur, the way you try to talk big." She smirked. "Maybe it's got something to do with your lack of…assets. You're trying to over-compensate, Nigel."

"Shut it!"

"Oh, I don't think I will," she tossed back. "I could go on like this for hours."

He lunged across to her, put his face close to hers and ran a hand slowly up her leg. "Still listening to those tapes of their bedroom antics, are you?" he whispered in her ear. "What do you do — try to get as excited as they do?"

"At least he knows how to give a woman what she needs," she answered, casting a disinterested look down at the hand on her thigh. "And groping around with your hands isn't what I mean."

He flung himself back into his seat. "No, you do your own groping, don't you?"

She shrugged. "So, are you going to try and leave Purity? Patterson won't like that."

"She won't have a choice."

***

Lois experienced a weird sense of deja vu, opening the front door and following a wobbly Clark into their living room. She supposed it was because this was the second time in less than twenty-four hours that she'd brought him home in a less than healthy condition after a close brush with danger. Except that this time, the atmosphere had changed between them. The ride home had been quiet, but it had been a companionable quiet — they had both been slightly high after their narrow escape in the parking lot, and it had been fun sharing that crazy feeling of hysteria with him. Just like old times.

"OK, who wins the prize for oiliest clothes?" she challenged.

He glanced up at her while sinking into one of their sofas. "Oh, you do, without a doubt. You should never wear cream to a parking lot fight — you should know that."

"Well, sorry, but I didn't know we had one planned for today." She pointed a finger at him. "You, by the way, win the prize for most idiotic move of the day."

"I do?"

"Yes, that sofa will no doubt need cleaning now that you've parked your oily behind on it."

"Oh! I didn't think…"

He started to rise, but she stopped him with a hand to his shoulder. "No, you stay there. I was only kidding." She bent down to his level, noting his wan features. "How are you feeling?"

"Not too bad, actually," he said in his best 'don't worry about me' voice.

She raised an eyebrow.

His mouth twisted. "Well, more like pretty awful, I guess. I could have done with a bit longer before being hit with this."

"Thought so. Okay, you just relax right there while I grab a quick shower and get changed, then you can do the same and we'll have lunch. All right?"

And talk, she hoped.

"Sounds good, but I'll pass on the lunch part."

She winced in sympathy. "Queasy stomach?"

He smiled ruefully. "Who needs rollercoasters when there's kryptonite around?"

"You'll drink something, though? You need to keep drinking."

"Yes, Mom."

She grinned, suddenly remembering their decision — seemingly such a long time ago — to try for a child. "Be careful, be very, very careful. You might just get what you want." With that, she turned and walked upstairs.

She didn't notice Clark's alarmed expression.

***

Coming downstairs twenty minutes later, she found Clark virtually fast asleep on the sofa. Smiling tenderly, she nudged him sideways and picked up his feet to lift onto the seat. He mumbled incoherently and tried to rouse himself, but when she murmured, "Shhh — go back to sleep, Clark," he settled down again, readily shifting to lie full-length on the cushions. The blanket from last night was still lying crumpled up on the other sofa, so she picked it up and draped it around him. His forehead felt too warm when she touched the back of her hand to it, so sleep was very definitely to be encouraged.

Talking, it seemed, would have to wait.

Instead, she fetched herself some lunch and settled down with a notepad and the phone, ready to do some research.

A couple of hours later, she had some very alarming facts assembled. Ann Campbell's father had been surprisingly willing to talk to her, considering his very recent bereavement. He was glad to learn that someone was going to continue Ann's work, it seemed, and readily explained about his ex-army contact's information.

He had been having dinner at his club, apparently, with a few friends, the wine flowing pretty freely, when the conversation had turned to the ills of society and what should be done to put things right.

It had started as a typical after-dinner discussion, with the usual targets suffering heavy criticism from everyone: the weak government, the shoddy law enforcement services, the lax attitude to discipline in schools, and the breakdown of traditional family values. But as tongues became looser, and more wine was imbibed, the proposals became more and more forthright, until one loud voice proclaimed that, in his opinion, the biggest threat to society was the degradation of the human species itself.

The rotund ex-army colonel began to expound his case for stricter laws regarding immigration from developing and third-world countries, a clamp-down on the conjugal rights of the prison population, sterilisation for the mentally- retarded, and tough laws to prevent people with certain disabilities and syndromes from marrying or reproducing.

Further conversation fizzled out as he blustered his way through an outrageous litany of laws and controls, amounting to little less than fascism on a grand scale. He finished with the proud announcement that things would change soon; in fact they were already changing, and he was delighted to be a part of that change. Some right-minded people were taking direct action, and soon the purity of the human race would be secured once and for all.

Ann's father had been appalled, as had most other people around the table. He had mentioned the incident afterwards to his daughter, who had immediately decided to begin an investigation into the bigoted colonel.

And now Lois had a name: Colonel Robertson.

A phone call to Jimmy, and he was set to work searching for a link between Meg Patterson, an ex-police chief, and this Colonel Robertson, ex-army colonel. Did they know each other? Had they met sometime in the past, possibly in their professional capacities?

Less than an hour later, she had her answer: a murder case, from a few years previously. More to the point, a murder case with racial overtones, and involving a couple of Robertson's staff. Jimmy had found it quickly because it had been reported in the Planet; despite seemingly strong evidence, the case had been dismissed, causing a minor outcry at the time. There were hints of collusion, and rumours that certain parties involved in the case had engineered things to go their way.

The chief investigating officer on the civilian side had been Meg Patterson.

So, now, Lois had Meg Patterson, with a history of racial harassment during her working life, probably doing Colonel Robertson a favour by fudging a murder case which also involved race relations. Robertson was currently involved in some kind of extreme right-wing group who sounded as though they were already active within Metropolis, and Patterson's ex-lover had owned the van which Clark had been kidnapped in. Patterson had also been the driving force behind the initiative to stop people of low intelligence from reproducing, which was very close to one of the sentiments expressed by Robertson in his tirade.

They had to be working together.

A snuffle from Clark made her look up from the notepad she'd been doodling on. He was waking up. She crossed over and crouched down beside him, watching him as he woke. He'd lost the unhealthy flush, and when his eyes opened, they looked a lot clearer than when she'd brought him home at lunchtime.

"Hi," she said with a smile.

As well as investigating Ann's, and now Clark's case, she'd been doing some thinking about his confession to Henderson. Now that she was over the initial shock, she could understand exactly why he'd done it. He'd no doubt reasoned that it was the only way out of an impossible situation, and actually, she had found herself agreeing with him. Waiting to see whether anyone in the police force worked out who he was would have been dangerous, as Clark had pointed out; at least this way they minimised the damage.

She could even understand why he hadn't discussed it with her first. He'd been at such a low ebb this morning that he most likely had wanted to avoid as many confrontations as he could. Reluctantly, she had admitted to herself that talking to her would have undoubtedly resulted in one of those confrontations; she tended to guard Clark's secret even more vigorously than he did himself these days.

So, instead, he had taken the path of least resistance, and just told Henderson without consulting her at all.

Which had hurt, because she didn't like to think of herself as someone who made things more difficult for him. She'd had to remind herself of a few ways in which she definitely wasn't a hindrance to him, before she'd realised that this was more of a blip in a normally very close and supportive marriage, than a major catastrophe. And anyway, she was dwelling too much on her own feelings instead of Clark's.

He pushed himself up slowly and sat rubbing the sleep from his eyes, the blanket falling in a puddle around about him. "How long was I asleep?"

"Oh, a few hours. Think you could manage some food now?"

"I guess — what's the time?"

"Just coming up to four. Think of this as a late afternoon tea."

He yawned and stretched. "Tea sounds good — my mouth feels like the inside of a hamster's cage."

"And just how would you know how that feels?" she enquired over her shoulder as she walked into the kitchen.

"I have a fertile imagination," he called after her.

She came back with the extra sandwich she'd made earlier for him, and a mug of his favourite tea. He'd pulled the blanket out of the way and was looking down at the oil stains on his suit. "I hope you know the name of a good dry cleaners."

"Bobby Bigmouth will. He's pretty useful for stuff like that." She sat down opposite him. "So, you want to know what I was doing while you were asleep?"

He looked up. "Yes, but first I want to apologise, Lois. I've been behaving like a total idiot all day, and now I know just how wrong I was — I should have spoken to you first about the Henderson thing. Sharing my secret with someone affects you just as much as me, and I should have remembered that."

"Clark, you don't need to apologise. You told him for all the right reasons, and I wasn't exactly making it easy for you to warn me first. I'm not surprised you decided to bypass me and go straight to him."

"But I shouldn't have. It was pretty cowardly of me, actually."

"Cowardly? Clark, I think you've been incredibly brave — you've been through a horrendous experience which would turn most people into basket cases, yet you've not only had the courage to describe in detail what happened to you, but you've done it twice over, and on top of all that, you went straight back to work as soon as you were able to, and you fought off a gunman who was trying to kidnap you. So don't call yourself a coward."

"Well, maybe so, but I had to do all those things, really."

"No, you didn't! Look, it's me who should be apologising to you — I've given you a hard time ever since you came home. I've been thinking far too much about myself, and not enough about what you were feeling. So I want to say sorry, Clark."

He sipped his tea thoughtfully. "Maybe we should say we're even and start over. What do you say?"

"Well, I think I'm getting the better deal here, but OK. We're even. And by the way, it could turn out to be very useful — Henderson knowing, I mean."

He nodded. "Because he can help keep the secret?"

"Exactly. If one of his guys, or anyone else, looks like they're getting too close, he can deflect them."

He smiled at her. "Just like you do."

She returned his smile. "So, can I tell you what I found out while you were asleep?"

"Well, you seem to be dying to tell me, so I guess so," he replied with a wink.

She leaned forward. "Okay, first I called Ann's father…

He sipped tea and listened intently while she related her phone conversation back to him, and then Jimmy's findings. He butted in occasionally with questions or horrified comments, especially when she came to Robertson's plans to purify humanity; he was as appalled as she had been on hearing that the colonel advocated using a combination of sterilisation and draconian laws to manipulate the human gene pool. Mostly, however, he let her talk without interruption, and when she'd finished, he went very still for a moment.

"So, you think this group were the people who kidnapped me?" he asked slowly.

"It looks pretty likely, wouldn't you say? It would be an amazing coincidence if the van that just happened to belong to Patterson's ex-lover was used by some other group of fanatics."

"I guess it would," he agreed, but he still seemed to be preoccupied.

"Clark, what is it?"

"That woman?" She nodded to indicate she knew who he meant. "She mentioned some kind of operation they were planning for me."

"Operation? What sort of operation?" She had a brief flash of Clark in the hospital gown, running towards her in the darkness.

"She wouldn't say." He looked at her, as if waiting for her to divine where he was leading her.

It didn't take her long.

She stared at him, horrified. "You don't think…?"

"I'm an alien, Lois. Not human," he said quietly.

"But they wouldn't…"

"You said he mentioned sterilisation for the mentally-retarded. Why not aliens too?"

"But, Clark, that's-"

"Sickening. Totally sickening," he replied tightly. Laughing shakily, he continued, "I'm not sure I can take this, Lois. First that woman, and now this? Anyone would think they didn't like me or something."

"Clark…"

"I mean, I know I'm from another planet, but I'm not that bad when you get to know me, am I? Okay, there's the flying, and yes, I don't have to sleep as often as you humans do, and I suppose not having to eat is a bit weird, but really, I'm just a regular guy when you get right down to it. If you overlook the heat vision, that is, and-"

"Stop that, Clark." He was starting to sound almost hysterical, and that frightened her. "They're the abnormal ones, not you, and don't you ever think otherwise, okay?"

"Well, okay, but you know, it's kind of hard to remember when you're the one being victimised for being an alien," he said angrily.

"Then stop focusing on being victimised and start thinking about how we can stop these people."

"I'll do that once I've got used to the idea that there's a bunch of people out there who want to sterilise me." He laughed bitterly. "Kind of puts a whole new perspective on the kids thing, doesn't it?"

She stared. "Oh, God, you don't think they knew about that?"

"Undoubtedly. They probably heard us discussing it and decided they'd better have me seen to before it was too late. Kind of ironic, don't you think?"

"So maybe if I hadn't agreed to try again, they might not have kidnapped you…"

"Oh, I doubt it. They probably just hurried up their plans. Shame they don't know just how difficult it is for an alien to make an Earthwoman pregnant."

"Will you stop calling yourself an alien-"

"It's what I am, isn't it?"

He flung himself back against the sofa cushions, and when he continued, it was in a much more subdued voice. "It's not so much to ask, is it? A quiet life, a wife, and the chance to raise a few kids? That's all I want."

She crossed over to his sofa and sat down next to him, picking up one of his hands and holding it in both of hers. "Of course it's not too much to ask. And we're still going to try, aren't we? We're not going to let these people stop us, Clark, are we?"

He looked at her. "No, we're not." His lips settled into a firm line. "No, we're not," he repeated grimly. "And the first thing we're going to do is to find that house where they were holding me. Fountain Road, wasn't it?" he asked, standing up.

***

Clark peered out into the twilight gloom as Lois inched the jeep slowly along Fountain Road. In a way, it was easier trying to retrace his steps in the semi- darkness, because that was how things had been last night. He just wished he had his powers back, because then they could have finished this search in about five minutes flat.

They reached his pay phone.

"Stop," he said.

Lois braked and drew into the side of the road. "You see something?"

"No, I just think we should get out and walk from here. It'll be easier to do this on foot." He opened the door and waited on the sidewalk for her, hugging himself against the cold. How did Lois put up with it?

They walked slowly while he tried to recognise anything familiar in their surroundings. He hazily remembered turning a corner at one point — right, he thought, which meant that they should be coming up on a left turn before the end of the road. No junctions seemed to be visible, however. Maybe he'd crossed the road to the pay phone?

"Anything seem familiar?" asked Lois.

"Not really." He explained the junction he was looking for. "But if I crossed the road, then we could be walking in the wrong direction. Always assuming I turned right and not left."

"Well, let's stick with your first instinct. If we don't find anything, we'll try the other way."

"Okay."

And sure enough, a couple of minutes later they found a narrow lane to their left, with a high wall running around the corner and disappearing into the gloom. A few feet into the lane, and overhanging trees started to block off any remaining light from the street so that soon they were walking in almost pure darkness. Clark felt Lois's hand curl around his, and he gave a brief squeeze in reply.

The darkness was making him more uneasy than he would have expected. His night- sight was a problem, too, as it seemed that without powers, his eyes didn't adjust very well to pitch-black conditions. However, this was all beginning to feel very familiar; he was pretty sure the high wall hid the backyard he had stumbled across, which meant that they should find a door in the wall pretty soon.

He stopped, thinking he saw a change in the shape of the wall. Closer inspection confirmed it: this was the door that woman had directed him to last night, he was sure.

"This is it," he whispered. "This is where I escaped."

Lois reached out to the door handle, but he grabbed her hand before she touched it.

"It could be alarmed," he warned.

"Okay, we'll try the front door, then," she replied and started back down the lane.

"What are we going to say?" he hissed, following her.

"Oh, you'll think of something," she whispered back.

"Me?"

"You're the one who wanted to come here."

He rolled his eyes in the darkness. "I didn't notice you holding back when I suggested it."

"Shhh."

"Why are we whispering, anyway?"

"Because it's dark?"

They arrived at the front of the house, which consisted of some high, intricate wrought-iron gates, and high railings on either side. There was an entry button to their right, but pressing it didn't produce a response. Clark rattled the gates, but they were definitely locked, and although Lois found a pedestrian gate on the left, that too was locked.

Clark peered through the gates, following the winding driveway up to the house which was partially visible behind trees and bushes. He couldn't see any lights, which given the encroaching night, didn't look promising.

"Well, either there's no-one in, or whoever is in doesn't want to talk to us," he concluded.

Lois was eying the gates. "Do you want to go first, or shall I?"

Clark answered by cupping his hands together for her to step into. "Be my guest."

He waited until she was nearing the top, then followed her up. At around half- way, he became aware of a low, rumbling, growling sound.

"I take it that's not you," whispered Lois from above him.

He followed the sound of the growling, which now seemed to have doubled in sound, and found two black shapes looking up at them from the other side of the gates. Two very large black shapes.

"I don't think they like us," he whispered back.

"Who?"

"Fido and Rover."

As he said it, one of the growls evolved into a vicious, snapping bark.

"I don't think they like being called Fido and Rover, either," observed Lois.

Another vicious bark, accompanied by a leap at the gate, confirmed it.

"How are you with dogs?" she asked with a note of alarm.

"Well, Superman is pretty good with them, but I don't have his talents, if you know what I mean."

The growling had resumed, even louder than before.

"I thought so. Personally, I prefer my dogs stuffed with 'A Present from Toledo' written on them. Is this the point at which the great investigative team of Lane and Kent beat an ignominious retreat?"

"I prefer to think of it as prudent."

"Right. Prudent. Well, do you mind getting out of the way so that I can prudently climb back down and make my way back to the jeep, which is prudently parked only a few minutes away?"

"Already moving…"

***

Later that night, Lois lay in bed, waiting for Clark to finish in the bathroom and join her. They'd had a short evening after coming back from their aborted house break-in; just time to have dinner and catch up with the news on TV, and then Lois had decided privately that Clark could do with an early night and had declared herself worn-out and ready for bed. He had raised a sardonic eyebrow, indicating that he knew exactly what she was up to, but then had told her with a smile that he would follow her up in a couple of minutes

It was a big relief to have cleared the air with Clark at last. Conducting a bit of sleuthing together around the house had really cemented their truce, and it had also been great fun, even when the hounds from hell had appeared. Sure, they'd had to beat a hasty retreat, but at least they had the address, and Jimmy could make good use of that information tomorrow.

Clark seemed better, too. He was tired, but he didn't look sick any more, and his improving health seemed to have helped him in other ways: she no longer felt as though she had to handle him as if she was handling a fragile ornament. Undoubtedly he had a long way to go before he was completely healed from all that had happened, but at least the signs of recovery were there.

He slipped off his robe and joined her in bed. "So, tomorrow we get Jimmy to do some digging into this Colonel Robertson, yes?"

"And find out who owns that house," she added.

"Let's hope it's either Patterson or the colonel," he said, switching off the light.

"My money's on Patterson," she replied into the darkness.

She felt him roll over to lie on his side next to her. "Mine too." He dipped down and kissed her briefly. "Thank you for understanding."

"Well, it took me a while, but I got there in the end." She reached up and stroked the side of his face. "Goodnight, Clark."

Instead of replying, he dipped down again and pressed his lips to hers, this time lingering on the kiss for a while before releasing her. "I love you, Lois," he murmured softly.

She experienced a tiny moment of surprise, since even his simple goodnight kiss had been more than she had felt she had a right to expect from him. As usual, however, his kiss made her melt inside, and it wasn't difficult to reply warmly, "And I love you, Clark."

He dipped down a third time and kissed her with more ardour, and she felt even more surprised. But she could never resist his lips, she reflected dreamily, letting herself return his kiss with languorous pleasure.

Still, a twinge of worry coloured her enjoyment. Was this too soon after yesterday? Was it even real? His kisses seemed real enough; full and passionate, but was he forcing things?

On the other hand, maybe it was good for him to be kissed by the woman he loved, and it was certainly very nice for her.

So she relaxed into his kisses, letting him lap slowly and lovingly at her while she did the same, sometimes indulging in long, concentrated kisses, sometimes messy, noisy kisses, and occasionally, letting his tongue meet hers and move sensuously with her. She had missed her loving, attentive husband, with his soft, warm lips; even one night without him was too much.

Clark broke away after a while. "Touch me," he said softly.

Unease fought with desire… "Are you sure?"

"Yes."

"Isn't it too soon?"

"Too soon to forget? Touch me, Lois, please," he whispered, capturing her mouth again with his own.

But still she hesitated. Should she? She suddenly wondered if she was being asked to test him, in which case this was a dangerous game he was playing with his emotions. Or was it simply that he wanted to enjoy her hand caressing him, as she'd done so many times before? His kisses certainly felt genuinely sexy, and she definitely wanted to touch him. And if she refused, he might begin to think she didn't find him attractive any more; that somehow he was damaged goods now that he'd been fondled and mildly aroused by another woman. Nothing could be further from the truth.

"I need you to remind me of what it's supposed to be like," he murmured between kisses.

Sighing, she let go of her worries.

He went still as soon as she ran her fingers gently over him.

"Okay?" she asked anxiously, stopping immediately.

"Yes — don't stop." He crushed his lips against hers passionately, leaving her in no doubt as to his desire, so she caressed him while they kissed with more fervour. She tried to be gentle with her caressing, not wanting to rush him into anything he wasn't ready for.

Suddenly he broke away, breathing heavily.

"Clark, don't-" But his hand brushed hers feverishly away and he rolled quickly away from her onto his back.

She knew it had been too soon. She lay listening to his distressed breathing, scolding herself fiercely for letting this happen. He couldn't be expected to make rational choices about his sex life at the moment, so it was up to her to make them for him. And rushing into intimacy just a day after he'd been sexually assaulted definitely wasn't a good choice, no matter how desperate he was to make things appear normal. She should have recognised the warning signs and persuaded him to be content with kissing, instead of giving in to her own selfish desires.

She reached out to him and found his arm. "It's okay, Clark," she said gently.

"No, it's not," he muttered, and rolled onto his side with his back to her.

***

He'd been so sure that if he just did what he'd done so many times before, everything would fall into place and he would be all right. After all, he loved Lois, she loved him, and they both wanted each other just as much as the first time they had made love together. What could be easier and more natural?

She'd reminded him, earlier today, that they'd decided to try for kids again. At first, he'd been panicked, shying away from the thought of resuming sexual relations with her — not to mention the added pressure of performing almost to order. It had seemed an awesome challenge, and worse still, what if he had to produce a sample and couldn't even do that?

But then came the discovery that his kidnappers had been planning on sterilising him, and a grim determination had settled over him. He wasn't going to let a bunch of fanatics rule his life, destroy his and Lois's dream of having a child together, and ruin their sex life. No, he was going to confound them by trying even harder to have kids, and he was going to forget what that woman had said and done to him and just get on with loving Lois, like he had from the moment he first met her.

Apparently, however, loving her wasn't enough.

Apparently, he couldn't just forget the mocking smile, the heavy pressure on his legs, and her hand forcing him to respond in a mockery of the loving intimacy he shared with his wife. He couldn't forget the unwanted, forbidden response, and the desperate, nonsensical need for protection. He couldn't forget his silent submission to her taunts. And he couldn't forget the fact that he'd been used as a sex object.

He felt Lois turn over and lie just behind him. "You just need time, Clark. Give yourself time."

But how much time? A day? A month? A year? If he couldn't make love with her when that was absolutely all he wanted to do, what difference would time make? Would she still be telling him that in a year's time? Would he still be remembering a white room, a hospital bed and a woman intent on raping him, when Lois was making gentle love to him?

"We let things happen too quickly — *I* let things happen too quickly," she murmured.

Oh, so now he had to be babied through the process of making love. He couldn't be trusted to use his own instincts; Lois would have to take control from now on and make sure he didn't overreach himself. They would make love on her terms, or not at all.

No.

That was unfair.

"I'm sorry," he said.

"Don't be." He felt her hand on his arm. "We've got the rest of our lives together, honey. This doesn't have to be fixed in two seconds flat."

He rolled onto his back again with a heavy sigh, and she resettled so that she was lying beside him propped up on one elbow, playing softly with his hair.

"I thought if I just did what used to come naturally, then everything would be okay," he confessed.

"And it will be, in time," she replied. "We just don't want to hurry it."

"But how much time, Lois? When do I stop feeling like this?"

"I don't know, honey. But I do know you need longer than a day to get over what happened, so don't be so hard on yourself." She paused, trickling her fingers through his hair. "You want to tell me what happened just then?"

Not really. "Just…what you'd expect, really."

"You thought I was her?"

"No! No, I think…I guess…I just kind of flashed on her, and once I'd got her in my head, I couldn't think of anything else."

"So you had to stop to make her go away?"

"Yes. Crazy, or what?"

"Not crazy at all. We just have to slow things down, and next time, whenever that is, we remember where we went wrong and do things differently. But it doesn't matter when that next time is, okay?"

"Okay."

"Because I still love you, whether we make love or not. You know that, don't you?"

"Yes, but it's good to hear you say it."

"I'll say it as often as you like, Clark." She kissed him on the forehead. "I love you, Clark Kent."

"I love you too, Lois Lane."

She nestled down beside him for sleep, and her soft, warm, feminine body snuggling close to his suddenly made him realise just how much had been stolen from him. The love of his life lay next to him in bed, yet he could hardly bear her to touch him, let alone make love with her. He hadn't felt anything stir at all while he'd been kissing her, just a cool, dead feeling deep inside, no matter how hard he'd tried to enjoy loving her. And though it was nice to hear her affirm her love for him, it didn't stop him feeling as if part of him had died when that woman had attacked him.

He should have done more to resist her.

***

"If that woman says another word, I'm out of here!"

Nigel Sayer withdrew the accusatory finger which had shot out at his adversary and slammed the table hard with his open hand.

"Oh, come now, Nigel," replied Ms Jones calmly. "All I said was you have some personal issues which may account for your recent errors. I was defending you."

"Like hell!" retorted Sayer.

"Shut up!" exploded Patterson coldly. "I will not have this group descend into petty bickering. Is that clear?"

Silence greeted her words. She had convened the group as soon as was possible after discovering the mess Nigel Sayer appeared to have got them into. Even so, it had been midday before she had been able to contact everyone, and that meant time was swiftly running out. The stronger the alien got following their treatment, the less easy it would be to make a further attempt at capture. Especially as their kryptonite stock was now halved, thanks to Sayer's incompetence.

"That's better," she continued. "Now, Mr Sayer, let us take these points one at a time. First, we appear to have lost communication with their house. Would you care to explain how that could have happened?"

Sayer snorted. "Someone found the bugs, of course."

"I realise that, you imbecile. How did they know the bugs were there?"

"Someone told them." He looked directly at Ms Jones.

She shrugged. "Typical behaviour for someone with Nigel's condition, I'm afraid. The compensating male can't afford to be seen as a failure, so transfers the blame elsewhere."

"Oh, spare us the psycho-babble, please! You're the one who let him go — who else should we blame?" pointed out Sayer scathingly.

"I would suggest no-one, actually." She smiled. "Perhaps the bugs were inadequately concealed."

"By me, I suppose you mean," he retorted.

"You *are* the one who planted them, dear Nigel."

"You *are* the one who let him go, dear Ms Jones," he parroted back at her.

"Let's move on, shall we?" interjected Patterson. "You failed to recapture the alien; that much is clear, and I won't even bother asking why or how. I won't even ask you why you used Ms Jones as your accomplice, when, as you just said yourself, she hasn't exactly proven herself well motivated for the task at hand. I do, however, find it more than a little ironic to discover that mere hours after your failure, our security cameras recorded him and his woman attempting to break into this very house. He practically knocked on our door, ladies and gentlemen! Why didn't we welcome him in with open arms?"

"Because no-one was here," replied Dr Scott. "Including yourself — where were you?"

"My dear Dr Scott, just because I live here doesn't mean that I am imprisoned here. I was attending the opera. However, the security guards were here."

"They didn't recognise him, apparently," said Prof Davies dryly. "He's probably the most famous person in Metropolis, his picture is constantly plastered all over the media, yet these two Einsteins said 'he looks different without the suit.'" He indicated quote marks with his fingers in mid-air. "If you ask me, they were asleep on the job."

"And who employed them?" asked Ms Jones innocently.

"I believe that was your responsibility, wasn't it, Mr Sayer?" suggested Patterson.

"You pay shit, you get shit," he shot back. "I did the best I could with the money you were offering."

"Once again, the compensating male absolves himself of blame," observed Ms Jones.

Sayer sneered and casually held up two fingers to her.

"So, Mr Sayer, do you have any good news for us whatsoever?" asked Patterson. "Perhaps you've solved our problem with the double-blind security system Ms Jones inflicted on us. It would be so nice to have the freedom to dispose of her without killing ourselves in the process."

Sayer seethed. "Does anyone except me do any work around here? You all sit around, so high and mighty with your college degrees, but it seems to me I'm the only one actually holding this operation together!" he blustered.

"I take it that's a no?" enquired Patterson.

"You bet it's a no. I haven't had time."

"Poor time management is a typical trait of the comp-"

"Will you shut up?!"

"Mr Sayer, if you can't control yourself, please refrain from speaking altogether," said Patterson angrily. "Time is running out, and I want some positive suggestions from you all on how we can finish the job we started on the alien. Colonel Robertson?"

"Shoot him." He jabbed a finger in the air. "Clean and simple; gets rid of the problem."

Patterson nodded. "Professor Davies?"

Davies shrugged. "You already know my opinion. And if you don't have the guts to castrate him, I fail to see how killing him is a better option."

"Because castrated, he may as well be dead," said Ms Jones. "He won't be providing any of those useful services to humanity Mrs Patterson approves of, you can be sure of that. But I don't see why we're even having this discussion. His programming will ensure that he won't be able to reproduce, ever again."

"Ms Jones, I have a certain admiration for your youthful confidence, but the fact remains that your programming was originally intended as a temporary measure. Providing a temporary means to hold back any semen still containing live sperm, the first few months following vasectomy, is not the same as providing a permanent solution to our problem."

"Oh, I made sure it was permanent."

"In less than twenty four hours' worth of programming? I doubt it."

"You obviously don't understand modern programming methods, or you'd believe me."

"But I have common sense on my side. And as someone who wilfully let the alien go, you are here on sufferance only, so please don't expect us to place a great deal of merit on anything you say or do." Mrs Patterson turned away. "Professor Davies, you've yet to convince me of the efficacy of castration, but in any case, you haven't explained how we recapture him to perform the castration."

"Kryptonite bullet, carefully aimed. It'll take a while to make, but I believe it could be done."

"A kryptonite bullet?" Patterson raised an impressed eyebrow. "How long?"

"Couple of days."

Patterson was silent for a time, coming to a decision she didn't like, but appeared to be inevitable. A decision that certain members of this group shouldn't be party to.

"I still recommend capture, and vasectomy," volunteered Dr Scott, interrupting Patterson's thoughts. "As Ms Jones says, castration will render him useless, whereas vasectomy takes care of the problem without impinging on his physical and mental state."

"Thank you, Dr Scott," replied Patterson. "I see none of us has revised our stance. However, before we go any further, I have some other matters to take care of. Mr Sayer, I believe your place is here, for as long as it takes to resolve the double-blind problem."

"No, actually, I believe my place is with a cold beer someplace far away from here. I've had it with you people."

Patterson raised an eyebrow. "You wish to leave Purity?"

"I don't 'wish', I 'am' leaving."

The double doors opened abruptly and two burly men were suddenly in the room, both of them pointing guns at Sayer.

"Can't we persuade you to stay, Mr Sayer?" asked Mrs Patterson sardonically.

Sayer leaned back with a resigned expression. "I guess *she* warned you."

"Ms Jones? She may have said something, but quite frankly, Mr Sayer, it was becoming obvious that you were considering departure. So you will remain here, under guard, until you have resolved our security issue, and we have completed the current project. Your incentive, if you need one, is that you will be incriminated along with the rest of this group if you fail. At best, that is. At worst, you could end up dead."

Mrs Patterson nodded briefly at the guards, one of whom escorted Sayer out of the room at gun-point. While everyone was distracted by watching his departure, the other guard grabbed Ms Jones and hauled her, protesting loudly, to her feet.

"Yes, Ms Jones, you, too. We can't shoot you; we can't even restrain you for long, but you will not be party to any key decisions this group makes any more. You'll be released shortly."

Once Ms Jones had been removed, Patterson turned to the remaining members. "My decision is this: Professor, you will manufacture the kryptonite bullet — more than one, if possible. Colonel Robertson, you will find us a marksman whom we can trust. Dr Scott, you will study the alien's physiology so that the marksmen is briefed with the most effective target for the bullet." She paused. "Ladies and gentlemen, we are aiming to kill. I admit that I regret destroying a valuable resource such as the alien provides, and I very much dislike admitting failure, but in this case, the sacrifice is justified in order to ensure the greater good."

***

Lois and Clark spent most of the day trying to track down the owners of the house on Fountain Road, while Jimmy was tasked with finding Colonel Robertson. In between times, they tried to progress the investigation into Ann Campbell's alleged suicide, as Lois was convinced that they needed to dig further into the cause of death and establish whether it really was murder dressed up to look like suicide. Once they had that figured out, they could begin looking for the murderer.

Lois also spent a lot of time trying *not* to watch Clark every minute of the day. Despite his returning health, and his outward appearance of normality, she was still very worried about him. A few times, when she had allowed herself to check on him, she'd caught him staring into the middle distance with a strained expression. Once, she'd gone over to him on a made-up pretext, and when she'd finally dragged his attention back to her, had said softly, "Do you want to talk about it?"

"What?"

"You seemed a little preoccupied."

"Oh. I was just thinking about…stuff. You know."

"Any particular stuff?"

He grimaced, glancing around. "Not here."

"We could go out and grab a coffee."

He shook his head. "Let's just leave it till later, okay?"

"Okay."

She didn't want to push, so she let it go, but she really wanted to know what was running through his head when he blanked out. Was he still having flashbacks to the kidnapping? Was he struggling with difficult, unexpected feelings, or was he running through everything that had happened time and time again?

At least she'd managed to snatch a few minutes surfing the web for information on male rape victims, so she had a better understanding of the typical reactions she could expect from him. Of those, she thought guilt and shame were going to be Clark's biggest problem; it was inherent in his nature to blame himself for things even when they were out of his control, and shame would haunt him for all sorts of reasons. Clark was special, but he wasn't so special that he was immune to male stereotyping, and the unwritten rule was that men weren't supposed to be physically vulnerable to women. And for a man who was also Superman, that was even more of a cast-iron certainty. Even if Superman wasn't the real man, he was still embedded in Clark's psyche, and he would hate himself for having been so weak as to allow a woman to assault Superman.

Shame would also stem from the violation of his sexual privacy. That was no doubt one of the reasons he had taken so long to tell her what had really happened to him. And, remembering his suffering the previous night, shame would also stem from his inability to make love with her. She had told him it didn't matter, but it would take more than a few words of comfort to make Clark believe that, especially since the issue of them having kids together was obviously at the forefront of his mind.

As soon as his powers had returned, he had volunteered to fly over to Dr Klein with the box they'd found attached to the jeep, and also to re-open discussions with him on the question of fertility and reproduction. She had agreed, with strong private reservations. It was just too soon for him to be putting himself under that kind of pressure, but her mildly-voiced objection had been brushed aside; he was on a mission to defy the people who wanted to prevent him fathering children and nothing was going to stop him. At times, she reflected, Clark could be just as stubborn as she was.

And it wasn't as if he wasn't talking to her at all, exactly. Over lunch, in the midst of a conversation about how to make poisoning look like an overdose, he'd unexpectedly blurted out something about feeling totally powerless to stop them.

"Stop who, Clark? The people who drugged you?" she had asked.

"Yeah. And the guys who kidnapped me, and the other guy in the van, and whoever undressed me and tied me up, and…her. It was like I couldn't stop them doing whatever they wanted to do with me."

"They probably wanted you to feel like that, Clark."

He had laughed hollowly. "Yeah, they had total control over my mind as well as my body. But just imagine how Ann must have felt if they did a similar thing to her."

"Well, hopefully, they didn't drag it out the way they did with you. I mean, they can't have had very long to inject her, or whatever they did."

"I guess not."

After that, the conversation had veered away again, back to Ann's case and well away from Clark's own feelings. So she got little snippets from him about himself; small flare-ups when something they were discussing would remind him of an incident or an emotion, but she didn't feel as though they ever reached the heart of any of the issues troubling him.

Perhaps it was too much to expect him to open up to her in the middle of the working day. Perhaps, also, she should remember her own words to him and not try to rush him too soon into recovery.

***

On the other side of Metropolis, a man sat hunched over his keyboard, in the midst of a small, cramped office crammed with computer equipment. More of a broom-cupboard than an office, the windowless room was hot and stuffy, and alive with the constant background hum of electronics.

The door opened behind him. "Hi Nigel — how's it going?"

Sayer swivelled away from his computer screen. "Who let you in here?" he asked angrily.

Ms Jones grinned. "Your guard likes me."

"Does he know you only go for aliens?"

She laughed. "Well, he's almost one himself. So, have you figured out how to break my system yet? Or do I have a few months still to live?"

"I'd start making my will, if I were you."

"That close? My, my, Nigel, you *are* impressive." Her eyes dropped down below his waist. "Mostly," she smirked.

He surged out of his chair, grabbed her chin, and planted a rough, aggressive kiss on her lips before releasing her and shoving her away again. She stumbled backwards, looking shocked.

"What's the matter, *Ms Jones*?" he sneered. "Can't take it when a man actually gives you what you want?"

She wiped her lips off with the back of her hand, shock turning into disdainful disgust. "You couldn't possibly know what I want."

"Oh, that's right — only the alien knows that. Still hoping to get that chance to get real close to him, are you?"

"Why do you think I helped you try to snatch him again?" she retorted.

He shook his head. "Lady, you're one screwed-up individual, you know that?"

"Maybe, but at least I'm a free screwed-up individual, unlike you, Nigel," she replied, opening the door. "I'll be back later to see if you're any closer to figuring out my little life insurance policy."

***

A few days passed before they were able to put together enough information to push the investigation forward. Jimmy had a hard time extracting anything at all from the army about the bigoted Colonel Robertson, but eventually he narrowed the search down to three Colonel Robertsons, and of those, only one cross-checked as being a member of Ann Campbell's father's club. Which meant that high on their list of things to do was to interview the ex-army man with his outrageously fascist opinions.

Meanwhile, Lois and Clark finally waded through layers of shell companies to discover that the true owners of the house on Fountain Road were a company called The Purity Clinic. A shudder of disgust ran through Clark at the choice of name. It was a blatant and chilling reminder of the group's intentions towards him, and it also reminded him that he was considered impure; a dirty aberration to be stamped out at all costs. Not a welcome thought when he was already struggling with his self-esteem.

They had even more trouble finding out what sort of clinic it was supposed to be, but eventually they found out that it was a very exclusive, very discreet drug and alcohol rehabilitation centre for the rich and famous. Or, at least, that was what it purported to be: they couldn't actually find any patients to corroborate the sketchy information they cobbled together.

What they did find, however, were the names of the board of directors: Professor Alwyn Davies, Dr Susan Scott, Ms Rachel Jones, and Meg Patterson.

So from having almost no information, they suddenly had almost too much, Clark mused as he skimmed the rooftops on a late-night patrol. Just as they had hoped, they had established a firm link between Meg Patterson and the house he'd been held in, and both he and Lois were now in no doubt that she was the head of the group who had kidnapped him. They were also sure that Colonel Robertson was a member of that same group, and with all likelihood, the other members of the Purity Clinic's board were also in the group.

There was too much to do: they needed to pay Colonel Robertson a visit, they should try again at the house, and they needed to find out more about the other board members — not to mention investigating Ann Campbell's cause of death.

At least the police, or rather, Bill Henderson, had come through for them there. He'd pushed to get both the city's leading pathologist and one of its foremost forensic scientists on the case, and their combined efforts had resulted in tangible evidence that Ann had been poisoned and had not, in fact, died from a self-inflicted overdose. That was a good result both for them, and for Phil, her husband, who had been struggling to accept the news that she had killed herself. Not that murder was much more comfort to him, but at least he was able to stop agonising about the part he might have played in driving her to suicide. And now, Henderson was helping them by turning Ann's death into a murder investigation, and was busily tracing the events which led up to her death. Hopefully, his investigation would co-incide at some point with their own.

In fact, the gruff policeman continued to surprise Clark with his helpfulness. As a courtesy, they'd dropped around to see him after the failed kidnap attempt in the car park, to let him know it had happened, and he had immediately offered to lend them whatever police resources they needed to trace their assailant. Clark, with Lois's help, had drawn a pencil sketch of the man, and soon a search was in progress on the police database for a match. When Lois had mentioned the strange box containing the kryptonite, Henderson had asked to see that, too.

"I'm not an expert," he said, "but I've got a guy on the team who used to work in bomb disposal. He might recognise the technology."

Clark had flown swiftly over to Star Labs, and retrieved it from Dr Klein, who hadn't managed to make much of the device — at least in terms of who could have made it. Henderson's officer, on the other hand, had been impressed.

"It doesn't look much, and the construction is pretty crude, but the thinking behind it is pretty advanced. This guy is a specialist. He knows how to source the components he needs, he doesn't waste time making the thing look pretty, and he knows how to make the technology work for him. Judging by the design and the components he used, I wouldn't be surprised if he once worked for one of the intelligence agencies. The NIA would be my first guess."

The database search was narrowed to ex-NIA operatives, and very soon, they had a match: Nigel Sayer. He'd worked for their technical division before he'd presumably discovered that his talents could earn him a higher wage elsewhere. Not much more was known about him; he'd had one minor conviction, which was why he'd ended up in the police database, but otherwise he had remained largely invisible to the country's law enforcement agencies.

Sayer was, as a result, on Henderson's list of suspects for Ann's murder.

On his patrol, Clark spotted a scruffy young man walking slowly down a line of parked cars, one hand surreptitiously checking the door handles. He swooped down and cruised leisurely past the youth, remarking, "I wouldn't if I were you," as he passed by. "Unless, of course, you want a lift to the nearest police station."

The youth made a rude gesture and sauntered down a side road.

Clark rose up high again and continued on his patrol. No doubt the boy would be tempted to try again, but just maybe he'd think twice next time.

The visit to Henderson had also enabled Clark to have a quiet word about the tapes. Lois had left before him, to interview someone for an occasional series they'd been running about underfunding at the city's state-run hospitals, and he had lingered behind.

Henderson had gestured for him to take a seat as soon as Lois had left.

"So, how are you, Clark?"

Clark had paused in the midst of settling himself in the chair. "Fine, I guess," he'd answered after a moment's hesitation.

"You made that phone call yet?"

He'd had to think for a minute before working out that Henderson was referring to the rape crisis centre. "No. I couldn't take the risk. Not that I don't appreciate what you did for me, Bill," he had added quickly. "I don't think I could have told Lois if you hadn't talked to me first."

"Hey, no problem, buddy. You just needed someone to press the right buttons for you. What is it I can do for you now?"

"I wanted to clear something up, really. Your men found bugs planted in our house, right?" Henderson had nodded. "That day in Perry's office, you said there weren't any upstairs."

"Ah. Well, I guessed you'd prefer it if Lois didn't know about the ones in the bedroom."

Clark had grimaced. "You were right. But how did you know?"

"That you wouldn't want her to know? The way you were frantically trying to get me to shut up, I guess. And I don't blame you — it's a pretty sick idea, knowing there are probably tapes out there…" He had shrugged. "Well, you know."

"Yes. And that's what I wanted to ask you. If you find any tapes like that, I want you to destroy them — and Lois doesn't need to know, okay?"

"Sure."

Clark had let out a breath he hadn't realised he'd been holding on to. "Thanks, Bill."

"No problem."

Henderson really was turning into a trusted and valued friend, Clark reflected.

He glanced at a passing clocktower. Just after midnight. Certain that Lois should be asleep by now, he turned and headed for home.

Superman had been extraordinarily busy since he'd regained his powers. Most of his work had been with small, petty crime, but as he saw it, all of these crimes were important to the victims. For them, it was the worst thing ever to happen in their lives, so they deserved his attention just as much as any major bank raid or shoot-out. Okay, so he didn't usually spend so much time chasing petty criminals, but this was important work.

<You're avoiding her>

He shook his head in mid-flight, as if shaking off an irritating fly. He wasn't avoiding Lois, he was responding to a need.

<You don't want to risk failure again>

No, he was just busy, and after all, he didn't need much sleep.

<But you need Lois>

He quashed the insidious little voice and concentrated on flying, until he arrived home and was preparing for bed. Staring at himself in the mirror while he brushed his teeth, he suddenly saw the grim expression and dead eyes facing him, and couldn't fool himself any longer. The voice was right — he was avoiding Lois. Every single night he made sure that she was asleep before he joined her in bed.

It was so much easier to avoid the threat of intimacy altogether than to have to get into bed each night wondering if tonight was the night when he would have to face down his irrational fears and find a way to enjoy making love with Lois again. He'd endured the awkwardness and tension just once; following her up to bed with a dragging heart, gingerly getting into bed with her, and then lying awake wondering if he should try again, waiting for her to make a move towards him, dreading the moment of truth.

Once had been enough. The following night, he'd actually come home late legitimately and found her already asleep, and that was when he'd discovered how much easier it was to creep into bed when she was asleep.

And it wasn't as if Lois wasn't doing everything she could to make things easy for him. No — she was being incredibly patient with him, considering how uselessly he was behaving. They'd talked a lot over the past few days, and although each time was as tough as the previous time, he no longer held back when she asked him to explain how he was feeling. He'd sort of adopted an 'any time, any place' motto, and so far it seemed to be working. It really helped to share everything with her, even if he often felt tired and drained as a result. Sometimes that made him irritable and moody; he winced when he recalled a couple of very sharp remarks he'd made to her, but nevertheless, she absorbed it all like an emotional punchbag. He was so lucky to have her.

She still kissed him and cuddled him, too, but almost always seemed to know when to stop; seemed to know when he reached the point where the sexual overtones threatened to become too intense. She made him feel loved even though he was difficult to love.

He slipped into his sleepshorts in their darkened bedroom and instead of sliding into bed beside her, slumped down into a chair and gazed at her sleeping figure.

He wanted to have a child with Lois so much it hurt.

Finding out that someone wanted to prevent him from having kids had just made him more determined than ever before. And on top of the fierce determination came the ache; a deep longing to create a child with the woman he loved. He wanted a child who would be an affirmation of the deep bond he shared with Lois — a person who would be part Clark Kent, and part Lois Lane. He wanted to be a father and do all the normal things that fathers did, and it hurt very deeply that they had wanted to deny him these things just because he was different. Which was why he'd rushed off to Dr Klein as soon as he was able, and virtually bullied the scientist into reopening his research into krypto-human reproduction. Dr Klein had been doubtful at first, despite Clark's enthusiasm for the new techniques he'd read about, but after much persuasion, had agreed to give it another shot.

Meanwhile, however, Clark could hardly bear Lois to touch him.

It was laughable, really.

Except he wasn't laughing.

***

The glaring white of the walls and ceiling threw her face into sharp relief. She loomed over him, seemingly hovering in mid-air, her mocking face grinning triumphantly down at him.

"Knew this would be good…once you lost that holier-than-thou superhero nonsense," she laughed.

Not happening, not happening…

His protest was like a cry on the wind, gone before it was uttered.

Suddenly there was a shout of triumph.

NO!

But it was too late. She had won, and everything he held dear in his entire life shattered into tiny fragments.

"Now, wasn't that so much better than going under the surgeon's knife?" asked her dry, derisive voice from above.

His breath caught, and he jerked abruptly into consciousness. Breathing heavily, he sat, horrified, staring blankly into the darkness.

***

She felt the warmth of the sun's rays on her face waking her up. It seemed like it was going to be a good day, she thought drowsily as she floated up to wakefulness. She loved waking up to the sun filtering past the bedroom curtains, filling the room with soft, diffuse light. Turning with a sleepy smile, she reached across the bed absently, and encountered blank space.

Reality intruded like a dragging weight on her shoulders.

This time, it appeared that not only had he avoided coming to bed with her, but he'd managed to stay out all night. She sat up, pushing her hair wearily off her face — and froze.

He was slumped in her dressing table chair, naked except for his sleepshorts, and breathing deeply in sleep.

With a heavy heart, she got up and crossed over to him. Presumably he'd come home late, but instead of joining her in bed, had flopped down here for a while and dropped off to sleep. Still, just to be sure, she felt his cheek with the back of her hand, to make sure it was nothing more serious. Cool, with the usual stubble of unshaven beard; a small relief.

What had been on his mind when he'd sat down here? She sank down in front of him, one hand resting on his knee, and stared up into his face. They'd made a lot of progress together, she thought, except for this one thing. She'd got him talking, and she'd kept him talking over the last few days, sharing his fears with him, hearing him confess his guilt and shame. She'd tried hard not to judge or to explain his feelings away with convenient theories; mostly she'd just listened and let him work out his own solutions. Sometimes, of course, he'd flay himself to the point of obsession, and that was when she'd tell him he was wrong, and why.

So things were definitely improving, except for this.

It was probably all her fault for letting things go as far as they had that night. He'd tried to make love with her, and when it had gone wrong, that had reinforced his bad feelings about lovemaking, so that now he was basically running away from it. Or her.

If only he'd stop putting himself under so much pressure.

She reached up and tenderly brushed a lock of hair off his face.

<I love you, Clark>

He stirred, beginning to wake up, and she suddenly had an idea. It was time to stack the cards in her favour.

***

"Lois, where have all my suits gone?"

She turned away from the coffee machine to find him standing, perplexed, wearing only his briefs, in the kitchen doorway.

"I kind of like the one you're wearing," she answered with a grin.

He frowned. "You know, my Superman suits?"

She pretended to think. "Ah, those. Well, let's just say they're not available."

"What? What have you done with them?"

"Nothing." She shrugged. "Nothing much. So it looks likes Superman's going to be taking a break today."

"Lois! You can't do that!" he exclaimed.

"Oh, yes, I can."

He took a few steps into the kitchen. "It's irresponsible. What if there's a major disaster?"

"Then the emergency services will cope. Just like they did before you came along. Or like they do when you're sick." She picked up an egg from the counter and held it up to him. "What do you want — scrambled or boiled?"

"Why are you doing this, Lois?"

"Because it's Sunday, and you need a break. So what's it to be? Personally, I'd go for the boiled — it's the safer option, all things considered. You see, scrambled means mixing things, which is an added complication, whereas boiling is just a simple matter of placing egg in water-"

"I'll find them myself," he muttered, and turned to leave.

"Don't!" She moved swiftly over to him and grabbed his arm from behind.

He froze.

"Clark, I want my husband back. He's been hiding behind Superman's cape for too long."

Silence.

"Is it so much to ask? Just a day and a night together — alone?"

His shoulders slumped and he turned to face her. "No, it's not much to ask. But you know I can't just take time off because it suits me. That's not what Superman stands for."

"Does he stand for overworking yourself when you're sick?"

"No, but I'm not sick."

She reached up and racked her fingers through his hair. "You're sick here, Clark." She laid the flat of her other hand on his chest. "And you're sick here. It might not show the same, but the effect is just as serious."

He gazed down at her for a moment, and then his arm was snaking around her shoulders and he was dipping down to kiss her. Confused, she responded automatically, sliding her hand up to curl around the back of his neck. He seemed to take that as a signal, deepening the kiss and squeezing her body close to his.

She could feel his hard body through her thin robe, pressing up against her. A flashback to his image in the doorway, naked but for his black briefs, made her flush hot all over, and soon she was caught up in the moment, returning his kiss with eager passion.

His hand began pushing her robe off her shoulder, then his other hand came up and slid the other shoulder off, while his kisses began roaming along the side of her face and down her neck. She had to slip her arms out of the loosened robe to free them, leaving her shivering excitedly under his touch.

Struggling against the rising tide of desire, she asked the question she needed to ask. "Clark, are you sure?"

He left her neck and quickly slanted his lips hungrily over hers again. "Yes," he murmured briefly between kisses.

Soon, they were melting down to the floor as their passion overtook them.

***

Later, she wasn't sure what to feel for him. On one hand, it was wonderful that they'd made love at last, but on the other, it had been very tainted love. In a sense, the past five minutes had been nothing more than mechanical sex, and one- sided sex at that. Not that she begrudging him that at all, but she knew that once he came to his senses he wouldn't be happy with it.

And why the condom?

When they were supposed to be trying for a baby?

He was very quiet.

"Clark?"

With a sigh, he raised his head from her shoulder and regarded her with pain in his eyes. "I should get dressed," he said, rolling away from her.

"No, wait," she protested, but he stood up quickly and walked out.

Suddenly the floor felt very cold.

She pulled her robe back around her and sat up. He obviously wanted to be alone, but she wasn't sure she wanted him to be alone.

***

Clark walked into their bedroom from the bathroom, turning his head from his reflection in Lois's dressing table mirror. He didn't want to see the man he'd become.

He'd used her.

Used her for pointless, empty sex.

He dragged sweats out of a drawer and dressed himself numbly, noticing distractedly that he seemed to have accepted Lois's enforced Superman holiday. After what had just happened, maybe she was right anyway.

He'd wanted to wash away that dreadful dream. He'd wanted to forget the nagging guilt which said that he must have wanted it; the sex, if he was dreaming about it. He'd wanted to lose the used feeling. And he'd wanted to silence the echo of that woman's voice telling him what his conscience already knew — that for a split second, his great fear of surgery and dissection had overridden his abhorrence of sex with anyone other than Lois. Being unfaithful to Lois was apparently less threatening than going under the surgeon's knife — why else was he dreaming about it?

All that cleansing had seemed possible when she had walked up to him, and with the simple act of placing her palm on his chest, had fired up the old feelings he'd thought he would never feel again.

But everything had gone wrong, as it usually seemed to these days.

And even though he'd managed to ignore all the little nagging worries and doubts while they'd been kissing and caressing each other, nothing had prepared him for the sudden onslaught of panic and impending danger just as he'd been ready to make love with her.

His alien semen was dirty, and poisonous to humans. How could he possibly have been thinking of having sex with Lois?

He slumped down onto the bed and put his head in his hands in despair.

Rationally, he knew that was rubbish. He'd made love with Lois without protection countless times before, and she'd never shown the tiniest sign of sickness or any kind of adverse reaction whatsoever.

But a voice in his head was telling him different, and it made him feel panicky all over again. What if he'd been slowly poisoning Lois over the past couple of years?

He'd felt so confused when he'd rolled back on top of her. One part of him had been exulting in the feel of her soft, feminine form beneath him, while another had been urging caution, telling him he would be far safer not to do this at all. In the end he had taken a middle line which had satisfied neither his warring feelings, nor Lois — he had rushed himself as quickly as he could towards climax.

A shallow, meaningless climax.

One thing was certain: he couldn't keep this to himself. He needed Lois; needed her to listen to him, needed her close by his side while he tried to figure out what was going on in his head.

He sighed and stood up. It was time to start acting like an adult and seek her out instead of running away.

***

She was sitting at the kitchen table staring off into space, with a mug of coffee in front of her, when he walked back into the kitchen. He drew up a chair and sat down with her.

"I'm sorry I disappeared like that," he said.

She looked at him. "It's okay. You were upset."

"And so were you. So I'm sorry I ducked out just like a kid."

"But you're ready to talk now," she observed.

"Yes."

She looked down at her coffee and asked in a very low voice. "What if I'm not?"

It wasn't the response he'd expected. Frowning, he asked, "What do you mean?"

She turned to him. "What if I'm not ready to talk yet? What if *I* want some time alone to think, or what if *I* want to run away to the bedroom and sulk? What will you do then?"

He didn't understand. "Lois, do you want me to leave you alone for a while?"

"No," she said, shaking her head. "But that's not the point. You seem to think you can use me and drop me whenever you like. Everything's on your terms — if you feel like talking, you do, and if you don't, you just run away." She paused. "Clark, when do I get to make a choice?"

He frowned. "I don't run away. Not usually, anyway. I've been trying really hard to share everything with you these past few days, and I thought that was what you wanted. Are you saying you want me to stop?"

"No, I just…oh, I don't know." She sighed. "Maybe I'm just tired," she said, getting up and crossing to the coffee machine.

Clark watched her pour him a mug of coffee and slurp in some milk from the carton. It occurred to him that she probably was tired. He'd been dumping his troubles on her for days, using her as his counsellor and confidante, and never once stopping to consider how all of it was affecting her. And as she came back to the table, he saw the lines of strain he should have noticed before.

She set the mug down in front of him. "Here," she said, sitting down again. "So, you want to tell me what happened back there?"

He hesitated. "I do, yes. But are you sure you want me to? I think you're right — I've been dumping on you for too long, so maybe we should just forget this and spend the day doing whatever *you* want to do for a change."

She put her hand on his arm. "That would be nice. But this is too important to just forget, Clark — something happened to upset you pretty badly, and I think we need to talk about that right now, while it's fresh in your mind. So how about we talk it through, and then we can do what you suggest. We could go out and have a leisurely breakfast at O'Casey's followed by a browse through the Sunday market in Centennial Park — how does that sound?"

"Sounds good to me," he answered, nodding.

"So, why the condom, honey? What was that all about?"

He laughed uncertainly. "You don't waste time, do you? Straight to the point."

She checked herself. "I guess it was a bit blunt. The thing is, I could see how conflicted you were, and it really took me by surprise — I think it did you, too." She looked at him, and he nodded. "Was it because you weren't ready to…well, you know — be intimate with me?"

"No!" he answered immediately. "Nothing like that."

"What, then?"

He paused, trying to find the right words to explain how he had felt. There was so much conflict going on in his head, though, that it was really difficult to separate one feeling out from the other. "I had a dream last night," he ended up saying, veering away from the condom issue altogether.

"Go on," she said encouragingly.

"Well, it was more a nightmare, really. I was in the room again, with her…" he trailed off, realising where he'd have to go with this tale. Perhaps he should have stuck with the condom question.

"She was sitting on top of you again?"

"More than sitting. Much more than sitting."

"More?" She looked directly at him, and he tried to convey the rest of the dream to her with his eyes. Saying the words was just too difficult, even if he was supposed to be trying to stop skirting around issues and start being direct with her. Her eyes widened. "Clark, you don't mean she was actually…?"

He nodded slowly. "Yes."

"Oh, honey…" she said softly. "But I thought you'd stopped having those flashes."

"So did I," he answered glumly. "And this was a heck of a lot worse than any of those. Lois, I know I didn't, and don't ever, want to have sex with that woman, so why am I dreaming about it? It's as if my subconscious is telling me something different to what I think I know. I've even started wondering if deep down, there's some part of me that is…I don't know — turned on by it all."

"Clark, you know that's not true. I can see how appalled and disgusted she makes you feel. No, I think what this is, is just your worst fears coming to the surface. She made you think she was going to rape you, so that's what you dreamt."

"But why now?"

"Who knows? Maybe this is even a good sign — your subconscious finally recognising how scared you were."

He pulled a sceptical face.

"Okay, I'm reaching, but my point is, you can't expect all this to just smoothly subside. It's like any hurt — you get better for a while, then you stop; you maybe even feel worse for a while, but then things improve again, until eventually you're all better." She laid her hand on his arm. "Give it time, honey."

"Yeah." He'd been giving it time for days, and this was where he'd got to — dreaming of sex with a woman he hated, and barely managing a shadow of the real thing with Lois. "I think that's why I wanted to make love with you."

"Because of the dream?"

"I wanted to make love, not just have sex. And I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it." He looked at her guiltily. "I used you, Lois."

"No, you didn't. You just said it yourself — you wanted to make love with me, and you did. You really made me feel loved, Clark. And I wanted you as much as you wanted me."

"I didn't exactly give you much pleasure," he observed with regret.

"And you know as well as I do that lovemaking isn't just about those last few minutes. It's about kissing and caressing; it's about telling me with your eyes how much you love me; it's about you and me being as close together as two people can possibly get. So don't belittle what we shared. I, for one, was pretty happy that we did what we did."

"You were?"

"Have you any idea how sexy you look in nothing but a pair of black briefs?"

"They're just underwear, Lois. You've seen them before."

"Yes, and every single time they make me want to jump you."

He surprised himself by smiling. "I'll remember to watch out the next time I'm wearing them."

"You better had!"

He shared another smile with her, and they fell quiet for a moment. In the lull, the phone rang, and Lois crossed the kitchen to answer it. After a couple of 'Lois Lanes' and a rapid series of jabs on the keyboard, she replaced the receiver and came back to the table.

"That's about the third time that's happened this week," she remarked. "There's never anyone there and *69 says the phone number's not available."

Clark shrugged. "Someone's obviously got our phone number mixed up with someone else's," he suggested, dismissing the incident as unimportant. He felt much better than he had since waking up this morning; telling Lois about the dream had helped to put it into perspective, just as he had hoped. But he knew he had skirted the main issue, and, sure enough, Lois knew too.

"Honey," she began carefully. "You still haven't really explained the other thing. You know, it's not that I minded you using a condom — it's just that I couldn't understand why you thought it was necessary."

He sighed. He wasn't sure he could explain it himself, and even as he began to think about it, his pulse quickened and the panicky feeling began to return again. Veering off on another tangent, he remembered something. "I was using a condom in the dream," he said, and with the admission, his pulse rate increased another couple of notches.

She smiled. "See, even your subconscious has some sense. Who knows what diseases this awful woman might have."

"No, I don't think that was why." He couldn't understand why he was suddenly having to fight against his racing pulse, but he was; trying to keep outwardly calm while his heart beat faster and faster. "It was for her protection, the same as it was for yours today."

"How do you mean?"

"So that it caught my semen," he replied, because the truth was there, at the front of his mind now, and he couldn't deny it any longer. But he was alarmed at how loud and rapid his heart rate was becoming. Was he having a panic attack?

"But why, Clark? I still don't understand."

The beating rose to a rapid cacophony in his ears. "Because…because I'm…I'm alien. I'm d-dirty." He'd almost choked on the last word, and now the thumping was so loud and insistent his head felt as if it would burst. He lifted his mug of coffee up and took a gulp in an effort to calm himself down.

"What?!" she exclaimed. "That's crazy, Clark! Of course you're not dirty! Where did you get that idea from?"

"I don't know, but it's here, in my head." His pounding, exploding head. "I'm dirty, I'm poisonous, and anyway, it's against nature for an alien to impregnate a human being. I needed to use a condom to stop me infecting you."

The words hurt to say them, but they forced their way out without him being able to stop them.

"But we've made love without protection plenty of times before now, and you've never felt like this," she protested.

He could hear the bafflement in her voice, despite the thumping in his ears. "I know. I can't explain it." He held on to the side of the table surreptitiously, as the thumping began to make him feel slightly disorientated.

<Don't be scared, Clark. Everything is all right. Don't be scared- >

Lois's voice came to him from the end of a long tunnel. "Clark, are you all right?"

"Yes." Not true. "No."

<Don't be scared, Clark. Everything is all right.>

"What is it?"

"I don't know. Dizzy."

"Would some water help?"

"No, just give me a minute."

<Don't be scared, Clark. Everything is all right.>

"Take some deep breaths. That might help."

<Don't be scared, Clark. Everything is all right.>

"Clark, listen to me. You need to take deeper breaths."

The voice telling him not to be scared drifted distantly across his mind, like a far-away echo, almost too indistinct to be heard. He tried to follow Lois's suggestion to breathe deeply, and it did seem to make things better. And as he breathed, the voice floated away, until he wasn't sure whether it had ever been there or not. He continued, and after what felt like ages but was probably only a few minutes, the pounding in his head subsided and the room stopped swinging around. An experimental sip of coffee didn't seem to make things worse again, so he took a more generous mouthful.

"Better?" she asked.

He turned to her, and found her gazing at him with deep concern. "Much. Thanks."

"Honey, I don't know what you think, but I found that pretty scary. One minute you were fine, and the next you'd gone as white as a sheet."

He nodded. "It was as if I was fighting against something. In my head." He didn't dare say more, lest his probing brought it all back again.

"I'm not sure, but it looked like you were having some kind of panic attack."

"Yeah." He'd felt panic, and hadn't there been something else? He strained to remember, knowing that something else had bothered him just seconds ago, but try as he might, he couldn't put his finger on it. "But I think I'm okay now. Sorry I scared you," he added.

"Are you sure you're all right?" she asked, reaching out to cover his hand with her own.

"Yes." He pulled in a deep breath. "Look, can we forget this for a while and go get breakfast? I could do with some fresh air."

"Well, okay, if you're sure." She was still frowning worriedly at him.

"I'm fine, Lois. Really," he insisted.

Fine, but seriously beginning to wonder if he was developing some kind of mental illness. Gut instinct was telling him that he shouldn't be this badly shaken up by now, especially after all the talking he and Lois had done over the past few days. He should be ready to move on and put the experience behind him.

He prodded the memory of his recent feelings of self-disgust, but sheered rapidly away again. It seemed he wasn't ready to go back into that dark, scary place yet.

But he wanted to understand what was happening to him. What was wrong with him?

***

Lois dressed automatically, dragging on whatever came to hand. Clark's panic attack, if that was what it had been, had really frightened her. This wasn't like him — apart from that one time, when Baron Sunday had exploited his claustrophobia, he was the most steady, well-grounded person she knew. He wasn't prone to hysteria.

Yet, in a few short minutes, he'd become agitated, breathing heavily and hanging onto the side of the table as if it was the only thing holding him upright.

And what crazy ideas had come from him! Where had he acquired this devastatingly cruel belief that he was dirty? That his very alienness made it forbidden for him to have sex with her without protection?

It was ridiculous.

It wasn't Clark.

It also completely contradicted his determination to have kids, currently running at almost obsessive levels since discovering what his captors had planned to do to him.

What had they *really* done to her husband?

She finished dressing, frowning briefly when she heard the phone ring again downstairs. She'd speak to the phone company soon if it kept happening — unless of course that was his parents. They usually phoned at some point on Sundays.

"Wrong number again?" she asked, jogging downstairs to join Clark at the front door.

He frowned. "What do you mean?"

"The phone. I heard it ringing again," she said, shrugging on her coat.

"No, it didn't."

"But…" She turned to glance at the phone. "I thought I heard it."

He shook his head. "Nope. Must have been next door's." He opened the front door, and stepped out into the bright, sharp sunshine. The air was crisp and cold, and she could see his breath billowing out in front of him.

She joined him outside the house. "Guess it must have been."

***

Near the entrance to the park, a lanky young man pushed casually away from the lamppost he'd been leaning on and cruised off on his rollerblades. His low- slung, baggy trousers and sloppy t-shirt flapped wildly in the breeze caused by his speedy flight.

"Target acquired," he muttered into his concealed microphone.

The couple strolled hand-in-hand through the park gates, and he followed a discreet distance behind, tracing wide curves along the path to match his pace to theirs.

***

Lois spent all day watching Clark very closely. He seemed to be all right, but she didn't feel as if she could take anything for granted with him now. She also wondered if she was out of her depth; should she take him to a professional for help?

She'd thought he was getting steadily better, but this latest episode led her to the unwelcome conclusion that he was profoundly worse than she had estimated. Perhaps she had been foolhardy to suppose that an hour or so spent reading about male rape on the Internet was enough to equip her with the skills needed to help her husband on to recovery. A professional would have been able to recognise the warning signs she had obviously missed, and then maybe Clark wouldn't now be in the state he was in.

Except the little she had read didn't suggest anything remotely like this might happen. Sure, low self-esteem was an oft-quoted consequence of rape or attempted rape, but surely there was a big difference between low self-esteem and actual self-disgust. Clark had called himself 'dirty' and 'poisonous'.

Yet the admission of those feelings had brought on a severe panic attack.

Strolling along the market stalls with him, she found herself searching the backs of the stalls for paper bags — hadn't she read somewhere that you should make someone breathe into a paper bag if they were hyperventilating, as Clark had been on the verge of doing in the kitchen? Perhaps she should buy something just so that she had a bag to hand.

She glanced at Clark, currently looking the very picture of someone enjoying a relaxed Sunday afternoon in the park, and gave herself a mental slap. She was worrying too much; he wasn't about to drop to the ground right here in the sunny open air and start fighting for breath.

He smiled broadly at her. "What do you think, honey? Is it me?"

He was holding up a bright blue hand-made apron in front of himself, with a red flounce stitched all around the edge, and the unmistakable Superman logo emblazoned in the middle.

She rolled her eyes at him. "If you buy that, I'm divorcing you." She hooked an arm around his and led him away from the stall. "Come on, let's see if we can find your Mom something for her ironwork sculpture."

They headed over to the junk stalls, dodging a tall rollerblader who suddenly shot past them from behind. She glared, but he was gone before she could yell at him.

Martha was currently welding together an amazing edifice which Lois had accidentally mistaken for a scrap heap the last time they'd visited Smallville. Martha had laughed good-naturedly, but still, a token contribution to the sculpture would be a nice way of showing interest and repairing the faux pas.

Thinking of Martha reminded Lois that his parents were so far unaware that their son was a severely troubled soul. She knew he hadn't confided in them; these days he wasn't inclined to burden them with his and Lois's troubles unless things were extremely bad. So was it time to tell them? Or would it merely make them fret impotently, and just give Clark one more thing to worry about?

She decided to leave the decision up to him. Clark would tell them if he felt they deserved to know, or if Martha divined that something was wrong during their weekly phone call. She was good at that.

And Martha might have been a better person than Clark to take the brunt of her little outburst in the kitchen, Lois suddenly thought with a pang of guilt. Her timing couldn't have been much worse; sounding off at him about her right to be as upset as him, when what he really needed was her support and understanding. She hadn't meant to sound snippy, but the words had just spilled out.

She was tired.

She thought back to the kitchen incident again. She kept coming back to it, in fact. Clark had said he had felt as if he were fighting against himself. So could she draw hope from that? Did it mean that he didn't really believe those things he was saying about himself? Yes, in fact, he had said so at the time, she remembered. He had said they were 'here, in my head', as if he didn't think the feelings and thoughts belonged there.

So maybe they weren't his own thoughts?

"Clark!" She rushed across to the table where he was rummaging through a pile of old magazines. "Do you remember Baron Sunday?"

He dropped the page he was reading and turned to her warily. "Yes, how could I ever forget him?"

"So you remember how he took a fear you already had, and made it many times worse? He made you think things which weren't really your own thoughts?"

He frowned. "Yes. But what are you saying?"

She drew him away from the stalls to a quieter part of the park. "I'm saying what if those things you were saying this morning about yourself weren't real. What if they're someone else's thoughts?"

The furrow across his brow deepened. "Believe me, Lois, I was thinking them. No-one was doing it for me."

"How do you know? You said yourself that you felt as if you were fighting with something."

They reached a park bench and sat automatically, continuing the conversation.

"I meant something from within, not someone beaming ideas into my head, Lois. Besides, who would want to make me-" He stopped suddenly and his eyes widened momentarily.

"What is it, honey?"

He shook his head. "Nothing. It's crazy."

"Try me," she prompted.

"No." He fell silent, hunched over with his elbows on his knees, his fingers fiddling obsessively with the hair at the back of his neck.

"Hey," she said softly, placing a hand on his thigh. "What is it?"

"I'm probably just trying to find excuses for my own crazy behaviour," he muttered.

"Maybe not. So you think there's someone out there who would want to make you think these things?"

He nodded. "Yeah."

"Who?"

"Who wants to stop me having kids, Lois?" he asked dully. "Who would like nothing better than for me to use a condom every time I make love with you?"

The penny dropped. "The people who kidnapped you! Those Purity Clinic people. Clark, you're absolutely right! It must be them — somehow they're making you think all these horrible things about yourself."

"Not 'making', Lois. 'Made'," he replied in a depressed voice. "I was unconscious — or, at least, I thought I was unconscious — a lot of the time they were holding me."

He turned a stricken face towards her. "What if I've been brainwashed by them?"

She stared at him.

He was right.

Everything fit — the reason why he was held unconscious by his kidnappers, his distressing thoughts about himself which were so very unlike him; maybe even his nightmares.

And she'd been a fool not to put the pieces of the puzzle together more quickly. She'd known that he was acting out of character, and that dreadful panic attack should have given her the final clue. After all, it wasn't the first time he'd been made to do things under someone else's influence. If only she'd been less caught up in worrying about him, and more focused on trying to understand why he had been suffering so badly — and as she'd thought before, maybe she should have sought professional help for him; someone who could have taken a more objective view of his problems.

But that was in the past, and right now he was looking utterly horrified at this latest revelation. He must be feeling pretty frightened, too. She grabbed one of his hands and held it tightly. "Then we unbrainwash you," she said firmly.

***

The rollerblader traced an artistic arc across a wider section of path, and glanced over to his left again. The couple had been sitting on the bench for a while, now, in a nice quiet area of the park. This was going to be his best opportunity.

He began his final run, building up momentum on the rollerblades until they were roaring along the tarmac. His hand slid down the long pocket on his trousers and settled on the butt of the gun, holding it lightly but firmly.

***

Clark stared at Lois, momentarily at a loss for words. The idea that people had planted beliefs and programmed responses into his brain terrified him. He had no knowledge of how far they had gone, for a start, and that was suddenly making him question reality itself. How did he know which of his thoughts were his, and which were theirs? How did he know when he was saying something they wanted him to say?

"Oh, Clark," she murmured, and then her arm was sliding around his shoulders and he was letting her draw him close.

Suddenly there was a stinging sensation on the side of his temple and Lois yelped beside him in pain. He straightened up in alarm and she cried out again, and when he looked at her, he found her face creased up in agony. From the corner of his eye, he glimpsed a flash of baggy trousers and something glinting in the sunlight, but it wasn't important. Lois was important, and she was beginning to sob with pain and shock.

"My arm," she cried. "Clark…"

And then his own senses woke up, and the agony began.

Kryptonite.

He couldn't afford the luxury of passing out; not when Lois needed him.

And maybe the baggy trousers were important. What if he or she came back to try again? As if on cue, he spotted a figure in the distance speeding along the path towards them.

Finding strength he didn't know he possessed, he gathered up Lois in his arms, closing his mind to her heart-wrenching scream of pain, and staggered as fast as he could towards a clump of bushes a few paces behind their bench.

He crashed through the greenery with Lois, leaves and branches whipping him in the face, arms and legs. Panic and fear sent him deep into the bushes, plunging into the undergrowth until he thought they were hidden from view. He stopped and looked back. The bushes seemed pathetically thin, but he'd thrust his way deep into their depths, so perhaps if he and Lois remained still, the shooter wouldn't see them.

Lowering Lois to the ground, he huddled them close together and waited.

He heard the faint roar of the rollerblades on the tarmac.

Then they stopped.

He strained all his senses to try and make out what was happening. Did he hear clumsy footfalls on the grass? Was he imagining the crunch of twigs and leaves underfoot? Could he hear heavy breathing? He clutched Lois closer to his chest and tried to breath shallowly so that they wouldn't be heard.

Suddenly there was the dull spit of a silenced gun.

They both jerked and flinched and his heart started thundering in his chest.

The gunman was firing into the bushes.

Clark froze and waited.

The gun spat again.

Lois jerked in his arms and pressed herself even closer into him. He held her tight, trying to cover as much of her body with his own as he could.

They waited again, listening to the now clear sounds of someone walking slowly around outside the bushes. He seemed to be stalking them.

The gun fired again, and this time Clark saw the undergrowth fly up in front of them where it struck.

Two feet closer and he would have had a smashed kneecap or worse.

As it was, the kryptonite poisoning was catching up with him and he was beginning to feel very sick and dizzy. Every single one of these bullets slamming into the undergrowth around him had to be covered in kryptonite.

Lois must be feeling ten times worse than he, though.

"Shit."

The muttered profanity was close; too close. Clark tensed, waiting for another shot.

<Lois, I love you>

None came.

He strained to hear where the gunman was. Could he hear the sounds of the movements receding, or was he imagining it? He held his breath and listened harder. The heavy breathing had disappeared, and he didn't think he could hear the footsteps any more. No twigs broke; no leaves crunched.

He waited.

And waited.

Eventually, Lois turned a fearful face up to him. "Is he gone?" she mouthed.

Clark nodded. "I think so," he mouthed back.

Cautiously, he let go of her and moved painfully through the undergrowth until he was at the edge of the bushes. Scanning the horizon in all directions, he willed himself to pick out the one dot that could spell danger for them again. Nothing moved. Maybe the profanity had meant the gunman had run out of bullets, and had had to give up. Clark crawled back to Lois.

"I can't see him," he reported.

"You're sure?"

"Yes." He gathered her into his arms again, taking great care this time to avoid her injured arm as much as he could, with the intention of carrying her back out to the park bench.

He couldn't do it.

Whatever strength he'd found when the gunman had been after them had now deserted him completely.

But he had to do this; he had to get Lois out of here. Clenching his teeth against the pain and dizziness, he counted silently to three and boosted himself up as powerfully as he could, and as soon as he was off the ground he lurched forward through the undergrowth, crashing through the branches again, Lois curled up in a protective bundle in his arms, until they suddenly emerged back into bright sunlight.

He staggered across to the bench and collapsed down onto it with Lois on his lap.

Light-headedness forced him to turn inward for a moment. The bullets must have been made of kryptonite; he remembered the stinging sensation on his temple which, now he'd let himself be aware of it, was turning into a searing throb. Something wet was trickling down the side of his face, too.

But the crease from a bullet shouldn't be making him feel this bad, unless one of the bullets was somewhere still around them. He opened eyes which had fallen shut of their own accord, and gazed hazily over the bench, and then slowly and cautiously further away, behind them as far as he could twist around, and underneath them. Nothing, but maybe…

He turned back to Lois and tried to see an exit hole in her coat arm. The bullet had hit high, in her upper arm, but there was too much blood to see properly, and he didn't want to move her around more than was necessary. It had to be in there, though, embedded in her arm.

He glanced around, but there was no-one to be seen. They had deliberately picked this quiet corner for their private conversation, and now they were paying the price. No-one was going to come running to find out what had happened.

"Clark, your cellphone. Use your cellphone."

Right. His cellphone.

He reached inside his coat and pulled it out. A wave of pain took him by surprise and the phone fell from his loose fingers. He retrieved it gingerly from the bench, desperate not to drop it again. If it fell on the ground, he wasn't sure he'd be able to pick it up without fainting.

"What's wrong?"

Her voice sounded steadier. A whole lot steadier than he was feeling, in fact. "It's all right. I'm calling for an ambulance," he replied, dialling the number.

He placed the call, and then turned his attention back to Lois. "It's on its way, honey," he told her. "You'll be fine soon."

"What's the matter with you, Clark?"

"Nothing."

But then she look up properly for the first time into his face. "You're bleeding."

"It's just a scratch," he said. She needed reassurance; she needed to know he was with her and was going to stay with her until there were people to look after her. She didn't need to know he was fighting his own battle with pain.

Her pale face looked worriedly at him. "The bullet was kryptonite, wasn't it?"

"Yes, I think so. But don't worry, honey — I'm fine. How are you? Are you warm enough? How about if I wrap…my coat around you?"

He thought he'd covered up his reaction to the sudden wash of nausea quite well.

"Oh, Clark!" She bit her lip and her face creased up briefly in agony. "It's still here, isn't it? The kryptonite? You need…you need to get away."

"I'm not leaving you," he said firmly.

"But it's hurting you!"

"I'm not leaving you," he repeated. He began to struggle the flaps of his coat from underneath her so he could wrap them around her. "You need to keep warm."

"No, Clark."

Lois seemed terribly heavy, and the coat material stiff and unwieldy, but eventually he extricated it and pulled the flaps around her as best he could.

Must keep her warm.

"Is that better?" he asked.

She didn't answer.

"Lois?"

"Call Bill."

"What?"

What was she talking about?

"Call Bill Henderson. He'll know what to do."

"Why do we need him?"

"Because…because you can't go to the hospital, and if they find you like this, they'll insist. Call him."

Maybe she had a point. And thank goodness he'd programmed Bill's home number into the cellphone, which was…where?

He panicked. He'd had it in his hand. He'd called the ambulance. He'd…what had he done? He looked around the bench and couldn't see it. He eyed the ground and couldn't see it there, either. He looked through the slats of the bench to the ground beneath, but it wasn't there.

He'd have to find a payphone. He'd have to leave her.

"Look in your coat pocket."

He dug his hand in and found the reassuring solidity of plastic and push buttons.

Please let him be at home.

"Henderson."

"Bill, it's Clark Kent. Need…I need your help."

"What is it, Clark? You sound terrible."

"Lois has been shot-"

"You've called an ambulance?"

"Yes, it's on its way."

"Is the shooter still around?"

"No."

"Where are you?"

"Park…in the park…" He gripped the phone reflexively as another surge of pain took hold.

"Clark? You okay, buddy? Clark?"

"I…kryptonite. The bullet's kryptonite."

"I thought you said it was Lois who was shot."

"Yes…"

He felt someone take the phone away from him.

"Bill, it's Lois. I've been shot with a bullet made of kryptonite, and it must be still around here someplace, because it's affecting Clark. He needs you to stop them trying to take him into the ER."

She paused, and then he heard her say, "The park. Centennial Park, near the Japanese garden."

Clark heard the ambulance siren approaching. "Hurry," he urged.

"Bill, the ambulance is nearly here. Please hurry."

She listened for a moment, and then put the phone down on her lap. "He's on his way — says it shouldn't take him more than about ten minutes."

"Good."

They fell silent, each caught up in their own thoughts, while the ambulance siren grew steadily louder and more insistent. Clark used the time to draw together whatever inner reserves he could muster; in a short while he was going to have to act fit and healthy for the benefit of the ambulance crew, and make sure that Lois was properly taken care of.

And then it was drawing up beside them and the paramedics were hurrying over. Clark watched carefully as they assessed Lois and prepared her for the journey to the hospital, giving her words of encouragement and holding her hand. They confirmed what he had already guessed: that the bullet was still embedded in her arm, which explained why he was feeling so awful.

When they were satisfied with her status, they lifted her off Clark's lap and onto a stretcher. He was drawing up the strength to get up and follow her over to the ambulance, when a paramedic sat down beside him.

"Okay, let's take a look at you now," she said, examining his head. "Do you have any other injuries apart from this?"

"No, I'm fine," he replied, brushing her away and lurching to his feet. He caught up with Lois's stretcher. "How are you doing?"

She smiled wanly up at him. "I'm viewing this as valuable research. Gunshot wounds: a victim's viewpoint."

"Sounds a bit too touchy-feely for Lois Lane," he said with a smile.

"I've turned an emotional corner," she replied, wincing when her attempt at a shrug proved a bad idea.

The ambulance crew began to load her into the ambulance, and he leant down to kiss her. "I'll be with you just as soon as I can, honey," he murmured.

Withdrawing to let them bundle her inside, he staggered and would have lost his balance completely if hands hadn't gripped his shoulders and held him upright.

"Whoops! Think we'd better get you lying down, don't you?" said the female paramedic.

"No, really — I'm fine." He shouldered her off him. "Just a little tired."

She eyed the gash in his forehead. "Head injuries can be nasty, you know. It's best you let us get you to the hospital so you can be properly checked out." She took his arm. "Come on," she said, encouraging him towards the back of the ambulance. "You can ride with your wife."

Which he would dearly have loved to do, but he knew that his condition would just worsen if he stayed close to Lois while she still had the kryptonite bullet in her arm. So it was best that he follow on behind in Henderson's car. If only he could get rid of this woozy feeling so that he could be more convincingly healthy for the well-meaning paramedic.

"Thanks, but I've got a friend on their way who's going to give me a ride to the hospital." He indicated the park bench. "I'll wait over there until he's here."

<Hurry up, Bill>

She frowned up at him. "Will you at least promise me you'll get yourself looked at when you get there?"

"Okay." He moved away before she could change her mind.

Half-way to the bench, the ground tilted up towards him and he felt her grab him again. "Okay, that does it. You're coming with us, and no arguments." He felt her twist away from him. "Mike! Can you bring another gurney for Mr Kent?"

<Bill, I need you now!>

He fought his way back up from the haze surrounding his brain, and forced himself to stand securely on his own again. "I need to wait for my friend," he protested.

"I'm sure he'll realise where you've gone."

But at last, a car was drawing up opposite the ambulance.

"He's here," announced Clark in relief.

"Great — now you can tell him you're coming with us."

"No…"

"Clark!" Henderson was striding towards them. "Everything okay, buddy?"

"It will be once I can persuade him to get into the ambulance," replied the paramedic dryly.

"But you're coming with me, aren't you, Clark?" asked Henderson.

"Yes."

"Okay, let's get going, then." Henderson put an arm around Clark's shoulders and started leading him back to his car.

"He needs proper medical attention," protested the paramedic to their backs.

"I'll see he gets it," shot Henderson over his shoulder. "Shouldn't you be getting his wife to the hospital?"

Clark gave Henderson a grateful look. "Thanks," he murmured.

"No problem," replied Henderson, opening the passenger door for him. As he climbed in, he saw the ambulance crew shutting the back doors and then drive off. Lois was on her way to the hospital at last.

***

"So this…nincompoop was your idea of a marksman we could trust?" Mrs Patterson snarled down the receiver.

Colonel Robertson bent down close to the speaker phone on his desk. "He came highly recommended," he growled.

"By whom? Mr Magoo?"

"By some very high-placed people in NIA covert operations, actually. He's one of their most highly-paid assassins," Robertson retorted.

Mrs Patterson grimaced. "Do they ever check on his work? And I hope we didn't pay him those high rates."

"Well, maybe I'm pointing out the obvious, but it's generally in the nature of political assassinations that quality control isn't an issue. Either you've got a dead world leader or you haven't."

"My God, Robertson — are the NIA really that naive?" Robertson began to fumble a reply, but she interrupted him. "No, don't answer that question; I think I already know the answer. So, have we wasted valuable funds on this idiot? Please tell me we didn't pay him the total fee up front."

"Half before, half after a successful kill. So — you want me to authorise another attempt?"

"What with, my dear, brainless Colonel? Your highly-recommended, highly-paid twit wasted all the kryptonite bullets."

Robertson slammed the desk with the flat of his hand. "Dammit, Meg! You want an answer, you treat me with more respect than that!"

"Oh, spare me the wounded ego, Robertson," Patterson replied heavily. "I take it that means you have zero idea on how to get us out of this mess, as usual. Or are we back to the old castration idea?"

"No, because as you know, my dear, brainless leader, we have no kryptonite." Robertson grinned to himself. "But his woman isn't invulnerable."

Patterson raised her eyebrows. The idea had merits; the alien appeared to have formed a pretty strong emotional attachment to his woman. It was possible that her death would be sufficient to prevent further attempts at procreation.

Possible, but not guaranteed.

"Killing his woman doesn't ensure the complete cessation of sexual activity," she replied, voicing her doubts. "But the idea has merits. We will discuss it at the next group meeting."

"So you want me to keep this guy on retainer?"

"No, eliminate him. I can't afford to carry incompetents who know too much." She paused. "You *can* manage a simple elimination, I assume? I wouldn't want to presume too much of your meagre skill-set."

"Presume away. He'll be dead by morning."

Patterson nodded briefly. "Good. We'll continue this discussion with the others at the house."

She cut the connection, and eyed the small box on her desk. Stretching out a hand, she lifted it slowly and cracked open the lid with a secret smile. A green glow cast sickly shadows over her face as she picked up the bullet and rolled it between finger and thumb.

Some things were best kept secret.

***

Lois leaned back against the sofa cushions and gave into the temptation to close her eyes. Ever since Henderson had brought them back from the hospital, Clark had been clucking around her like a mother hen, and she'd ended up putting on a show of feeling better than she actually was just to get him to stop worrying. Now he was in the kitchen making her some hot chocolate, so she could let herself go a little.

Hospital had not been fun.

The worst part had been trying to keep control of a situation where everyone else seemed to think she was incapable of taking control. Once she'd realised that she still had one of the kryptonite bullets embedded in her arm, it had been vitally important to make sure Henderson knew this, so that he could field any questions about its odd colour, and also take immediate possession of it.

But getting the doctors to hold off treatment until she'd spoken to Henderson had been a struggle. She'd managed it in the end by being so obnoxious and uncooperative that they couldn't get near her until Henderson was brought in. A hasty conversation had established that Clark was all right and hovering anxiously in a waiting room somewhere. She'd explained the problem with the kryptonite bullet, and he'd nodded and told her he would take care of it.

Once that was done, she'd anticipated another fight with the doctors to make sure they removed the bullet under local anaesthetic rather than a general; she'd wanted to monitor the medical staff's reactions to discovering the strangely-coloured bullet, and she'd wanted to know that the bullet was going to end up exactly where she wanted it to be: as far away as possible from Clark, and in the safe hands of Bill Henderson. To her surprise and relief, the doctors hadn't particularly wanted to give her a general anaesthetic anyway, since the bullet wasn't that far embedded, and wasn't near any vital bits of her anatomy.

She preferred to forget the ensuing medical procedures.

The next hurdle had been the question of the overnight stay. She smiled to herself. Clark, bless him, had been wonderful. Instead of siding with the medical staff, as she might have expected, he had supported her completely. He knew her well enough to realise that she wouldn't want to spend a minute longer in the hospital than she absolutely had to, and he had gently but firmly ensured that she got her way.

So here they were: at home once more; she with a throbbing arm, and Clark with a no-doubt queasy stomach and a guilt complex the size of New Troy. Because she knew him — he'd be thinking that she'd never have got shot if it hadn't been for him.

She sighed; she was too tired to deal with that right now.

Her reverie was interrupted when arms slid under her legs and back and began lifting her up. She blinked her eyes open and found Clark looking down at her with a serious expression.

He covered it quickly with a smile. "I'm taking you to bed."

"What happened to my chocolate?" she murmured.

He shook his head ruefully. "You wound me. Are you saying you'd prefer chocolate to coming to bed with me?"

"Hmmm. Tricky choice. But something tells me the bed option isn't what you're making it out to be."

He waggled his eyebrows. "Depends on what you think I meant."

"I think you meant to deceive me with your manly charms," she accused as they began to rise up the stairs.

"My manly charms? What would those be?" he asked, pausing to kiss her forehead.

"You think I'm going to tell you? That would make the game far too easy."

"Ah, this is a game? You didn't tell me that."

"All of life's a game, Clark," she said with a soft smile. "You should know that by now."

He grimaced. "Today didn't feel much like a game."

He reached their bed; not a moment too soon, judging by the slight tremor in the arms holding her up. Not that Clark would ever drop her, but she knew he still wasn't up to full human strength, let alone his own normal levels of power. She reached up and ran her fingers over the plaster on his forehead.

"How are you? I notice this hasn't healed yet."

"All the better for having you home, and," he winked, "in my bed."

She recognised the avoidance tactic, but decided to let him get away with it. It wasn't as if she didn't have a pretty good idea of how he really felt anyway.

"Hmph! That's all very well, but I'm afraid I'm now going to ruin the effect. I still need to get washed and brush my teeth."

She pushed herself off the bed with her good hand, ignoring the sudden flare of pain in the other arm. It was supposed to be numbed from the copious painkillers she'd been dosed up with, but they weren't quite working.

"Do you want some help?" he asked.

"I'll be fine. But," she added dryly, "if you hear a thud, you'll know I was wrong."

He looked perplexed, so she reassured him with a smile. "Just kidding."

While she was moving gingerly around the bathroom, sitting at every available opportunity, she tried to take her mind off her present troubles by thinking about the investigation. Henderson had volunteered to get the bullet analysed by a forensic expert he knew and trusted not to ask questions or speak out of turn, so hopefully they would soon know the type of weapon which had fired at them in the park. Whether that would help trace the shooter remained to be found; Lois and Clark were in no doubt that his employer was from the Purity Clinic group, but it would be nice to establish the proof to go along with that knowledge.

She frowned when the phone rang. Surely it couldn't be the mystery wrong number this late at night?

Emerging from the bathroom, she caught Clark putting down the receiver. "Not the wrong number again?"

"No, it was Bill. He phoned to let us know he went back to the park and collected up all the spent bullets he could find."

"That was good of him."

"He also wanted to know how you were. I told him you were looking forward to taking up my offer of manly charms and a place in my bed." He grinned.

"Oh, yeah?" she said, accepting his helping hand to hoist herself into bed. "I just bet you did."

He gave her a mock-innocent look. "We're very honest with each other these days, me and Bill."

"Pull the other one, Clark," she muttered darkly.

"Is that an offer you're making me, Mrs Kent?"

"Clark!"

***

The dark peace of the night was disturbed as a tormented man turned restlessly in his sleep.

Once again, he struggled against the dream.

Once again, her mocking face loomed over him as he lay helplessly pinned down to the bed.

Once again, she laughed at him.

Once again, she told him his thoughts.

"You know you want me, Clark," she insisted, grinning down at him.

"No!"

His eyes shot open in the darkness, the single word puncturing the deep silence of their bedroom and jerking him rudely out of sleep.

The protest echoed loudly in his memory.

Had he spoken aloud?

He turned his head on the pillow to look at Lois, but her deep, steady breathing told him that he hadn't disturbed her, thankfully. He sat up slowly, careful not to do anything which could wake her up.

His heart was still thumping and he was burning hot, drenched in sweat. The horror of the dream swirled around his head, refusing to go away, and as he gazed blindly into the darkened bedroom, a distasteful feeling of sick dirtiness crept over him.

Two minutes later he was standing under the shower, letting the fine needles of hot water wash away the sweat and the dirt and the horror of the dream. For once, he could really feel the near-scalding water hitting his skin, and he welcomed the cleansing bite of the spray.

Why did he keep dreaming about her?

Was brainwashing responsible for the dream?

Or was he having a breakdown?

As the strongest being on the planet, he couldn't afford to lose control of his mental faculties.

And in the dead of the night, his problems seemed insurmountable.

***

"Honey, I just don't see why you have to go into work today."

Lois gave up chasing the errant piece of scrambled egg around her plate with her clumsily left-handed technique and dropped the fork down carelessly with a clatter.

"Because I do," she said, fixing Clark with a baleful look.

He reached his own fork over and nimbly speared the egg for her.

"You dare feed that to me," she warned, "and I swear I'll never talk to you again."

She was done with feeling clumsy and helpless today, even if it was still only breakfast time.

He popped the egg into his own mouth. "Look, I know you say you'd be happier if you've got something to take your mind off that," he indicated her injured arm, "but I just think you'd be better off staying at home. Just for one day, to give it a chance to start healing."

"It'll heal just fine at the Planet," she retorted grumpily.

He sighed. "But not as fast, and certainly not as fast once you've jiggled and jogged it all the way to work and all the way back again."

She felt something snap. "Clark, I'm done arguing with you on this. Either you take me to work with you, or I'll call a cab and get there on my own. Either way, I'm going to work."

He stared at her for a second, then abruptly stood up, letting his chair scrape noisily backwards across the floor. "Fine, have it your way. Excuse me for caring."

If he'd slapped her in the face, she couldn't have felt more shocked and hurt. But his retort made her realise how nastily she'd been behaving towards him, even if it wasn't like Clark to snap back at her quite so readily. Usually she could offload a lot more on him than she'd been doing today, but then usually he wasn't so ragged himself as he appeared to be today. She gazed at her empty plate numbly, her ire completely dissipated.

A minute later, he was back, wrapping his arm around her good shoulder and pressing his forehead up against hers. "I'm sorry, Lois," he said quietly. "It wasn't fair of me to snap at you like that."

"No, it wasn't," she mumbled miserably.

"I'm just worried about you, that's all. And I love you."

"I know you do."

"And I want you to get well."

"I know."

"And you know how I hate to see you hurting."

"Yeah."

"But," he continued with a sigh, "I also want you to be happy, so I guess that means we're going to work together."

"Thank you." She drew away from him and looked into his face. His tired, anxious face. "I'm sorry I snapped at you, too."

He smiled tiredly. "I guess neither of us are at our best today."

"But that's no excuse for me to take it all out on you." She sighed. "Maybe when this is all over, we should go somewhere nice. Hawaii, maybe."

"Good idea. We could book the honeymoon suite, for old times' sake."

She kissed his cheek. "As long as you don't expect a honeymoon-calibre performance."

"Honey," he replied, "you always give a honeymoon-calibre performance."

"Why, thank you. You're not so bad yourself."

He grinned. "They don't call me Superman for nothing."

She laughed gently, but even as she joined in the terrible joke, his grin slowly faded away. She sobered, stroking his hand. "Clark…"

"Sorry." He smiled faintly. "Come on, let's get to work before Perry sends out a search party for us."

***

Lois shifted uncomfortably in her chair and reflected on how odd it was that a sore arm make other parts of her anatomy ache in tandem. Her back was killing her, and her head hurt.

But at least she was at work, where she belonged.

Clark placed a cup of coffee on her desk and offered his open palm to her. "Here," he said.

She picked up the pill from his hand and swallowed it down with some coffee. "Thanks."

"How're you doing?"

"Well, Henderson's forensic expert has identified the type of gun the bullets were fired from, and apparently it's the gun of choice for professional assassins — nice to know we were shot at by a professional, I guess," she added dryly.

"It's just so much more reassuring to know you're getting that professional touch," Clark agreed. "But that wasn't what I meant — I meant, how are *you*?"

She indicated her screen. "All the better for having written up the story of Ann's murder."

He nodded. "Yeah, it's good to be able to tell the world she didn't commit suicide after all. Just a shame we can't name the murderer yet."

"Henderson says he still can't trace this Nigel Sayer. He's ready to pick him up and hold him for questioning, but that's not much use if he can't even find him."

"No. Maybe the guy's in hiding someplace."

"May-"

"Who's in hiding?"

Clark swivelled around at the sound of Jimmy's voice. "Oh, just a guy the police are looking for."

"Who might be Ann's murderer," added Lois.

Jimmy's eyes widened. "Well, I sure hope they find this guy."

"So do we, Jimmy," replied Clark seriously. He pointed at the papers in Jimmy's hand. "What you got there?"

"I got that background stuff you asked for on those Purity people. Boy, are they a bunch of dangerous wackos!"

"Like?" asked Lois.

"Well, first, there's-"

Clark's phone rang. "Sorry, back in a sec," he said.

Lois absently watched him pick up the receiver. "Go on, Jimmy."

"Okay, there's Professor Alwyn Davies, who resigned from his surgical duties at Metropolis General after too many of his patients started dying on the operating table. Just as well you didn't get shot at while he was still practising, I guess!" he added as an afterthought.

"Not funny, Jimmy. Who else?"

"Next up is Ms Rachel Jones, psychologist. Now get this…"

She frowned. Clark had acquired a very odd frozen expression as he held the receiver to his ear, and as far as she could make out, hadn't said a word since answering the phone. While she watched, his face crumpled briefly, as if he was hearing something he didn't want to hear, but then smoothed out again into total blankness. He listened for a few more seconds, and then calmly and slowly replaced the receiver.

"…so-called programming. Brainwashing to you and me."

"What, Jimmy?" she asked distractedly, watching Clark closely. As soon as he abandoned the phone, he became more animated. He blinked a couple of times and then came around his desk, heading back to hers.

"Ms Jones's speciality is brainwashing," repeated Jimmy. He cleared his throat. "Am I missing something here, or is it just that I'm not making this stuff interesting enough?"

"Sorry, Jimmy, I'll catch up with you later." She stood up and met Clark half- way. "Who was that on the phone?"

"Phone? What phone?"

"You just took a phone call from someone," she said, watching him carefully.

He frowned. "No I didn't. I just got up from my desk to join you and Jimmy."

"And before that?"

"I…" he looked momentarily lost. "I was working. At my desk."

"No you weren't." She took his arm and led him towards the conference room.

He frowned again. "What's going on?"

She waited until they were inside with the door shut. "Clark, I just watched you take a phone call, during which you completely blanked out. It was if someone had switched you off."

"I did?"

She nodded. "And now you don't even remember taking the call."

He sank slowly down onto one of the seats, and she joined him; her arm was making its presence felt again.

"I blanked out completely?" he asked.

"Yes."

She could see fear hovering at the back of his eyes. "But…" He fell silent, small lines of concentration creasing his face. "I just don't remember it."

"I don't think you're supposed to," she said.

"Not supposed to… You mean…"

"Clark, Jimmy's just told me that one of those Purity people was a specialist in brainwashing techniques. We worked out yesterday that you've probably been…you know…" She reached for his hand. "What if they haven't finished the job?"

He stared at her. "And they're still brainwashing me by phone?" he said slowly.

She nodded, gripping his hand a little tighter.

"Then…I'm a walking time-bomb," he said with a stricken look. "No-one's safe, least of all you, Lois."

"Clark, don't-"

"Who knows what they've put in my head, Lois? I'm the strongest, most powerful being on this planet, and someone else is pulling my strings." He withdrew away from her. "I could be programmed to do anything."

She retrieved his hand. "Don't over-react, Clark. Think about these people — what do they want?"

He grimaced. "Well, up until yesterday I would have said they wanted to stop me fathering any children. Now it looks like they're just as happy to kill me."

"Exactly. So there's not much chance they're trying to make you do anything to hurt others, or me, now is there?"

"Maybe not," he conceded.

"Okay."

But she suddenly realised that there was the chilling possibility that the phone calls were an attempt to make him kill himself.

Looking at his face, she saw that he had had the same thought. "Clark, no. I'm sure that's not it. Besides, you don't feel…well, you know…you don't actually feel…?"

"Suicidal?" he finished for her heavily. "Lois, I don't know *what* I feel anymore. I don't know which thoughts are mine, which thoughts are theirs, which feelings are theirs, which are mine…" He laughed hollowly. "Will the real Clark Kent please stand up and make himself known to the audience?"

She could feel him slipping away from her, into a deep, black pit of depression. "Clark, we have to fight this," she declared abruptly.

He shook his head helplessly. "How?"

"Well, first, you don't take any more phone calls. I'll field all your calls here, and at home, you just don't ever answer the phone — and you definitely don't answer your cell-phone. Next, we figure out what they're trying to make you do…"

She remembered something about home phone calls.

"Clark, do you remember yesterday, just before we left to walk to the park? I thought I heard the phone ring, but you said it hadn't?"

He nodded slowly. "You think that was another of their phone calls?"

"Yes, and all those weird hang-ups I've been getting?" she continued, warming to her theory now that she was on a roll. "It must have been them — they only stay on the line after they're sure it's you."

"So they've been brainwashing me for days? Great," he said morosely.

"Yes, but don't you see?" she said insistently. "This is a good thing — now we know why you've been suffering so much these past few days."

"You think everything could be the result of these phone calls?"

"Well, they can't have helped. Clark, I've been really worried about you for days. Everything I read about rape fitted with your behaviour at the start, but lately you've been saying and doing things that just didn't seem to fit with the usual symptoms at all. I was beginning to think that maybe I should have taken you to a professional counsellor. But now we know why," she finished enthusiastically.

He didn't seem to be happy, though. "You read up on rape?"

"Well, yes," she answered, suddenly realising that she'd let her secret slip. "How else was I to know how to help you?"

"I wasn't raped," he muttered, standing up to cross over to the coffee machine in the corner of the room.

After a moment, she hauled herself stiffly out of her chair and stood behind him with a hand on his shoulder. "Okay, you were sexually assaulted. But the effect is the same, whatever you call it," she said quietly. "I was just doing my best to try and understand how you were feeling, that's all. What's wrong with that?"

He sighed. "Nothing, I guess." He handed her a coffee and began pouring a second for himself.

"Why does the word bother you, anyway?" she asked, sipping the hot liquid carefully.

"I don't know. Maybe it just makes me sound…I don't know…weak, or something."

"Honey, you're the strongest man I know, and I don't mean this," she said, squeezing his upper arm.

"Am I? Does a strong man let himself get into the mess I've gotten myself into?"

"You didn't do this to yourself. Don't ever think otherwise."

He glanced at her. "I had that dream again last night. You know — where she's…?"

She nodded. "Well, see, that just proves my theory. You had one of those phone calls earlier that day, remember?"

"I guess I did."

"I just wish we could find out what they say to you. Maybe we could put a tap on your phone."

"But if I never answer it, they won't say anything."

They moved away from the coffee machine and sat back down at the table. "True," Lois agreed. "But maybe there's a way of fooling them into thinking it's you."

"You mean with a recording, or something?"

"Yes. Jimmy could help with-" She interrupted herself. "Hang on — we're being stupid!"

"We are?"

"Yes. You just received a phone call, right?"

"Yes."

"And we want to hear what they said to you, right?"

"Yes."

"So why don't we go and listen to the recording?"

"The recording…" He snapped his fingers. "They started recording all the phone calls last year. Of course!"

Clark stood up and opened the door, Lois hard on his heels. "Jimmy!" they yelled in unison.

***

Nigel Sayer stabbed angrily at his keyboard. He'd been stuck in this tiny windowless office for days now, fruitlessly trying to break that bitch's security system. The system that he had helped set up. The system that was so clever that no-one, least of all him or the bitch, knew exactly how it was working. The only sure-fire bet was that she had to stay alive and able to lead her life just the way she wanted to, in order to prevent the system from kicking in.

Who knew what the trigger might be? It could be that the day she failed to download her email, the system kicked in. It could be the week she didn't withdraw any money from the auto-teller, or the day she failed to visit her favourite web site, perhaps even the month any automated payments from her bank account failed to go through. Or any combination of those, and a hundred other transactions which made up the trappings of a modern, online life.

And if the system triggered, he was sure that the Purity group would be the first people to suffer. Emails exposing them all could be sent to the media, or damaging messages sent to law-enforcement agencies, and the complex systems controlling the house could be compromised. Their own security system could end up in disarray.

But did he care any more?

"Hello, Nigel."

He'd heard the door opening, but had chosen not to acknowledge it. The bitch was back again.

He felt her lean on the back of his chair. "Have you figured it out yet?" she taunted. "It's been days, Nigel. Surely you've got some clue about my little security system by now?"

He pretended not to hear. He was sick of Ms Rachel Jones's daily visits, rubbing his nose in the fact that he still hadn't achieved anything, and reminding him that she was free, while he was not.

"Anyone would think you like it in this sordid little cell of yours."

Something was bubbling up inside him; something vicious and violent. And he didn't care. He swirled the mouse slowly around his screen, letting the anger ferment as he stared at the pointer circling around and around. She deserved this…

"Do you realise how much this place stinks, Nigel?"

He jerked the seat back violently, knocking her off-balance. As she staggered, he surged out of the chair, grabbed her shoulders and drove her viciously backwards until he had her pinned up against the nearest wall.

"Why are you doing this?" he snarled. "Why do you come in here every day and give me this crap?"

He revelled in the look of shock on her face.

"Because I enjoy it," she replied.

"Well, enjoy this!"

He lunged forward and pressed his lips hard up against her own. She struggled against him, but he held on to her, determinedly taking as much pleasure from her as he could.

Eventually, her struggles began to irritate him, and he released her. She bolted for the door before he could stop her. "You're crazy!" she cried.

He lurched after her and seized her again. "Only because you made me crazy," he gritted, slamming her against the wall once more. "You think you can taunt me day after day and get away with it," he growled in a low voice, putting his face as close to hers as possible. "Well, I got a newsflash for you, Ms Jones."

He thrust his hand up her skirt. "Your luck just ran out."

***

The door to the conference room burst open, and Lois and Clark both jumped. Since sending Jimmy on his errand, they had temporarily run out of conversation, and had just been sitting quietly holding hands, waiting for his return.

Jimmy regarded them in amusement. "Kinda jumpy, aren't we?"

"You could have knocked," observed Clark dryly.

Lois saw Jimmy's face fall and took pity on him. "Are those the tapes?" she asked, nodding at the cardboard box he was carrying.

"Yeah," he replied, eying Clark warily. "It wasn't easy, but I finally got the guy to give me the last three weeks' worth."

"Great!" said Lois. "And thanks."

"Yes, thanks, Jimmy," added Clark automatically.

"No problem," he replied, brightening a little. "So — what are we looking for?"

"*We* aren't looking for anything," said Lois pointedly. "*You* are going back out there, and Clark and I are staying in here to listen to these tapes. Alone."

He stared at her for a moment, then dumped the box on the table and turned to leave without a word.

Clark shot to his feet and intercepted Jimmy at the door. "It's personal, Jimmy."

"Well, fine. Thanks for explaining."

"I'm sorry. It's just that things are a little tense right now, and I guess we're both taking it out on you. We're really grateful to you for getting the tapes for us — we're just doing a bad job of showing it."

"You can say that again."

"Well, like I said, we're sorry."

"Just remember that even the office grunt has feelings."

"I know," replied Clark. "And you're a whole lot more than the office grunt to us, Jimmy."

Jimmy sighed. "I guess things must be pretty bad, huh?"

Clark nodded. "But getting better, we hope."

"Okay. Yell if you need any more tapes — I'll be right out here."

"We will."

Jimmy left, and Clark waited a couple of seconds before quietly closing the door behind him.

"We shouldn't take him for granted," he said, turning to Lois.

"No. We'll have to make it up to him when all this is over." She paused. "Come on, let's sort through these tapes."

***

"Don't be scared, Clark. Everything is all right. Just listen to my voice. Listen to my voice, Clark. Don't be scared…"

The warm, honeyed tones of the female speaker droned monotonously on, while Lois and Clark sat and stared at the tape recorder Jimmy had set up for them on the conference table. He'd done well to wheedle the tapes from Security, but it had taken them some time to search through Clark's many phone calls and locate the evidence they were looking for. They'd finally stumbled upon this female, and as soon as they heard her, it was obvious that they'd found Clark's brainwasher.

"Listen to my voice, Clark. Just listen…"

Lois glanced at Clark to see how he was taking this. Badly, she saw immediately, and shot a hand out to stop the tape.

He was gazing blankly at the tape recorder with a frozen expression, and his eyes were dull — just exactly as she'd seen when he'd taken the phone call earlier.

"Clark?"

She touched his shoulder and shook him slightly.

He blinked. "Huh? Did I miss something?"

"You didn't hear her at all, did you?" she said, studying his confused features. "At least, not consciously."

"Who?"

"You blanked out again not long after she started talking."

He shook his head. "Who, Lois?" he asked again.

"The woman who's been phoning you." Lois pointed at the tape recorder. "We found one of her phone calls."

"Oh," he replied in dawning comprehension. "What did she say?"

"Well," she said, "I stopped it before she started saying anything much. It sounded like she was preparing you for the important stuff — 'Listen to my voice, Clark; Everything is all right, Clark' — that kind of thing. Like she was getting you into the right frame of mind to accept her suggestions."

"And I fell for it right away?"

"I wouldn't say 'fell for it', honey. But, yes, you looked exactly like you did when I saw you at your desk."

He looked appalled at this news, and she guessed he must be considering how terribly vulnerable it meant he'd become. "Clark, it's okay. Remember we said you just won't be answering the phone for a while, until we've stopped these people."

"Yes, but…" He trailed away, shaking his head in disgust.

"I know, honey. But don't be so hard on yourself; seems to me if they can do this to you, they can do it to anyone. I guess it must be a combination of the words she uses, and her voice — maybe also the way she says it. Anyway," she continued, "I think I'd better listen to the rest of this on my own."

"But I want to hear what she's been telling me, Lois," he objected. "That way I can start to figure out where my thoughts stop and her programming begins."

"I agree that's important, but we can't risk you getting taken in by her again. How about if I write down what she says, and then you can just read it? That should be safe enough."

"You're forgetting that," he said, pointing at her right arm in its sling. "You can't write."

She grimaced. "I always knew I should have been ambidextrous."

"Look, how about you just keep a watch on me and elbow me in the ribs or something if it looks like I'm losing it?"

It might work, she conceded. She could always stop the tape if she couldn't nudge him 'awake', and she would certainly prefer for them to listen together. She had a hunch the content of the tapes wouldn't be very easy to stomach.

"All right, it's a deal," she said finally. She placed her finger on the Play button. "Ready?"

He nodded, and she started the tape running again.

***

Sayer came slowly back down to earth, and gradually the world crept back into focus. The hum of the fan in his computer impinged on his consciousness first, followed by the random patter of rain on the flat roof of his office, and finally the electric wall clock ticking like a demented grasshopper reminded him of time passing. How much time, he wasn't sure.

At least she was quiet at last, he noticed.

She had struggled a lot to begin with. It hadn't been easy to force her to the floor and get her ready for him. He had started to worry that the guard outside would hear her and burst in on them, so as soon as he had had a free hand, he had solved the problem by the simple act of putting his hand over her mouth.

Not long after that she had quietened down.

That was when he knew she had wanted it. All that crazy talk of having sex with Superman had been empty fantasy; all she had really wanted was the right man.

He had been the right man.

But now his hands felt stiff and cramped. He wasn't sure exactly when he had transferred his grip from her mouth to her neck, because the rage and hot desire had confused him for a while. Ah, but then he remembered the sharp pain in his palm — that must have been when he shifted his hands. She had bitten him, the bitch.

Her head lolled at a funny angle when he relaxed his grip.

Noticing her slack features for the first time, he grabbed her shoulders and shook roughly.

"Hey! Wake up!"

But her head flopped bonelessly around when he shook her. He shook again, and patted her cheek.

"Hey! Stop playing dead!"

Comprehension dawning, he felt for the pulse at the side of her neck.

Nothing.

He was off her in a shot, scrambling to his feet and almost tipping backwards in his haste to get away from her.

She was dead.

He'd killed her.

***

The tape circled around the small tape recorder on the table, playing back the woman's honeyed, insistent message.

"You could kill her, Clark. Always remember that you're poisonous to humans — poisonous, alien, and dirty. Remember these words when you're aroused, Clark. Poisonous. Alien. Dirty. When you're ready for sex, Clark, you're poisonous. A danger to her. When you're ready for her, you're poisonous — an dirty, alien abomination. Every time you want to make love with her, you remember the truth, and the truth is that you're poisonous. What are you, Clark?"

"Poisonous."

"Good, Clark. And why are you poisonous? Because you're an alien, Clark. A foreign body from another planet. Aliens are dirty, Clark. You're an alien, so that makes you dirty. What are you, Clark?"

"Dirty."

Clark listened with appalled horror to his own voice repeating the lies calmly back to her. Half of him wanted to shut the tape off and hurl it as far as he could into the heavens, but his other half was bound up in a kind of masochistic fascination with the evidence of his brainwashing. He couldn't believe how easy it had been to twist his thinking so radically.

And to think that he hadn't remembered hearing or saying any of this! Even now, he found himself drifting off at the sound of her droning voice; it was only the fact that Lois was watching him like a hawk and shaking him now and again that was stopping him being lulled back into the twilight world of his own subconscious. That, and their careful avoidance of the segments of tape where the woman was preparing him and making him receptive to her suggestions.

This wasn't the first phone call they'd found on the tape. He'd already heard her speak these lies twice over, each time repeating the same three key words over and over again. The words had hurt him a lot more than he had expected; they ground him down, resonating deep within his soul. Old memories and fears resurfaced from childhood; fears he thought he'd put to rest a long time ago. He'd even found himself agreeing with the words on one level, and he knew that if Lois hadn't been there, he would have been in danger of simply caving in to them.

He hated himself for that.

They'd turned the sound down a lot, and locked the door, after the first call had boomed its lurid message around the room. Now it was just a low murmur, which ensured that no-one outside the conference room would hear it, but in turn made her voice sound even more insidious and threatening.

Lois had reached across the table and laid her hand over his when the tape had started, but had soon transferred to a firm, reassuring clasp as the ugly words had spilled out. He wasn't entirely sure who was comforting who — he hated the fact that she had to listen to this stuff, and he hated listening to it himself.

The woman's voice droned on, and he felt Lois's grip tighten, anticipating the next stage of this wholesale attack on his subconscious. They'd heard this part once already.

"Remember the room, Clark. Remember the bed, and remember yourself lying naked on it. Remember how aroused you were, and who aroused you. You wanted her, Clark. Remember how much you wanted her, Clark. You wanted her so much you could feel yourself…"

Clark shot an arm out and thwacked the off button. "I can't believe I fell for that crap!" he muttered angrily, lurching out of his chair to begin pacing. "I mean, it's so puerile. It sounds like a bad story from a porn magazine or something."

"I can just imagine the kind of books she reads," agreed Lois. "Those hard-to- reach, shrink-wrapped paperbacks on the top shelf."

"And I've never been turned on by stuff like that in my life, so why did it work so well on me?" He paced up to the TV screen in one corner, and started rearranging an untidy heap of VCR tapes into random piles.

"I don't know, honey. Maybe she tapped into some primal instinct we all have deep inside us — you know, the urge to mate? To reproduce ourselves?"

He abandoned the VCR tapes and walked up to his cup of coffee to take a quick slurp. "I thought there was more to me than just primal instinct."

He reached over to the tape recorder, ejected the cassette and replaced it in its case.

"Of course there is," she replied. "But you can't deny you have a mating instinct. Just look at how hard you've been trying to make it possible for us to have kids together."

He looked sharply at her, brought up short by her comment. After a pause, he answered. "I think that's a bit different to some woman trying to make me think I want to have sex with her," he said acerbically, walking back over to the VCR tapes.

"I know. I'm just trying to find an answer to the question you asked me. I'm trying to help, Clark."

The tapes looked too unstable in the two high piles he'd made of them, so he started rearranging them again.

"I know you are." He finished the tapes and went back to the tape recorder to unplug it from the wall and coil its flex neatly around itself. That done, he went back to the tapes. They'd be better if they were arranged alphabetically, he'd decided.

Or chronologically.

Most of them had the dates they were recorded scribbled on their sleeve, so if he transferred the date to the label at the side, then they could be arranged in a neat pile or two in date order.

He looked around for a pen to write with. There was one on the coffee table. He fetched it and began copying the dates.

"Clark, what are you doing?"

He looked up and found Lois frowning at him from her seat. "These tapes were in a bit of a mess, so I'm sorting them out."

"You've sorted them three times already. Don't you think that's enough sorting?"

"I just decided chronological order was best, that's all." He resumed his task of copying the dates from sleeve to label.

He became so engrossed in his work, he was surprised when a small hand closed over his writing hand. "Leave the tapes, Clark," she said softly.

But sorting the tapes was important.

The small hand transferred to the side of his face in a gentle caress. "Leave them, honey," she insisted, and an odd catch in her voice made him look up to find her gazing at him with unusually bright, glossy eyes.

A lump formed in his throat. "Lois…"

"I know. I wish we could sort this mess out as easily as you can sort out those tapes, but we can't. A lot of harm's been done, and it's going to take everything we've got to beat it." Her hand brushed swiftly at her own face before resuming its gentle stroking up and down his jawbone. "We will beat it, honey," she added firmly.

He dropped the tape he'd been holding onto the table and took her into his arms, careful not to crush her injured bicep. "I just wish it would stop," he muttered into her hair.

"Oh, Clark — it will, sweetheart, it will."

He just hoped she was right.

***

Sayer glanced back at the small room from the door, as a final check that the body wasn't visible. Satisfied, he opened the door.

"I need to take a leak," he muttered to the guard outside, who had obviously just woken up from a deep sleep.

"I'll come with you," the guard replied, standing up.

"Hey, buddy, take the weight off, why don't you?" Sayer replied, with a friendly hand on the guard's shoulder. "I'll only be five minutes."

"Mrs Patterson says-"

"You want to be ruled by a woman? Come on, give a guy a little privacy."

The guard yawned. "You'll come right back?"

"Sure!"

"OK. But if you're not back in five minutes, I'm coming in there to haul you out, you got that?"

"I'll be back before you know I'm gone."

With that, the guard folded back down onto his chair, and Sayer ambled nonchalantly down the corridor to the toilet.

"Hey!"

He froze.

Turning slowly, he forced a friendly enquiring look onto his face. "Yeah?"

"You made it with her yet? Looked to me like she was begging for it."

<Shit>

The guard must have mistaken his shocked silence for confusion. "You know, the Jones woman. The one who keeps visiting you."

"Oh, her! Nope, buddy, she's not my type — besides, she didn't stay long. Left ages ago, but I guess maybe you missed her," he added, gambling that the guard would be feeling guilty for having fallen asleep on the job.

"Oh, yeah — forgot that. Not your type, huh? Too thin?"

"Too hairy."

The guard laughed. "Guess I'll avoid that one too, then."

Sayer forced himself to join in the laughter, pushing the door to the toilet open at the same time.

Once inside, he checked quickly to make sure no-one else was sharing the toilet with him, and then squeezed painfully through the tiny window above the washhand basin. A quick dash across the backyard, and then he was unlocking the door in the perimeter wall — being ex-security chief of the group had its advantages, he thought to himself wryly as he worked the lock feverishly, eager to make his escape before the guard dogs found him.

Two seconds later he was out and free.

Now the Purity group could fry in hell for all he cared. In fact, they probably would, he decided with grim satisfaction. With Ms tight-ass Jones dead, that meant that the system he'd failed to disarm, her own so-called double-blind security system, would kick in, and the group's safety would be in jeopardy. At best, they could expect some very unwanted publicity to start hitting the media, but with luck, any one of the many intricate systems installed in the house would short-circuit, or trigger a release of noxious gas, and real soon, the whole lot of them would be dead.

***

Lois and Clark spent the rest of the day on their normal reporting work, pushing aside as best they could the rigours of their morning's investigations. By mid- afternoon, Clark decided that Lois needed a shortened day's work, and made the decision non-negotiable by switching off her workstation and holding up her coat ready for her to slip into. As he expected, she only put up a token resistance, and after a quick word with Perry to explain their early departure, they were heading home.

Clark glanced at Lois as he manoeuvred the jeep through the mid-afternoon traffic. "Do you mind if we take a quick detour? I thought I'd drop a copy of the phone call tape over to Bill."

"Because it's evidence?"

He nodded. "Yes. It could help him identify my kidnappers."

"But he's not investigating your kidnapping. You specifically asked him to drop it."

"I know. But unofficially, he's been helping us a lot with our own investigation, and we haven't held anything else back from him." He shrugged. "It just feels like the right thing to do."

"Well, I don't have a problem with it, but this is pretty personal, Clark. Are you sure you want to expose yourself that far to him?"

"I know I can trust him, and besides, I've edited out everything except her opening lines, where she's just telling me to listen to her voice; that kind of thing. And I guess a part of me hopes that sharing the information will get us closer to nailing these…" he stopped short, pursing his lips.

"Bastards," said Lois firmly. "It's the only word for them, Clark."

"Yeah." He snatched a glance at her. "He won't let anyone else hear it, I'm sure. Or at least, not without making sure my identity is protected." His mouth twisted. "Both of them."

"Well, fine, if you're sure."

He swung the jeep over towards police headquarters.

Five minutes later, they were drawing up outside the building. Clark opened the door. "I'll just be a few minutes."

Lois smiled. "Okay."

She needed another early night, Clark reflected, as he found his way to Henderson's office. Normally, she'd be out of the jeep like a shot, following him inside, even if it was just for a few minutes. Her arm was probably hurting more than she was admitting.

A pang of guilt reminded him that she'd never have been suffering like this if it hadn't been for him. Of course, they both had dangerous occupations, and of course, he'd long ago come to terms with the fact that he couldn't protect her twenty-four hours of the day, but none of that stopped him feeling bad every time she got hurt because of who he was.

He also wished there wasn't an 'every time', but the truth was, it *had* happened more than once.

"Hi, Clark! How are you? How's Lois?"

Henderson waved Clark to his visitor's chair, but Clark shook his head. "Lois is waiting for me outside in the jeep," he explained. "She's sore, to answer your question, but getting better. We're just on our way home for an early night."

"Figures. She wouldn't take no for an answer when you tried to get her to stay off work this morning, right?"

Clark nodded. "You know Lois. Anyway, the reason I dropped in was to give you this." He handed over the tape cassette, and explained its contents without becoming too specific. Henderson didn't need to know exactly what this woman had been filling his head with.

Henderson frowned. "Brainwashing? My god, Clark, these guys sure beat anything I've come across before. Are you okay?"

Clark grimaced. "I'm better now I know what they've been trying to do to me."

"Which is?"

"Sorry, Bill. I can't tell you." He paused. "I can say that it's nothing that's likely to make me dangerous," he added soberly.

Henderson studied him for a few moments. "You know why they kidnapped you, don't you?"

Clark hesitated. Henderson deserved to know, but would it be giving too much away? Too much of himself?

"Yes," he answered finally. "But I'd rather not tell you yet."

Again, he felt himself being scrutinised carefully by the policeman. "You'll tell me when it's not so raw," Henderson observed flatly.

Clark sucked in a breath. When did Henderson get to be so perceptive? "Yeah," he said.

"Okay, Clark. You trusted me enough to give me this tape; I'll trust you to tell me when you're ready. Deal?"

"Deal."

"Then you'd better go find Lois before she comes in here and hauls my ass off for holding you up. I'll see if my guys can match this up with anything in our sound archive."

"Thanks, Bill," replied Clark, shaking hands with the policeman.

"How's the head?" Henderson asked, indicating the plaster on Clark's forehead.

"Oh, fine. Just no…" Clark gave his usual flying signal with his hand.

Henderson frowned. "No…" he repeated, mimicking Clark's wavy-hand signal.

"No…you know." He pulled at his tie and waved his hand again. Henderson gave him a non-comprehending, 'this-guy-is-nuts' look, so he mouthed the word.

"Powers."

"Ah!" Henderson raised his eyebrows in sudden comprehension. "It takes that long?"

Clark shrugged. "It varies. But I'll be back to normal soon, I'm sure. Sorry I haven't been around much lately."

"Hey, no problem! We *can* manage without you for a couple of days, you know," Henderson replied ruefully.

"I guess you can."

"Now go, before I get into trouble with Mad Dog Lane."

Clark chuckled. "I'll tell her you said that."

"One day I'll tell you what she used to call me!" Henderson retorted as Clark walked away down the corridor.

Clark smiled. He could imagine a choice phrase or two from Lois.

Unfortunately, Mad Dog Lane was doing a good impression of a sleeping puppy when he arrived back at the jeep, so he wasn't going to find out whether he was right or not.

He drove her home, carried her into the house and put her to bed.

***

The following morning brought rain.

Not energetic, vibrant rain, but a desultory drizzle, falling from grey skies and filling the air with a damp, misty haze. The high, ironwork gates to the house glistened with moisture, and far beyond, the house loomed through the mist, a blurry glow of off-white in the murky atmosphere. All the windows gave off a dull yellow glow, from the interior lights burning bright against the dull weather.

Inside, the meeting room seemed to reflect the mood of the day. Apathy and boredom crossed the features of the team members, while they listened to their leader harangue them once more for their abject failure to do her bidding.

"I mean, what exactly do I have to do with you people? You're supposed to be responsible managers in your own areas of expertise, yet I find myself hand- holding you every step of the way. And when I don't, what happens? Mr Sayer escapes."

She paused, and gazed silently from face to face. "Anybody care to contribute? You, Colonel Robertson, perhaps. You must have an explanation for this latest bungle."

"Maybe you'd be better advised to ask yourself that question, Meg. Maybe the problem with this team lies with its team leader."

"And what exactly does that mean?" she demanded.

"It means," interjected Professor Davies dryly, "that we're tired of you dragging us in here just to yell at us."

"Well, let me remind you, Professor Davies, that the reason I 'yell' at you, as you put it, is because you keep making mistakes. Or should I just pat you all on the back and say 'never mind, I'm sure it'll work out better next time'? Would that really get better results? Please tell me if it would," she added heavily, "because at this stage, I'm happy to try anything!"

"Try shutting up," said Dr Scott.

Mrs Patterson's head swung quickly around to stare angrily at Dr Scott. After a pause, she said, "I'm sorry, but I can't accept remarks like that. Either you get out now, or you apologise."

There followed a long silence.

***

Meanwhile, deep in the basement, a tiny muffled explosion inside a cable junction box was followed by a thin wisp of black smoke. The smoke dissipated, and all was still for a moment.

Then a spark flashed suddenly, lighting up the basement just long enough to illuminate the headline on an old newspaper lying beside the junction box.

"SUPERMAN AWARDED NOBEL PEACE PRIZE"

As the spark died, a new light source emerged, and gradually the headline was obliterated by a small flame creeping across the page.

***

With a rustle of sheets, Clark rolled over onto his back and took stock of his powers. Or rather, his lack of powers. His sight was beginning to come back, but it was patchy and unreliable. Hearing was the same, and he deliberately shied away from experimenting with it too much, because he didn't want to deafen himself when it temporarily surged back full-force. Meanwhile, flying was out, period. A quick attempt at floating above the bed proved that.

His strength — well, it was difficult to tell, lying in bed next to Lois. He didn't feel weak, but whether he was super-strong or not…he tried pushing himself up on his fingertips, and quickly decided super-strength was also on the missing list.

Invulnerability?

He didn't fancy trying that one out, although maybe he'd try a small experiment in the kitchen later with a pin.

He sighed. He was getting better, but it was slow progress for someone who was used to almost instant recovery. It seemed, or at least he was assuming, that the problem was the numerous times he'd been exposed to kryptonite lately. He'd hardly had a chance to recover from one attack before being attacked again.

So he just needed time.

He hoped.

Lois stirred beside him. He propped himself up on one elbow and gazed down at her perfect features. He loved her so much. He loved her face, he loved her body, he loved her personality, he loved her laughter; he loved her in every single way it was possible to love someone.

And yet he couldn't make love *with* her.

He wanted so much to recapture what they had once had; the spontaneity and the joyous union — or the giggles and laughter when they had joked and chased each other gleefully around the bed, or the passion and the ecstasy when their bodies were joined and they were soaring towards climax. Once upon a time, on a morning like this, he would have coaxed her playfully awake, and they would have kissed and cuddled for a while. They might have made love, or they might not have; half the pleasure was in the not knowing.

But anything he initiated right now would be entirely predictable. There would be no lovemaking, just awkward, tentative or forced kisses and caresses, followed by abrupt closure when his irrational fears ruined everything.

He wanted to kiss her lips. He wanted to kiss her body.

Instead, he kissed her forehead.

She stirred and smiled under closed eyes. "Mmmm. Is this my wake-up kiss?" she mumbled.

"Time to get up, my sleeping princess," he murmured.

"Thank you, Mr Frog. Or have you already turned into a prince?" She opened her eyes and looked up at him. "Nope. Still a frog."

"Hey! For that, you get the bathroom second." He climbed out of bed.

"You mean, for that I get to stay in bed the longest," she retorted mildly.

"And you get soggy towels."

"A real prince would dry them for his princess."

"Sorry. I'm still a frog, remember?" he said with a wink, and retreated to the bathroom before she could get in the last word.

***

Dr Scott stared defiantly at her angry boss. "I'm not getting out, and I'm not apologising," she said coldly. "Unlike you, I want to keep this team together, and I want to see this team succeed. So if you can't stop whinging about Sayer's disappearance, and start telling us what hare-brained scheme you've dreamt up for us next, you may as well shut up and let someone else take over."

"Someone else like you?" asked Mrs Patterson sarcastically.

Dr Scott shrugged. "Any one of us. But yes, I'd be prepared to take over if the others agreed."

"I see. Well, fortunately for us all, this is not a democracy. I formed this team; I will lead it. Anyone who has a problem with that can leave now."

She looked round the table, tensely waiting for someone to call her bluff.

"No takers?" Sullen faces greeted her invitation. "Good, then let's move on. Attempts to eliminate the target have failed, and worse still, the attempt used up the remaining stock of kryptonite. Therefore, an alternative has been mooted, and we are here to evaluate that alternative."

"Which is?" asked Professor Davies in a bored voice.

"Kill his woman."

***

Clark padded back into the bedroom, still damp from his shower. A glance at the bed found Lois still lying half under the covers with her eyes closed. Smiling, he climbed onto the bed beside her and dipped down to kiss her forehead again.

Her eyes opened. "My turn?"

She looked so delectable, lying beneath him with drowsy, smiling eyes.

Her turn.

Maybe it *was* her turn, and maybe things didn't have to be predictably disastrous…

"Yes," he murmured, closing his mouth over hers.

He took his time, loving her intimately with his mouth, and slowly gliding his hands over every inch of her soft, sweet-smelling body. This was her turn to be loved, and he wanted her to know that, and enjoy each sensation he hoped he was giving her as if it were the first time she'd ever experienced it.

And he could do this, he told himself. As long as he kept it fixed in his head that this was for her, and that he had no intention of letting his lower half go anywhere near her, then he could do this.

So he caressed her with the attention and care of someone discovering anew their lover's body, putting all the love he felt for her into his kisses and his soothing hands. Slowly, he undressed her, then slowly he clothed her again with his touch.

Of course, she complicated things after a while by trying to tug him over on top of her, but he held back. "This is for you," he murmured.

And so she let him love her selflessly, just the way she deserved to be loved after all this time.

***

Across town in West Metropolis, an electrical breaker tripped, and all the locks in the Purity house snapped shut.

Meanwhile, smoke seeped under the door leading to the basement, and a dull roaring sound could be heard coming from behind the door.

***

Lois sank back into the mattress, feeling heavy and exhausted with sated desire. She hadn't realised just how much she had hungered for sex until Clark had awakened her need. It was because she'd been repressing her own wants while she'd been pre-occupied with his problems, she supposed. But now she had been loved, and very thoroughly loved at that.

He was still lapping softly at her shoulder. She reached down and pulled his head up until he was level with her.

"Thank you," she murmured, the simple words containing so much more than gratitude for what he'd just done for her.

His eyes burned bright, and he surged down to kiss her, with almost as much passion as she'd sensed from him during the height of her ecstasy.

"Oh, honey!" she exclaimed when they broke off for a moment. "Do you want to…I mean, we could use a condom. I don't mind."

She reached out hesitantly, but he shifted quickly away from her.

"I can't. Not yet," he said.

"Why not?" she replied, touching her fingers lightly to his chest instead.

He closed his eyes briefly. "No. Maybe next time."

"Why not this time?"

"Because…I don't know. I just can't." He bent down and kissed her lightly on the forehead, then climbed off the bed. She propped herself up on her good elbow and looked at him with concern, but he just shrugged. "I'll survive."

Well, of course he would, but she wanted more for him than mere survival. Why was he backing off, when he so obviously wanted her? Fear of failure; a repeat of last time's empty intercourse?

Probably. She repressed a sigh, and hauled herself out of bed to begin her morning routine.

***

Back in the meeting room, Davies snorted. "Is that your answer to everything? Kill someone?"

Mrs Patterson looked at him witheringly. "No. But killing the alien's woman, given his obvious emotional attachment to her, would certainly lessen the chance of him producing offspring."

"Why don't we just steal some more kryptonite and finish him off once and for all?" demanded Colonel Robertson.

"Because there is no more kryptonite at Star Labs. Unless, of course, you know of another source?"

"Give me a few days and I'll find some," retorted Robertson.

"A few months, more like it. And that's time we don't have — may I remind you that the reason we escalated our activities was because the alien is already actively planning to procreate with the Lane woman?"

"Can anyone smell smoke?" interrupted Professor Davies abruptly.

There was a pause while everyone checked.

"Nope," said Robertson crisply.

"Me either," added Dr Scott.

"And neither can I," concluded Mrs Patterson.

"Well, I can," insisted Davies, "and I think it needs checking out."

"The smoke alarm would have trig-"

Mrs Patterson's words were drowned out by the high-pitched whine of an alarm.

***

Everyone was glued to the newsroom TV monitors when Lois and Clark strolled down the ramp at the Daily Planet.

"What's going on?" Clark asked the nearest member of staff.

"Big fire in West Metropolis," was the reply, and as he pushed his way to the front of the crowd, he saw where it was.

Lois clutched his arm. "Clark! Isn't that…?"

"Yes," he replied grimly, already turning to elbow his way back out of the crowd.

"Lois! Clark!"

It was Perry, hurrying across the newsroom toward them.

"You seen the fire? Looks like there's people still trapped inside, so I want you two down there pronto, y'hear? Bag us a story."

"Already on it, Chief" replied Clark with a quick nod.

***

Thin trails of smoke were beginning to seep under the door of the meeting room, and the atmosphere was hot and acrid. Mrs Patterson sat alone at the head of the conference table, calmly slotting the last remaining kryptonite bullet into her handgun. The others had fled once they had discovered that all the external door and window locks were jammed shut, and were no doubt fruitlessly trying to punch a hole in the triple-plated glass windows.

She, on the other hand, knew that escape was impossible. Her death sentence had been signed, and she was determined to do everything in her power to make her last few minutes or hours on this earth contribute positively to the service of mankind. She would ensure the purity of the human race, or die in the attempt.

And he would come, she was sure of that. He knew where the house was, and he would hear the sirens, and he would know that his duty was to protect and rescue those trapped inside. Even if those trapped inside were his enemy, he would try to save them.

Which was why her mission was so regrettable. He was possessed of such worthy moral standards, it was sad that he had to be executed.

But the execution of one moral individual was worth the continued purity of the human race. Nothing could stand in the way of that.

She finished preparing her gun, and settled back to wait for him.

***

The immediate vicinity surrounding the house was in chaos, and Clark became increasingly frustrated that he couldn't simply scoop Lois up in his arms and fly them straight there.

But although his invulnerability test in the kitchen had been partially successful, flying was not an option.

So they battled through the cordoned-off crowds at the end of the road, until they finally reached the yellow tape and a young police officer who was telling everyone to get back.

Clark showed his press pass. "Is it true that there's still people trapped inside?" he asked.

"I couldn't say, sir."

"Well, is there someone here who can say?" interjected Lois sharply. "We're reporters, not tourists."

"I'm sorry, but my orders are to make sure everyone remains on that side of the tape, and that's exactly what I'm going to do," he finished with a hard note of determination.

"Well, this is exactly what we're going to do," replied Lois, lifting up the tape and ducking underneath. "Coming, Clark?"

Clark followed suit, but was brought up short by the police officer grabbing his arm. "I wouldn't if I were you, sir," he said firmly.

Clark sighed. "Look, we're just trying to do our job, officer. We're professionals, just like you."

"Professional or not, you still have to stay-"

"Let them through, Kowalski." Clark recognised the voice, and turned to find Bill Henderson walking towards them. "I'll vouch for them."

Clark extricated himself and met Henderson with Lois half-way. "Thanks, Bill."

"I thought you'd find your way here before too long," he replied, indicating that they could follow him back towards the huddle of emergency vehicles parked outside the house. "This is it, isn't it?" He lowered his voice. "The house where they held you?"

Clark blinked. "Yes, but how did you know?"

"A woman walking her dog yesterday saw some guy come out of the side lane like a bat out of hell. She thought he was a robber; turned out he was none other than one Nigel Sayer — you know, the guy we've been looking for?" Henderson was having to raise his voice as they drew closer to the hub of activity. "Who murdered Ann Campbell? I only found out late last night, otherwise I'd have called you."

"So do we think he's responsible for this?" asked Clark, also pitching his voice higher and louder.

Henderson shrugged. "Could be. Although why would one of their own people do it?"

"If he *is* one of them," interjected Lois.

"What?" yelled Henderson, bending down so that his head was closer to hers.

"If he *is* one of the Purity people," she shouted back into his ear.

"Yeah!" Henderson said, nodding vigorously in agreement.

Clark patted Henderson's shoulder to get his attention. "Is it true that they're still in there?"

"We think so. A couple of the firemen have heard screams."

Henderson was pulled away by one of his officers, and Clark turned to the house, taking in the grim picture of black smoke, leaping flames and arching jets of water from the fire hoses, as the firemen fought to bring the blaze under control. He knew from experience what it would be like inside; what it would be like for those people trapped within the inferno.

For a split second, he remembered what those people had done to him: the physical and mental agony they'd inflicted on him; the pain he was still carrying around with him. Just a couple of hours ago, he'd been unable to make love with his wife because of their torture.

His life was fractured and incomplete because of them.

So why should he help them? He owed them nothing, whereas they owed him everything.

He didn't realise his hand was already tugging at the knot in his tie until he felt Lois's own hand close over his.

"What are you doing?" she shouted.

"I have to," he shouted back, glancing around for a discreet place to change. Henderson's squad car might work, if he was quick enough…if he was able to move that quickly yet…

"Clark, you can't!" she said, tugging on his arm. "You're not strong enough yet!"

He bent down quickly and gripped her good arm. "I'm fine, Lois. I'll *be* fine," he said intensely; urgently. "You start getting the story — I'll be back before you know I'm gone." He turned and hurried over towards Henderson's car.

"Clark Kent, I swear I'll divorce you if you kill yourself!"

He froze with his hand on the car door. What a crazy thing to say.

A desperate thing to say.

But he had no intention of killing himself; he was only going to do what he always did: help. He got into the car and shut the door, intending to change at as near to superspeed as he could manage. He was sure everyone was too busy fighting the fire to notice his blurry movements inside the car, or the fact that a different person would emerge from the car than entered it.

***

The smoke inside the meeting room was forcing her to wheeze and cough violently. Rivulets of sweat ran down her grim features and her usually beautifully-coifed hair had plastered itself soggily to the sides of her face. She knew that her life was slowly being extinguished by the fire raging throughout the house.

Yet despite the heat and her discomfort, Mrs Patterson remained sitting at the conference table, coldly watching the double doors. Her right hand rested on the conference table, training the gun with its single kryptonite bullet at her anticipated target, while she listened intently for movement from outside. There wouldn't be long to react, but she was confident of her abilities; she'd been top of her class on the police academy shooting range.

He would come, she was sure. He was probably outside the house already, talking to the fire chief, as she'd noticed him doing on the few occasions when his rescues were televised. Soon, he would break the jammed locks open, and begin to search for survivors.

He would find her, and she would fire the single most important shot of her life, right into his heart.

***

Changing into Superman within the confines of a car driving seat with only half your superspeed was not ideal. However, Clark managed it with just one near- breakage, when his elbow thumped against the window.

He was drawing a steadying breath prior to launching himself into his superhero role, when the passenger door was flung open and Henderson thrust his head inside.

"What are you doing?!"

"Sorry, Inspector Henderson, but I needed somewhere to…well, I just needed somewhere," Clark answered. "I'll get out of your way now."

"Oh, no, you won't." Henderson dove inside and closed the door. "Yesterday you told me your powers weren't back properly. How are they now?"

"Okay."

Henderson shook his head. "Okay doesn't cut it, Superman. Okay means you're evading the question, which means you're not up to one hundred percent fitness. And that means you're not going into that house."

"Inspector, we're wasting time. People are dying while we're discussing my health," said Clark tightly.

"And what good will you be to them when you're being roasted alive in there?"

"I'll be fine. I tested myself this morning."

"Oh, you walked into a wall of flames, did you?"

"No, of course not," answered Clark intently, "but-"

Suddenly, his breath wooshed out of him when Henderson's elbow cannoned viciously into his ribs.

"What…?" he gasped.

"I rest my case," Henderson replied flatly. "I'm sorry, Clark. I wasn't sure if you'd feel that, but you obviously did." He paused. "Here's what you do: you get changed, you get the story, and you go back to the Planet and write about a sadistic bunch of criminals who got the death they deserved. And you stay alive. Okay?"

Henderson didn't wait for his answer, but left the car abruptly, leaving Clark sitting in angry shock, contemplating his words. It was a cheap trick, digging him in the ribs like that; he hadn't been prepared, and so of course he'd reacted badly to it. He'd thought Henderson was a friend.

Yet…

He noticed he was absently rubbing the still-tender spot. That wasn't right.

The passenger door opened again and Lois barged in, slamming the door behind her. "Don't you dare ignore me like that ever again!" she barked.

"What?!" He'd barely had time to recover from Henderson's attack, and now Lois was laying into him? All he'd been trying to do was his duty.

"I spoke to you, and you ignored me."

"Lois-"

"What gives you the right to walk away, ignore me, and play the noble, self- sacrificing superhero? Just so you can follow some weird ideal that says you have to rescue everyone, no matter how good or bad they are — just so you can ease your own conscience?" She didn't give him time to answer, but ploughed on furiously. "Well, newsflash, Clark. This isn't how you make yourself feel better about yourself. And it sure isn't how you make up for the fact that you probably want these people dead because of what they did to you!"

"Lois, I do not want them dead," retorted Clark coldly. "Sure, I'd like to see them brought to justice, but that's entirely different. I thought you knew me better than that."

"Oh, yes, that's exactly what Superman would say. But Clark Kent, the man who can't make l-"

She stopped abruptly.

"Can't make what?" asked Clark icily.

"Clark, I didn't mean-"

"Yes, you did." He changed clumsily, too slowly, back into his street clothes and stormed out of the car, striding quickly away.

***

Breathing was becoming impossible. She'd been desperately trying to suck air into her suffocating lungs for ages, it seemed, but the harder she tried, the more difficult it became.

A hard surface came up to meet her cheek, and she realised her body had sagged sideways and her head had drooped onto the table. She hauled herself upright, clawing breaths at the thick, smoke-filled air. Noticing her gun-hand had faltered in its aim, she struggled to squint through the smoke at the doors and regain her target. Or, at least, her imaginary target.

Where was he? He should be here by now.

Suddenly, the doors were shaking as something hurtled against them from outside, and, with glee, she pulled up straighter and forced herself to aim the gun steadily.

He was here.

The wood was splintering on the doors, and then with a loud crack, they burst open and a tall, dark shape stumbled through.

***

Lois stared numbly at the car dashboard, smarting from her heated exchange with Clark. Sure, she'd stuck her foot in her mouth with that last stupid remark she'd nearly made, but he'd no business walking out on her yet again. He'd had no right to ignore her the first time around, barely ten minutes ago, and he'd no right to do it just now.

All she'd been trying to do was to get him to see sense. He seemed to be in a state of denial about his lack of powers, even though this morning at breakfast he'd confessed in his usual vague terms about not being quite up to speed. It was almost as if he'd decided he was immune to danger.

Stupid, stubborn man.

Of course, she could have grabbed him in order to stop him going into the fire, and he wouldn't have resisted her, despite his superior strength, but she didn't want physical force in their relationship. It was too close to violence, and she never, ever wanted that to enter their lives.

So she'd used her best and only weapon: words. Which he'd totally ignored.

<Well, not exactly ignored, Lois>

Yes, he had.

<You drove him away with your words>

No, she hadn't.

<Yes, you did>

Oh, no, she hadn't.

<Oh, yes, you did>

"Shut up!" she exclaimed at her conscience, clapping her hands to her ears. But peering out the windscreen while holding her head, she couldn't see him anywhere.

<Maybe he's gone into the house>

She was out of the car in a nanosecond, suddenly frantic to find him before it was too late.

***

Mrs Patterson's finger was already tightening on the trigger when her brain finished processing the image in front of her. The stumbling shape falling into the conference room was not Superman.

Disappointed, she released the trigger, snapped on the safety catch, and quickly stuffed the gun into a pocket before the figure regained its balance and spied the weapon. The situation had just changed dramatically, and she could already see new possibilities opening up before her. Concealing the gun was suddenly very important.

The fireman, with his bulky breathing apparatus, straightened up and hurried over to her.

"Are you okay?" he shouted through his mask.

She nodded, putting on her best frightened victim look, and he quickly scooped her up and carried her out of the inferno and out into the fresh air.

***

"Any idea yet how it started?" yelled Clark to the fire chief over the hubbub.

"Too early to say, although we think the source was somewhere in the basement of the building," shouted the chief in reply.

"Could it have been deliberate?"

"Again, too early to say."

Clark's attention wandered briefly to a fireman carrying yet another lifeless bundle towards the waiting ambulances.

"Looks like no-one made it," he commented.

The fire chief shook his head. "They didn't stand a chance. All the locks were jammed shut — God knows why."

"That makes it sound like it was deliberate," Clark suggested.

"Or suicide. Wouldn't be the first time we've come across some kind of mass suicide. Especially if they were some kind of cult."

"True." It was possible, he supposed. They certainly seemed to be fanatics, and fanaticism was just a short step away from hysteria.

"Kent! Clark Kent!"

The sound of his own name took him by surprise, and he whirled around to locate whoever was demanding his attention in this chaotic environment.

And froze.

A middle-aged woman stood a few paces away from him, her tweed skirt twisted around and hitched up on one side, and her blouse half-undone with one bra-strap clearly visible. Her greyish-blonde hair was plastered down around her sweaty face, and she was covered in grime. But despite her haggard appearance, her face was cold and determined, and in surprisingly steady hands, she held a gun.

Usually, his only concern with guns was that the person brandishing them wouldn't themselves get hurt, but suddenly, he felt vulnerable and extremely mortal as he stared at the weapon and its owner.

She raised the gun a little, making it absolutely clear that he was the target.

"At last, I get to see you die," she shouted.

"No!" came a shriek from his right, which he immediately recognised as Lois's voice.

"Stay away, Lois!" he yelled, terror gripping his heart. He didn't dare even look at her, for fear of drawing attention away from himself and on to her.

And despite the deafening roar of the fire engines and the inferno behind them, he heard the terrifying first click of the gun's trigger.

"To the purity of the human race!" yelled the crazed woman.

A single shot rang out.

***

Lois screamed.

And the woman slowly crumpled to the ground.

There was a moment when time seemed to stand still for Lois; when she was staring at the scene before her without being able to move a muscle. It had all happened so fast, and now it was over just as quickly, and she felt as if her brain was still catching up with events.

And then she woke up, and she was throwing herself at Clark, feverishly patting him all over. "Are you all right? Did she hit you? Are you all right? Are you hurt?" she gabbled desperately. But he wasn't responding to her at all, and she needed him to respond. She needed him to move; to walk and talk, and show her that he was alive, not stand frozen and immobile like a dead statue.

Her hands reached his shoulders and shook him. His head jiggled on his neck, but he merely continued to stare stonily past her at the woman on the ground.

"Clark! Talk to me!" She grabbed his face between her hands and forced him to look at her. "Are you all right?"

"Yes…" he answered at last, but his eyes held shock and confusion, and she knew he wasn't really focusing on her.

"Talk to me! I need to know you're all right, Clark," she said urgently.

"I'm…" He blinked, and she saw clarity return to his eyes at last. "I'm fine, Lois," he breathed, and wrapped his arms tightly around her.

"Oh, God, honey," she said into his chest, her voice trembling. "For a moment there, I thought I'd lost you."

She clung on to him, needing to feel his solid, alive, breathing body close to hers.

"It's okay," he answered equally shakily. "I'm alive."

The noise and confusion of the fire-fighting effort melted away for a few precious moments while they held each other, Clark repeating "I'm alive," over and over, as if he couldn't quite believe it himself.

She couldn't quite believe it either; in fact, she wasn't sure why he wasn't, and after a time, she drew away from him.

"What happened?" she asked.

"I don't know…" he said, his gaze trailing back over to the woman.

She followed his gaze, to find Bill Henderson squatting beside the body. They crossed over to him, and he stood up with a grimace.

"You okay, Clark?"

"Yes. Thanks to you, I guess."

Henderson shrugged. "Just happened to be in the right place at the right time, buddy."

"She's dead?" asked Lois.

"Yeah. I couldn't take the risk with anything more subtle." He bent down again, and came up as he was easing the woman's gun into an evidence bag. "This should back me up if anyone asks questions."

Clark's hand tightened on hers convulsively, and she frowned a question at him.

"I think there's you-know-what in there," he explained.

"You-know…" Henderson repeated in confusion. "Oh, you mean…you-know-what?"

"Yes," answered Clark.

"Okay, don't worry, Clark," reassured Henderson. "I'll deal with it."

Lois searched Clark's face anxiously. "You're all right, though?"

He nodded. "I'm fine. It's just a vague sensation."

"Well, vague sensation or gut-wrenching agony, I don't want you anywhere near that stuff for at least, oh, the rest of your life. Come on, let's finish up here and get back to the Planet."

Clark held his hand out to Henderson. "Thanks for saving my life, Bill."

"Hey, no problem. I prefer my friends alive — you can't borrow money from the dead."

"Try telling Bobby Bigmouth that," interjected Lois. "I'll bet he's found a way."

Henderson laughed. "I think the further I stay away from Bobby the better."

"And he'd agree," said Clark.

Lois tugged him away. "Come on, we should go."

***

They picked their way slowly back to the jeep, hand in hand the whole way; under the yellow tape, through the thinning crowd beyond the tape, and along the emptying streets to their parking place.

It was when Clark was patting his pockets for the car keys, and Lois was hunting in her purse for her own set, that it happened.

Suddenly they were in each other's arms, car keys forgotten as the relief tumbled out of them, mixed in with garbled apologies for stupid things said and done, and heart-felt words of reconciliation and tender love. It was a moment they both desperately needed; a cleansing, emotional baring of raw feelings that ended, to their surprise, in a deeply-felt, passionate kiss.

The force of their passion left them a little breathless when they broke apart.

"Oh, Lois, honey, if only you knew how much I want you right now," murmured Clark.

Lois placed her finger on his lips. "Later, sweetheart."

"I wish I had my powers," he said intensely. "I'd fly you home right now."

"I wish you did too, honey."

In fact, she wished it a lot — he was so worked up, she was pretty sure he wouldn't even remember he was supposed to fear making love with her.

But she drew the line at making out in the back of the jeep in the middle of the day, so the opportunity would just have to pass, and she'd have to hope she could rekindle the moment when they were back home.

***

The rest of the day was spent writing up the fire, and chasing information about the fledgling fire investigation. It was really to early to get any definitive answers, but the fire was big news, so Perry wanted as much material as possible for the front page. They both hated writing speculative articles based on flimsy information, but lately, it had become the norm in the media for major incidents such as this one, so the Planet was obliged to play the guessing game along with the opposition.

It was late when Clark finally pushed open their front door, scooped up the mail from the mat, and led the weary trudge into their living room.

"Why don't you check the news while I fix us dinner?" he suggested.

"Think I'll take a shower first," replied Lois. "I still feel a mess after this morning."

"Okay."

Clark wandered into the kitchen, fiddling with the back of his hair. He had absolutely no idea what they were going to eat, and absolutely no mental energy left for being creative with food. A rummage in the freezer produced two frozen TV dinners which Lois had bought for herself when he'd been out of town for a few days. They would have to do.

He flicked on the oven, set the timer to remind him when it would be hot enough to put the food in, and flopped down at the kitchen table.

He felt completely drained. Oh, physically, he was fine; his body, he reflected ruefully, could happily run a marathon — just so long as his brain didn't have to contribute anything useful like instructions on how to put one foot in front of the other. He'd run out of emotional energy, too, after spending most of the day either in conflict with himself, Lois, and Bill Henderson, or dwelling on the consequences of that conflict.

Maybe what they both needed was a mindless evening sitting in front of the TV watching a few movies.

And that was precisely what they ended up doing. Lois ate chocolate ice cream, he munched junk snacks, they both drank wine, and for the first time in ages, Clark began to feel relaxed and at ease with himself and the world.

"You know," remarked Lois sleepily as the last few remaining credits rolled up the screen, "you've really come a long way since the beginning of this thing."

"Yeah?" replied Clark absently, feeling too mellow to bother himself with anything more coherent.

"Well, look at you. Look at us."

He brought himself to attention, and took stock of their situation. Some time ago, she'd shifted into his lap, her legs stretched out on the sofa across his, and he was cuddling her lightly in the crook of his arm. Nothing unusual there, he decided.

"A few days ago you wouldn't have let me get this close, honey," she pointed out, running her hand through his hair. "And as for this morning — well, words fail me." She smiled.

She had a point, but… "Good words or bad words?"

"Good, lunkhead!" she retorted softly. "So, what I'm trying to say is that I think it's only a matter of time before you get over the other thing too."

"Other thing," he repeated flatly, knowing where she was headed and not feeling too enthusiastic about it.

"Yes. The…the sex thing."

He sighed. He really wished she hadn't brought it up now, after they'd had such a nice, relaxing evening together. Surely he could have one evening off, when he could just flop sleepily into bed and sleep the sleep of the innocent.

"Can't we talk about this some other time?" he said finally.

She hesitated, then smiled again. "Sure. I just wanted you to know that you don't need to obsess about it. It'll come with time."

Or he'd 'come' in time. His mouth twisted. "Bad choice of words, Lois."

She ruffled his hair in admonishment. "You know what I mean."

"Yeah."

He *did* know what she had meant, though, and even if he didn't feel like discussing that particular touchy subject right now, there was something else which needed saying. Something he had, in her words, been obsessing about most of the day.

"Thank you, Lois," he said.

"No problem. It's what I'm here for — blind devotion, cheer-leading, and unconditional support of everything you say and do." She paused. "Did I just say that? I can't believe I just said that." She shook her head. "I must be going soft," she concluded with mock self-disgust.

He smiled. "But I didn't mean that. I meant this morning."

"What about this morning?"

"You stopped me from doing something really stupid."

"Ah, that."

"I've been thinking all day about what you said in the car, and you were right. I stood in front of that house this morning, and all I could think of was everything they'd done to me, and how little I cared whether they lived or died. I wanted them dead, Lois."

"Clark, that's understandable in the circumstances."

"But I'm not used to wanting people dead, I'm used to saving their lives. It's what I do…in a way, I guess it kind of defines me." He sighed. "So that's what I tried to do, and you were absolutely right — it was all just so I could feel better about myself."

"And that's perfectly understandable, too."

"But selfish. And arrogant — not to mention very, very stupid. I was so busy doing my superhero act, I totally ignored the fact that I'd probably kill myself in the process." He reached up and stroked her hair. "So thank you for yelling at me, and reminding me what a lunkhead I am sometimes."

She smiled. "You're welcome. But the main thing is, you didn't do anything crazy, and I've got you all to myself to yell at some more next time."

He raised an eyebrow. "Next time?"

"If there's one thing I know about you, Clark Kent, it's that you never give up trying to rescue people. In every sense of the word."

He shrugged. "It's-"

"-what you do." She kissed his cheek. "I know."

He kissed her lips briefly. "At least you don't punch me in the ribs," he remarked.

"Who did that?"

"Bill. He wanted to prove to me that I wasn't up to full strength, so he dug his elbow into my ribs." He pouted. "It hurt."

Lois laughed softly. "Serves you right. I hope it taught you a lesson."

"Yeah, never get within elbow-distance of a police inspector when he's mad." He yawned. "You ready for bed?"

"Wild police inspectors wouldn't keep me away," she answered, stifling a yawn of her own.

"Now there's an image to fantasise about," he suggested with a wink.

"Clark!"

"Only kidding."

***

Over the next few days, the fire investigation team gradually uncovered the grisly facts behind the fire on Fountain Road. A woman's body was discovered, stuffed into a cupboard in a small, windowless room. Her neck had been snapped, and even though the fire had wrought terrible damage to her body, forensics were able to establish that she'd engaged in sexual intercourse shortly before her death. Rape wasn't a definite conclusion with the evidence they found, but murder certainly was.

Top of the list of suspects was Nigel Sayer, since he was already wanted for Ann Campbell's murder, and had been seen running away from the house just before the fire had started. Bill Henderson was busily scouring Metropolis and poring over every scrap of evidence he could find in order to track him down.

Also at the house they had found medical facilities, and in particular, an operating theatre. That, together with the battery of sophisticated security devices, and a filing cabinet full of half-burnt publicity campaign material, suggested that something very ugly had been taking place in the house. No normal clinic had high-security locks and alarms everywhere, or restraints on its beds, or publicity material focusing on the procreation rights of various vulnerable minority groups. Theories were developed; very uncomfortable theories of human experimentation and eugenics research.

Soon, the story was front-page news on every newspaper. The citizens of Metropolis were both fascinated and horrified by the news that a group of fascists had been operating in secret within their city, manipulating public opinion and apparently carrying out heinous medical procedures on the most vulnerable members of society.

Lois and Clark were busier than ever, keeping Perry supplied with stories and inside scoops. Their editor was delighted with their work, because they were usually able dig up information more quickly than their competitors due to their advance and intimate knowledge of the Purity group's activities.

Throughout it all, Lois watched Clark. Not every minute of every day, because he was clearly a lot less fragile than in the early days, but she needed to be sure that he was coping with the situation and that it wasn't adding to his troubles. In particular, she worried that he wasn't able to escape from the Purity group's legacy; it was with him at work, and it was there whenever they turned on the news on the radio or the TV.

In fact, mostly he seemed to be fine. Nothing had leaked out about the group's attack on Superman, or about Clark's narrow escape at the scene of the fire, so he was spared any personal attention from the media, and himself appeared able to treat the story as just another major event he needed to put his best work into. Of course, there were odd moments here and there when they shared a brief cuddle or exchanged a few words of support, but they were as much for her benefit as his. The story was upsetting to both of them, even without the added personal interest they had in the case.

Meanwhile, at home, progress of a different kind was being made in small stages. By mutual, though silent, agreement, they had reverted to a very gradual process of increasing intimacy. To begin with, it was hard for both of them, because they were accustomed to a relaxed and full expression of their physical love for one another, and they had to restrain their natural instinct to let a light petting session flow easily into heavy petting and finally into the unfettered and joyous lovemaking they used to take for granted. The first time they lost control, however, it was soon clear that they'd made a mistake when Clark broke away abruptly and breathlessly.

"Sorry," he muttered, rolling away from her onto his back.

Lois needed a few moments to recover from the sudden cessation of all the delicious sensations he'd been giving her. She lay with her eyes closed, gathering her scattered wits around her.

But the bruised ego beside her needed reassurance, so after a few seconds, she turned onto her side to face him. "It's okay, sweetheart. I guess we just got a little too carried away."

"Yeah."

She laid a hand on a muscular bicep. "Really, honey, it's no big deal. Don't worry about it."

He sighed heavily. "You're too good for me, you know. I can't believe how patient you're being with me."

She grinned. "Hey, it's worth it. I know the reward I'll get when we get this right — I'm prepared to wait."

After a short pause, one corner of his mouth went up. "The best things in life come to those who are prepared to wait?"

"Something like that. Not sure if you're the best thing in life, but you're close," she said playfully.

"The best thing being…?"

"Double fudge crunch bars, of course."

"So let me get this straight," he said, looking up at her quizzically. "You'd rather make love with a double fudge crunch bar than with me, is that it?"

She pretended to consider. "Well, actually, both of you simultaneously would be even better."

He raised his eyebrows. "Kinky."

"I prefer to call it inventive."

"And I-"

She leant down and kissed him lightly, stifling his riposte and any further discussion. A few kisses later, and they were ready to settle down for sleep, the difficult moment dealt with and put behind them.

And so set-backs happened, and they recovered from them, stepped the pace down a notch, and remembered not to make the same mistake next time.

All in all, life was beginning to settle back into comfortable patterns. Best of all, Superman was back in action, which helped Clark a lot. Lois hadn't noticed what was missing until she saw it return into his eyes and his demeanour; his soul was enriched and invigorated when he was helping people. It gave him strength, and helped him put things back into their proper perspective.

Her one point of contention with him was his obsession with Dr Klein's fertility research. Optimistically, she had hoped that Clark would set it aside while he dealt with everything else, but he wouldn't let it go. Sometimes, she thought, he had a stubborn streak a mile wide — which he got from his father, she had decided a long time ago. Jonathan could be pretty hard to shift once he'd decided something, and his son was just the same.

Even his obvious anxiety on the day he was scheduled to supply Dr Klein with a sample of his semen didn't stop him. He woke up tense, and spent the entire morning watching the clock, until she lost patience with him and offered to cancel the appointment.

"No," he replied, frowning. "Why should you?"

"Because this is obviously driving you crazy. You haven't stopped clock- watching since we got to work."

"I just don't want to be late," he answered defensively.

She held up her wrist to him and pointed to her watch. "Clark, it's two hours from now! Trust me, you won't be late."

He pulled a face. "Okay, so I'm obsessing a little. But this is important — this is our chance to have a baby together, honey," he added, lowering his voice. "I don't want to miss it."

She sighed. "I know, but just don't wind yourself up so much over it. It's not like this is the only day you can do this."

And privately, she wondered if he'd get himself so worried about it that he wouldn't be able to do what he needed to do. His initial anxiety about the appointment was caused largely by that same issue, she knew, because of the mental barriers the Purity group had erected for him: would he be able to perform? Not that he'd admitted that to her, of course — his proud male ego didn't allow him to confess that kind of weakness. But he was anxious, and currently making himself even more anxious by worrying about it, and that was a recipe for disaster.

"I guess so."

They settled back into work, but he still spent the next two hours sneaking not- so secret peeks at his watch. She kept quiet, though; she'd made her point, and any more nagging from her would just add to his worries.

"Wish me luck," he said eventually, coming over for a quick kiss on her cheek.

"Say hi to Dr Klein for me," she said.

He nodded with a tight smile and was gone.

An hour later, he was back with a broad grin on his face and a big bunch of flowers for her.

"For putting up with me," he explained.

She smiled and refrained from asking what the next step would be, although she suspected it would involve a pretty hefty commitment from her, not to mention the possible sharing of their secret with the doctor. It wasn't that she didn't still want children, but that she didn't want to encourage Clark by showing interest. This just wasn't the right time for such a huge disruption to their lives.

Not that there ever was a good time, she mused. There were days when she felt as though they lurched from one crisis to the next, with an overload of work in between the crises. Would they have the time to be good parents? She didn't want her kids growing up the way she and Lucy had, with an absent father and an ineffectual mother.

Still, she'd made a commitment with Clark, and she would stick by it. She just wished he could stop driving himself so hard when he had plenty of other pressures to cope with which weren't self-inflicted.

But fortunately, after the test day, the subject waned a little. Dr Klein had warned Clark that he would need at least a couple of weeks to complete his research, so Clark was forced to cool his enthusiasm for a while.

And otherwise, things were pretty fine, both at home and at work.

Until the day the package arrived.

***

Lois was coming downstairs for breakfast when she heard the soft thump of new mail arriving. It was a louder thud than usual, and, intrigued, she crossed to the door, opened it and found a medium-sized white padded envelope sitting amongst the usual bills and junk mail. Picking everything up, she examined the package and discovered it was addressed to both Clark and herself.

"Any idea what this is?" she asked, wandering into the kitchen where Clark was preparing breakfast.

He glanced at the package she was holding up. "No. Yours or mine?"

"Both of us." She ripped it open, reached inside, and fished out a cassette tape. It was unlabelled, but when she checked the envelope again, there was nothing inside to indicate who had sent it or what was on it. Something glinted at the bottom of the package, however, and when she tipped it up on the kitchen counter, a key fell out.

"Okay, this is either Jimmy playing a joke on us, or it's a lead on a new story," she concluded, showing Clark the tape in one hand and the key in the other. "What's your vote?"

Clark regarded the objects consideringly. "Jimmy playing a joke. That looks like a luggage locker key, and the tape has a series of clues which will lead us to the locker. There's probably a photograph of a hundred dollar bill inside the locker, or something like that."

Lois shook her head. "I don't think he'd go to so much trouble."

"Well, I guess the only way to find out is to play the tape. What's my prize if I'm right?"

"You get to beat him over the head with the tape."

He nodded. "Sounds fair," he agreed with a wink.

She crossed to the radio cassette player they always kept in the kitchen, pushed the tape in, and pressed 'Play'.

Breathy, wordless voices began to play back to them, accompanied by occasional moans and wet kissing noises, and soon it was very obvious that they were listening to the unmistakable sound of two people making love.

Lois pulled a face. "Maybe you were right, although I didn't think this was Jimmy's style."

She was about to switch the tape off when the woman's voice uttered a snatched "Yes…"

It sounded familiar.

She halted with her finger on the stop button, and listened more closely.

"Oh, yes…" The woman's panting grew louder and more urgent, and with a horrid fascination, Lois listened as the tape played on. "Yes, honey, right there…please…Clark…"

It was her own voice.

Sounds of an ecstatic climax followed, but were abruptly terminated by Clark's voice saying, "So is that why you married me? For my super-fast dishwashing abilities?"

And her reply, "'Fraid so. As soon as I found out you were Superman, I realised my dishwashing days were gone for ever. Marriage was inevitable."

The breathy voices started again, and then suddenly, there was silence in the room when Clark viciously thumbed the stop button.

She felt horrified. And dizzy — so many extreme emotions crowded in on her, she didn't know how to even begin dealing with them. She looked at Clark, and found him pale-faced with shock and simmering fury.

"It's Sayer. It has to be," he said with hard steel in his voice.

She stared at him numbly, still processing the rush of information, the terrifying implications, and the hurtful emotions. Then slowly, one thought sent its tendrils up to the top of her mind, rising above all the other emotions vying for attention in her head.

"Bill said there weren't any bugs in our bedroom," she said faintly, feeling as if someone else was saying the words.

"I know," he replied tightly.

"So that means…they could still be there."

And immediately, her brain began running a catalogue of all the nights they had made love, or tried to make love, since Henderson had assured them their bedroom was bug-free. So many nights… And worse still, it meant that all of Clark's private turmoil was probably on a tape somewhere, being giggled at, or worse.

"They're not still there," Clark said, interrupting her thoughts.

Her runaway thoughts came to a screeching standstill. He knew the bugs weren't still there, which meant he knew…?!

"You…you *knew* we'd been bugged?"

"Lois…"

He reached out to touch her arm, but she snatched herself away from him. "Don't you dare! Don't you dare try and make up to me by giving me a quick kiss and a cuddle."

She stood apart from him, all the warring emotions inside her coalescing quickly into white-hot fury, directed full force at Clark and his police inspector friend. Between them they had conspired to keep an incredibly important fact from her — one which affected her just as much as it affected Clark. She began to tremble with the force of her anger.

"You lied to me, Clark — you and Bill Henderson," she exploded eventually. "What gave you the right to decide what I could and couldn't know? Did you hatch this one between you, now that you're so buddy-buddy with each other? 'Let's not tell Lois, because it might upset her?' Is that how it went, Clark — is that what you decided?"

"Yes, that's exactly how it went, Lois," he answered intently, "except it was my decision, and mine alone. I didn't want you hurt."

"And just what exactly do you think I am now, Clark? Look at me, Clark — I'm…I'm crying."

Her voice broke on her final word, and, almost as furious with herself for breaking down as she was at Clark, she brushed past him to walk out of the kitchen and into the lounge where she flopped down onto one of the sofas.

She felt violated. She felt betrayed. And she was mad as hell.

"Lois, I'm sorry you had to find out like this. I never expected anything like this to happen."

He'd followed her into the lounge and was standing near her sofa. She looked up at him through blurry eyes. "Well, obviously, Clark. Even you aren't that careless with my feelings. So tell, me — what exactly have you been doing to ensure that tapes of our… performances in bed aren't circulating the porn dealers of Metropolis?"

His mouth tightened. "I asked Henderson to destroy any tapes he found."

"And did he? Find any, I mean?"

"No."

"Okay, so what else have you done?"

His face took on a dangerous look. "Not much. I had other things on my mind at the time."

"Well, precisely. Which is why you should have told me, so that I could have done something about it, instead of letting things get to the point where we get sent a…a sample of the merchandise!"

Her voice threatened to go again, and she dashed away a stray tear from her cheek angrily. This was no time to turn soft.

"Look," he said coldly. "I'm sorry, but I did what I did with the best intentions — I wanted to do what was right, and I thought what I was doing *was* right. And I really resent you suggesting I'm careless with your feelings; I *always* consider your feelings first, and you know that. So stop attacking me when you should be attacking the guy who did this to us. Okay?"

He threw himself moodily onto the opposite sofa and glared at her.

It was too much — she couldn't cope with all the emotions, *and* Clark being horrible to her. Tears began to roll down her cheeks in full flood.

"Oh, Lois…"

She felt him sit beside her and let herself be pulled sideways into his arms, sobbing miserably.

***

His fury had melted away at the sight of her breaking down into tears. Seeing her so upset always had that effect on him; he couldn't stand to see her cry, and often, as now, he found her tears dangerously infectious. He swallowed past the lump in his own throat, and held her gently while she sobbed into his shoulder.

Now that they weren't fighting, he was sure her attack had been mostly loose anger venting itself on the nearest available subject — him, and he should have known better than to let himself be drawn in to the argument. Under better circumstances he might have managed to keep his temper, he thought sadly, but not when he was as shocked and horrified as Lois was.

But why had Sayer sent them this tape? There had to be more to it than pure cruelty, so what did Sayer gain from it? Clark remembered the luggage locker key, and wondered where that fit into the set-up.

And if it was an extortion ploy, where was the demand for money?

Lois was beginning to quieten down. After a few stray sobs, she straightened up slowly and used the heel of her hand to clear her eyes.

"I don't like you lying to me, Clark," she said sadly. "You're the one person I know I can trust, and it really hurts when you break that trust."

She had touched a nerve; he remembered only too well how he had hated himself at the time for having to lie to her. But…"I'm sorry, but like I said, honey, I was only trying to do what I thought was best," he answered gently.

"I know, but what happened to sharing everything — the good and the bad?"

He didn't have an immediate answer for her; again, he remembered how he had reasoned with regret that some things were best left unshared in a marriage. Now that he was looking into her tear-stained face, he knew that he had been wrong.

"I made a mistake," he said quietly.

She gazed into his eyes for a moment, and he wasn't sure what she found there, except that she reached up briefly and stroked his cheek.

"I'm sorry, Clark. I shouldn't have lashed out at you like that, and I really don't know why I'm so teary. It was just such a shock…" her voice wobbled, and another stray sob shook her.

"I know, honey," replied Clark, soothing his hand up and down her back. "I was shocked, too."

"I'm still not happy that you didn't tell me about the bugs, but I know why you did it — like you said, you had the best intentions. But you have to stop trying to protect me, Clark. I mean, just look what happens when it backfires on you," she added with a tiny, shaky smile. "You get a soggy patch on your shirt."

"Lois…" He pulled her back into his arms again, touched by her gentle attempt at humour.

"What are we going to do, Clark?" she asked after a few moments.

He sighed. "Well, first I guess we figure out what he wants. Are you sure there wasn't a note in the envelope?"

She shook her head against his chest. "No, just the tape and the key."

"Do you mind if I take a look?" he asked.

"No."

He let go of her, stood up and walked back into the kitchen. She was right — there was nothing else in the envelope. He scanned the rest of the mail, and found an ordinary brown manila envelope also addressed to both of them; this had to be the demand. He started to open it, and then decided it was fairer to Lois if they opened it together.

"I found this," he said, sitting beside her on the sofa and showing her the envelope. "You want to open it, or shall I?"

"Go ahead."

There was a single sheet of white paper inside, which read:

+++++++++++

Five thousand dollars in unmarked bills. Midnight tonight. Metropolis Grand Central. Leave the money in the luggage locker. Non-payment will result in widespread distribution of the tape. Do you want the world to know that Clark Kent is Superman. Do you want your sex lives turned into entertainment? If the answer is no, make the payment.

NO POLICE. NO SURVEILLANCE. DO NOT MARK THE BILLS.

All of the above can be instantly detected and will result in immediate distribution of the tape.

+++++++++++

Lois snorted. "If you ask me, that's the ransom demand of a desperate man. Does he really expect us to believe he'd be able to tell if he's being watched, or if the money is marked?"

"And how do we know he hasn't sold the tape on anyway? He could have made thousands of copies already." added Clark.

"Clark, I didn't need to hear that right now!" Lois exclaimed.

"Sorry. But you see my point, don't you?"

"Unfortunately, yes. But like I said, this sounds desperate, so maybe he's not so sure of being able to sell the tape or distribute it, and that's why he's coming to us first. He wants to scare us into paying up."

"Yes, and you know something?" said Clark excitedly. "I don't think there's actually enough evidence on that tape to prove who we are or that I'm…you know who. Sure, you said my name, but it could be any Clark. And that bit where you say you found out about Superman…I don't think you actually used my name there, did you?"

Lois went quiet while she thought back. "No…no, definitely not. So, the only thing they've got is a woman with a man named Clark, and two anonymous people admitting that the man is Superman." She frowned. "I guess it wouldn't be hard to identify our voices, though."

"Yes, but the kind of people interested in this stuff aren't going to be interested in going through all that hassle. Okay, some of the gutter press might print it, but even they might think twice after what happened the last time they tried something like this. And the serious press certainly wouldn't touch it. They'd want a straightforward statement on the tape: Clark Kent is-"

He was silenced by Lois's fingers pressing on his lips.

He took her wrist lightly in his hand and lifted her fingers away. "Lois, there aren't any bugs in here now," he said gently.

"I know, but let's not get blasÚ."

He frowned. "Okay, but I don't want us to stop saying and doing what we like at home. This is the only place we can really be ourselves, except for the farm."

"Just give me some time, Clark. I thought I was safe before, and look what happened — I got sent a tape from a bug which was 'never there.'" She framed the last two words in finger quotes.

He sighed. "Okay, you have a point."

And something else was nagging at him. He'd shut the tape off when he couldn't stand to hear any more of it, but he knew they had to listen to the rest of it at some point, to be sure there wasn't anything more damning on it. He wasn't sure how he was going to cope with that.

"We should listen to the rest of the tape," pointed out Lois.

"I know," he answered tightly.

She laid a hand on his chest. "Clark, it's only us doing what comes naturally."

"Yeah. Naturally."

She paused. "Bad choice of words, huh?"

"Yes." He sighed. "But I shouldn't be so touchy about it. Come on, let's get this over with."

He fetched the tape from the kitchen, slotted it into their music system, and together they settled down to listen.

***

Some time later, a soft click heralded the end of the tape, breaking the silence which had descended in the room after the sounds had ceased and the tape had run on quietly to the end. Lois huddled in the shelter of Clark's arm, unwilling to lose the sense of security his solid frame gave her. He'd snaked his arm around her after the first few minutes of the tape's lewd content, when they'd both been staring miserably off into space and hating every second of it.

It was strange, thinking of their own lovemaking as lewd, but that was just what it was. At least, recorded without their knowledge or consent, it was. Lois felt violated. And disgusted.

Eventually, Clark broke the silence. "At least we didn't give any more clues as to who we were," he said in a dull voice.

"No."

"So as evidence, it's pretty minimal."

"Yes."

He fell silent again for a while, then sighed. "We should phone-"

"Let's not do anything," she interrupted. "Just hold me, Clark."

She felt him kiss the top of her head. "For as long as you want, love," he replied softly.

***

But in time, they had to face cold reality. Clark flew over to Henderson's office with the tape, note, and key, moving at superspeed so that his destination couldn't be detected by normal eyes. Sayer had stipulated no police involvement, and so they weren't taking any chances, even if the likelihood of being surveilled by him both at their home and at police headquarters was virtually nil.

Clark didn't play Henderson the tape, and Henderson didn't ask to hear it. It was enough for Clark to describe its contents; Henderson was immediately furious on Clark's behalf even though he dealt with the currency of pornographers on a regular basis. Clark showed him the note, and shortly afterwards, both men agreed that this was an excellent opportunity to catch the elusive Mr Sayer. No matter how many layers of transfer he put between the drop-off point and himself, as long as they continued to track the money, they would eventually find him.

Henderson also remarked on Sayer's state of mind; as Lois had said earlier, the guy must have been desperate to try such a risky method of extortion. Maybe funds were low, Henderson suggested. As the prime suspect in two murder investigations, along with his status as the only remaining member of the Purity group, perhaps Sayer was finding it hard to drum up business while still keeping a suitably low profile. After all, his core business was electronic snooping, and no-one would want a guy with the police on his tail running their discreet surveillance operation.

The size of the demand was interesting, too. Five thousand dollars was a lot of money, but not so much money that a professional couple such as Lois and Clark would have too many difficulties in finding the funds. So, suggested Henderson, Sayer wanted the demand to be attainable, and for it not to bankrupt them: he was very likely planning on coming back for more.

"All the more reason to catch him tonight," said Clark grimly.

"Yeah," agreed Henderson.

One question remained: who would supply the money?

Clark balked at using their own money; they could ill-afford to lose that kind of cash. Henderson admitted that the department had access to the necessary funds, but he'd have to provide a cast-iron promise that the money would be returned. He was willing to stick his neck out for Clark, of course, but he was uncertain as to whether the people holding the purse strings would be convinced. Would the Planet be willing to put up the cash?

Clark didn't like the thought of asking his employers for money to solve what was essentially his own personal problem, but on the other hand, the Planet, while not rich, could certainly afford the money. The sum equated to a couple of computers and a printer at most, and that didn't represent a very significant outlay for the company. And the publicity would undoubtedly be very welcome, if everything went well; to be able to boast that the paper had funded the operation which captured a double murderer and the last member of the Purity group would be a coup indeed.

In the end, Clark and Henderson decided that both would pursue funding at the same time, since they had a lot less than twenty-four hours to obtain the money. Whoever got the funds first would tell the other to cancel.

***

An hour later, Lois and Clark plunged straight into Perry's office, interrupting the meeting he was holding with the head of the sports section.

"We need to talk to you, Perry," announced Lois, stopping in the middle of the room with Clark.

Perry looked up slowly from the page mock-up he had been studying. "And I need to talk to you," he said coldly, "but as you can see, I'm busy right now." He turned to his sports editor. "Sorry, John; you were saying?"

"Well, if we put the main pic-"

"It's urgent," interrupted Clark.

Perry frowned at John. "Did you hear something? I could have sworn we were alone."

Clark came forward, picked up the page mock-up and handed it to a surprised John. Then he put his hands on the desk and leaned forward towards Perry. "Chief, you know us," he said intently. "We wouldn't interrupt you like this unless it mattered."

Perry regarded Clark stonily for a few seconds. "John," he said slowly, not taking his gaze from Clark's. "We'll continue this later."

Clark straightened up and waited tensely while John made his way silently from the room. After the door had closed quietly behind him, Perry said grimly, "This had better be good."

Lois came forward and joined Clark in front of Perry's desk. "We need five thousand dollars in cash by midnight tonight," she said.

Clark watched a flicker of surprise cross Perry's stony expression. "Why?"

"So that we can catch the last member of the Purity group, who also happens to be a double murderer," answered Lois flatly.

"And how does me giving you all that money make that happen?" asked Perry sarcastically. "Exactly? And why am I even bothering to listen to you after you waltz in here two hours late without an explanation? May I remind you that you were supposed to be at an editorial meeting this morning at 9am?"

Clark sighed and sank down in one of the chairs in front of Perry's desk; this hostile atmosphere wasn't going to get them anywhere. "Chief, I think we've all gotten off on the wrong foot here. I'm sorry we're late, and that we missed the meeting, but the fact is, we're just about at the end of our tethers, and we really need your help."

"Go on," said Perry.

"This morning, Lois and I found out that Sayer is trying to extort money from someone. He sent this person…people…some information which he's threatening to make public unless they pay him five thousand dollars in cash tonight. They've got to leave the money in a luggage locker at Metropolis Grand Central at midnight tonight, or else he publishes." Clark grimaced. "Needless to say, these people don't want the information made public."

Clark paused and glanced at Lois to see if she agreed with his version of the story so far. She nodded slightly, and he continued.

"Now, we — and the police — think this is a great opportunity to catch the guy. He's obviously desperate if he's going for something as risky as this, so his guard will most likely be down. They think there's an excellent chance that we'll be able to get him."

"And if they think it's a done deal, why aren't they putting up the money?" asked Perry sceptically.

"Inspector Henderson is asking for the money right now," answered Lois. "But we thought we'd give the Planet the chance for some cheap publicity and a great story."

Perry raised an eyebrow. "That's mighty generous of you," he said dryly.

"Chief, just think of the headlines!" enthused Lois. "Planet Helps Capture Double Murderer! Planet Puts Purity Person in Prison!"

"Too many 'p's, Lois. We are not the Star."

"But what do you think, Chief?" asked Clark seriously. "Would the Planet be able to put up the money? And in time?"

Perry sighed. "I don't know, Clark. It's not a huge amount of money, but the Planet doesn't have very deep pockets, and I'd have to convince the bean counters that we were sure of increased sales as a result. I'm not sure I can give them that guarantee."

"Do these same bean counters look at the huge expense accounts certain people run up, and ask for guaranteed increased sales?" asked Lois pointedly. "What about our esteemed leader's recent trip to London in Concorde? How many more newspapers did that sell?"

"I hear you, Lois," answered Perry heavily, "but I can't play that game. Down on the shop floor we have to account for every pen and pencil. You know that."

"So tell them it's an order for five year's supply of stationery!" retorted Lois.

"Hey!" said Perry sternly, pointing a finger at her. "Watch it. You want me on your side, don't you?"

"Sorry, Perry," interceded Clark. "Like I said, we're a little frayed at the edges today."

"Yes, you said," answered Perry thoughtfully. "These people Sayer is extorting money from — it wouldn't happen to be anyone we know, would it?"

He stared straight at Clark.

Clark met his gaze steadily for a few moments before replying. "Yes."

"I see."

Clark heard Lois draw breath so say something, and grabbed her hand to shut her up with a gentle squeeze. He looked back at Perry. "Well?"

"I hope this secret is worth keeping, whatever it is," answered Perry inscrutably. "Now, get out of here while I make some phone calls."

Clark stood up. "Thanks, Chief!"

"Thank me when — if — I hand you the money," he answered gruffly.

"We will!" replied Clark.

***

And so it was that much later that day, Clark hovered high above the cloud-base, watching the locker where they'd deposited the Planet's money fifteen minutes earlier. So far, the area was deserted except for a tiny mouse scratching around in one corner of the luggage locker room.

He and Lois had taken the money there together, Clark carrying the holdall in one hand and clasping Lois's hand firmly in the other. He would have preferred to have been there alone, but Lois had pointed out that after three kryptonite attacks from members of the Purity group, perhaps he wasn't so invulnerable as he liked to think he was. What if the locker itself held a lump of kryptonite?

She had had a point.

So they had gone together, with as many of Henderson's men planted discreetly in plainclothes as was decently possible.

It was a freezing night, and their breath had created clouds of vapour even inside the draughty station. There had only been a few people around, mostly singles huddled inside layers of thick dark clothing and looking depressed because they were stuck waiting for a train in the middle of the night. The stark neon lighting made their faces look pale and sullen, and Clark had tried not to catch their eye as he noted their height and build and compared it against his mental image of Nigel Sayer.

The luggage room had been empty, and they had quickly located the correct locker, unlocked it, and stuffed the holdall inside.

Then they had hurried back to the Jeep, and Lois had driven them to the agreed rendezvous with Henderson.

Clark had leaned across and kissed her. "Promise me you'll be careful," he had said.

"You're the one taking an active role in this thing, not me," she had retorted softly. "Be careful yourself."

"I will if you will."

She had kissed him back. "Deal."

They both got out, and he had walked her over to Henderson's anonymous-looking car. "Good luck," he had said through the window to Henderson.

"Got your radio?" asked Henderson in reply.

Clark had patted his jacket pocket. "Right here."

And so here he was, watching and waiting for something other than a mouse to stir in the luggage room. The plan was that he would track the money wherever it went, keeping Henderson and his men on the ground informed and in touch, until they located Sayer. At that point, Clark would help Henderson's men close in and finally, Sayer would be arrested.

Assuming, of course, that Sayer hadn't arranged for the money to be stashed somewhere temporary for a few days before he collected it. If that happened, Henderson's men would have to mount a surveillance operation until the money moved again.

Clark hoped that didn't happen. Tonight felt like a turning point; the point at which he could finally close this nightmarish chapter of his life and move on into a time of healing and happiness.

***

At half-past midnight, one of the dark, single figures huddled on a metal bench in the station concourse stood up slowly. Clark watched and waited. The figure shambled across the concourse, past the restrooms, past the ticket machines, past the vending machines, and soon it became clear the he or she was heading for the luggage lockers.

Clark quickly scanned as much as he could see of the person. It was difficult because he was looking down at such an acute angle, but he could see enough to know that it wasn't Sayer.

The woman unlocked the locker and pulled out the holdall. Clark began a running commentary on his radio, describing everything she did. She unzipped the bag, glanced at its contents quickly, closed it up again, and carried it back to her bench, where she sat down again.

Nothing happened for fifteen minutes.

Then she looked at the station clock, stood up again with the bag, and began moving towards one of the platforms. When he saw her glance at the indicator board, the penny dropped.

"I think she's getting on a train," warned Clark, kicking himself for not having considered this scenario. Henderson and his men were going to have difficulty keeping up with a fast-moving train which travelled along more direct routes than the roads they would have to follow on.

"Stay with her," replied Henderson tersely.

Sure enough, ten minutes later, a train drew up and the woman boarded, dumping the bag in an overhead basket before taking her seat in a surprisingly busy carriage.

Clark watched to see if anyone else boarded. A small group of people got off, and two more people got on, but none fitted Sayer's description.

The train moved off.

"Is he on the train?" asked Henderson.

Clark did a careful scan from one end to the other. "No. When's the next stop?"

"Hang on," replied Henderson. There was a pause. "Pelham Street Station — and that's the last stop before Philadelphia, four hours from here."

"What do you want to do?"

"We'll never make it to Pelham in time — can you get us there?"

"Okay." There was the possibility, of course, that the woman would simply throw the bag out of the window while the train was moving. Clark might miss that if he left to move Henderson's car, but he decided that he'd soon know if that had happened when he returned to the train and found the bag missing. He could then simply locate the bag and await developments.

A minute later, Henderson's car was waiting at Pelham Street station, a couple of other squad cars were on their way, and Clark was back tracking the train.

From his position up in the clouds, he could see the station just a little further up the track from the train. It wasn't much more than a halt; a platform either side of the track, a small structure on one side housing ticket booths and a newsstand, and a small parking lot where Henderson's car was waiting. A road ran alongside the tracks.

As far as he could see, the station was deserted.

The train drew slowly into the small station, a long, snaking line which only just fit the length of platform available. Clark's eyes darted between the woman on the train, and the environs of the station, waiting for something to move.

Suddenly, she was shifting in her seat. "She's moving," he announced urgently.

"What about the bag?" asked Henderson quickly.

"It's still in the basket. She's… " Clark paused, waiting to get a clear sense of what she was doing. "…taking her coat off and sitting down again. Sorry."

"Thanks, Superman." Even over the radio, Clark could hear Henderson's sarcasm. "Lois here nearly had kittens."

Clark heard a muffled, "Did not!"

Clark smiled. "Tell her Clark might be surprised if she produced kittens."

"The train's moving again," pointed out Henderson. "Didn't anyone get on?"

"Not a soul…hold on, someone's walking down the train towards her." Clark hadn't noticed anyone stand up, but there were too many people on the train to watch all of them all the time.

"Anyone we know?" asked Henderson.

Clark examined this new person carefully. "It's…Sayer! It's him!"

"Are you sure?"

"Yes! It's Sayer — we've got him! He just sat down opposite the woman."

"Where did he come from?" demanded Henderson.

"I have no idea. Unless…" Clark tracked back up the train in the direction Sayer had come from, with a sinking feeling in his stomach. "The restroom. The women's restroom — he was probably hiding there even before the train arrived at Grand Central."

There was a pregnant silence at the end of the radio.

Well, he'd accidentally checked the first women's restroom and seen something he'd have preferred not to, so he'd avoided them after that. What else was a guy to do?

"Okay," said Henderson briskly. "Superman — you stop the train. We'll be there by the time you've got it at a standstill."

"Okay."

Clark swooped down to the front of the train, hoping the driver wouldn't have a heart attack when he saw what was happening, and proceeded to force the train to stop. With so many passengers on board, he couldn't afford to make the stop too sudden, so there were quite a few minutes of loud and painful squealing of metal against tortured metal before the train finally ground to a complete halt.

In the sudden silence, he could hear Henderson's car engine over the radio as the inspector drove at full tilt along the road which ran alongside the tracks.

He flew along the side of the train, checking as he went that no-one had been injured as a result of his drastic move. There were a few spilt cups of coffee, and a lot of startled faces, but that was all. When he reached Sayer's carriage, he sped inside and straight up to his seat.

His empty seat.

"Where is he?" Clark demanded.

"Who?" asked the nearest man.

"The guy who was sitting here."

"I think he got out…" Clark whirled around, scanning the area, and then over the radio he suddenly heard the blood-curdling sound of Lois's scream.

His heart in his mouth, he threw himself out of the train and towards the direction of her voice.

Henderson's car was hurtling down the road towards him. He saw the blur of Lois's pale, shocked face staring through the windscreen, and then his mind processed the other half of the image — a dark body bouncing off the front of the car. It was thrown high into the air, and then landed somewhere in the darkness beyond.

Clark shot off in the direction the body had taken, and found it lying face down in a crumpled heap by the side of the road. Bending down, he turned it over gingerly, and was confronted with the bloodied and very dead face of his enemy, Nigel Sayer.

He felt for a pulse, nevertheless, but there was none: the last remaining member of the Purity group was dead.

For a moment, he was morbidly fascinated by the body in front of him. This single human being, now so lifeless and broken, had conspired to turn his life into a living hell. There didn't seem to be enough of him, this Nigel Sayer, to have wreaked such havoc in such a short space of time — he should have been bigger; more imposing than the small, twisted form which lay on the ground seeping blood into the darkness.

"Is he dead?"

Clark straightened, and found Lois standing behind him, looking at the body out of the corner of her eye.

"Yes."

"Good," she said tightly.

"Are you all right?" he asked her.

She nodded jerkily. "I will be."

He glanced at Henderson. "How about you, Inspector?"

"Me? I'm fine." He paused. "I couldn't stop, you know. He came right at me."

"I guess he wasn't in his right mind at the time," observed Clark.

"No."

Clark watched his friend gaze silently at the body, and wondered what was going through his mind. How did it feel to have effectively run someone down? Even if that person was a criminal, the sensation of slamming into another human being at speed can't have been pleasant. It was still a life taken.

But Clark knew that Henderson would never admit to anything other than dispassion. It was the mainstay of any policeman's coping mechanism.

"Inspector, do you need me to stick around?" Clark asked at last.

"No, you go ahead and take Lois home — I mean, take her back to her husband."

Clark nodded. "Lois?" He invited Lois into his arms.

"Thanks, Superman," replied Lois, settling in willingly.

He hovered upwards, then stopped suddenly. "The money. I should find Perry's money."

"I guess you should," said Lois. "Hope the bag is still in one piece."

He scanned the area, and found the bag in a ditch a few yards away from Sayer's body. A quick nod from Henderson indicated that it was all right to remove it, and Clark took off again, heading for home.

"That was some scream," he remarked to Lois lightly. "I thought my eardrums were going to burst."

"Hey, when I decide to scream, I scream," replied Lois. "No half-hearted whimpers from this reporter."

"You can say that again!"

"No half-hearted whimpers from this reporter."

"What?"

"I'm saying it again."

He smiled softly into the darkness. "Are we okay, do you think?"

She went quiet for a moment. "I think so. Or at least, we will be. I guess we both had some complicated feelings when we saw him dead."

"Yeah."

"I mean, I wanted him dead in a kind of theoretical kind of a way, but then when he actually died…the way he died…" she trailed off uncertainly.

"I know what you mean," he agreed.

He felt her shake her head. "I'm not sure you do."

"How so?"

"Clark, I'm not sure that he couldn't have stopped if he'd really wanted to."

"Sayer?"

"Henderson."

Clark flew along in silence for a while. "I know," he said at last. "I wondered the same thing."

"But you don't know for certain either way, do you?"

"No — I didn't see enough of it. But it was a very straight road, and Henderson had his headlights on full beam. He must have seen Sayer running at him."

"And in the car, there was this split second when I expected him to brake, and he didn't. Of course, about a nano-second later, he was braking, so like you, I'm not sure."

"I guess we'll never know."

"No, and actually, I don't want to know."

"Me either, but I wouldn't like to have that on my conscience." He paused, then added, "If I did it."

"Well, maybe next time you see him, you could find a way of letting him tell you if he needs to."

"I'll give it a try."

"You're good at subtle."

"Yeah, unlike Ms Ear-drum Splitter of New Troy," Clark said with a wink in his voice.

"WHO, ME?!" yelled Lois loudly.

"Lois!" protested Clark.

"You know, that felt really good. I should raise my voice more often."

"In a sound-proofed room," Clark muttered under his breath.

***

Lois heard his sotto voce comment, but let it slide. She wasn't really in the mood for banter even though she'd given it her best shot. Sayer's death kept replaying in her head — the dark figure running into the car's headlights, Henderson's single expletive, and then that terrible moment of inevitability when she could see exactly what was about to happen but had no power to stop it. It was true, what all the books said — time really did stand still at moments like that. She seemed to have had time to take in the tiniest detail, like the flapping lace on one of running figure's shoes, or the dangling earrings on a woman who shoved her head out of the train window, or the frond of grass which brushed the side of the car as it sped alongside the train. All that time, but there was no time to stop the inevitable.

The sickening thud of soft flesh hitting solid metal.

The car slewing to one side under the impact.

The body flying past the window.

The sudden stillness and shock when the car finally came to a standstill.

Oh, she'd get over it soon. She'd been through much worse than this, and once she'd had a good night's sleep, she'd be fine.

She had to be.

And the main thing was that Sayer was dead. No-one was left from the Purity group, and that meant that Clark could begin to heal.

She renewed her grip on his shoulders with that thought and huddled into the protecting warmth of his body, grateful for the simple comfort of his nearness.

***

03:27

Clark cocked an eye open, took in the red numbers on their bedside alarm clock, and let his eyelid fall shut again. In the restless darkness, he debated whether to continue kidding himself that he was going to fall asleep, or whether to give up the pretence and get up. He'd been playing this game for the best part of two hours already, and it was beginning to look as if sleep was not going to happen until he dealt with the reason for his restlessness.

There was unfinished business downstairs, and while it could easily wait until morning, it was boring a hole in his conscience.

Sighing softly, he crept out of bed and padded downstairs to the living room. Over at the bureau, he fished a small key out of the top drawer and unlocked a compartment at the left hand side.

The tape was still there. Well, of course it was; he'd put it in there only this morning after he'd returned from Henderson's office. He should have destroyed it immediately, but his investigative sixth sense had stopped him, warning him that until Sayer was apprehended and brought to justice, any incriminating evidence against him should be preserved.

But now Sayer was dead, and anyway, it had been a stupid move, since there was no way Clark would have let anyone listen to the tape — that was why he hadn't let Henderson keep it, after all.

He looked down at the tape in his hand, thinking about its contents, and what they represented. Strangely, considering how it had been obtained, and how appalled they'd been while listening to it, the tape now seemed to embody something quite different to the object of disgust and anger it had been this morning; it seemed to represent his missing love life. Many moments of joyous rapture were captured on this tape, from a time when he had no problem at all in sharing his body with Lois's. They had soared together, bodies joined in careless abandon. In fact, he had enjoyed a healthy, loving, sexual relationship with Lois for two years without a care in the world — so what had changed? His body was still the same as it had been then.

The only difference, of course, was in his head. His mind put up barriers; artificial barriers which didn't really exist. He and Lois could lie, bare skin touching bare skin, lips touching lips, yet there was still an imaginary screen between them which stopped them really touching each other.

So perhaps it was the late hour, or the knowledge that the people responsible for its existence were no longer a threat, but he didn't feel disgust any more when he regarded the tape, just regret.

But they made no sense, these barriers he erected. Again, he reflected that he was still the same man as the man on this tape. If the man on the tape could make love with such ease and obvious enjoyment, then so could he.

The barriers would just have to come down.

With that thought, he aimed a laser beam at the tape, and destroyed every last atom of its structure.

***

There were loose ends to tie up in the aftermath of Sayer's death. Perry was relieved to have his money back, although he covered up his relief with a gruff demand for the biggest darned front-page lead his senior reporting team could come up with. Lois and Clark complied readily, happy to write the story of their adversary's death and the mistakes he had made which led to his downfall. They kept themselves largely out of the story, although Superman received the recognition Lois insisted he deserved, much to Clark's private embarrassment.

To their surprise, Ann Campbell's husband, Phil, came into the Planet one day with his baby son and thanked them for helping find his wife's murderer. He seemed to have found a degree of inner peace which gave them hope for the bereaved father and his son, although he still became emotional when he confessed how satisfied he had felt when he had learnt of Sayer's death. Both Clark and Lois could empathise with that emotion; they had experienced the grim satisfaction and accompanying guilt when writing the articles and sidebars which made up the extensive coverage the Planet had given the story. But whereas they had each other to talk it through, Phil did not, and his recent loss made him shaky whenever he wanted to express emotions. Lois ended up having to take charge of little Alexander while Clark took Phil off for a cup of coffee and a chance to recompose himself.

Of course, she didn't fail to notice the soft, hopeful smile Clark gave her when he came back a few minutes later to find her cuddling Alexander in her arms. The hope in his eyes reminded her that Dr Klein's results were still pending; that in a few day's time, they would know for certain whether there was any chance left for them to have their own kids together. She still had mixed feelings about the timing of the news, but there was no mistaking Clark's longing for children, which just seemed to grow stronger and stronger with each passing day. She had thought that his resolve might weaken now that the sting of the Purity group's attitude towards him was lessening, but she was either wrong, or he was still being spurred on by the knowledge that a group of people had wanted to prevent him reproducing at all costs. Whatever the reason, his look on seeing her with a baby in her arms told her that Dr Klein's results were still very important to him.

Not that her own maternal instincts weren't aroused by holding the soft, cuddly bundle of life in her arms, and she found herself admitting as much to Clark that night in bed. His response was to bathe her in soft kisses and caresses, and run his hand over her stomach as if he was imagining the swell of their child beneath his fingers. She didn't try to bring him back to reality; to the very low probability that they would ever be able to have children together, because something very special began to happen.

They made love. For the very first time since their abject disaster on the kitchen floor, Clark was able to join them and make them whole again.

She didn't dwell on the coincidence of events; their lovemaking was still so hesitant and unsure that she didn't mind if his motivation came from wanting to make a baby with her, or from simply wanting to recapture the joyous physical love they used to share. She suspected it was a complicated mixture of the two anyway.

It wasn't earth-shattering sex, either. For one thing, they used a condom, as they'd agreed they would the first few times, and for another, Clark was so excited that their joining was very brief. She wasn't surprised, because she'd half-expected it would happen that way the first time. He'd been denying his body the release it needed for a long time, and so it was only natural that after such a protracted wait, his climax would come quickly and without finesse.

What she had been completely unprepared for was his emotional release. One moment, he'd been panting hotly in her ear, and the next he was unnaturally still in her arms. She'd wondered what had been going through his head, but when a single sob shook his large frame, she'd whispered a surprised, "Hey," and lifted his head off her shoulder to find his eyes bright with moisture.

"What is it?" she'd asked gently, wiping away a stray tear from the corner of his eye with her thumb.

The bright eyes had gazed emotionally down at her. "I…" he had started, but the words hadn't come, and when his face began to crumple, she had drawn him back down into her shoulder where he had wept quietly for a few minutes.

She'd never seen him in tears before, and she had found it hard not to cry with him. "It's all right, you know," she had reassured him shakily, a little alarmed at his reaction. "I'm flattered you wanted me so much."

But he had shaken his head with a choked, "It's not that."

She had searched for another reason, growing worried for her unusually emotional husband, and then suddenly, she understood.

All the intense emotions he'd been bottling up for weeks had come bubbling up to the surface in that one moment of release, and now that there was no need to suppress them any more; now that the cause of his misery had been dealt with, he hadn't been able to hold on any longer. This flood was the culmination of weeks of mostly silent suffering.

There was also relief in his tears. Even though they'd used a condom; even though their joining had been brief, their lovemaking had been slow, generous and unforced; a completely different experience to the empty sex they'd managed all those days ago on a cold kitchen floor.

So she had understood his tears. She had even cried with him, because his emotion was hers when they were this close.

***

There was emotion of a different kind when Henderson contacted them a few weeks later. Clark took the call at work, and immediately lost some of his natural sparkle. When questioned, he explained grimly, "Bill found some more tapes."

They drove around to Henderson's office, where he showed them a pile of cheap cassette tapes.

"I found these in Sayer's apartment, and there were also a couple in the murdered woman's apartment," he told them.

"So no-one else in your department knows about them?" asked Clark immediately.

"Well, they know I found tapes, but not what's on them."

"How do *you* know what's on them?" asked Lois, extremely uncomfortable with the idea of Henderson listening to their lovemaking.

"They're labelled."

"Oh." Lois reached out for one. "May I?"

"Go ahead," replied Henderson. "They're not evidence."

She picked one up and looked at it with Clark. The small label gave the name of a room, such as 'Kent bedroom', and a date. Relieved at the fairly innocuous labelling, she dumped the tape back on the pile. "What happens to them now?"

"Up to you," said Henderson. "I know what I'd want to do with them."

"Clark?"

Clark stepped up to the pile of tapes, tipped his glasses down his nose, and stared at them intently. Smoke began to rise, and soon, there was just a melted mess of plastic on Henderson's desk. Clark picked up a trashcan and swept the remains into it with his hand.

Henderson raised his eyebrows. "Nice trick."

"You should see him with a side of beef," answered Lois. "Medium rare in 5 seconds flat."

Clark shoved his glasses back up his nose. "She thinks I'm a domestic appliance."

"Honey, you're every single domestic appliance known to mankind all wrapped up in one convenient package," said Lois, curling her arm proprietarily around his waist.

"See what I mean," said Clark to Henderson.

Henderson smiled. "I guess you do come in handy around the house."

"Bill, do you think that's it for these tapes?" asked Lois.

"We didn't find any evidence of mass copying facilities at either place, so I guess so."

"Well, that's a relief."

"Yes, thanks, Bill," added Clark.

"Just remember what I told you," reminded Lois sternly. "The next time you two try and hide something like this from me, Mad Dog Lane comes out of retirement. You got that?"

Clark glanced at Henderson. "What do you think, Bill? Do we say yes?"

Henderson looked at Lois, and she narrowed her eyes at him. "Don't even think of saying no," she threatened.

"I think we say yes," answered Henderson slowly. "She's got that look."

"The one that says don't mess with Mad Dog Lane?" asked Clark.

"Yup. That one."

"Okay." Clark looked at Lois. "We're saying yes."

"Good choice. Now fly me back to the Planet so I can get some real work done."

"Yes, Lois. Whatever you say, Lois."

Lois glanced back to Henderson as they walked out of his office. "He has no respect for me whatsoever, you know," she protested to him.

"I think he has as much respect for you as you have for him," he answered enigmatically.

And then she allowed herself to be tugged out into the corridor.

***

Time passed.

Life slipped slowly back into its old routine, and the passing days and weeks smoothed the edges of sharp, painful memories. One of those days, a meeting took place between an earnest scientist, and an anxious would-be father, and the longed-for answer was finally given.

Maybe.

Not yes, not no, but maybe.

It wasn't the answer the anxious would-be father had hoped for, but it was a lot more than he feared he might have been granted. As such, he could hardly contain his excitement as he forced himself to listen carefully to everything the scientist told him.

And as he listened, his excitement faded. For the 'maybe' included an incredibly onerous commitment from his wife, who would have to bear the brunt of a series of invasive and unpleasant treatments. He didn't want his wife to suffer in the name of his selfish need for children; even though they had made the decision together, his conscience knew that he was the one who had raised the issue of children in the first place.

However, his conscience also knew that he had to let his wife choose the difficult treatment if that was what she wanted, so it was with confused emotions that he took the news back home.

***

"IVF?" said Lois.

"Yes, and he's not even sure whether it would work or not. It's all theory, for obvious reasons." Clark sighed, pulling Lois over into the cradle of his shoulder. "You know what it would mean for you, don't you?"

"Yeah, lots of injections and undignified procedures. And we'd have to find a gynaecologist we could trust, because I really do not want Dr Klein interfering with my… bits."

Clark smiled. "I don't think he'd want to interfere with your bits either."

"So that's two more people we'd have to tell, and then, assuming I actually got pregnant, we might have to tell some people at the hospital where I gave birth."

"But that's not what's important here, honey," said Clark. "What's important is that we'd be taking risks with your health, and I'm really not sure I want that."

Lois sighed heavily. "Clark, you must have known from the start that this was a possibility. Ours was never going to be a straightforward conception."

"I know, but I guess I was kidding myself. Now that Dr Klein has put it into black and white, I can't hide from it any more." He paused, knowing there was something else which had been bothering him for some time. "There's another thing," he said.

"What?"

But framing the words was difficult, especially when the memory was still a painful one — despite the healing he'd done over the past few weeks. Lois twisted in his arm and looked up at him.

"What, honey?" she repeated.

"The whole Purity thing…their agenda…wanting to stop me having kids because I'm alien…" He halted, disliking the sound of the words.

She reached up and stroked his face. "It still hurts, doesn't it?"

"Yeah. But not as much as it used to, and that's what I'm trying to say. I think I lost my perspective for a while — the more hurt I got about it, the more I wanted to prove that I had as much right as the next guy to have children. I got a little obsessed, I think."

"And now?" she prompted.

"Now I still want a child with you so much it hurts," he said intensely. "But I don't know how much of that is still the Purity group's legacy, and how much is really me." He shook his head in disgust. "I'm a lost cause, aren't I?"

She shook her head. "Not at all. You're just beginning to see what I've been trying to tell you for weeks."

"Which is?"

"It's too soon, Clark. You need more time to recover; everything you've just said makes that clear. You need to know that when I'm cranky as hell at two in the morning, that you made the right choice for the right reasons. That *we* made the right choice."

"So you think we should wait?" he said, with a surprising sense of relief. As soon as the idea had formed itself in his head, it had felt right, as if it was a decision he'd been wanting to make for some time.

"Yes. It's not like we're on a stop-watch here — I'm not over the hill, yet, you know," she said with a wink.

"How long? Six months? A year?"

"Let's give it six months, and then we'll make a decision."

"I guess Dr Klein can put his research on ice until then. I just hope he doesn't mind us putting the brakes on, after I practically bullied him into speeding up his work as much as possible," said Clark ruefully.

"He'll understand. Just tell him your partner said she needed a little more time before taking such a big step."

He reached up and twined a finger round a lock of her hair. "That's true, isn't it?" he said softly, finding that he was beginning to see her point of view with a new clarity. "You need time just as much as I do."

"Yes." She paused. "So — no more baby talk for six months?"

Clark smiled. "Consider it a banned subject."

But she shook her head seriously. "No, Clark. You just admitted you wanted a kid with me so much it hurts, and I don't think it's going to do either of us any good to try and brush those feelings under the carpet. So we don't ban it, we just don't try to come to any decisions about it. Okay?"

"Makes sense." He fiddled with the strands of hair in his fingers thoughtfully. "Did I ever tell you how much I love you?"

"Oh, now and then," she said with a smile. "But it doesn't hurt to say it again."

"I love you, Lois."

"And I lo—"

But he smothered the end of her sentence with a kiss which held in it everything he wanted to tell her, but didn't have the words for; his gratitude, his respect, his happiness, but most of all, his eternal love for her.

THE END