A Question of Trust

By Raconteur (raconteur27@yahoo.com)

Rated: PG-13

Submitted: July 2001

Summary: Months after Lois's disastrous almost-marriage to Luthor, her friendship with Clark is still in jeopardy. Can she learn to trust him again? They're forced to confront each other and their problems when they have to go undercover to protect Superman from an infamous rogue government agency.

This story takes place between seasons one and two. I wrote this because I felt that in the show, everything went back to normal far too smoothly after 'House of Luthor.' This story is an examination of what might have happened if all the pieces hadn't been put back together quite as neatly in the interim between the end of the first season and the beginning of the second. I admit that part of this story was inspired by the X Files episode 'Detour.' Usual disclaimers apply. Thanks to my beta readers, Marnie and Anita and to all the readers on Zoom's board, who encouraged me to finish this. Any and all comments welcome.

***

"My life is an open book, Lois."

"Go ahead, get in bed with the devil."

"Unless it's lined with lead, don't bother."

"Lex Luthor, you're under arrest."

"I lied, I'm not in love with you…"

"My life is an open book."

"an open book."

"…an open book."

"The devil, Lois."

"Get in bed with the devil…"

"…an open book."

"I'm not in love with you."

"Lined with lead."

"I'm not in love with you."

"…don't bother."

"I'm not in love with you."

"I'm not in love with you!"

"I'M NOT IN LOVE WITH YOU!"

"AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHH! Make it stop!" It took a moment for it to register that the sound that had awoken her was her own screaming. She shuddered as she exhaled. A thin film of perspiration clung to her skin and her heart beat wildly in her breast. She sniffed as a single tear rolled down her cheek. She brushed it away but it was soon replaced by another and another. She rubbed at her bleary eyes as she tried to choke back the sob. Her lip quivered and her thin frame shook as she wept silently. She curled up in a tight ball and continued to cry. She cried until there were no tears left to cry, until her body was too tired to exert the effort that crying required. Until she was numb everywhere.

***

"Clark, honey, supper's ready."

He put down the wrench and wiped the grease off his hands with an old rag. The transmission would have to wait until later. He trotted out of the barn and toward the house.

"Hurry up, Clark, your food will get…"

Clark blitzed past his mother in a blur and returned a few seconds later, scrubbed clean.

"…cold." Martha shook her head as she sat down next to the two men in her life as they began to eat dinner.

"What were you working on out in the barn?" Jonathan asked, breaking the long silence.

Clark quickly chewed and swallowed his bite of pot roast. "The transmission on the old tractor."

"I thought you fixed that last week," Jonathan replied noncommittally.

"It wasn't shifting right," Clark mumbled. "The gears were sticking between second and third."

"Oh," his father replied. They continued to eat quietly.

"How's Lois doing, Clark?" Martha asked, broaching a topic that Clark had been studiously avoiding for a while now.

"I haven't heard from her in a while."

"She's been through a lot, honey. She could use a friend."

"But she doesn't want that friend to be me, Mom. I thought things could go back to normal, but all we did was fight."

"Well, you're going to have to deal with it, the Planet reopens next week."

"We'll be able to work together, Mom. Lois and I are professionals. I just don't know if we'll ever be able to be friends again," he said with quiet, pained resignation. He cleared the dishes and brought the pie out of the oven where it had been warming. He took each of his parents' plates and set a slice of his mother's famous pecan pie on it. He took his own piece and picked at it with his fork. He swallowed the last of his buttermilk but it didn't make him feel any better. What had changed since that time in his life when a slice of Mom's pie and a glass of buttermilk could solve everything? What was different? Why was it that this new, Lois-shaped hole in his soul couldn't be healed like any of the other wounds of life? Why didn't the pain lessen with time?

'Count your blessings, man,' he reminded himself glumly. 'She's not married to Luthor, is she?' The 'it could always be worse' outlook was doing nothing to make him feel better. On the contrary, it was making him feel worse. It reminded him of that lonely, painful night when he'd watched her accept that monster's proposal. That night he spent wrapped up in his cape, shouting and crying in the Arctic Circle where no one would hear him or see him, or watch as his heart broke. He'd cried that night for the first time in years.

He felt like his heart had been ripped out of his chest. He could feel the pain of the gaping wound, of the total emptiness, the loneliness and the rejection, and the knowledge that the woman he loved more than anything in the world couldn't love him, could never love him. She'd pledged herself to his only enemy, to the most evil man he'd ever known. How could she be so blind? How could she love Luthor, or his alter ego, for that matter? How could she not see how much *he* loved her? How good they'd be together? He'd thought about Luthor telling her that he loved her, holding her in his arms, smiling that evil, possessive smile of his. It was like being kicked in the stomach. He was helpless, on his knees, gasping for air. He felt sick and cold inside. He'd wanted to die.

Afterward, he'd been so relieved that the wedding had been stopped, that she hadn't married Luthor, that she had found out before it was too late that the man she was going to marry was a demonic criminal. She'd been humiliated, and he ached for her, but he wasn't sorry that the marriage had been prevented. If nothing else, Lois had been protected from the pain and danger that no doubt would have come from a marriage to that heartless pit viper. He would have died to protect her from that.

That she was safe should have been enough for him. 'But she isn't happy,' he reminded himself. She still cried at night, which he knew because his nightly patrols usually began and ended with a stop over her apartment. To make matters worse, even if that seemed impossible, she wanted nothing to do with Superman or Clark. 'Lois, why couldn't you talk to me? Why couldn't you let me be there for you?' he wondered, not for the first time. Her cool and distant attitude toward him was like another vicious twist of the blade buried deep in his side.

He sighed heavily. "Excuse me," he said quietly as he started to clear his plate.

***

As Clark flew off for Metropolis, Jonathan placed his arm around his wife and they watched him disappear into the night's sky. "It's about time he went back," Martha said.

"You know he's been breaking things around here just to have something to fix?" Jonathan asked.

Martha nodded knowingly.

"You think he'll patch things up with Lois?"

"I hope so," she said. "He isn't happy without her in his life." She shook her head sadly. These last few months had been so difficult for both of them, especially Lois. That she wouldn't look to Clark for support was tearing her boy up. But it was their battle; they would have to figure it out themselves.

***

He stepped off the elevator and into the newly remodeled bullpen of the Daily Planet City Room. He walked down the ramp with long strides, toward the new desk with a new computer, and new chair, bearing a gleaming nameplate with his name on it.

"So, uh, where've you been?"

His head snapped up at the sound of her voice. Had he been gone from Metropolis so long that he'd forgotten the sound of her heartbeat? So long that he could no longer sense her in a crowd? He turned around, and inhaled sharply. She was even more beautiful than he remembered. More beautiful than she was in the dreams he had on those long, lonely nights since he'd left.

He remembered their last fight. It had been stupid and insignificant and trivial. And he'd seen the hurt in her eyes and he'd known that he'd put it there. That was it. He had to leave. He couldn't stay and keep hurting her. They just needed time apart, that was all. She needed to heal and she obviously couldn't do that with him around. 'Say something, idiot!' his mind yelled at him. "Hi, Lois," was all he managed to stammer out.

"So?" she asked impatiently.

"Huh?" He gave her a puzzled look. Oh, right, where he'd been. "Still in Kansas, I just got back late last night."

"How are your parents?"

"Oh, they're fine," he replied lamely. "So, how have you been?"

"Fine," she replied crisply. "Just fine."

He'd always thought she was a better liar than that. Maybe she was just too tired, or maybe she didn't care that he knew she was lying.

"Perry wants us to cover the mayor's press conference. He's apparently going to deny the allegation that he's been hitting on his staffers. Get your stuff, let's go." Without waiting for him, she turned and headed toward the elevators. He sighed and jogged after her. He missed his best friend.

***

The fluorescent office lights hummed overhead— the only sound in an otherwise quiet newsroom. With a quick flick of her wrist she sliced through the top of the envelope with the letter opener. She pulled out the papers and gave them a cursory glance. She scanned the pages before dropping them onto a pile of papers on her desk. She picked up a thick manila folder next, most likely the research she'd asked for regarding the allegations against the mayor. It was early in the day, very few people were in yet, and Jimmy certainly wasn't, which meant that he'd compiled this last night. She was surprised at how efficient he'd been lately. Well, perhaps losing his job twice only a few months ago had been the impetus for this work- related enthusiasm.

"Ms. Lane?" she looked up at the sound of her name being spoken. A young man with a neat hair cut and altogether fastidious appearance stood in front of her, his back ramrod straight, his expression serious.

"Yes?" she responded cautiously. "What can I do for you?"

"Ms. Lane, I need your help. Superman is in danger."

She felt her jaw drop. Her eyes darted around the room. "What do you mean, 'Superman's in danger'?" she hissed quietly. The room was almost empty, but she didn't want to take any chances. "Come with me," she said irritably. She turned and headed toward the conference room, the young man followed, his footsteps, evenly timed, falling loudly in the otherwise quiet bullpen.

She closed the door behind them. "Who are you, and what kind of danger is Superman in?"

"My name is Captain Andrew Wintner, United States Army, Bureau 39, Ms. Lane." He handed her his military ID. "And it's my superiors who want Superman dead."

"Bureau 39!" she exclaimed. She shook her head, "but Trask is dead."

"And someone has taken his place, ma'am."

She scrutinized the identification card she held in her hand. She had seen military IDs before and it looked completely legitimate, but of course, it didn't include any information about what his particular military assignment was. "You work for Bureau 39?"

"Yes, ma'am."

"So why should I trust a word you say?"

He sighed. "I know that the Bureau has caused you a lot of personal grief, Ms. Lane, and you have every reason to be suspicious of me and my motives, but I felt that I needed to bring this to your attention anyway. Six months ago, Superman landed a DC 10 that was in trouble just outside Baltimore. The plane would have crashed if it hadn't been for him."

"Superman does that sort of thing fairly regularly, Captain, that hasn't stopped Bureau 39 from trying to kill him before," she said coldly.

"My wife and my little baby girl were on that plane. Superman saved their lives." He spoke quietly and for the first time, his stoical mask began to crack. He looked at her plaintively. Taking out his wallet, he removed a picture, and handed it to Lois. She looked down at the pretty blonde and the towheaded infant.

"I'm not going to make excuses for my association with the Bureau by claiming that I was just following orders, an officer is bound to honor above even his commitment to follow orders. I just hope that you know that I'm completely sincere when I say that I owe Superman everything. I wouldn't be able to live with myself if I let Sharp kill him."

Lois handed the Captain back the photograph and his identification. "How exactly does this guy Sharp plan on killing Superman?" she asked.

"Ms. Lane, you named Kryptonite, surely you know what it is?"

She swallowed hard. "It actually exists?"

"Of course it does, and Superman's lucky to have escaped Trask. He might not be as lucky with Sharp. Trask was insane; he was sloppy, careless, and monomaniacal. Sharp won't make the same mistakes; he won't need more than one opportunity to kill Superman."

"And he has Kryptonite?" Lois could feel her heart pound against her rib cage in a rapid staccato rhythm. The mere possibility that some whack job out there had the ability to kill Superman sent her into a near panic.

"Not yet. But he thinks he knows where to find it."

"Where?" She chewed her lip, composing herself and trying to think through the situation rationally.

"Smoky Hill River Valley, Kansas. Scientists with the US Geological Survey have noticed an unknown radioactive material in the wildlife preserve of the state park and they called in the US Army Corps of Engineers and the EPA. Bureau 39 learned of the incident and Brigadier General Sharp decided to investigate it personally. The traces they've been able to locate are a perfect elemental match for the Kryptonite sample Trask had. Sharp is certain there's more out there. He's sending in a field team to find it. If he does, nothing will stop him from using it against Superman. I know you're a friend of his, I trust you'll give him the message."

"Of course." Lois didn't know whether a word Wintner was saying was true or not, but she knew that she should immediately tell Superman what she'd heard. He'd probably know what to do.

"I want to help Superman, after all he's done for me, but please don't print any of this. Don't tell anyone I came to talk to you. The people I work for would do far worse than kill me if they knew that I'd told you this."

"Other than Superman, Capt. Wintner, I won't tell a soul."

"Thank you, Ms. Lane. If I hear anything else, I'll contact you, but please, don't try to track me down."

"All right," Lois agreed. Capt. Wintner marched out of the conference room and across the newsroom toward the stairwell, brushing past Jimmy Olsen. Jimmy gave the man a curious second glance but Wintner failed to notice. Jimmy bounded toward Lois's desk and intercepted her on her way out of the conference room.

"What's up with GI Joe, Lois?" he asked.

"I don't know, Jimmy." She shook her head almost absently. "Have you seen Clark? I need him to get a hold of Superman."

"Haven't seen him," Jimmy replied. "But Superman's putting out an oil fire on an off shore rig near Norway." He gestured toward the TV banks and the LNN coverage of the fire.

***

Clark whistled cheerfully as he stepped out of the elevator. Considering how long it had taken him to get the oil out of his suit and his hair, he was in a particularly good mood. He'd managed to avert an ecological disaster, and after giving the rig operators a stern talking to about safe procedures, he'd taken off to write up a quick report with some choice Superman quotes for Perry.

He was late, and the Planet had been back in business for all of two days, but he was pretty sure the Chief wouldn't mind. Perry was usually satisfied with his stories and didn't ask too many questions about why one half of his star reporting team was chronically absent. So long as the stories came in and circulation remained high, it didn't really matter what hours Clark kept. Lois, on the other hand, wasn't always so easy to placate. He fixed two cups of coffee as per usual and carried the steaming mugs to her desk. She was sitting in front of her computer and if she noticed his approach, she did nothing to acknowledge the fact. He placed her cup on a free space on her desk, already covered with the apparent research and evidence that pointed to a big story.

"Thanks," she said without averting her eyes from the monitor.

"So what's up?" he asked. He leaned over to look at what she was working on, but she quickly minimized the window.

"Clark, I need to talk to Superman. It's urgent." The desperation in her voice was evident.

"If I see him, I'll let him know," Clark replied, a little nonplussed. He wasn't quite sure what Lois's feelings toward the Man of Steel were anymore. After Superman rebuffed her romantic overtures a few months ago, things had become complicated. Then of course, there was his own messy situation with Lois, but that was another matter. Her tone, however, was deadly serious. Whatever it was, it wasn't a trivial matter. "So what are you working on?" he asked.

"Clark, I really can't talk about it. I just… I need to speak to Superman first."

'I'm right here, Lois!' he thought, frustrated. "Okay." He shrugged his shoulders and conceded defeat before graciously moving on to his own desk and leaving her to whatever was on her mind. He LANed Perry his story before opening up his file on voter apathy and the upcoming state elections. The political scene at the moment was saturated by the Mayor's scandal and he wasn't up for reelection this year. The story on the Mayor had pushed the public to its tolerance threshold on political news and no one seemed too interested in any of the candidates or the issues on the ballot.

He tried to focus on his work, but every few minutes he would find himself gazing over at Lois. She wore a perpetual frown as she glared at her monitor. She would occasionally write something down on a notepad. Her tense posture and the way she bit her lip were dead giveaways to Clark: she was really worried about something.

He'd hoped that she'd be willing to talk to him about whatever it was, but that clearly wasn't the case. He sighed. There were barriers between them now, barriers that hadn't existed before. There were subjects that were off limits, things they didn't talk about, things she wouldn't talk to him about. At first, it had seemed as though she wanted—dare he dream—needed him around, but that quickly changed. She soon returned to life as usual, as though the whole Luthor debacle had never occurred. She was Mad Dog Lane, she needed no one, and she seemed determined to prove it.

He watched as she shoved several things in her attach, case before slinging it over her shoulder and heading for the elevator. He glanced down at his watch. It was past one. He figured she was going to get something to eat. Now would be as good a time as any to have Superman meet her. He got up from his desk and headed for the stairwell.

***

A familiar sound overhead caused Lois to turn her eyes upward. She watched as Superman's imposing figure floated down into view. Their last conversation had left the bitterest of tastes in her mouth and still, she felt the involuntary flip flop of her heart in her chest. Her mouth was suddenly dry. God, why couldn't she stop acting like such a love struck teenager around him? It was downright ridiculous. Besides, he'd made it abundantly clear that he could never feel for her anything remotely similar to what she professed to feel for him. And with his cruel comments, he'd proved that he may have been Superman, but he was still a man nonetheless.

"Lois, you wanted to see me?" he asked. His expression gave nothing away. As long as she'd known him, she still couldn't read him. She began to wonder whether she really knew him at all. None of that mattered though, he'd done so many good things for the world, and even if he could never be any more than a casual friend to her, he was in danger and she owed it to him to do everything she could to help him. She was honor- bound, but more than just feeling obligated to help, she knew that she desperately wanted to make sure that he wasn't hurt. It was almost laughable to think about watching the Man of Steel's back, but if there was something she could do to protect him, she would.

"Superman," she said with a grave tone of voice. She looked around and could see that they'd drawn the attention of passers-by and casual observers, who'd slowed down to take a moment to stare at the resident superhero and the woman with whom he was speaking. "I was hoping we could go somewhere less public to talk about this," she said quietly.

He gave her a confused look. "Uh, sure," he replied. He moved toward her hesitantly. Apparently she wasn't the only one who felt completely awkward. He finally wrapped one arm around her waist, holding her against his side, instead of cradled against his chest, the way he used to when he flew with her. He floated them off the ground and up to the roof of the Daily Planet building.

He touched down gently. "Clark said that you seemed upset, what's wrong?" he asked.

"Bureau 39 has been reorganized," she began. "It's being led by a General named Sharp who thinks he's found Kryptonite. Is it real, Kryptonite?"

He nodded grimly. "If I'm exposed to it, I lose my powers, I think a long enough exposure would kill me," he confirmed.

Lois visibly blanched at his blunt statement. "Sharp is sending a team to some state park in Kansas, that's where they think it is."

"Have you told Clark or Mr. White about this?" he asked.

She shook her head. "I only found out today. Some Army Captain who worked for Trask came in and told me about it this morning. He asked me not to say anything to anyone else."

"One of Trask's men told you this? Do you think it's wise to believe him?"

"I don't think it's wise to just ignore the warning, especially since you just said that this Kryptonite is real and that it can kill you," she countered.

"Well, thank you for the warning, Lois, I appreciate it."

"Wait a minute!" she demanded angrily. "Is that it, you expect me to just drop this?"

"Well, yes," he replied with a slight shrug. "Lois, it's dangerous, you know that. Trask and the people he worked with were not above murder, I don't want you jeopardizing yourself over this."

"You make it sound like it's no big deal. How exactly are you going to take care of this alone? If Bureau 39 really has the only thing that can kill you and they intend to use it, how exactly are you planning on stopping them?"

"Lois, I appreciate your concern…" he began.

"Don't patronize me," she snapped angrily. "This situation is just as dangerous for you as it would be for anyone else, more so considering how badly these people want to kill you. You could use my help, you know that. You can't very well go after these guys yourself."

"What are you suggesting?" he asked.

"I'll go undercover and try to track them down. It can't be that hard to find an entire geological research team. If Wintner is right about the government has reactivating Bureau 39 and that it's still trying to kill you, the public won't stand for it."

"And what if they've found the Kryptonite?" he asked.

"If there's anyway I can help you keep its existence secret, I will," she said.

"You'd be willing to cover up something that newsworthy?" he asked.

She opened her mouth but couldn't think of what to say. "It hurts to know that you think so little of me," she said at last. "That you'd think that I would sell you out like that for a story. No matter how newsworthy this is, I wouldn't do something that would put you in danger. I'd hoped that you'd know that."

"Lois, I'm sorry," he said softly. "And you're right. I trust you and your judgment, I'm sorry if it sounded like I didn't. I'm very lucky to have a friend like you who would be willing to go to such great lengths for me, but I don't want you to put yourself in harm's way for me, I can't ask that of you."

"But what choice do we have?" she asked.

He shifted uncomfortably. "At least take Clark with you. I'd feel better knowing that you weren't doing this alone."

She stiffened slightly at the suggestion. "Fair enough," she agreed.

"Talk to Clark and Mr. White, then we'll figure out together what to do."

She nodded and turned toward the door to the stairwell.

"And Lois," he called out after her. She turned back toward him. "Thank you."

She smiled briefly at him before he launched himself into the air.

***

Lois closed the door to her editor's office. "Perry, the Army's trying to kill Superman again," she said.

"The whole Army's after Superman?" Perry raised an incredulous eyebrow.

"Bureau 39," she clarified.

"I thought it was dead," he said.

"Apparently there's a General Sharp out there who's eager to resurrect it," she added wryly. "And he thinks he's found Kryptonite."

"Kryptonite?"

"Superman told me that it really does exist and that it's potentially lethal to him. Anyway, this Sharp guy thinks the Kryptonite is in some place called Smoky Hill River Valley, Kansas."

"So what do you want to do about this?" Perry asked.

"I have to find out what Sharp is doing and whether he actually has the Kryptonite. I want to follow the team Sharp sent into the area to find the Kryptonite," Lois explained.

"Before you plan a full blown investigation, I need to know how sure you are of this, Lois. Can you trust your source?"

"I can't afford not to, Perry," she said. "Superman's life is at risk. You and I and everyone else on this planet owes it to him to check this out and stop these psychopaths if they are trying to kill him."

"Don't get all wound up, darlin', you know I'm a solid supporter of Superman and everything he's done for Metropolis. I just want to know if your source is trustworthy. How does he know all this? Where did he get his information?"

"I can't tell you, Perry."

"Can't you at least tell me how he's connected to this whole mess?"

"No."

"Lois…"

"Perry, he's afraid for more than just his own life, and I made a promise. I will not break it," she responded stubbornly.

"Fine. I'm willing to take a risk on this one, but you'd better hope that your source is right. The suits upstairs'll have me crucified if I send my best reporter out on a wild goose chase just when the Planet is starting to get back on its feet."

"Perry this is about more than just a story!" she exclaimed. Perry tried unsuccessfully to hide his incredulity. Lois shot back an angry glare.

"You'll need to be careful," he said. "The last thing you need is to tip off Bureau 39 that the Planet knows what they're up to. Oh, and Clark is going to go with you."

"That's exactly what Superman said," she grumbled.

"Well, he's a smart young man," Perry replied smiling knowingly. "Besides, I'm not sending you out into the wilderness to track some clandestine Army group by yourself."

"I don't need Clark to protect me!" she retorted.

"I'm not saying you do," he replied gently. "But you have no idea what's going to happen, darlin', and aw hell, I'd sleep better knowing that the two of you were out there to back each other up." Perry stood up from his desk and opened his door. He called out into the newsroom, "Clark, can I see you for a minute, son?"

Clark entered Perry's office and listened as Lois explained to him for the second time, what was going on. He pretended to be surprised by the news of Kryptonite's existence and the resurrection of Bureau 39.

"Perry wants us to find out what this Army team is doing out in the wilds of Kansas," she explained. She chewed her lip thoughtfully. "Isn't it odd that Bureau 39 keeps linking Superman to Kansas?" she asked.

"Huh? Oh, uh, yeah, I guess so," Clark stammered, unsure how to defuse that line of thinking.

"The two of you will need a suitable cover," Perry pronounced.

Clark was thankful for the change of subject. "Uh, Chief, the Smoky Hill River Valley is a popular place to go hiking and camping. It's in a state park called Cedar Bluff," he explained, afraid of linking this any further to himself. "We should be able to pretend that we're just vacationing."

"Fine," Perry said. "I'll make the arrangements. You two will leave here tomorrow morning. Now go home and pack."

***

"Hello?"

"Hi Mom," Clark said glumly.

"Clark, honey, how are you?" his mother asked, her voice full of concern.

"Bureau 39 is back, they're in Kansas, and they think they've found more Kryptonite," he explained.

"Oh dear. Jonathan, could you pick up the extension?"

Clark filled his parents in on everything he'd learned. "So what are you planning to do, son?" his father inquired.

"Lois and I will be going under cover to try and find them before they get to the Kryptonite."

"But don't you think that'll be extremely dangerous?" Martha asked.

Clark sighed heavily. "Yeah, I know, Mom, and I hate the idea of putting Lois in danger, but there was no way that I could keep her from doing this. Whoever her source is came to her with the information and there's no chance that she'd let anyone else look into it. Superman couldn't convince her to drop it and all he could do was talk her into taking Clark along."

"But what about you? If they do have Kryptonite, this will be just as dangerous for you as it is for her," his mother said.

"And you'll have a tougher time protecting Lois," his father pointed out.

"I know, I know," Clark replied. "I've been over this a million times, but I just don't see any alternatives. We're going to have to be extremely careful and keep our distance from them until we know what we're up against."

"But even if you beat them to the Kryptonite, you'll still be in danger, and if they get there first, what's to stop them from trying to use it on Superman the first chance they have?"

"I don't know, Dad, but I'm working on it. I hope I'll have some answers tomorrow. We'll be getting in to Wichita around noon. Right now I should probably go fly some patrols."

"All right, sweetheart, we'll see you then," Martha said. "Well think of something together."

"I hope so," Clark replied.

***

Lois stuffed her hiking boots into her pack. It had been years since she'd done anything remotely like recreational camping, but that didn't mean that she didn't have the prototypical camping gear. Her assignments in places like the Congo meant that she needed the typical outdoor gear along with certain survival extras considering the fact that she faced dangers quite distinct from snake bites and grizzly bears whenever she 'roughed it' for a story.

She dug through the rest of her stuff, tossing aside the climbing ropes, figure 8 belays, and switchblade cramp-ons with disgust. She tried to throw off memories of Claude's suave assurances that rock climbing would be fun and all remembrances of that weekend as well. The thought of his voice, his charming accent, his softly whispered endearments, made her flesh crawl. She couldn't hear the words 'Mon Cherie' without cringing. This, thankfully, was work, and considering how things had been between her and Clark, there's no way he would mistake it for anything else. He'd lied to her, manipulated her like every other man in her life, but she would not be taken advantage of again.

A knock at the door startled her. She crossed her living room to the door and looked through the peephole. Letting out a resigned sigh, she undid the half dozen locks and deadbolts. "Come on in, Clark," she said.

"Hi Lois, good to see you, too," he replied to her less than warm welcome. She shot him a glare and the smile on his face faded. She almost regretted it, but stiffened her resolve.

"You're early," she commented. He dropped his pack beside the door and ran a hand through his hair. He was dressed very casually in jeans, a tee shirt and an unbuttoned flannel shirt, but still looked good. His innocent, unassuming country boy charm was getting downright irritating, she mused. She grabbed her pack and opened it up again, pulling out the fleece pullover she'd thrown in at the last minute. She tossed it on the couch, figuring she wouldn't need it. It was still pretty warm.

"You might want to take that," he said.

"Are you handling me?" she asked.

"I just thought you might want to know that it's supposed to get pretty cold at night. I'm sure you'd rather not deal with hypothermia. But it isn't something you can't handle. I mean, you obviously know how to deal with hypothermia," he said good- naturedly.

She stared at him through narrowed eyes. She did know the treatment for hypothermia in the wild and she knew that Clark the Boy Scout knew it, too. It required getting into a sleeping bag naked with another person who was already naked. As far as she was concerned, the cure was worse than the disease. She stuffed the fleece back into her pack before zipping it up and slinging it over her shoulder. "Let's go," she said. She would have sworn that a wistful expression crossed his face, but it quickly faded. He grabbed his bag and followed her out the door. "Perry needs us to stop by the Planet before we head to the airport," he explained as she locked the deadbolts.

***

"What the hell are these?" she demanded. She ignored the half smile on her partner's face. He would find this funny.

"Wedding bands, Lois," Perry explained calmly. "Resized after the last time you two needed them. They ought to fit properly, now."

"I'm well aware of the fact that they're wedding rings, Perry. What I don't know is why we need them."

"It makes for a perfect cover. No one will pay any attention to a young married couple camping in the woods. Anyway, it's too late to change anything now. All your reservations have you listed as a married couple. It'll attract attention if you don't wear the rings and act like your married."

"This is ridiculous, I can't believe you did this to me!" She didn't want to explain to her editor that she woke up in the middle of the night terrified, frantically looking at her left hand, and only finding relief when confirming that there was in fact, no wedding band there.

Perry's face took on an expression of unadulterated horror. He began backpedaling nervously. "Lois, honey, I'm sorry, I clean forgot."

"Forgot what?" Lois asked. She glanced surreptitiously at her partner and noticed that Clark's smile had disappeared and had been replaced with a grim, tight-lipped expression.

"Well, I uh figured that, you know, this is a problem because of well, ah, what happened with, uh…" Perry began uncomfortably.

"Absolutely not," she fired back. "This has nothing to do with Lex."

"Lois, I'm sorry, I can't believe how insensitive that was of me."

"Perry, could you please quit treating me like I'm made of glass! I'm not going to break, okay? It's fine, do you understand me, fine." She grabbed the small gold band off Perry's desk and jammed it viciously onto her left ring finger.

Perry looked at her, stunned. "Well, uh, okay." He sighed agitatedly and handed Lois a thick envelope. "Here are your plane tickets, maps, and your reservations at Cedar Bluff. Your flight leaves in ninety minutes, good luck and bring me back a Kerth winner."

Lois glanced over at Clark who was silently placing the gold band on his own finger. His expression was unreadable and that confused her. Only a few months ago she would have sworn that she had her partner all figured out, that she could always tell what he was thinking. He wordlessly grabbed his things and held the door open for her.

***

Clark shifted uncomfortably in his seat. He hated flying conventionally. It seemed so bizarre, so unnatural to be sitting in this giant, clumsy metal tube, when he could be flying under his own power. Lois looked over at him and her perpetually annoyed expression faded into an almost sympathetic smile, but she remained silent. The plane barreled down the runway, making an incredible amount of noise. As the plane clawed its way upward Clark let out a long sigh. Only three more hours of this.

***

Clark scanned the area around the terminal and soon spotted his parents. His mother and father smiled warmly and waved at the pair.

"Clark, Lois!" his mother called out as she ran to greet them. "Lois, it's so good to see you again!"

"Hi Martha," Lois said as she gave the older woman a hug. "Jonathan, how are you?" They continued to exchange pleasantries as they gathered up their bags and headed out to the car.

"Smallville's actually on the way to Cedar Bluff. You two will have plenty of time to eat a home cooked meal before heading out."

"That would be terrific, Martha," Lois replied with more than a small measure of relief. "The food on the plane wasn't exactly inspiring."

A few hours later they pulled up to the well- kept little farmhouse. They ate a late lunch together and enjoyed light conversation. Sitting at the table after the dessert plates had been cleared, Clark noted wistfully that Lois was doing an excellent job of acting comfortable, which shouldn't have surprised him much. His parents adored Lois and did everything to make her feel welcome. That she felt comfortable with them only made sense. Not for the first time, he wished that she could feel this at ease around him.

"Clark, I was hoping you'd be able to come take a look at the tractor transmission while you're here." His father's voice startled him out of his melancholy thoughts.

What could possibly be wrong with the tractor transmission now? He'd fixed it only a week ago. "Sure Dad," he replied as he left the kitchen to join his father. He followed Jonathan out toward the barn. The older man stopped once they were a decent distance from the house.

"Clark, are you sure that you two will be safe?"

"We'll be careful, Dad, I promise," Clark assured his father.

"I'm still not sure chasing these crackpots down on your own is the best idea. What if they really do have more of that Kryptonite?"

"I'll make sure to keep my distance, Dad. I got some lead foil and brought it along, in case we find any of the Kryptonite, and I'm hoping that if there is any of it out there, that the Bureau 39 people don't find it first."

"What if you get exposed to it? Clark this is dangerous. I know you're not used to having to worry about your own safety, but you're going to have to learn. Besides, how much of a help will you be to Lois if you get hurt?"

"I know, Dad, and I wish there was some other way, but I don't see any alternatives. If I can get it wrapped up in lead, or better yet, get Lois to wrap it up, quickly, I don't think the effects will last very long. And if we come across the Bureau 39 guys, I'll make sure to keep my distance until I know whether or not they have the Kryptonite. I will be careful, I promise you that, and I won't let anyone hurt Lois."

"I know, son, I know," Jonathan replied as he laid an understanding hand on his son's shoulder. "So how are you two doing?"

"About the same," Clark replied. "It's just so frustrating," he growled.

"Give it time, Clark. Give her time."

Clark laughed humorlessly. "Right now I'm just hoping that we can make it three days in the woods without her strangling me to death."

Jonathan snorted. "Son, I think that Lois is a bit more imaginative than that don't you?" Clark's head snapped up as he looked at his father in shock. Jonathan clapped Clark on the back and with a slight wink said, "there are worse ways to go."

***

Clark and Jonathan returned to the house to find Martha alone in the living room. "Where's Lois?" Jonathan asked.

"I showed her to the den so she could call Perry," Martha replied. Clark nodded knowingly. He and Lois had both agreed that since Trask's search and detainment warrants and his EPA documentation had all been forgeries, that there was a good chance that the current USGS survey in Cedar Bluff was there without official authorization either. Perry had promised that he'd look into the matter and keep them updated.

Lois emerged from the den with no news from their editor. Deciding that it was time for them to head out, Lois and Clark packed their things up in the Kent's old truck. It was much smaller than the one Jonathan and Martha had bought a few years ago, but more than suitable for their needs. They bid the Kents goodbye and headed out for Cedar Bluff. The park was a little more than an hour away from Smallville and they planned on arriving well before dusk. They rode in awkward silence for a while before Lois finally spoke.

"My source said that the survey team is concentrated in Bluffton, which is just southeast of the Canyon. It should be about a day's hike to get there from the park entrance."

"We can get started today, but we won't have much time before dark. We should be able hit the first good clearing to set up camp in a couple of hours. We'll start early tomorrow and make it to the Canyon before dusk." Clark pulled off the interstate and onto a dusty single lane road. He parked the truck a few minutes later in front of a gas station and what passed for a convenience store in rural Kansas.

"Gas?" Lois asked, craning her neck to see the gas gauge on the dashboard.

"Nope," Clark replied. "Provisions. Mom packed sandwiches and fruit for tonight, but we're going to need more food and the energy bars you probably packed aren't going to cut it." She made a face at him. "Come on, Lois," he teased. "Nothing says 'camping' like baked beans, trail mix, and hot Tang." With a mischievous grin he hopped out of the truck and walked into the store. He returned a few minutes later with a brown paper sack. He placed it between them on the seat and started up the truck.

Lois opened the bag and looked inside. "You really did buy baked beans and trail mix," she said incredulously.

"And Tang," he added. "Don't forget the Tang."

"How could I?" she mumbled sarcastically.

He pulled back out onto the interstate. Lois had to admit to herself that the area wasn't what she'd expected. She'd always thought of Kansas as flat and empty except for cornfields. Instead, they were surrounded by forests and hills as well as tall rock formations, making for an environment that diverged radically from her preconceived image of Kansas. She quietly stared out her window at the scenery that passed by quickly. Before long, they reached their destination. Clark parked the truck in the large, near empty lot. He began reorganizing his own pack so that he could carry all of the food he'd bought. Lois made her way to the park office, leaving Clark with the truck.

She walked through the old wooden door of the park office and found the park ranger, leaning against a table, engrossed in a copy of the Wichita Eagle. She cleared her throat to get his attention. He leisurely folded the paper, having not even bothered to look up to see who was disturbing him. At last, he looked up and immediately, stood up straighter, puffed up his chest slightly and gave her what she knew he believed was a debonair smile. "What can I do for you, ma'am?" he asked graciously.

"Just here to check in," she replied. "I'll be in the park for the next three days."

"Campsite reservations?" he asked politely, still smiling.

"No, I'll be roughing it," she replied.

"Fishing license?"

"Won't be fishing."

"All right then, I'll just get the forms so you can fill out your itinerary." He sauntered toward a filing cabinet. "Say you aren't out here all by yourself are you? It's not exactly the best idea to go off into the park all by yourself."

"Thanks for your concern, but I'm a big girl, I can take care of myself," she replied. Just then the door to the office opened and Clark walked in. The ranger's back was still turned toward them and apparently he failed to notice that someone else had entered the building.

The park ranger turned around, his eyes still focused on the forms in his hands. "We highly advise against any extended camping alone. It'd be a shame for a pretty young woman like yourself to get hurt all alone out there." He looked up, smiling and winked at her, but his face fell instantly as he noticed Clark's presence.

"Everything all right, sweetheart?" Clark asked, making an obvious gesture of taking Lois's hand.

"Just fine, honey," she replied sweetly, all the while stepping on his foot. Clark simply turned to her and smiled. Lois filled out the forms, trying to hide her disdain at signing in as Mrs. Lois Kent. As if to drive the point home to the now rather quiet park ranger, Clark placed his left hand, complete with wedding band, on the countertop as he filled out his information and signed his name beside Lois's. Lois watched as the ranger glanced first at Clark's ring and then craned his neck to look at her own hand, as though he needed more confirmation of what was being waved in his face.

"The Canyon and the wildlife reserve are closed this time of year to visitors," the ranger informed them, his previous politeness now waning. "So make sure to avoid those areas, and have a nice trip." He put his head down and began sorting the completed paperwork, as though he was oblivious to whether or not they were still in the building.

"Thanks, again," Clark replied cheerfully. He took Lois's hand and they walked out of the office.

Lois quickly released his hand once they were away from the park office. "What on earth was that all about?" she demanded.

"I figured it was important to maintain the appearance that we're married, Lois."

"Since when does that require that you act like a testosterone driven, territorial gorilla?"

"Territorial gorilla?! Are you calling me jealous?" He seemed stung by her comment.

"Well obviously, Clark," she replied.

"Are you kidding? I was doing that guy a favor."

"I beg your pardon?" she demanded coldly.

"When I walked in, he was trying to figure out which of a dozen crass pick up lines to use on you. You don't deserve that, Lois. You are way out of his league and I thought I'd politely let him know that."

Damn him. Damn him for knowing exactly how to dissipate her anger. And damn her for not being able to be angry with him when she really, really wanted to be. Why was it that he could say something like that and she'd believe him? She opened her mouth to say something, she didn't know what, but found that he'd already put his head down and had begun walking.

She caught up with him quickly and they walked silently down the packed dirt path. Before long, they came to fork in the path and a directional sign. The arrow pointing toward Threshing Machine Canyon had a sign attached to it that read, "Canyon and wildlife preserve closed to visitors Sept. 1 to March 10." Lois looked at Clark and merely shrugged before heading down the path in that direction. He made no attempt to argue with her and they proceeded again in silence.

"I'm sorry," she mumbled after a long while.

"Huh?"

"For calling you territorial gorilla," she explained.

He laughed softly and smiled good-naturedly at her. "Actually, it was kind of funny."

She knew that he was saying that for her benefit. He'd been unable to disguise the surprise and disappointment in his expression when she'd said it. They continued to walk up the path through the gently rolling hills surrounded by tall limestone formations. Clark walked a half step behind her apparently content to let her set the pace. The dry, warm, and dusty afternoon quickly changed to a cool, crisp evening. A gentle breeze was the harbinger of a cold night ahead. The sun dipped below the horizon, and the Kansas sky, which stretched out to infinity all around them, turned a deep violet.

Clark finally broke the silence to suggest that they find a place to camp for the night. They worked their way off the path a bit toward one of the limestone formations. Under a crude rock shelter they dropped their packs for the first time since setting off a few hours before. Lois stretched out her tired and aching muscles, feeling an incredible sense of relief now that her shoulders were freed from the burden of her backpack.

While she took a moment to rest, Clark, in his usual, unassuming manner, had already begun to collect firewood and dry brush. He arranged some small stones into a circle and piled the kindling within it.

"Are you going to light that fire with a couple of flint stones?" Lois asked.

Clark merely shook his head and smiled. He pulled a small metal container out of his pocket. Waterproof matches. "These are lighter and take up less space," he said. Clark got the fire started quickly. He unrolled his sleeping bag and unpacked dinner as they settled in for the evening.

Lois regarded him silently as he sat beside the fire, occasionally stirring up the kindling with a long stick. Thin wisps of gray smoke floated up from the flames as the fire crackled softly, the warm, orange glow lighting up his face in the darkness. His posture was relaxed and comfortable and he fit in as easily here as he did on the farm, or in the chaotic bullpen of the Daily Planet Newsroom. He seemed to slip effortlessly from one role to the next. Despite his tranquil demeanor, there was clearly something on his mind, something troubling him, and she couldn't say what it was. "You know, I thought I'd have you all figured out by now," she said quietly under her breath.

He looked up, as if startled out of his reverie, and gave her a slight, lopsided smile. She was stunned that he'd heard her. "Penny for your thoughts," she added with a brief smile of her own. "Unless of course you need a larger cash inducement."

He shook his head and smiled. "For you, they're free of charge. What do you want to know?"

"Whether or not you meant what you said back there?"

He looked her straight in the eyes, his expression serious. "You mean about you deserving better than some dumb pick up lines? About you being better than that?"

She nervously tucked a stray strand of hair behind her ear and nodded slightly.

"Yeah, I did," he answered. "And I'm sorry if I acted like some kind of jealous husband, but it bothered me to see some creep hitting on you."

"Since I'm 'way out of his league'?" she quoted.

"Naturally," he replied.

"So does that put you in my league?" she asked. She meant the comment to be humorous, but she'd felt awkwardness and embarrassment creep over her even before she'd finished saying it. If she could have retracted the words in that instant, she would have. Instead, they hung clumsily in the air between them.

He shrugged. "Nothing wrong with indulging in a little wishful thinking."

She felt like she understood him even less, if that were at all possible. Why was he so keen on coming to her defense? She wondered sourly if this was the same man, who only a few months ago had lied to her, who had manipulated her, who had told her that he would have said anything to keep her from marrying Lex, anything except tell her the truth? His idea of sparing her feelings was to manipulate them yet again. What would he have done had she been more receptive to his declaration? Would he have pursued a sham relationship with her to make the ploy more believable?

Lois scrutinized the object of her thoughts from across the fire. Her failure to respond to his last comment had created silence between them once again and he had returned to staring down at the glowing fire. He seemed detached, even forlorn and it was hard to recall to memory the anger and the callousness that characterized him during her engagement to Lex. She understood now, all too well, that Lex had been deserving of Clark's animosity, but had she been deserving of his deceit? Whether or not she was deserving of it was immaterial. The only cold, hard, fact she could confront was that she'd been na<ve and gullible. She'd been duped, led astray, and finally, disabused of any remaining sentimentality she may have possessed. She'd been unable to marry Lex in part because she'd begun to wonder if she really did have romantic feelings for her partner. She'd begun to wonder if she too, felt what he claimed to feel. Finding out that he'd lied only made her doubt her own emotions more. Her foolish heart obviously didn't know what was good for her and it was darn well time that she stopped listening to it, she reflected bitterly.

She bit back a sigh as she struggled to get comfortable despite the random pebbles and twigs that poked her. She'd mentally berated herself for her foolishness time and again. Yet no matter how many times she replayed the catastrophic events of those few weeks in her mind, she still could not believe the extent of her own blindness. She'd believed the promises and declarations of love of a ruthless criminal. She'd professed to love a man who then in turn, rejected her feelings and left her feeling cheap with his cold comments. It wasn't until then that she realized that if she could so seriously misjudge his reactions, that she really didn't know Superman at all. And that left her partner. The one guy she could always trust, always count on. Her best friend and confidant, the last honest man in the world. Or so she had believed. It wasn't that Clark hadn't tried to repair their friendship, he had. With serious and earnest effort he'd tried to be there for her, to be her friend, but how was she supposed to trust him ever again? And even if it weren't a question of trust, her pride wouldn't allow it. What must he think of her, knowing how gullible she was, how easily manipulated? He clearly couldn't respect her anymore, at best, he probably felt sorry for her. That was the last thing she wanted. She couldn't stand receiving his pity.

Finally, Clark stood up from his seat beside the fire and stretched his arms high above his head. He dragged a hand through his hair. "I uh, guess we should call it a night," Clark said, breaking the long silence. "We'll have to head out early tomorrow in order to get to the Canyon before dusk." She merely nodded in assent and unfurled her own sleeping bag.

"Goodnight, Lois," he said with a gentle, almost wistful smile, his expression open and honest and kind.

"Goodnight, Clark," she replied. She struggled to reconcile this Clark with the one she'd been faced with those months ago and the two disparate images refused to synthesize to a single picture. She wondered, not for the first time, which was the real Clark. She had to admit, if only to herself, that she missed her best friend, that she wanted him back in her life, despite all the hurt, and the lies and the deceit. But somehow, of all the scars that had been inflicted upon her throughout her ordeal, the wounds she suffered at his hands hurt the most and had refused to heal and she didn't know if she could forgive him that. She sighed heavily and shut her eyes, hoping that the sheer force of will would bring her sleep and perhaps much needed peace of mind.

***

The sounds of the world coming to life woke him just as the first rays of sunshine kissed the horizon. He felt the warm light on his face before opening his eyes and smiled. Waking up to the sounds of the countryside and the smell of clean, fresh air was something he welcomed, even if he had been in Kansas just a week before. For a moment, he felt as if he could almost forget that Lois was upset with him and that they were out here trying to stop a bunch of misguided soldiers from killing Superman. Almost.

He slowly stood up and stretched before packing up his sleeping bag. Finding a secluded corner on the other side of the rock shelter, he changed out of his sweats and pulled on his jeans and a clean t-shirt. He threw on a fleece vest for appearance's sake. He brushed his teeth and splashed the remaining water in his Nalgene bottle on his face. Making sure that Lois was asleep, he used the reflective surface of his Swiss Army Knife blade to shave. The fire had died over the course of the night and he set about re-lighting it. He found his cooking equipment and plates, cleaned after dinner last night, and began breakfast.

As he went about his mundane tasks he ruminated over the events of the previous day. He certainly wasn't any closer to understanding his partner or her behavior as of late. He had detected a sense of ambivalence from her, as though she didn't even know how she felt or what she wanted any more. She certainly was sending him mixed signals, one moment joking with him, the next completely unable to bear his presence.

It was probably a good thing that he didn't need much sleep. He'd lain awake most of the night, thinking about all the things that had happened in the last few months, the things he'd said and done and the things he should have said and done instead. Whatever it was that hung between them, creating such awkwardness, would certainly become intolerable before long. They had a long day ahead of them and if they spent it uncomfortable and unable to talk to each other it was going to be a miserable hike.

Lois stifled a groan as she slowly slipped back into consciousness. They hadn't spent too much time together since the Luthor fiasco and she hadn't realized how draining it would be to keep her guard up around Clark twenty four hours a day. At the moment, she didn't feel like she had the energy to face Clark. She experimentally opened one eye slightly. Yep, there he was, sitting beside the newly rekindled fire, preparing breakfast. She focused on him just as he looked over at her and smiled. Well, there was no avoiding him now.

"Good morning," he said cheerfully. "Sleep well?"

"Fine," she said as she sat up. "What about you?"

"Like a baby," he replied.

She rolled up her sleeping bag, grabbed her pack, and made her way to the other side of the rock shelter. She returned dressed and fully awake a few moments later to find Clark pouring two cups of hot liquid. He handed her one of the steaming cups. She tugged lightly on the teabag string hanging over the brim of the cup.

"Chai," he explained as he handed her a few packets of sugar.

"Thanks," she replied and smiled genuinely for the first time in a long while. Clark bringing her coffee or tea was nothing unusual. In fact, he'd done it all the time during the months of their friendship. At that moment, she couldn't help but think that it was so natural, so right. That perhaps they were reclaiming some small part of what they'd lost in the interceding months. Now if only she could figure out what he'd meant by 'wishful thinking' last night. Was he just making a joke to deflect that horrible, stupid question of hers? Was he merely humoring her? What could have possibly possessed her to ask whether he considered himself in her league?

He grinned at her. It was one of those smiles that made her forget why she wanted to be mad at him in the first place. She mentally shook herself. This wasn't about a grudge. She wasn't even sure she was still angry with him. This was about something bigger than anger. It was about whether or not she could trust him, and that she still didn't know.

It was funny how trust took so long to build and could be destroyed so quickly. It had taken only his nonsensical behavior during the weeks of her engagement to Lex to destroy all of that. Perhaps she couldn't hold him uniquely responsible for that, though. No one seemed to be acting rationally during that time, especially not her. And yet for all her reflection, both in waking hours and through those horrid, recurring nightmares, she couldn't figure out why she'd done some of the things she'd done then. She'd never loved Lex, so it wasn't as though she could claim to have been blinded by love and therefore suffering from some sort of amorously induced lunacy. Was her behavior the result of the loss of the Planet? Or maybe because of her alienation from her friends? Or the creation of the rift between her and Clark due to her relationship with Lex? She didn't want to admit to being so vulnerable, but she wasn't sure which was worse, weakness or stupidity.

The sound of his voice intruded on her silent recriminations. "The tea and oatmeal used up the last of the water, but the river is only an hour's hike from here. We can purify water and fill up our bottles there."

They ate breakfast and packed up their gear in preparation of the long hike to the region where the survey team was supposed to be concentrating. She pushed the insistent thoughts of her partner aside and focused instead on the task at hand—foiling another government conspiracy. As Clark sat studying the map, Lois pulled the cell phone out of the zip pocket of her pack and turned it on.

"Do you even get reception here?" Clark asked, an incredulous look on his face.

"This is one of the Planet's phones," she explained as she punched in a few buttons to retrieve the voicemail messages. "These things have coast to coast coverage." She held the phone up to her ear. "Perry called," she said, frowning. Her frown slowly transformed into a smile. "We've got them, Clark! The survey paperwork was a forgery. The team isn't USGS and they're not authorized to be here. My source was right." Vindicated, she turned the phone back off and tucked it away in her pack. "Now we just find them, make sure they don't have the Kryptonite, call in the cavalry, and expose the fact that someone's trying to restart Bureau 39."

"Sounds simple enough to me," he replied.

"Save the sarcasm, Clark. Now come on, the sooner we get moving, the sooner we get the bad guys, save Superman, and bag an exclusive." She felt the electric charge that accompanied a big story tingling through her. Suddenly, she was Lois Lane, top investigative reporter again, not poor, helpless, gullible Lois, taken in by everyone around her. They set off and it was all she could do not to break out into a run. She could practically see the Kerth award with her—well make that their—names on it.

***

"Lois, are you sure you don't want to take a break?" Clark called out over the sound of the river.

"Are you wussing out on me, Clark?" she asked as she continued forward.

"Of course not," he replied.

"Well, we've got, what, another hour til we reach the canyon?"

"More or less."

"So we'll keep going til we hit the canyon, set up camp and then figure out what we do from there," she explained as she scrambled over a fallen tree that was obstructing the path.

"Sounds like you've got it all figured out," he said as he hopped over the same tree trunk.

"Naturally."

She stepped carefully over the stones on the poorly maintained trail. The path directly beside the riverbed ended and the only way to continue was up and over the rock ledge that extended along the river. Lois stepped up on the first rock and calculated her options. She could see Clark moving beside her out of the corner of her eye. Blessed with longer stride length and greater reach, he was having far less difficulty moving from rock to rock. He reached the top before she did and as she was contemplating her next lateral movement, she saw his hand extend toward her. She looked up at him, half expecting a smirk but finding instead a warm smile. She placed her hand in his larger one and allowed him to help her. She stepped up on the next rock and felt the reassuring tension in his grip that told her that he would not allow her to lose her balance or slip.

"Thanks," she said quietly.

"You're welcome," he replied.

They walked again in silence for some time, this time, side by side on the wider path. It was late afternoon and while he and Lois had managed to be civil and even polite to each other so far, Clark couldn't help but feel a growing sense of frustration. He thought bitterly that there was once a time when they could spend hours together and not run out of things to talk about. Now, the hours dragged on in silence although he felt like he had so much to say to her. He was surprised when she finally broke the silence.

"This isn't what you meant was it?"

"Huh?" he replied, unsure as to what she was referring.

"When you said you wanted us to go back to being friends."

He shook his head sadly. "No, it isn't."

"It's not what I wanted, either," she replied.

"I guess I just wanted to turn the clock back, stop that whole thing from happening."

She smiled tremulously at him. "If you could have prevented me from making a fool out of myself, I would have been all for it."

He shook his head slowly. "I wanted to prevent you from getting hurt." He heard her draw in a sharp breath. He inclined his head slightly and noticed that she'd fallen out of step with him and had stopped walking. Clark stopped and turned toward her. "What?" he asked, confused.

"That's the second time in two days that you've said something like that to me."

Now he was lost. "What do you mean?"

"I can't take the polite concern routine anymore, I've seen it from too many other people. There's no need to act like you care more than you do." She had steeled herself against him, the expression on her face cold and accusatory.

He couldn't help but gasp. "I can't believe you think that."

"Why this sudden need to protect me, Clark? Or to put me on some sort of pedestal for that matter?"

"Because I do care about you," he said quietly. "Because you are special to me, and because I can't stand to see you get hurt. Never doubt that."

"I don't need to be taken care of," she replied.

"I know," he said. "But that can't change the fact that it hurts me to see my best friend in pain. Or the fact that I don't know which is worse, knowing that there was something I could have done to prevent it, or knowing that there is nothing I can do to make it go away. And both pale in comparison with knowing that I did something to cause that pain."

"Then why did you lie, Clark?" she demanded angrily.

"I…I didn't know what else to do," he admitted. He dragged a hand through his hair. "I know, I was stupid and I didn't think about how you'd react to what I said. All I knew was that I needed to convince you not to marry Lex."

"So despite the fact that you told me that I could trust you, that you weren't just some typical male, you lied to me?"

"Do you remember when I told you that losing my job and my friends and everything else that went up in smoke with the Planet, were things I could deal with, but that I couldn't imagine losing you? I meant it, Lois. I've never before had a friend so important to me that I couldn't imagine living without them as a part of my life. In trying to save that, I only managed to screw it up."

"We did a lot to hurt each other in those few weeks, didn't we?" she asked, her voice low and thick with emotion.

He simply nodded and fought the urge to gather her up in his arms and hold her and tell her how sorry he was and how much he loved her. "But I didn't want to lose my best friend over that," he answered. "I'd hoped that we'd at least try to get back what we'd lost. It took a while for me to figure out that this was one thing that I couldn't fix through sheer stubbornness alone. So if you don't want me in your life, I'll go. And if you can't work with me any more, I'll ask Perry to reassign me. But I need you to know that you are the best friend I've ever had and nothing will ever change that."

"Clark, I…" He watched the emotions flit across her face. "You know, you're the only partner I've ever been able to work with," she said at last. "And if you go and do something stupid like tell Perry to reassign either of us, I'll never forgive you," her words were spoken harshly but he could see the smile twitching at the corners of her lips.

He laughed softly. "So is this a truce?"

"For now," she replied.

"Good, because I miss my partner," he said.

"And I miss my friend," she said quietly. "Now come on, we've got another two miles to go."

He shook his head as he started after her. He felt off balance, as though he'd been sucker punched while off guard. She'd caught him by surprise and since he was a lousy liar, he'd had little choice but to be honest with her. As scary as it had been, he knew that telling her what he was feeling had been the right thing to do. Maybe, just maybe, he could now work on rebuilding that lost trust between them.

***

They reached their destination, the western end of the canyon, well before dark. The clearing that they'd selected was a little less than half a mile away from the river and within the boundaries of the wildlife preserve. As they set up camp, they discussed plans and back up plans of what to do when they found the survey team. Surprisingly enough, Lois agreed with him that no matter what, any sort of contact with the survey team would be far too dangerous.

Lois sat on a large boulder reviewing her notes. "So what do we do if they have the Kryptonite?" she asked him.

"I guess we just have to call the authorities," he replied uneasily as he started to unpack the cooking equipment from his gear.

"And turn over the one thing that can kill Superman to the government?" she asked incredulously.

"We don't have much of a choice, Lois," he replied. "Bureau 39 has tried to kill both of us several times and this time we can't exactly rely on Superman to bail us out. Superman made us promise to be careful. The only reason he didn't take this to the police is because we promised we wouldn't take any unnecessary risks."

"I know," she grumbled. "But it still doesn't seem right. He's risked himself for us plenty of times. Why shouldn't we do the same for him?"

"Superman takes calculated risks when he has no other choice, like with the Nightfall asteroid. You and I wouldn't stand a chance of getting the Kryptonite away from a team of Bureau 39 members, we'd be killed on the spot."

"Then what do we do?"

"The same thing that we've done before to help Superman, rally public opinion behind him. People hated Bureau 39 and they weren't too happy about the fact that part of the government was trying to get rid of Superman."

"But even if almost everyone supports Superman, the criminal element will be made aware of the fact that there is something that can kill him."

"I guess that's a risk that I, uh, that he has to accept. I don't want Kryptonite being made public knowledge any more than you do, but that may be the only way we can stop these guys." He cringed inwardly at his near-slip. He must have been even more preoccupied than he'd thought.

"We'll save it as a last resort," she confirmed. "If there's any way at all that we can keep Kryptonite a secret, we will."

"Agreed," he said. They lapsed into silence once again. He brooded over their conversation and inwardly cringed when he realized that even in apologizing he'd lied to her, or at least, had led her to believe something false again. It dawned on him that she was perfectly right to question whether or not to trust him. He'd deceived her and he was continuing to do so.

How could he expect her to trust him when it looked as though he didn't return that trust? Maybe it was time that he stop running. Maybe it was time that he tell Lois the whole truth. She'd be furious with him, he knew that, but it was important that he prove that he did trust her. He believed firmly that Lois would never reveal him, no matter how angry she was. She was determined now to protect Superman from Kryptonite and even to hide it from public knowledge although she was still mad at him, and rightfully so.

It was decided then, he was going to tell Lois everything. He wondered for a brief instant if his desire to tell her the truth wasn't just the result of a selfish need to get himself back in her good graces, but he quickly banished the thought. Telling Lois that he'd deceived her for over a year was hardly likely to score him points. He'd probably earn her wrath instead. No, he was doing this because she didn't deserve to be lied to by her best friend and frankly, he could no longer stomach constantly misleading her and telling her blatant lies.

He knew that telling her he was Superman wasn't going to be the only unexpected news he would deliver. Trusting her with that information would only be a token gesture, and a hollow one at that, if he continued to lie to her about how he felt. Of course, he'd explain to her that he didn't expect anything of her. He couldn't say that he would be content with friendship, so he'd just tell her that her friendship wasn't something he was prepared to lose, that was assuming that she still considered him a friend.

He wondered how her knowing about his alter ego would affect their relationship. He was once afraid that if she ever learned the truth, she'd love him because he was Superman. But he sincerely doubted that Lois still harbored her crush on the superhero. She didn't seem as, well, enchanted by his presence anymore. The last time they'd spoken she seemed anxious to get away from him. Like he could blame her. He'd been such a cad. He'd managed to disabuse her of the belief that Superman was a perfect person, but the price was beginning to seem pretty steep.

Clark sighed with resignation. He needed to figure out the right time and place to have this conversation. Here in the woods was nice, she could yell at him all she wanted and there'd be no one to hear them, but he thought it would be best to wait until after they'd dealt with the Kryptonite. He had to do something before he drove himself nuts. He stood up and pulled the little metal match container out of his pocket. "Could you get the fire started? I'm going to go find more wood," he said. She nodded and he tossed her the matches before walking toward a more densely wooded area.

***

Collecting dried brush was not a problem. Thanks to an early fall dry spell there was plenty of dry wood for the fire. As he gathered fuel for the fire, Clark thought more about what he was planning to say to Lois and how he ought to say it. He decided that he would be direct, but he was still ambivalent as to the perfect circumstances. Should he make her dinner, and hope that spending time together in a comfortable environment would make it easier, or would it look like he was trying to moderate her reaction?

He felt the beginnings of a headache behind his eyes. With his free hand, he pushed up his glasses and rubbed the bridge of his nose. He supposed that his current predicament was enough to give even an invulnerable person a headache.

He continued walking down the hill toward the dense brush near the river, where he figured he could find all the wood he needed. The temperature had dropped a bit, but he was suddenly feeling flushed with warmth. He unzipped his fleece vest and tugged at the collar of his t-shirt. His throat was suddenly dry and scratchy. He swallowed painfully. His head was swimming and suddenly the ground was coming up toward him. He and the earth collided with a thick 'thud' and he felt himself sliding and tumbling down the hill. A sapling broke his fall, doing considerable damage to the tree and surprisingly, to him as well.

His body was screaming at him with pain. He sat up awkwardly and looked down at his hands; his palms were covered in rough red scrapes that were starting to bleed and sting. His body was a miserable conglomeration of aches and pains that were terribly unfamiliar to him. Through the throbbing and the stinging, like a clarion bell ringing deafeningly in his ears, were the nausea and dizziness that he knew all too well and had hoped to forget.

Kryptonite.

He drew in a long, shaky and painful breath. He groaned as he clumsily got to his feet. With slow, thick fingers he unzipped the pocket of his vest and pulled out the lead foil. He moved forward and was met by another wave of dizziness and pain. Good. He was getting closer to it. He walked forward for as long as he could, each step requiring more energy than he thought he possessed.

Eventually, his weak and trembling legs gave out. With a cry, he fell to the ground. The fire in his veins continued to deliver white- hot agony to every part of his body. He tried to stand and merely fell again when his legs refused to hold up the burden of his weight. He cursed silently as he began to crawl even closer to the source of his torment. He placed one blood-reddened hand in front of the other until the very ground beneath him began to burn. He bit back another cry as dug through the soil. After what seemed like an eternity, he could finally see the smooth, glowing, green rocks in the dirt. Clutching the lead foil, he collected all of the rocks in it and bundled it up as tightly as he could manage.

He collapsed to the ground, heaving and coughing from the exertion, but the burning pain was beginning to die down. He lay motionless as the pain slowly waned away. The throbbing became less insistent and his ragged breathing returned to normal. Stupid, he thought to himself. He'd been thoroughly unprepared for that, despite the initial symptoms of Kryptonite exposure. He really was quite a mess if he could confuse the psychosomatic manifestations of heartache with Kryptonite poisoning. Some small part of his mind insisted, though, that thinking that he'd lost Lois to Luthor had felt just like that.

He couldn't say how long he'd been there when the sounds of footsteps startled him. He looked up and noticed that the sun had progressed further on its descent toward the horizon and the sky was darkening. He strained to make out the sounds of voices. Several men were speaking in harsh, clipped tones, but he couldn't tell what they were saying. The voices became louder and clearer and he realized that he would need to hide himself. He grabbed the lead foil ball beside him and against every instinct he possessed, stuffed it back in the pocket of his fleece vest. He managed to half run, half stumble his way away from the sounds of the voices, finding apparent safety behind a large boulder. Trying to calm his own thundering pulse and breathing, he sat motionless, listening intently to the voices.

"We're way out of the sector we were supposed to be investigating."

"I'm just following the equipment." A second voice responded, agitatedly.

"And what does the equipment tell you know, Sergeant?" It was the Bureau 39 men. Then again, who else would it be? According to Lois's source, they were supposed to be several miles away from here, but by their own admission, they were outside of the region in which they were supposed to be searching.

"Nothing."

"What do you mean, nothing?" The first man was quickly becoming angry.

"I was getting some readings before, but now, nothing." The footsteps were now significantly louder.

"How is that possible?"

"Whatever we're tracing isn't like anything I've ever seen before. The radiation patterns are weak, diffused, and hard to pinpoint, but there was something here before and now it's gone."

"The equipment must be malfunctioning." He could hear the twigs and dried leaves cracking under the boots of the soldiers.

"There's nothing wrong with the equipment," the second man snapped defensively.

"Wait a minute." The footsteps stopped.

"What is it? Do you have something?"

"No, but look at the ground."

"What?"

"See that, blood." Clark looked down at his bleeding hands and the dark stain around the tear in his jeans.

"It's just an animal's. We are out in the woods, remember?"

"You heard what the Captain said. We leave no witnesses."

"This is a wilderness preserve, there are no tourists here."

"We ought to check it out anyway." The footsteps were getting closer and closer. He was a dead man and he knew it. At least Lois was still safe. He gritted his teeth and fought the urge to yell. Knowing Lois, she'd start to investigate when she realized that he'd been gone too long. She'd probably already started looking for him. She may not have been trained as a tracker, but he didn't doubt for a second her ability to find him. Her investigative sense was remarkable, and she was a trouble magnet, too. They were going to kill him and there would be no one left to protect her from them.

He cursed himself silently. He'd managed to destroy everything. They were getting closer. He wasn't afraid, not for himself, anyway. All he felt were guilt and grief. He'd just resolved not to fail Lois again, and here he was, spending his last few moments aching with the knowledge that he'd failed to protect her.

They were so close that he could hear their breathing, and in response, he held his own breath. He heard the soft click of the safety on an M 16 being switched. The wind rustled through the trees and sounds of birds chirping was incongruous and painfully out of place. He bit his lip, shut his eyes, and waited.

***

Lois looked at her watch and frowned agitatedly. Clark had been gone well over half an hour. It shouldn't have taken him anywhere near this long to collect wood for the fire. She'd been waiting impatiently for a while now, wondering what was taking him so long. He seemed to have a good map sense so she hadn't thought that he'd gotten lost. But now she began to wonder. Had he been hurt? Did he need help? Should she go looking for him? He'd headed back toward the river, most likely toward the densely wooded area, she guessed. She zipped open her pack and dug through her things until she found the little zip pack she was looking for—the first aid kit. She grabbed it, the cell phone, and a water bottle and set off toward the river.

Lois had no idea whether or not she was going the right way. There was no sign of Clark anywhere, so she just stubbornly continued forward. She started down the hill that led to the narrow river basin when she saw a pile of sticks and brush in an obtrusive heap on the grass. The pile could have gotten there through some other means, she thought. Or it could have been dropped by Clark. She scanned the area around the pile, about twenty feet further down the hill was a bent and injured sapling. She scrutinized it curiously, wondering what caused the damage.

Worried, she opened her mouth to call out Clark's name but the sound of unfamiliar voices stopped her. She froze in place and tried to make out what was being said. It was the Bureau 39 men, and they were trying to track the Kryptonite. It didn't sound as though they 'd captured Clark.

"…see that, blood." Her face fell and she had to clamp her own hand over her mouth to stifle a gasp. Was it Clark's? Out of the corner of her eye she could see the Bureau 39 men at the bottom of the hill. Her heart began pounding out a staccato rhythm. If she didn't move, in another moment they'd be able to see her. Trying to keep calm, she walked as quietly as she could in the soft grass toward the bushes that, with any luck, would hide her presence. From behind the shrubbery she watched as the two men dressed in camouflage and carrying machine guns and some sort of scientific equipment surveyed the area.

She strained to listen to the men over the deafening sound of her heart pounding in her chest. They were debating what to do next. 'Go away,' she thought. 'Please, just turn around and go away.' Unfortunately, they did no such thing. She watched in agonized anticipation as they followed a trail that she could not see. Her eyes darted along the imaginary line of their progression and settled upon a large boulder. She craned her neck, careful not to stir the bushes, and bit her lip to hold back the cry forming in her throat.

Behind the boulder she could make out one jean clad leg and a familiar hiking boot. The next few moments stretched out into an eternity. She heard the twigs snap and crack under the soldiers' heavy boots as they slowly crept toward the boulder. She prayed silently to whatever force cared to listen to her entreaties for divine intervention.

Should she cause a diversion and hope that Clark would have the chance to escape? She looked again at the boulder. If he were injured and unable to run, and she suspected that he was, her distraction might do no more than get both of them killed. She made the painful decision to wait and weigh her options. She heard the click of the safety and wanted to scream. To keep silent she bit her lip. Hard. She felt the warm, coppery trickle of blood in her mouth. A single tear slid down her face.

"Wait." Her heart stopped. "Remember our orders, no shots fired." Her body shuddered with relief. Without lowering his weapon, one of the men walked quietly around the boulder. She felt the bile rise in her throat.

"Identify yourself!" he barked loudly, his gun trained on the motionless figure behind the large rock. She heard only a faint moan and again resisted the temptation to call out his name. "Who are you? What are you doing here?" the soldier demanded again. She heard a groan of pain as the other soldier wrenched Clark to his feet. He nearly collapsed back to the ground, but the soldier held him up.

One of the soldier's resafetied his weapon and slung it over his shoulder. "You are trespassing, this is a federal investigation. I'm only going to ask you one more time, what are you doing here?" When Clark failed to answer, the soldier reared back and delivered a fist to his captive's stomach. Clark's body lurched forward but the other soldier prevented him from falling to the ground. Another tear slipped down her face and she fought back a sob.

***

The world around him spun mercilessly. His body swayed uncontrollably and he only remained upright through the efforts of his tormentors. He waited for another painful blow but it did not come. Instead he saw, through a pain- induced haze, the other soldier grab his radio.

"This is Sergeant Obermeyer, our security grid has been breached. I repeat, our security grid has been breached. We have in custody a single male, Caucasian, apparently ill and uncooperative. Please advise, over."

Clark couldn't make out the muffled response. "Do they want us to bring him back for questioning?" the soldier who was still holding him up asked.

"No, they want us to eliminate the breach and they don't want it to trace back to us. Then we're to return to base immediately."

"So what do we do with him?"

"Make it look like a drowning. No one will be through this part of the park until it opens again in the spring. Then they'll be lucky if they can ID the remains."

"What if he wasn't out here alone?"

"There's no one in this area for miles, and he looks friggin lost to me. Even if they send a search party after him, they won't find him for days." The soldier turned back to Clark and lifted his head by his hair. Clark felt a vague sense of pain but lacked the energy to protest.

He silently thanked the fates that the soldiers weren't going to search the area. That meant that Lois still had a chance. "Man, you screwed with the wrong people on the wrong friggin day," the soldier told him with a cruel smile. He watched the man wind up and then felt the world around him explode and shatter into splinters of light. Then there was darkness.

***

She felt the rain of blows as if it were her own body being hit. She shut her eyes when the sight became too much to bear. Lois knew that she ought to do something, but at the moment, there was little she could do. She heard their plan to make Clark's death look like a drowning. Her heart leapt up in her throat at that comment, but the rational part of her mind insisted that that meant that they would have to leave Clark alive when they dropped him in the river, or so she hoped. She'd debated the merits of creating a distraction by throwing stones or otherwise redirecting their attention elsewhere, but decided against it. If there were only one of them, she may have stood a shot, but she figured that they weren't stupid enough to both run off and investigate an odd noise.

Her only hope was to wait them out; doing so she risked the possibility of sitting idly by while they killed her best friend. Her whole body trembled as she quietly vacated her hiding spot and crept toward a large cedar closer to them. She forced herself to move slowly forward, crouching down in an attempt to remain out of sight. She managed to avoid their attention.

"That's enough," one of the soldiers said. "We don't need to beat him to death." The other soldier nodded and awkwardly threw Clark's motionless body over his shoulder. He staggered slightly under the weight but managed to carry his burden the few paces to the river where he promptly dropped him. Page Creek was extremely shallow here and Clark simply lay motionless where he'd been dropped.

She felt the tears blur her vision and she rubbed savagely at her eyes. As much as her body was trembling with fear, as much as her stomach was twisting itself in knots, she couldn't afford to let her emotions cloud her judgment. The next few moments seemed interminable. Her mind screamed at them to leave. She knew that she had a few precious minutes to help Clark before it was too late.

"Come on, we need to report back," one of the soldiers said. To her extreme relief, the two moved quickly away from the river and where soon out of sight and earshot. Once she was certain that they could no longer hear her, she ran as fast as her shaking legs could carry her to where Clark lay, facedown in the water. Without hesitation she ran into the knee-deep water and hooked her arms under his. Exerting all of her strength, she managed to drag his large body out of the water.

She stumbled awkwardly as she tried to get him onto the shore. Panting heavily from the effort, she dropped to her knees beside his still form. His lips were blue and he lay deathly still. Lois placed two fingers on the cold, clammy skin on his throat. She felt nothing. She desperately tried his wrist, but still found no pulse. She tilted his head back to open his airway, but could tell that he wasn't breathing.

She struggled to calm herself and allow her first aid training to come back to her. She knelt beside his torso and placed her fingers in the center of his chest, trying to find his sternum. She quickly found the right spot and with her fingers interlaced, she placed the heel of her hand on his chest. Arms straight, she pushed down with the first of fifteen compressions. Lois finished the cycle of compressions and adjusted her position to tilt back Clark's head. She pinched his nostrils and covered his mouth with her own, giving the first of two breaths. She began the cycle again, giving the fifteen compressions and the two breaths.

She suddenly felt Clark's body convulse under her, he coughed violently as she struggled to roll him onto his side. He coughed up water as he struggled to breathe on his own. "Thank God," she murmured over and over as she gripped his shoulders. Relief washed over her in waves.

His breathing returned to normal and he finally opened his eyes to look at her. She noticed that he'd lost his glasses and for some reason she couldn't explain, the image of him like that struck her as peculiar. He smiled pathetically at her. "Lois," he said unsteadily.

"Shhh," she replied. "Clark, you need to help me. There's no way that I can move you by myself. Can you try to stand?" There was no way that they'd get back to camp with Clark in his condition, but two hundred yards in the opposite direction there was a series of tall limestone bluffs that would provide them with adequate shelter until they were able to get help.

Clark nodded feebly. His whole body ached and he was painfully dizzy and unbelievably cold, but if Lois asked, he'd do just about anything, or die trying. With much effort, he first got to his knees and then to his feet. Lois placed a steadying arm around his waist and coaxed him into placing his arm around her shoulder. She took the brunt of his weight as they struggled forward.

He wanted to protest that they were going the wrong way but he didn't have the energy to spare. They progressed with much difficulty. He could tell that Lois was struggling with his weight, but despite his best effort, he could do nothing to relieve her of the burden. He was completely incapable of even standing on his own.

His legs felt like Jell-O and the effort needed to put one foot in front of the other required all of his concentration, even though he was spared the task of carrying his own weight. Sheer exhaustion forced them to stop several times. He was dizzy and so thankful that he didn't have to walk unassisted, nevertheless, he felt nauseated.

They made their way through the more densely wooded area into an expansive clearing. He could see the tall bluffs just ahead and wondered if that was where they were going. They made slow but steady progress, and though his body demanded that he stop, he summoned up strength he didn't know that he had to help Lois get both of them to their destination. After what seemed like ages, they collapsed by the tall boulders, shivering, exhausted and winded.

Lois was the first to stagger back to her feet. She reached into the zip pocket of her fleece and pulled out the phone. She flipped it open and cursed as water dripped out of it. She angrily unzipped her dripping wet fleece and tossed it to the ground. "I can't call for help," she explained. "I'm going back to camp to get what we need because we're not going anywhere tonight."

She started to unbutton her flannel shirt, which was still mostly dry, leaving her only in her t-shirt and jeans. She then helped him remove his drenched vest and draped her shirt over him. "Don't move," she instructed him. "And don't fall asleep, Clark. You need to stay awake. I'll be back as soon as I can." With that she took off running. He curled up under the thin flannel shirt as he tried desperately to conserve warmth. His eyelids began to droop. He was so very tired. He knew that given his condition, he shouldn't fall asleep, especially since he was so cold, but it required too much effort to keep his eyes open and it had taken all the strength he'd had to make it this far.

***

Lois ran faster and harder than she thought possible. It was growing darker still, but there was still enough light for her to make her way. She tore across the rough terrain, ignoring her aching muscles and the uncomfortable feeling of her cold, wet clothing sticking to her skin. She knew that she had to hurry. Clark was still in trouble. She knew that he was at risk for hypothermic reaction and that if she didn't hurry he could go into shock. Out of breath, she arrived at their campsite a few minutes later. She slung her pack over her shoulders and immediately started running back to Clark.

The return trip took slightly longer due to the extra burden of her pack, but again she ran herself to the point of exhaustion. She saw him leaning against the rock, slumped over, looking extremely pale. "Clark!" she yelled out as she approached him, her voice thin and fragile. "Dammit, I told you to stay awake," She cried almost hysterically as she dropped to her knees beside him and began to shake him. She knew she shouldn't have left him alone. God, what had she done? "Come on, Clark, wake up," she pleaded with him.

Sluggishly, he opened his eyes and tried to focus on her. "Huh?" he mumbled.

"Clark, you need to stay awake," she demanded. His head started to droop to one side again. Holding his face between her hands she commanded, "focus, Clark, right here. Come on." He struggled to nod. She grabbed her pack and unrolled her sleeping bag, all the while keeping an eye on him.

"Don't go to sleep, Clark," she warned him. She knew that she had to get his body temperature back up immediately. She peeled the now damp flannel shirt off him and grabbed the hem of his t-shirt.

"Lois?" He looked up at her through a haze of confusion. She swiftly pulled the t-shirt over his head and dropped it on the ground. She then began to remove his shoes and his socks. He protested feebly, but she continued to ignore him. She didn't have time to deal with his modesty. She managed to undress him despite the fact that he seemed both unable and unwilling to help.

She half helped, half dragged him into the sleeping bag, where he curled up in a ball, and she proceeded to remove her own wet clothing. The night air was sharp and merciless against her bare skin. Had she not been emotionally drained and still concerned about his health at that moment, she would have had to laugh at the irony of the situation. She looked at the sleeping bag that had clearly been designed for one and recalled the conversation in her apartment that had taken place about a million years before.

She thought about her anger at being on the receiving end of her best friend's good-natured teasing and wondered what she wouldn't give just to know that he would be okay. She slipped into the sleeping bag behind him, shocked at how cold his skin was. She was shivering and could feel the Goosebumps rising up on her skin. Stubbornly, she wrapped her arm around his torso and hugged him tightly to herself. "Don't you dare die on me, Clark," she whispered fiercely.

***

Clark opened his eyes slowly and was greeted by darkness. He blinked several times, wondering why his eyes weren't adjusting to the lack of light. His head was throbbing and his throat was painfully dry. What had happened to him? More importantly, where was he? He definitely wasn't in his own bed. No, he was enveloped in what he assumed was a sleeping bag, but why?

His left hand was pressed against his bare chest. Was he naked? It took him a moment to realize that he was. He then realized that his left hand wasn't pressed against his chest. His left hand was on top of another hand that was pressed against his chest, a hand that definitely did not belong to him. He ran his fingers over the soft, smooth skin of the smaller hand underneath his own. The fingers were slender yet strong, and perfectly shaped. He knew that hand. The hand connected to a slender and bare arm that led back to the body behind him. Behind him?! What on earth was going on here?

He definitely felt a warm body pressed against his back and a distinct lack of clothing between them. Realization crept over him and he smiled. Clearly, he was dreaming. That explained it. Though he had to admit that this dream surprised him. Clark Kent was no exhibitionist, and yet he was apparently dreaming about himself and Lois curled up together sans clothing in a too small sleeping bag out in the open. Well, this particular dream did have its merits, he admitted. It certainly was vivid, though he couldn't imagine why he'd dream himself up a headache and come to think of it, an awfully sore body.

He curled his fingers around her hand again, this time noticing the simple metal band around her ring finger. It was smooth and perfect. He realized that he was wearing one just like it on his own hand. He smiled. This may have been a somewhat risqu, fantasy, but he was still the perfect Boy Scout with the values that his parents had instilled in him. Of course he would imagine them married, that was, after all, what he'd wanted, what he'd hoped for desperately.

He couldn't believe how real it felt. Annoying imaginary headache or not, he was determined to enjoy this. He indulged in pretending that Lois's embrace was real, that she loved him the way he loved her. He knew that small body curled up around him was only a figment of his apparently overactive imagination, but for a brief while he could pretend that that fact didn't matter. He knew that he would eventually wake up alone, but what was the harm in indulging in this dream, even if it wasn't likely that it would ever come true?

***

Lois felt consciousness intruding in on what had not been a particularly restful sleep. She opened her eyes. It was light out, but still early. She was on her side and couldn't figure out why. She never slept like this. She tried to roll onto her back and found it impossible. Her left arm was pinned down to the solid mass in front of her. She tried to tug her arm free, but it wouldn't budge. She leaned forward experimentally and was shocked to feel warm bare skin against her own. Bare skin? Was she naked?

She was.

Oh God, and so was he! She realized that her arm was clamped between a large and naked torso and a large and naked arm.

What the hell had happened? She tried to collect her thoughts. She and Clark had been on an undercover assignment in woods. That explained why she was in the sleeping bag and it also meant that the person in the sleeping bag with her was Clark. She drew in a sharp breath. Had they…of course not. She replayed the events of the previous day in her mind. As the images of Clark being beaten flooded her mind she realized why she'd apparently been blocking them out. As she recalled how close he'd come to being killed, she couldn't help but tremble.

She remembered bringing him to the bluffs away from the creek, which must have been where they were now. He'd been hypothermic, which explained the shared sleeping bag and lack of clothes. Judging by his calm, even breathing and his warm skin, he definitely wasn't in shock.

She sighed, relieved. He was going to be okay. That didn't change one thing, though.

They were lying naked, together in a sleeping bag.

She felt her whole body go rigid as he gently squeezed her hand and murmured something unintelligible. Oh God, was he awake? She pushed herself back against the other side of the sleeping bag, trying to create space between them and failing miserably. The sleeping bag was simply too small. Her hand was pressed against the warm smooth skin of his chest and she felt his fingers become intertwined with hers as he held her hand tightly. Suddenly, he tensed.

He was awake.

He let go of her hand. Neither of them moved nor spoke for a long moment. "Lois?" he whispered.

"Mmm hmm," she replied, too startled to say anything else.

"So I am awake?" he asked.

"Yep," she replied.

"And you're really here."

"Mmm hmm."

He mumbled something. She could have sworn that he said 'I guess it wasn't a dream,' but she dismissed the notion. He started to shift.

"Don't you dare turn around," she said forcefully. Despite the confined space, they were managing to avoid contact wherever possible.

"No, of course not, I uh, I wasn't going to," he stammered.

They lapsed into uncomfortable silence. "Are you okay?" she asked at last.

"I've got a headache," he admitted. "And a vague memory of being beaten senseless."

"That pretty much sums it up," she replied. Her glib answers created a sort of emotional distance to make up for the lack of a physical one.

"And I'm guessing that I must have ended up in shock."

"Yep."

"Which means we're here because you saved my life." Silence reigned between them once again. "This is really awkward," he said after a long pause.

"Mmm hmm." She knew what came next and that it would lead to even more awkwardness, but it was better than staying like this any longer. She suppressed a sigh. "Okay, you're going to close your eyes, I'm going to get out and get dressed and then I'll leave and you get dressed."

"Okay," he agreed.

"Keep your eyes closed," she warned.

"Lois…" he started.

Before he could make his point, she carefully extricated herself from the sleeping bag, a task that required contact, however brief, between them. There was no one else around and they were well sheltered by the tall rocks on either side of them, but she still hurried to dress as quickly as possible. The cold sharp air was a rude change from the warmth of the sleeping bag. Granted, the sleeping bag hadn't exactly been comfortable, but it hadn't been entirely uncomfortable either, she mused. She firmly quashed that line of thinking as she pulled on her clothes.

She glanced over her shoulder at him. He had his eyes closed. She frowned as she noticed that the cuts and bruises on his face had healed very rapidly. The bruises had faded almost completely and the nasty gash under his eyebrow was nothing more than a thin red scratch. She gathered his now dry clothing from where it lay scattered about on the ground.

"You can open your eyes, Clark," she said. She placed the clothing beside the sleeping bag and promptly turned around to give him some privacy. She heard the sound of the sleeping bag rustling as he crawled out of it and proceeded to dress.

"Lois?" The sound of his voice startled her. She turned around to find him standing barefoot and in his rumpled clothes. He ran a nervous hand through his hair.

She felt an odd tingle run up and down her spine and wondered if her reporter's sense had misfired. She regarded him more carefully and decided that it definitely had not. She was experiencing major d,j. vu. The image of Clark lying on the ground the night before came back to her and she realized why the sight of him without his glasses and with his hair matted down had struck her. She stared at him, hard.

Same chin.

Same nose.

Same ears.

Same mouth.

Same warm, softly pleading, deceptive eyes.

He began to speak but she didn't hear a word he said. She couldn't do anything except stare at his practiced expression. She could see nothing but deceit in his face. Hear nothing but lies in his low, sonorous voice. She wanted to shut him up, tell him that she knew and demand a reason for his lies, but she held her tongue.

"…I don't know what to say. What you did for me, it was incredible. You saved my life. I don't know how I'm supposed to thank you for that."

"Forget it." She casually dismissed his thanks with a shrug. She knew better than to fall for that polished look of earnestness. She had to give him credit, though, he was a damn good liar. He even pretended to be a lousy liar, probably to deflect suspicion she figured.

He wore a stunned look on his face, another farcical response to her cold demeanor. Did he spend hours practicing these faces? Or did being Superman give him the necessary on the job training of how to convince people to trust you. "Lois, I will never forget what you've done for me," he said quietly.

She felt her resolve weaken. Damn him. There was no way she was going to buy his sincere and trusting act. She just had to keep telling herself that. She closed her eyes. "Just don't," she whispered. She opened her eyes, surprised to see his hurt expression. He opened his mouth as if to speak, but said nothing.

"Lois, whatever I did, I'm sorry, and I'm sorry that I put you in such a difficult position last night…"

"Don't apologize," she cut him off suddenly. She began stuffing things back into her pack to avoid having to make eye contact. "Look, let's just figure out what we can do about the fact that the Bureau 39 guys have the Kryptonite."

"How do you know they've got the Kryptonite?" Clark asked.

"Clark, if they didn't have the Kryptonite then how exactly do you explain what happened to you last night?" She turned around and began bundling up her sleeping bag so that she could ignore the shocked expression she was certain she would find on his face.

Clark felt her words as acutely as any of the blows he'd been dealt the day before. He felt the breath whoosh out of him and he needed a moment to regain some semblance of equilibrium. "Lois, I…" he began.

She stood up and turned around abruptly, her brow furrowed, her eyes hard and cold. "Don't you deny it, Clark," she said sharply.

He drew in a long shaky breath and swallowed hard. This clearly wasn't what he'd had in mind by 'the right time' but he supposed that what they said about even the best laid plans of mice and men applied equally to the plans of a superman. "I'm not going to deny it," he said calmly.

She regarded him suspiciously. He figured he had a tiny opening in which to redeem himself, a small sliver of an opportunity to make things right and that if he didn't move now, it would shut forever and he'd be left to curse his own idiocy. It was time to step up, tell the truth and take whatever came his way. "First of all, yes, I am Superman," he explained. "And I'll answer all of your questions, starting with no, the soldiers don't have the Kryptonite."

"Then what happened to you? And where is it?" she demanded.

"I have the Kryptonite."

"You what? Are you crazy, or just plain stupid, Clark? No wait, don't answer that."

He sighed, not sure of the answer himself; perhaps he simply had a death wish, or was a masochist. "It's in the pocket of my fleece."

"You're carrying the one thing that can kill you around in your pocket?!" she balked at his seemingly asinine response.

"It's wrapped up in lead so it's completely harmless, but I still managed to lose my powers before I could wrap it up," he explained. "The Bureau 39 guys found me right after I found it, just bad luck, I guess. The lead foil probably blocked the radiation and kept them from discovering the Kryptonite."

"So what are you going to do with it?"

He shrugged. "Wait til my powers come back, then throw it into the sun maybe."

"I worked with you for over a year, and never noticed. How stupid could I possibly be?"

"You are not stupid…"

"Don't worry," she said bitterly. "I'm not going to ask you why you didn't tell me the truth."

"Lois…" he began.

"No, I get it, Clark. It's your secret, you decide whom you trust with it…"

"Lois, if you could just…"

"I mean, why should you tell me, I'm just your partner…"

"…give me a second to…"

"…and I thought your friend…"

"Enough!" he shouted at last. "This will get us nowhere if both of us are talking and neither of us listening." She glared at him. Even if he hadn't been vulnerable at that time, he would have known enough to be afraid of that angry stare. That he did know enough to be afraid was entirely academic since nothing in the world was going to stop him from saying what he had to say next.

"What I was trying to say is that I was going to tell you." She rolled her eyes at him and he sighed inwardly. "I know that you would expect me to say that to cover my butt, but it is the truth. I decided yesterday that I couldn't keep lying to you, not if I ever expected you to trust me again. And besides, I just couldn't stomach it anymore. I was tired of lying and I didn't see any point to it.

"I hope that one day you'll understand and that you'll forgive me for not telling you the truth sooner, but I wanted you to know the truth either way, even if you never want to speak to me again."

"Why should I believe you, Clark? You've been lying to me for over a year."

"Because if I wanted to, I could stop right now, and pretend that that was the end of it, that that was all I had decided to tell you. But it isn't. I decided yesterday not to tell you part of the truth, but the whole truth, everything, so that I'd never have to lie to you again."

"You're saying there's more than just the fact that you are Superman?"

He nodded gravely. "And I'm so much more afraid to tell you this next part, because I know that it might destroy our friendship permanently, but I couldn't live with myself if I misled you again. I need to tell you the truth and let you decide what you want to do about it. And if you decide that you don't want anything to do with me ever again, I'll turn around and leave and you'll never have to see me again, I promise.

"Lois, what I told you in the park that day wasn't a lie. The retraction was." His heart crept up in his throat as he bared his soul to her. He looked her straight in the eyes as he continued. "I am now, I was then, and I always have been, completely in love with you."

She took a step backward, her back pressed up against one of the boulders. He took a step toward her, but she closed her eyes and turned her head, hoping that he would stop, give her space and not try to force her to deal with the information right now. Somehow, implicitly, she knew that he would. She didn't know why she knew, why she trusted him to respect her feelings, why she continued to regard him as the same Clark Kent that she'd thought she'd known. He'd stopped moving. She felt a single tear slip down her cheek.

"I never meant to hurt you," he whispered. "But that's all I've managed to do."

She wiped the tear away, and without looking at him said, "we still have a job to do." She brushed past him and picked up her pack.

"Lois, please, wait." She could hear the concern in his voice.

"Clark, I can't deal with this now. I don't know how I feel or what to say. It's like I don't know you anymore. I don't even know what to call you. I just…I can't deal with this."

"I'm still Clark," he said gently. "I always have been. Superman is just a way for me to help others. I wish I'd told you everything earlier, but you have to know that I'm not the only person whose life would be ruined if the fact that I'm Superman became public knowledge. This secret is as much my parents' secret as it is mine."

He scrubbed his hand through his hair. "I do trust you, Lois. I have for a long time. But deciding when to tell you the truth wasn't easy. I've never told anyone about myself, not my friends growing up, or a girlfriend, or anyone. I've kept this secret my entire life, and you were the person that I wanted to tell, I just screwed it up and didn't tell you soon enough."

"It all makes sense, really," she admitted. "But that doesn't mean that it doesn't hurt. There was a time when I would have bet my life that you were different, that you were the last honest man in the world, and that you would never lie to me. Being wrong has never hurt so much before." She let out a ragged breath and saw the look of anguish on his face.

He reached out a hesitant hand toward her but quickly stopped. He withdrew the hand and curling it into a fist, allowed it to drop by his side. He closed his eyes. "I'm sorry," he said.

"I know," she replied. "But I need time to sort everything out and I can't do it now."

"Okay," he whispered hoarsely.

He was quiet while she went through her plan aloud. Things were just easier when she had something constructive to do, like catching bad guys and bagging exclusives. They agreed that they would have to go back to their campsite to get the rest of their things, and then find some way to contact Perry so that he could anonymously tip off the local PD with the evidence he found along with the Bureau 39 team's whereabouts. Then they could head back to the canyon to get the exclusive story on the arrest of the officers in charge.

"Are you going to be up for it?" she asked as she scrutinized him carefully.

"Yeah, I'll be fine," he assured her. "My injuries have pretty much healed and I'm up to human strength. I figure my powers will probably be back tomorrow."

She shook her head slightly, as if the information was too much to process. "Are you sure that your powers will come back?"

He shrugged as if unconcerned. "They did the other times I was exposed to Kryptonite." He finished lacing up his hiking boots.

She frowned pensively. "When we were in Smallville, right?" she asked. He nodded. "So when were the other times?"

He rubbed absently at the back of his neck. "There was only one other time after that," he said. "It was the day before your wedding. Lu…Lex set a trap for Superman. He got me into a cage with Kryptonite coated bars."

"And that's why you were missing, why Perry didn't know where you were…" The knowledge that her former fianc, had tried to kill Clark hit her with merciless force. "Lex tried to…he almost…"

Clark simply nodded. "I managed to get out a few minutes before you saw me. That's why Superman couldn't save him, I didn't have my powers."

"Every time I think I've learned the worst about him, seen the depths to which his evilness extended…" She shook her head. "How could I have been so blind, so stupid? He could have killed you," her voice wavered slightly.

"Lois, you couldn't have known…"

She steadied herself emotionally. "You said it yourself, Clark. I'm an investigative reporter, I should have investigated. I should have known."

"He fooled the entire world, not just you. He was a master at it. You had…a blind spot when it came to him, but that doesn't change the fact that you're the most brilliant person I know and the best reporter in Metropolis."

"A blind spot that apparently extended to Superman as well," she said, a touch of anger seeping through her controlled faŘade. "I mean, you think that at some point I'd realized that no one is who they claim to be. That everyone has an agenda."

"I hope you don't mean that," he said quietly. "Not everyone is out to screw the world, Lois."

"Oh?"

"I deceived you, Lois, I admit it. But I didn't do it because I derived some sick pleasure out of it. I didn't want to manipulate you, Lois."

"But you didn't want to tell me who you were or how you felt."

"And you don't think there could be any reason for that other than sheer malice?"

"I don't know."

"People aren't always honest about who they really are or how they feel."

"People are never honest about who they are."

"And maybe it's not because they intend to hurt others. Maybe it's because, maybe it's that…" He let out a frustrated sigh.

"Maybe it's what, Clark?" she demanded.

"Maybe it's because they're afraid. Afraid of being rejected. Afraid that their feelings won't be returned. Afraid that they'll lose everything." He cast his gaze downward.

She knew that if she paid attention, if she truly listened to what he was saying, that she'd be able to hear the years of isolation and loneliness in his voice, the accumulation of fears of rejection and a desperate, persistent longing to finally belong somewhere. But it was as if her heart had grown hard. At that moment, she could understand nothing except the betrayal that she'd experienced. It was as if she'd become so selfish as to be unaware of anything except the pain she was trying in vain to ignore. "And everything they had, everything they're afraid to lose, what's it worth without trust?" She didn't wait for an answer. Instead, she turned and began to walk back toward the campsite. She heard his footsteps behind her as he began to follow.

A few minutes later, they arrived at the nearby site where they'd planned to spend the previous night. She watched his silent movements, noticing how he'd been giving her a wide berth. Perhaps he was trying to respect the distance that she surely wanted. How had they gone from being best friends to this? How had he gone from being the most important person in her life to being the object of her anger? She shook her head wearily. She didn't want to hate Clark. Some stubborn, foolish and sentimental part of her wanted to believe that he loved her, that he would never again hurt her or lie to her. Surely his confessions today had to prove that to some degree? But if there was one thing Lois Lane had learned in life it was that everyone you depend on will one day let you down. So why on earth was she having such a difficult time applying that logic to Clark?

As they gathered up the equipment, Lois tossed Clark a couple of Powerbars. "There's no time to make anything now," she explained. "And you haven't had anything to eat since yesterday afternoon."

"Thanks," he replied with a weak smile as he unwrapped the shiny foil around the bar. "The closest working phone is probably at the station by the reservoir. The fastest way there is straight up and over the hills, but it's a tough hike."

"I'm up for it if you are," she replied.

"Then let's go."

***

He adjusted the straps on his pack, now having to concern himself with whether or not the weight was properly distributed. Each time he was without his powers he learned to appreciate them a little more. The hike up the hill was more of a scramble. He fell a step behind his partner, wanting to remain behind if she lost her footing, even though without his powers he couldn't guarantee that he'd be able to prevent her from being injured. With deft, even graceful movements, she made her way up the side of the steeply sloped hill. She didn't even seem winded. He concentrated more fully on his own path upward, needing to put more effort into maintaining his balance than he'd had to in years. It wasn't that he was in poor shape and couldn't make the hike without his powers, he just needed time to adjust to having to put more effort into the activity.

He'd estimated that it would be about an hour's hike to the top of the hill. From there they would continue down the other side and eventually their path would connect with the trail that led to the reservoir. They continued up the path in quiet. The sun crept higher up in the sky and he felt the first drops of perspiration forming on his face and neck.

She set a steady pace, nothing too difficult to keep up with, but they were definitely making good time. They reached the top and he took a moment to study the view. He could see for miles in every direction from here. The leaves on the deciduous trees were just starting to change their colors and there wasn't a cloud in the sky. Before he could get a chance to properly enjoy the cool breeze that stirred the air, he noticed that Lois had already begun her way down the other side. With a rueful grin, he jogged a few paces to catch up with her.

"I don't want to sound condescending," he began. "But for a city kid, you really know what you're doing."

"Well, I guess it's because I've had plenty of experience," she explained evenly without turning to look at him. She quickened her pace a bit as the trail dissipated into chaos. Walking directly in front of him now, she continued, "my father loves to fly fish. I knew that and I wanted nothing more than to make him proud of me, to make him love me, so I used to beg him to take me with him."

She turned slightly to maintain her balance on the steep and uneven ground, carefully edging down the slope. "Maybe it was guilt for years of neglect, or maybe he was just tired of me asking, but he started taking me. There we were, with nothing in common and nothing to talk about, a thirteen year old girl desperately seeking the approval of a father, and a man who couldn't love his daughter because she wasn't the son he'd always wanted. I couldn't make my father love me, and I couldn't keep him from leaving."

Clark's heart ached for her. He knew that she'd been estranged from her father, but couldn't fathom what it must have been like, believing that her own father didn't love her. It wasn't hard to see that she still felt that way. He felt a brief flash of anger toward Sam Lane. What kind of a man would alienate his child that way? It made less sense given what a wonderful person Lois was, although he had to admit a certain amount of bias there. He could easily see Lois trying so hard to win his approval, to be the best just so that her father would be proud of her. Was that why she was so competitive? Did she still feel the need to win the approval of others by being the best?

She stepped carefully over a felled tree. "And then let's see, there was my boyfriend freshman year in college, Derek. He was really into white water rafting, hiking, whatever. He broke up with me when I wouldn't sleep with him. And you know about Claude. He insisted on taking me rock climbing." She pushed aside the dense brush that blocked the path downward. "Of course, he broke up with me after I slept with him." She recited the information flatly, emotionlessly.

Clark stopped walking, an almost physical pain welling up in his soul. "Lois, I'm…"

"Sorry, I know," she finished for him, still walking. "But there isn't any reason for you to be. I know this is going to sound absurd, Clark, but I don't regret my past." She stopped and turned around to look at him. He couldn't read her expression, but there was a certain earnestness in her eyes. "I wouldn't wish it on anyone else, and I'm mad at myself because it took me so long to finally learn from it, but I am who I am because of what I've done and what I've been through. Being hurt made me learn to be strong. I don't regret how I turned out so I can't regret what made me this way."

Her words made painful sense, but that didn't stop him from wanting to gather her in his arms and hold her until the hurt he knew was buried inside went away. He wanted more than anything to comfort her, or more precisely, to have been able to go back in time to provide comfort to a little girl who needed to know that she was special and worthy of love because of who she was, not what she accomplished.

He thought back on his own childhood and how even when he felt alone, terrified, and alienated, there was not one but two pairs of strong arms to gather him into a warm embrace and hold him. There were two people who loved him more than anything, who would always be there for him, and would protect him from harm. Every child needed that. He felt a slight quiver in his throat and the renewed tightening in his chest. He couldn't bear to think of her in pain. He mourned for a pain that he was powerless to have eased.

She frowned at him and shook her head. "I guess that was a lot more than you wanted to know." She began to turn around to continue.

He scrubbed a hand through his hair, fumbling to find the words to say what he needed to say. "I wanted to ask you, and I know it might be none of my business, so I'll understand if you don't want to answer, but…you don't believe me when I tell you that I love you, do you? You don't believe in love, Lois, do you?"

She turned back toward him. "You mean like head over heels and happily ever after? No, I don't. It's a nice idea, a fairy tale, like Superman, but not real. I never told you why I fell in love with Superman, did I? It's because deep down, I guess I've always known that Superman wasn't real. He was perfect, and defied reality, just like love. I could love him because neither he nor love existed in the real world. So long as I didn't really know Superman, he was perfect, and as long as he was perfect, he was safe to love."

He grimaced. "And then you found out how imperfect Superman really was. Lois, what I did that night was horrible and inexcusable, and I didn't mean it. I know that it doesn't make it right. I should have told you then, I should have told you my suspicions about Luthor. You would have believed Superman, even if you didn't believe Clark."

"Under the circumstances, I think you were entitled to get angry."

"I was hurt, but that doesn't justify the way I lashed out. What I said was just plain cruel. I don't know what came over me, but the lead lined robe crack, you have to know that I never, that I would never…"

She nodded unconvincingly, effectively cutting him off. "But then I told you that even if you were an ordinary man, I'd love you just the same, even though I'd just finished telling that ordinary man that I couldn't love him. Whatever you said, I deserved and much more."

"No you didn't."

"No matter how blind I seemed at that moment, I knew that what I was saying was the truth. You see, because Superman was perfect, and because that meant that he could never hurt me, he could never be an ordinary man. No ordinary man can be perfect, Clark, and so I never had to think about loving an ordinary man. I was incapable of it. I couldn't risk loving someone who would hurt me; perfect men don't hurt people. Imperfect men seem to make a habit of it.

"I know that isn't fair, but then you have to know that you're the most dangerous man I've ever met. If I've let myself be hurt by men like my father and Claude, men whose opinions shouldn't have mattered at all, what happens when someone I actually care about hurts me?"

"So you're just going to assume that everyone who loves you will one day let you down?" he asked, trying to conceal the bitterness he felt. His anger wasn't directed at her, but at those who had hurt her so much that she'd grown cold.

"Don't tell me how to live my life, Clark!"

"Fine, then tell me what it will take for you to believe me when I say I love you."

She looked at him for a long moment and then shook her head sadly. She turned away from him. "When you told me you didn't love me, it hurt. It hurt to know that you'd deceived me. But at the same time, I was…relieved, I guess. Because if you really had loved me, and I'd not only turned you down, but had then agreed to marry the one man you hated, that would have made me no better than Claude or my father."

"Lois, never say that."

"Don't try to sugarcoat it, Clark. I don't need to be protected from the truth." She turned to look at him with sheer conviction and determination in her eye. "You can't possibly love me. How can anyone love someone so thoroughly unlovable?"

He drew in a sharp, startled breath. "How could you possibly think that?"

She tilted her chin up defiantly. "So I guess you want to know why I accepted Lex's proposal?" She didn't answer his question. "I don't think I have to tell you that it was never about love. I guess on some twisted, Freudian level that it was nice to be admired by someone as well respected as Lex. Whatever he claimed, he never loved me, he may have convinced himself otherwise, but he couldn't have loved me. And I couldn't have loved him, could never have loved him, and so I thought that if I just told myself that, over and over, that being with him would be safe."

"He could never hurt me if I didn't think I was in love with him, if I wasn't surprised by his betrayals, if I anticipated the fact that one day his infatuation would fade. So I guess I trampled on the sacrosanct and decided to marry him because I didn't love him, because I thought a marriage based on mutual respect and the promise of adventure was the best I could hope for." She shook her head sadly. "I knew Lex wasn't perfect, I expected to find out things about him that I wouldn't like, but I never thought he would murder someone. I guess that just goes to show that I haven't learned as much as I'd thought I had."

"I don't believe in love, Clark, but I think that most people do because the idea of being alone forever terrifies them. Nobody wants to be alone."

***

'So what about the reason why you stopped your wedding?' her inner voice challenged her. 'You stopped your wedding because you realized that you were in love with Clark.' No, she'd simply *thought* that she was in love with Clark. It was another one of those stupid emotionally driven reflex responses that she needed to learn to ignore, but it had been enough to cause her to call off her marriage to Lex. She continued down the hill, trying to focus on maintaining her footing.

"I was raised by two people who've loved each other for thirty five years, who've been there for each other through everything, and who loved me unconditionally. I don't believe that love exists, Lois, I know that it does. When you rejected me for Superman, it didn't make me love you any less, when you accepted Luthor's proposal, I couldn't bring myself to care about you any less. While I cursed my luck for losing you to the only man I've ever hated, I loved you just the same. And when I lay dying in a Kryptonite cage, I knew that I had to find a way out because even though you were marrying Luthor, you may have needed me one day and I was going to be there for you. Whether or not you ever believe me, I have always loved you, Lois, and I will love you for the rest of my life. Nothing can change that." His voice was soft, quiet, and yet determined as he walked beside her. She knew that if she turned to look at him she would see that gentle, pleading look in his eyes, silently asking her to believe him. She studiously avoided his gaze.

They reached the bottom of the hill and the beginning of the maintained trail. A directional sign in front of them read 'Reservoir 2.5 miles.' "Almost there," she said.

***

They walked in silence for a while. He'd glumly resigned himself to the doghouse where he now seemed to reside. The possibility of getting back into Lois's good graces seemed to be diminishing with every passing moment. Trying to stop that window from closing, though, only served to make it close faster.

"So why did you lie then?"

Her question startled him. "Huh?" he replied inarticulately.

"You said that you've always been in love with me, so why did you take it back?"

"Because I figured that the last thing you needed at the time was another guy claiming to be in love with you. I thought you needed a friend and I couldn't be that friend if you thought that I might have ulterior motives."

"You mean if I thought you were trying to use friendship to get closer to me?"

"Yeah."

"Well, were you?"

He stopped immediately. "Lois, I don't know how many times I'll have to explain this, but I was not trying to manipulate you. Yes, I am in love with you and yes, nothing in the world would make me happier than for you to love me back, but I was not trying to seduce you. Damn it, if I was, I would have told you that I was Superman a long time ago!" he exclaimed, running a frustrated hand through his hair. He took a deep breath and tried to calm his rattled nerves.

He watched as she regarded him curiously. She looked as though she was surprised at the reaction she'd caused in him. It was infuriating how she knew exactly how to press his buttons, how to stir up his normally unflappable disposition. It was disconcerting how easily she could affect his every mood.

"Lois I wanted to be your friend because you could have used a friend, and because you are the best friend I've ever had. But you wouldn't let me be there for you, you pushed me away and now I understand why. I know that what I said and what I did were the reasons why we couldn't go back to the way it was before. To be honest, I don't want to go back there; I'm glad that I don't have to lie to you about anything, ever again."

"Is that a promise?" she asked. "Do you promise not to lie to me again?"

"Yes," he said without hesitation. "I will never intentionally lie to you again."

She said nothing in response to his affirmation. Instead she simply nodded and they began walking again. He sighed, emotionally exhausted. Their entire journey over these last few days had been nothing but long stretches of silence punctuated by brief but raw and charged, not arguments per se, more like confessions, apologies, recriminations and demands.

The near interminable bouts of quiet were necessary, he figured. They were at a point way beyond small talk and the more heated moments were too emotionally draining to allow for anything else in the interim. The times of silence were a salve for exposed wounds, an opportunity to collect himself, to count his emotional losses, and meager gains.

He felt like he was chipping away at an iceberg with a butter knife. His progress, if any, was infinitesimal, and what was more depressing was the fact that only a small fraction of the hurt and the anger and the pain had been exposed to him. He knew that so much more lay buried beneath the surface.

***

The remaining distance was covered quickly and quietly. Before long, they were standing at the edge of the reservoir. The sight of people boating and fishing seemed odd and incongruous considering the fact that they'd spent the last few days alone and isolated from 'the civilized world.'

Lois opened the squeaky screen door to the ranger station, a small plain wooden structure at the edge of the reservoir. The inside of the building was dimly lit and as plain as the exterior. If anyone happened to have been on duty in the building, they were certainly doing a good job of making themselves scarce. Lois made her way to the payphone in the corner with Clark a few paces behind her.

She dropped her pack beside the phone and rubbed absently at her shoulders. She dug around in her pockets but couldn't find the necessary change. She picked up the phone and placed a collect call to Perry's office number and waited for him to accept the charges.

"Lois, where are you? Why haven't you returned any of my calls?" her editor demanded.

"The cell phone isn't working," she explained quickly.

"Well listen, I got the proof that the documentation was forged and I turned it over to someone I know in the Army."

"Who? Can this guy be trusted?"

"Believe me, he can be trusted. The Military Police have already picked Sharp up and they're holding him pending charges, but we need to get the team out there into custody first. Have you found them yet?"

"That's why I'm calling. We found them, they're set up near some place called Threshing Machine Canyon."

"…who is that? Is that them? Have they located them yet?" She heard an unfamiliar voice yelling out in the background on Perry's end.

"Perry, who's there?"

"Brigadier General Thaddeus Roarbach, I'm an old friend of Perry's. White here was the only war correspondent I could ever stand," came the drawled response from the other end. "Is this Ms. Lane?"

"Yes it is," she replied.

"Ms. Lane, Perry here turned over all his evidence to us but claimed that you hadn't told him where this team was supposed to be. We need to send the MPs in there pretty damn quick to pick these boys up so we can get these charges to stick against General Sharp."

"And how can I be sure that the Army isn't going to take this information and quietly make it disappear?" she demanded.

"It's okay, go ahead and tell him, Darlin'." She heard Perry yell in the background.

Roarbach laughed gruffly. "Listen, Ms. Lane, I know that the Army and the Press aren't supposed to get along, but I think we can help each other out here. Like most people, I'm a fan of Superman's. A lot of other people in the military are as well. We appreciate what he's done for our country. These Bureau 39 nuts have been giving us a PR nightmare and I'd just as soon lock them all up in a loony bin."

"I wish more commanders in the military took your position, General."

"Sharp is going to get what's coming to him, Ms. Lane. He's in direct violation of his orders and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Now I just need to know where to send the cavalry so that we can bring this team into custody and get to work restoring the Army's reputation."

"The Daily Planet gets the exclusive." It was a statement and not a question.

"Major Tim Schoen, he's the MPs' commanding officer, has been instructed to talk to no members of the press except you and your partner, Ms. Lane. Just tell me where the team is so I can tell him and his boys where to go."

"The south end of Threshing Machine Canyon," she said.

"The MPs'll be there in 60 minutes Ms. Lane. After I call the info in to them, I'll put in a call to the ranger station out there and make sure to get you transport. Thank you."

She hung up the phone triumphantly. She had been a bit wary of turning the information over to Roarbach, but if Perry trusted him, she really had no choice but to do the same. She grinned broadly. "We're going to get them, Clark," she said. "And the exclusive."

He returned her smile. "Nice work…" she knew that he wanted to say something else, but he didn't continue.

"Partner," she finished for him.

"Partner," he affirmed with a slight nod, his grin getting a little wider.

"We don't have any time to waste," she explained as she picked up the phone again. "The Military Police are going to pick up the team in less than an hour and we need to get a ride back out to the canyon." She dialed the number of the main park office. She was excited to hear the voice on the other end confirm that he had just received the General's phone call and that they would be taken out to the Canyon to get the exclusive. She hung up the phone and grabbed her pack again.

"Did we get our ride?" Clark asked.

"Yep," she replied. "Let's go."

They didn't have long to wait outside before a four wheel drive vehicle pulled up outside the ranger station. The driver of the vehicle rolled down his window and all three of them shared a look of surprise and mutual recognition.

"It's you two," he stammered ineloquently.

"Indeed it is," Lois replied sarcastically to the ranger who'd so ineptly hit on her a few days ago.

"So you're the big shot Daily Planet reporters, huh?"

"Yeah, that's us, and if you don't mind, we're really in a hurry. Maybe we can talk about this while we're driving," Lois prodded him impatiently.

"Oh, sure," the ranger replied. "Hop in."

Lois and Clark both climbed into the backseat of the SUV. The ranger started the vehicle down the rough, unpaved path. They took a longer, more circuitous route than Lois and Clark had on their hike. The ranger was sticking to the paths and so was prevented from taking the direct path over the hills.

"Say, you wouldn't happen to be, oh, what was her name again, Lois Lane, yeah, that's it, Lois Lane, would you?" The park ranger interrupted what Lois had considered to be a comfortable silence. "You know, the one who almost married…"

"Yes, that's me," she replied irritably. "And this is my partner, Clark Kent."

"Yeah, Lane and Kent, like Woodward and Bernstein, I got it."

"Something like that," Lois mumbled.

"So you two aren't actually married, are you?"

"No," Lois replied. "You see, that's the main element of undercover work, you pretend to be something you aren't in order to get a story."

"I got ya." Obviously, the sarcasm and condescension oozing from Lois's words were lost on the park ranger. "My name's Bob, by the way. Yeah, I kinda figured you two weren't, you know, really together. I didn't want to say anything back in my office, but I'm a pretty observant guy, you know. I'm something of an investigator myself."

"I'm sure that you are, Bob," she replied, exasperated. She looked over at Clark, annoyed at his silence. He was wearing an amused grin and she couldn't see any evidence that he was planning on coming to her rescue any time soon.

They lapsed back into a much welcomed silence. Lois checked her watch. Forty minutes had passed since she'd spoken with the general. Judging by their current location, they would arrive in less than half an hour, probably just after the Military Police. She stared out the window at the passing scenery as the SUV bumped along the primitive road. She soon lost interest, however; she'd never been patient when it came to investigations. She wanted to dive in immediately, full speed ahead, damn the torpedoes and all of that. Patience was more Clark's strong suit.

Lois glanced over at her partner. Yes, she'd admitted it back there at the station. They were still partners, no matter what. Eventually, they'd be friends again. She'd started to slowly realize that. Lois didn't plan on shutting him out forever. He'd screwed up, there was no question about that, but lord, so had she. It wasn't hard to see that Clark, for all of his thickheadedness, had never meant to hurt her. His actions could have been called petulant and muleheaded, but not mean spirited or vindictive.

She, on the other hand, had rejected his declarations of love only to swoon over his alter ego and then agree to marry his worst enemy. It was as though she'd stabbed him in the back twice. Clark may not have been a jealous person by nature, but she swore that he'd behaved jealously of both Lex and Superman. How he could be jealous of himself didn't really make sense, but she knew that he was.

And in the end, Lex had almost killed him. He'd nearly died because of her selfishness and her foolishness. She'd been so blind as to agree to 'get in bed with the devil' as Clark had so aptly put it. Yet, when the truth finally presented itself, in all of its hideousness, he'd been there to comfort her. He'd protected her from the gruesome sight of her ex-fianc, plummeting to his death.

Goodness knew that he'd tried his best to be a friend, even if it meant doing something as stupid as lying to her about his feelings in order to save their friendship. If only he'd realized that what she'd needed more than anything at that moment was to know that she could trust him. She wondered if things would have been different if he'd been honest with her. If he'd let her speak first that day outside the Planet, she would have told him that she was falling for him.

But would that have been such a good thing? Was she ready at that moment to consider a serious relationship with anyone? She knew now that Clark hadn't been looking for a casual thing. The way he talked about it now, he was expecting a serious, committed relationship. No doubt, he was looking for what his parents had.

Back then, she wondered if what she was feeling was love. But surely the kind of love Clark spoke of wouldn't have fizzled and faded when she heard that the object of her affections didn't return her feelings. If she'd been in love with Clark, shouldn't she have stayed in love with him, even after he told her that he didn't love her?

So clearly, she hadn't been in love with him. True love couldn't be turned on and off, could it? And Lois knew that it had to be true love or nothing, she didn't have the time or patience to consider the possibility of loving someone, only to have them hurt you so that you ended up feeling empty and cold and bitter and used. She'd had enough of that already. That kind of love was not something she was prepared to deal with ever again.

She studied her partner as he stared silently out his window. His chin resting on his hand, his face was turned away from her and she scrutinized his profile. His rich, dark eyes were no longer obscured by his glasses and she noticed that he had fairly long eyelashes for a man. His thick black hair was tousled and the dark locks fell onto his forehead. He could have used a comb, but the unkempt look was somehow, endearing. He looked like a little boy, and in some ways, he was. Oh, he was a well-educated, articulate man and a world traveler, but in so many ways, he had the innocence of a child. He had an uncorrupted sense of right and wrong. He wasn't cynical or tough enough to make it in a city like Metropolis.

He was too trusting, and he didn't even realize it when he was being swindled. No, wait, that wasn't true. He realized it. She remembered when his apartment had been robbed. He'd been exposed to the ways of the big city, and of course there was everything he'd seen as Superman. He knew about corruption and maliciousness, but somehow, there was a part of him, that idealism and optimism, that didn't seem to waver, in spite of everything he'd experienced.

So he wasn't like the other men that she'd known. But that didn't mean that she was in love with him. He may not have hurt her out of spite, but he was still capable of hurting her, and his previous deceit had affected her greatly. Obviously, what she'd been feeling back then hadn't really been love. If it had been, she would still love him now, and she didn't.

Or did she?

'Where did that come from?' she wondered angrily. Of course she wasn't in love with Clark. What would cause her to consider a stupid thing like that? She didn't have the opportunity to dwell on those errant thoughts any longer as the park ranger stopped the SUV. She looked out her window to see a HUMVEE in front of them on the path.

A soldier came over to Bob's window and the two spoke quietly. When the soldier was satisfied with who they were and what their business there was, he allowed them to pass. The vehicle crawled slowly forward into the makeshift field headquarters of the Bureau 39 group that was now overrun by Military Police.

There were clusters of MPs, recognizable by their armbands, giving orders to disarmed soldiers who were standing in neat rows. Apparently the Bureau 39 men had surrendered without much incident. Others were being led away in handcuffs, Lois assumed that these men had been the officers. Several MPs appeared to be questioning some of the men, others were leading men to the HUMVEEs. In the middle of all of it stood a man in his thirties who appeared to be giving orders to all the other MPs. Lois figured that he must have been Major Schoen.

The man she had recognized as the one in charge waved to their SUV and Bob pulled over in a corner of the clearing, out of the way. Lois and Clark got out of the car and were greeted politely by the Major.

"I've got to thank you two for the tip off," Major Schoen said. "The General tells me that you busted this thing wide open, and I don't have to tell you that this is the last thing the Army needs. So, General Roarbach was hoping that we'd get a fair shake from you two in exchange for interviews and all that. We want you to know that the Army doesn't condone or tolerate this kind of behavior, nor are the views of General Sharp the official policy of the Army. The President has declared Superman to be a friend, so the Army considers him one. Sharp is a deviant, Ms. Lane, Mr. Kent, he's not the norm. General Sharp and the people working with him will be brought to justice. They'll have their day in court and they will be punished, severely."

"That's very reassuring to hear, Major…" Lois began.

"Say, you two don't know what these guys thought they would find out here, do you?" Major Schoen asked.

"Uh, no, no I can't say that we do," Lois replied.

"Hmmph, probably just more of those imaginary space rocks," Schoen muttered.

Lois smiled nervously in agreement. She noticed that Clark wasn't paying attention and turned to look at him. He'd obviously been distracted by something, and she followed his gaze until she saw them. It was the two men who'd tried to kill Clark. They were both staring at her partner incredulously. The MP they were being interrogated by also noticed that the two were distracted by something. The MP and Major Schoen made eye contact and the Major signaled the MP, who brought the two over with him.

"Do you two know these folks," he demanded of the two soldiers. The soldiers said nothing. "What about you, Mr. Kent, are these men familiar to you?"

"Well, I uh…" Clark stammered.

"These are the men who attacked Mr. Kent," Lois provided coolly for him.

"They did what?" Major Schoen barked. "You were attacked by them?" he asked Clark.

"Yes sir," Clark replied, respectfully. "I encountered them in the woods yesterday when Ms. Lane and I were trying to track these guys."

"And what did they do to you?" Major Schoen had suddenly gone from interviewee to interviewer.

"I can't honestly say I remember," Clark explained. "One minute, I realized that they'd found me and the next thing I knew, it was this morning. Ms. Lane must have found me somehow."

"And you have no idea what happened to you?"

"They hit him. Repeatedly," Lois said without emotion. "They knocked him unconscious and dropped him in the creek. Leaving him for dead."

"You were there?" Schoen asked.

"I was hiding. They didn't see me and I don't think Mr. Kent knew I was there. I managed to pull him out of the water once these two," she looked over at the soldiers who refused to make eye contact, "were gone. He wasn't breathing and he needed artificial respiration."

"Get these two out of here," Schoen growled at the MP, who then handcuffed the two soldiers and led them away. Schoen turned back toward Lois and Clark. "Well for a man who was beaten within an inch of his life, Mr. Kent, you look fairly healthy to me."

"I guess they didn't hit me as hard as they'd thought," Clark replied.

"He was semiconscious from late yesterday afternoon until early this morning," Lois added. "But his other injuries didn't seem serious."

"And you had the necessary medical expertise to assess his condition?" the Major asked.

"I've had some first aid training," Lois replied. "Besides, we were out in the middle of nowhere with no way of contacting help. I did what I could for him and when he woke up all right this morning, I figured whatever it was had worked."

"You're a lucky man, Mr. Kent," Major Schoen said, scrutinizing the faint bruises and the fading scratches on his face that were unnoticeable if one wasn't expressly looking for them. "But you may still have suffered a concussion. You should see a doctor."

"Uh, no," Clark replied quickly and forcefully. "That's not necessary, really. I feel fine. No headaches, dizziness, nothing like that."

"Well, I can't force you to see a doctor, though it would help us bring charges against those two if we could show that you suffered injuries."

"I'm afraid there won't be much to show," Clark admitted nervously. Lois realized that he was probably terrified of the idea of seeing a doctor.

"Well then, we'll see what we get out of them when they're questioned. I want to let you know that you two will have to testify regarding all of this."

"Oh we know," Clark replied casually.

"But if you need it, first we can arrange for both of you to talk to someone," Schoen continued.

"One of the MPs or a military lawyer?" Lois asked.

"Neither, no I mean like a crisis counselor," the Major explained.

"What for?" Lois asked.

"Well, you've both been through quite an ordeal, Mr. Kent, it seems you're lucky to still be alive, and Ms. Lane, you say you did witness your partner almost being killed. Don't worry, our crisis counselors are very experienced with post traumatic stress…"

Lois and Clark shared a look. She had to suppress a laugh. "We'll be fine, Major," Lois assured him.

"Look, Ms. Lane, you may feel fine now, but it might help to talk with someone who has some experience with this stuff."

"You don't follow our work very closely, do you, Major?" she asked him with a bemused smile.

"I can't say that I do," he admitted.

"Well, believe me, we do have a lot of experience with this stuff," Lois assured him.

"Are you saying that people try to kill you often?"

"She makes a weekly pastime of it, sir," Clark quipped.

Lois shot him a look.

"So this is normal for you two, is that what you're saying?"

"No, not exactly," Lois admitted. "Normally, we have to catch the bad guys ourselves, but I guess you took care of that for us this time."

Major Schoen shook his head and laughed. "I thought reporters just reported the news, and were a general pain in the butt."

"Believe me, sir, you ought to start reading the Planet. You'll see, Lois makes a habit of catching the bad guys herself, well, with Superman's help, that is."

"Tell you what, you give the Army a fair story, and you've got yourselves another dedicated reader."

"Yes sir," Lois replied.

She and Clark finished getting quotes as the MPs began to escort the soldiers and officers away from the site. They seized all of the scientific equipment and loaded it into the waiting trucks. Lois and Clark thanked Major Schoen and made their way back to the SUV where Bob was waiting rather impatiently for them. He sat up straighter when he saw them approach and he started the engine, apparently in a rush to get away from there.

Lois and Clark sat quietly together in the back seat of the car. She glanced over at him and caught him looking at her. He smiled genuinely at her and she found herself returning the smile. The excitement of nailing the exclusive seemed to overshadow her previous feelings of anger and bitterness. Had she forgiven him? Maybe, she wasn't quite sure just yet.

Before long, the SUV pulled up beside the park office, where Lois and Clark had entered the park a few days earlier. It was funny, but it seemed like ages ago, not mere days. So much had changed since then. Things between her and Clark were so different than they were a few days ago. They weren't better just yet, but there was reason to believe that they would be. She still wasn't sure she even believed in the kind of love he talked about, but she did believe in friendship and she hoped that they could get that back. They climbed out of the SUV and slung their heavy packs back onto their shoulders.

"Thanks, Bob," Clark said graciously as he closed his car door. He looked over at Lois and she blushed sheepishly, having been caught staring at her partner. He smiled slightly in response.

"Sure thing. You know, I knew you two weren't a real couple, like I said before, I'm something of an investigator…" Bob began to enumerate his own detective skills to the two people who'd already started off toward the truck.

"You know, Clark, we should have brought a bigger sleeping bag. I mean, mine's just too small for both of us to sleep in comfortably," Lois spoke loudly. She heard Clark's sharp intake of breath and noticed him fall slightly out of step with her, but he recovered nicely. She sneaked a glance at her partner, who looked as though she'd hit him with a two by four between the eyes. Of course, when he was his normal super powered self, a two by four between the eyes would probably have done a lot less damage than that comment.

She was dying to turn around to see the look she knew would be on Bob the ranger's face. She'd spoken loudly enough for him to hear, she was certain of it.

"You wanted him to hear that," Clark hissed as he approached the truck.

"Of course I did," Lois replied nonchalantly.

"Why?" Clark asked.

"I was doing him a favor," Lois replied with a smirk.

Clark shook his head and laughed softly as he unlocked the passenger side door and held it open for his partner.

***

Clark took the opportunity to surreptitiously glance over at Lois as he drove the truck down the rural highway back toward the farmhouse. Their flight back to Metropolis wasn't until the next morning so they would have plenty of time to write up the story and email it to Perry from the farmhouse. That way they'd be able to make the morning edition and scoop everyone else. Lois was staring quietly out her window, a thoughtful expression on her face.

Like him, she'd been running around in the wilderness for the past three days without so much as a mirror let alone any of the civilized amenities like a hot shower. Somehow, with her hair tied back in a ponytail, wearing old, beat up jeans and a flannel shirt, she was still the most beautiful woman he'd ever seen.

He wondered what it was about this woman that made her so special to him. It wasn't how beautiful she was. He'd known plenty of attractive women, none he considered to be beautiful as Lois, but very pretty in their own right, and none of them had really captured his attention, despite the efforts that many had directed toward him. It wasn't even her sharp wit and intelligence, though he was in constant awe of them. For all the beautiful women he'd met, he'd known a good number of brilliant ones as well, and he'd never loved any of them. He admired Lois's intelligence, but you didn't love someone because they were smart.

No, he loved Lois neither for her brains nor her beauty, but for her heart, the heart she'd tried so desperately to hide from the rest of the world. He loved her for who she was, her strength, her passion, her convictions, her well masked vulnerabilities, her hopes, her dreams, her fears. If he succeeded in nothing else, he would convince her that who she was was lovable.

Out of the corner of his eye he could see that she'd fallen asleep. She looked so peaceful, there was no trace of the hellion she could be when she was awake. In her defense, though, her wrath was usually directed toward criminals, perpetrators of injustice, and others who deserved it. However, he personally had caught more than his fair share of flak from Mad Dog Lane. And while Lois Lane could be a relentless adversary, she was also a fiercely loyal friend, and despite what she thought, he did know that he could trust her and in fact, he trusted her more than anyone.

She seemed so small when she was asleep. Normally, her larger than life personality was enough to intimidate and could make anyone forget that she was in fact, a slender and petite woman. He still wasn't sure how she'd managed to drag him out of the river and to safety. He was a pretty heavy guy, and yet he was certain that even if he'd weighed a solid ton, Lois would have found some way to move him. That was Lois Lane, the quintessential irresistible force. He smiled slightly to himself. She'd brushed off the events of the previous day very casually, but from her comments to the Major, Clark was finally able to piece together what had happened.

Lois had, of course, put herself in danger to save him. She'd risked being discovered by the soldiers by hiding and waiting to rescue him. Then there was the matter of taking care of him. Lois had never really been the Florence Nightingale type and there was no doubt that she'd been more than annoyed at having to share a sleeping bag with him minus the clothing. He'd been surprised at her ability to find the humor in the situation. A while back he would have sworn that she would have been fuming at him for putting her in that position.

Her response to the events may have surprised him a bit, but there was no doubt as to his own feelings. Lois had saved his life and for that he would be forever grateful. But what was foremost in his mind was the memory of waking up that morning and what he would have given for that to have been real. He could still feel her arms around him, holding him tightly. His heart beat a little faster at the memory of the warmth of her skin and the feeling of her body pressed against him.

He couldn't even begin to express even in his own thoughts how much he wished that she'd been holding tightly to him like that, not because she'd had to in order to save his life, but because she wanted to, because she loved him. Nothing would have made him happier than for the two of them to wake up every morning in each others' arms, knowing that when he'd turn to look at her he'd see love in her eyes.

He pulled off of the highway at the Smallville exit and continued down the road past the town and toward his parents' farm. He drove past Schuster's field and took the turn onto the long driveway to the farmhouse. The sight of his childhood home was a welcomed one. He craved a hot shower, a good meal and a comfortable bed to sleep in. Being without his powers again reminded him of the annoying little things that other people had to put up with — like the fact that sleeping on the ground outdoors was neither comfortable nor particularly restful.

He pulled the truck to a stop and put it in park before quietly killing the engine. "Lois," he said softly. She stirred slightly and with a slight smile, she slowly opened her eyes. "We're here," he added.

He hopped out of the truck and opened her door before she had the opportunity to do so. With a softly spoken 'thanks' she slid out of the truck and picked up her pack. He closed her door and they walked together to the farmhouse.

***

Martha heard a truck pull up outside the house. It was too early for Jonathan to be back from town she realized. She went to the window and saw the older truck outside. Lois and Clark were back. She opened the door for them and tried to hide the smile forming on her lips at the sight of the two haggard and weary young reporters. She promised them that a hot meal would be waiting for them after they'd finished cleaning up. Clark quickly offered Lois the first chance to take a shower, an offer the young woman accepted gratefully.

After showing Lois where the towels were and throwing both Lois and Clark's dirty clothes in the washing machine, Martha returned to the kitchen to find her son standing about rather aimlessly.

"So what happened?" she asked nonchalantly.

Clark sighed heavily in response. "Before or after I found the Kryptonite?"

"Oh dear," she replied. "Are you okay?"

"No powers again," he replied with a shrug. He sat down at the kitchen table. "They'll be back soon, though. But the good guys caught the bad guys and we got the exclusive story."

"Thank goodness," she said, relieved.

"But Lois knows, Mom," he said soberly.

"Knows what?" she asked, afraid that she knew the answer.

"She knows everything. After I found the Kryptonite, some of the Bureau 39 guys found me. Lois saved my life, but she also found out I'm Superman."

"Are you afraid?"

"Of her saying something to someone? No, of course not, I know that Lois will keep the secret. But I really wish she hadn't found out this way. She was having a tough enough time trusting me before she knew that I was keeping a huge secret about myself from her. At least I know she doesn't hate me," he conceded.

"I don't think she ever hated you, Clark. The last few months have been tough for her, but Lois is a smart young woman. Given what she's gone through, it might take some time for her to get used to trusting someone again."

"I hope that's all it is," he said.

"Honey, Lois isn't just a very smart woman, she's a very strong one, too. She'll get through this, just be patient, and be the friend that she needs."

Clark nodded slightly. "All right," he agreed.

The sounds of footsteps on the stairs put an end to the mother son conversation. Lois smiled at them as she entered the kitchen, looking refreshed after finally having the opportunity to get cleaned up.

Clark stood up from the table. "I'll just be a few minutes," he said. "Then we can get started on the story. We'll be able to email it to Perry from the den."

Lois grinned at him. "Then we'll have to call him and explain to him how to retrieve it from his email account."

"Well you know what Perry thinks of computers," Clark said with a chuckle.

"Glorified typewriters that always break down an hour before deadline," they spoke in unison, doing their best impersonations of Perry's gruff southern drawl.

Martha couldn't help but laugh. Smiling to herself, she realized that Clark's situation probably wasn't as bad as he'd assumed. Lois had already forgiven him, even if she hadn't admitted it to him, or to herself, yet. She wondered if she should broach the subject now, or wait until after the kids had finished their work. She got up and poured two cups of coffee. She placed one of the mugs in front of Lois and held the other in her hands as she sat back down at the table.

"So I guess Clark told you everything," Lois began. Well, that solved Martha's dilemma for her.

"About the Kryptonite, you saving his life, finding out he's Superman?" Martha asked gently.

Lois merely nodded. She started to take a sip of her coffee but stopped suddenly. "Wait, does this mean that you and Jonathan have powers, too?"

"Oh, goodness, no, honey," Martha said with a knowing smile and a hint of laughter in her voice. "Jonathan and I are about as ordinary as you can get. We found Clark when he was just a little baby. He was the cutest little thing." Martha smiled proudly. "He was sent here by his mother and father on Krypton because the planet was dying. We don't know why they couldn't save themselves, but I can tell you that Jonathan and I feel that we were blessed and still do every single day that they were able to send their boy to us. We're sure that they would be just as proud as we are of who he is today."

"He really is a wonderful man," Lois agreed.

"But really thickheaded sometimes. I'm afraid there doesn't seem to be much of anything that can knock any sense into that invulnerable skull of his." Martha quietly gauged Lois's reaction to her sudden change in tone, pretending not to notice the look of surprise on Lois's face. "I mean, honestly, the way he dealt with the Daily Planet being blown up, he just moved back out here and sulked and moped about, upset about how he'd lost your friendship, but not willing to do anything about it." Martha shook her head disapprovingly.

"But Martha…" Lois began to protest. "That's not exactly fair."

"I'm just calling it like I see it," Martha replied evenly. "It seems like in the past six months, he tried to plan everything in life out, and every time things didn't go the way he planned, he sulked, what were Jonathan and I supposed to think? Well, at least he seems to realize how lucky he is that you're taking all of this so well." Martha sipped her coffee nonchalantly.

"Hold on a second. What happened months ago wasn't Clark's fault, it was mine. I was the one who decided to marry Lex, even though I really regret making that decision. He probably could have handled it better…"

"Like, by talking to you as Superman about why he didn't trust Lex?"

"Exactly!" Lois exclaimed. "But even though he didn't always take the best course of action, neither did I! And he really was trying to do the right thing, Martha. What happened this summer…he tried to repair our friendship, but I wouldn't let him! He just didn't realize that knowing that he'd lied to me made it impossible for me to trust him then."

"Lied to you about Superman?"

Lois shook her head. "No, he lied about how he felt about me, although now he says that what I thought was a lie was the truth and when I thought he was telling me the truth, he was really lying."

"Whoa, slow down, honey, you've lost me."

"Tell me about it!" Lois exclaimed. "It confused me, too!" She sighed and continued, "Clark says that he loves me, that he's in love with me, and I think that he thinks he is."

"But you think he's wrong?"

"I don't know what I think anymore, Martha. "But as thickheaded as he can be, he only had the best intentions, and you of all people ought to be defending him!" her voice grew bolder as she made that final declaration. Martha felt Lois's intent gaze as the younger woman waited for her response.

Martha nodded slightly as though the younger woman's comment had given her pause. She sipped her coffee slowly. "Maybe," she said at last. "But it looks like I don't have to."

Lois opened her mouth to respond, but only sighed instead before shaking her head. Martha knew that the younger woman had realized that she'd been had. Lois smiled at last. "I know Clark didn't put you up to this, he wouldn't have been so sneaky!"

Martha merely laughed. "No he certainly didn't. But I thought you might have some questions about all of this and it might be easier to talk to someone other than Clark about them. Besides, I'm so glad to finally be able to talk to another woman about my boy." Martha smiled knowingly at the young woman across the table from her. She'd grown very fond of Lois and she was relieved to find the rift between Lois and her son was not as great as it had once been. They had a long way to go, but she was certain that they'd figure it all out.

***

Lois smiled triumphantly as she clicked on the 'send' button. The story was now safely on its way to Perry. She turned to look at Clark, who was leaning over her shoulder, looking at the computer screen. "Nice job, Partner," he congratulated her.

"You didn't do so bad yourself," she said with a smile.

"Sorry," he said softly as he leaned further to pick up the cordless phone off its cradle on the desk. He took a step back and dialed a number from memory. She spun around in the swivel chair and watched as he patiently explained the brand new network system to their editor. He paced slightly as he spoke, seemingly oblivious to everything around him. He'd showered and changed into a tee shirt and jeans and was wearing his spare glasses. It was almost as though he was just plain old Clark again, the Clark she'd known for well over a year now.

But he wasn't. And he never would be again.

Things between them were different now. After yesterday, things between them could never again be the same. Though the possibility of things between them going back to normal may have been forever destroyed because of her near wedding to Lex. Had her brain gone on vacation then? What on earth had possessed her to make the stupid choices she'd made? She couldn't figure out her own reasons for her behavior back then, there was little chance that she'd understand why Clark had done what he'd done. Whatever had been the cause of their insanity, they had to live with their actions, but even if things couldn't go back to the way they'd once been, she'd be damned if she was going to let their friendship be a casualty of their stupidity.

Her resolve startled her. Did her friendship with Clark mean that much? She didn't really have to ask, she knew the answer right away. It did. She'd realized that yesterday, when she'd been faced with the possibility of losing him. The thought had terrified her.

And then, despite the fact that he was okay, in a way, she lost him anyhow. She'd lost the Clark that she'd known before. In his place was an amalgamation of two men that she thought she'd known, but in reality, she wasn't sure how well she'd known either of them.

To complicate things further, he told her that he loved her. Could they go back to friendship after that? Everything was just so confusing. She didn't even know how she felt. At one time she would have sworn that she was in love with Superman, days later, she thought she'd been falling for Clark, then she didn't know how she felt about either of them, now she knew that there was no 'either,' they were one and the same, and she was even more perplexed.

Clark leaning across the desk again to hang up the phone startled her out of her reverie. He ran a hand through his hair. "I um, was planning to go for a walk and was hoping maybe that you'd care to join me."

"Sure," she replied. They needed to talk some more and maybe walking around a bit might make initiating the conversation easier. She followed Clark out of the den. He stopped at the closet by the front door in order to retrieve their jackets. He handed her her jacket and held the door open for her.

For a while they walked quietly around the farm. She'd grown very comfortable with Clark's walking pace, with his long, unhurried stride-something that had initially annoyed her. Before, she was certain that he didn't move fast enough. Now, she wondered if it was she who didn't know how to move slowly enough. He didn't poke along, but he seemed to move at a pace that allowed him to quietly take in everything that was going on around him. Leave it to Clark to value the journey as much as the destination.

They walked around the barn to the quiet little duck pond. The farm was pretty in the autumn, the trees skirting the boundaries of the farm were draped in the vibrant colors of the season, but the fiery reds, oranges, and yellows were tempered by the cold temperatures and a sharp breeze.

Clark finally broke the silence. "I realized that you probably have a lot of questions, about you know, me being Superman, and I thought this was a good time for me to try to answer them."

"I guess I do," she began. "Martha explained a lot of things to me while you were taking a shower, but there is some stuff I want to ask you."

"Uh oh, she didn't tell you anything embarrassing, did she?"

Lois grinned. "Wouldn't you like to know?"

Clark faked a grimace. "Well, here goes the damage control. Okay, what do you want to know?"

Lois turned to face her partner. "Let's see, your mother said you started getting your powers in junior high and that you started flying when you were eighteen, right?"

Clark smiled and nodded. "That's right."

"Which means you weren't always Superman, so when did you become him?"

"I've been using most of my powers for as long as I've had them, well except for the freezing breath, I didn't really find it all that useful before I became Superman, I mean, it's a good way to cool a soda or a beer, but it was probably my least useful power. Anyway, one of the reasons I moved around a lot was because I'd use my powers to help somehow and people would start to get suspicious. Superman was just supposed to be a way for me to help without people realizing that it was me doing all this stuff. My mom and I had just finished the costume when I heard about the trouble on the shuttle launch."

"Hey, wait a minute, I remember you saying that your mother made the suit for you!" Lois exclaimed. "So you weren't kidding?"

Clark merely grinned. He regarded her seriously for a long moment. "You know, you gave me the idea of Superman."

"Yeah right."

"Well, as I recall you were the one who told me to bring a change of clothes to work."

"Do you do everything I tell you to do?" Lois teased.

Clark shrugged. "Within reason."

She smacked him playfully on the arm. "So I told you to bring a change of clothes to work and you took that to mean Spandex tights and a cape?"

"Something like that. But you did a lot more than that, Lois. When I started, I had no idea how to be Superman, I mean, I knew how to rescue people, but not how to deal with being a celebrity or a role model. You, on the other hand, seemed to know an awful lot about how a Superhero should think and behave. I just did what I figured you'd expect me to do."

"Yeah, well, you had me fooled." She realized that he would probably take her statement to mean that she was mad at him for making her think that Superman was real. Maybe she still was.

"Lois, I hope you understand how sorry I am for deceiving you. I never enjoyed lying to you, or making you think I was two different people. I know you told Superman things that you wouldn't have told Clark and that you confided things in Clark that you didn't want Superman to know about…"

"Has anyone ever told you how confusing it is to hear you refer to yourselves in the third person?" Lois interrupted.

He laughed. "My mom's mentioned it once or twice." His expression suddenly became more serious again. "I just wanted you to know that I never wanted to manipulate you or your feelings, that wasn't my intent at all."

"Even if you had, I would have deserved it, how stupid could I have been, claiming to be in love with part of you and not even realizing that the two of you were one person? Great, now I'm even confusing myself." She laughed mirthlessly. "While I get why you couldn't tell me right away, I just wish that you could have told me later, once we'd become friends. Did you think I would turn it into a story?"

"Of course not, Lois! I did have my reasons, I'm just not sure I know how to explain them. I mean, I told you that I loved you, and so I should have trusted you, but the fact of the matter was, I couldn't tell you because of the way you felt about Superman."

"What do you mean?"

"How would you have taken finding out that your hero was just me? You said that you loved Superman, but you didn't love Clark. Could you still love Superman, knowing he was just me? And for me, that wouldn't have been enough. I didn't want you to love me as Superman. I wanted you to love me as Clark, and you told me you couldn't do that."

"And then I told Superman I would have loved him if he'd been an ordinary man." She grimaced. "I'm sorry, Clark."

Clark merely shrugged. "It's in the past."

"But it must have hurt a lot."

He nodded stiffly. "Clark is who I am, who I've always been, but it seems like Superman has been taking over my life. And in case you hadn't noticed, he's pretty darn impossible to compete with sometimes."

"Maybe"

"Maybe?"

"Superman isn't the person I couldn't get out of my head when I was walking down the aisle. Superman isn't the person who made me say 'I can't' instead of 'I do.'"

Clark looked at her incredulously. "I thought Perry and Henderson stopped the wedding," he said gravely.

She shook her head. "I did. I stopped the wedding because I was getting married to one man and all I could think about was another man." She turned away. Why was she saying this? She was asking for trouble, and yet she couldn't stop.

He grabbed her shoulder. "Lois?" He spoke her name as both a plea and a demand.

She finally acquiesced and looked at him. "You," she whispered. "I was thinking about you."

He closed his eyes and let out a ragged breath.

"I couldn't stop thinking about you, how much I was going to miss you, how much I needed your friendship." The red warning lights were flashing. She knew that she should have shut her mouth right then and there, but of course, seeing as how she always had to dive in, even when she knew the water was too shallow, she plunged head first anyway. "If you had let me go first that day outside the Planet, I would have told you that I thought I was falling in love with you, too."

His eyes snapped open and he looked like he'd been hit by a cement mixer. He opened his mouth to speak, but said nothing. His eyes pleaded with her for some sort of explanation.

"I got so mad at you when you took it back. I was so confused and embarrassed and *angry* when you said that you'd only told me that to keep me from marrying Lex."

"But you said that you couldn't love me, not like that," he whispered hoarsely.

"I couldn't let myself love you because I was afraid that you'd hurt me and I wouldn't be able to take it, but just because I knew it was stupid didn't keep me from thinking I'd fallen in love with you anyway!"

"And instead of trying to show you that I'd never hurt you, I lied and told you that I didn't love you." She could hear the dulled pain in his voice.

"You couldn't have known, Clark," she whispered.

He shook his head and looked away. "I may not have meant to do it, but I hurt you anyway."

"Like you said, it's in the past." She started walking again. He remained still, but eventually started after her and caught up quickly.

He stepped out in front of her, effectively stopping her. "Lois, please, I can't lose your friendship. Not when we're this close to getting it back, not now, not after everything we've already gone through."

She frowned at him, wondering why she'd brought up that ancient hurt in the first place. Maybe it was because she felt like she needed to be totally honest as well. She needed to get rid of everything, the sins of omission as well as the lies. "You aren't going to get rid of me that easily, Kent," she said at last.

He smiled and immediately threw his arms around her, pulling her into a fierce hug. She was startled, but she managed to relax and even hug him back. His body tensed and he pulled away from her, a sheepish expression on his face. She merely smiled and shook her head, silently letting him know that it was all right and that she wasn't upset about his reaction.

There was still much to be said, but she was quiet as they continued walking. He too, said nothing, and like her, was probably thinking of the best way to drag the past out into the light without opening old wounds again.

He stopped in front of a large oak tree that held aloft an old, but sturdy looking treehouse. The treehouse was more than a simple box wedged between the branches of the tree. It had actually been built around the trunk of the tree.

"What's this?" Lois asked.

Clark gave her a disapproving look. "Don't you know Superman's secret lair when you see it?"

"Oh, so this is where he goes when he isn't saving the universe."

Clark's stern expression dissolved into a lopsided smile. "What were you expecting, a secluded underground cave?"

"Maybe, or an ice fortress in Antarctica."

"An ice fortress, huh?" The suggestion gave him pause. "How about we go up and explore?"

"Not afraid of getting caught?" she teased.

"Me? Afraid of Superman? I don't think so," Clark said with a confident smile. He jumped up to pull down the rope ladder from where it lay gathered against one of the branches. After several attempts, he succeeded and the ladder unfurled. "Haven't had to go up this way in years," he explained. "Don't worry, it's totally safe."

She climbed up the rope ladder to the little landing. In front of her was a small, four sided building with a slanted roof that looked just tall enough for Clark to stand up in. A wooden sign next to the doorway declared this the 'Fortress of Solitude.' It was a very somber and serious name for a little boy's treehouse, she reflected.

"So what do you think?" Clark asked as he stepped up onto the landing.

"Where's the 'no girls allowed' sign?" she teased.

"Are you kidding, I got rid of that, what, three, no four years ago." He said proudly.

Lois rolled her eyes. Clark held open the little wooden door and said gallantly, "after you."

Lois ducked a little as she stepped into the little room. The trunk of the tree came straight up through the middle of the floor and up through the roof. She could tell that a lot of care had been taken in building the sturdy structure to keep from injuring the tree. The treehouse was very neatly kept, she noticed; the treasures of his childhood were arranged on the neat little shelves that he'd probably built with his father when he was a boy. Pushed up against one wall was an old footlocker. A little rug covered part of the wooden floor and while there were no chairs in the treehouse, there was a single stool and some large, comfortable looking cushions situated in one corner.

She heard the sound of a match being struck and turned to see Clark lighting several candles. "Superman ought to call an electrician," he said gravely. The light from the candles brightened up the small room.

"So why was this the Fortress of Solitude?" she asked.

"My dad and I built this when I was eleven," he explained, he made his way over to the cushions and sat down. "I'd just started to become invulnerable and was faster and stronger than all the other kids at school. I was really scared and I was convinced I was some kind of freak. I decided to keep my differences a secret, but I wanted a place where I could be alone and not be afraid of being different." His expression was open and she could see that he was telling her this because he didn't want to keep things from her.

She sat down beside him. "That must have been so difficult," she said quietly.

"It was tough," he admitted. "But I always had my parents. Even though they didn't know what it was like, I knew that they would always be there for me. I did have friends, I just got used to the idea that there were things about me that I could never tell them."

"And so you learned to hide and pretend."

"Yeah. That was really tough when I started flying. I loved it, Lois. It was the greatest feeling in the world, and I had to hide it and only fly at night when it was dark, and even then I had to be careful. For the first time, I saw my powers as a gift. Something as wonderful as being able to fly wasn't a curse, and even though I had no idea why I could do these things, I stopped being afraid of them. I accepted them as part of who I was."

"You didn't know why you had your powers?"

He shook his head. "I didn't know if I was a science experiment gone wrong or an alien from outer space. I didn't know anything about why I was different until last year, when I found the globe." He got up and crossed the small room, kneeling beside the footlocker, he opened it.

She felt her jaw drop as she saw a perfect, glowing sphere rise up, floating in the air in front of him. He walked back toward her and the globe followed like a puppy dog on a leash. He sat back down and held out his hand. The globe hovered over it and softly fell into his palm. He stared at it intently and suddenly, in a brilliant flash of light, an image of a serious looking man appeared. She heard a voice, echoing from all around them and listened in rapt attention as the hologram spoke.

***

The hologram faded away and Clark felt the same tightness in his throat he'd experienced the first time he'd seen the image of his father saying goodbye. The globe ceased glowing and lay still in his hand, looking like nothing more than an innocuous paper weight. He looked up at Lois; her eyes were unusually bright. She bit her lip.

"He'd be proud of you, Clark," she said at last, a slight waver to her voice.

He cleared his throat and stood up. "Do you think so?"

"I know he would." She stood beside him.

Clark nodded absently, wondering what he would have said to his father if he'd had the chance to meet him. There were so many things he wanted to ask, questions he'd never have the answer to. He often wondered if his birth parents would have been proud of him.

"Thank you for showing me this," she said. "I feel weird, thanking you, but it means a lot to me that you feel comfortable enough to share this with me."

Clark shook his head. "I don't want to keep anything from you, Lois. I want you to know about me." He reached out a tentative hand toward her, she didn't turn away. Emboldened, he caressed her cheek. He closed the distance between them and enfolded her in his arms. She wrapped her arms around his waist and hugged him tightly.

"I know what I said before, Clark, about how I feel about you, and to be honest, I don't know how I feel. You are my best friend, and I'm so glad to have that back, but everything else is so confusing."

"I know," he said softly, trying to commit to memory the way it felt to hold her in his arms.

"Almost losing you yesterday made me realize how much our friendship means to me, and that I wouldn't be able to take it if I lost you. It was stupid of me to push you away all this time."

"We both did a lot of stupid things. That doesn't matter now. As long as you want me, I'll always be your friend, no matter what," he said quietly.

"Promise?" she asked.

"I promise," he said. "I want you to know that I love you," he added.

"I know," she whispered.

He felt his heart beat a little faster. Did she just say she knew that he loved her? She didn't dismiss him, didn't tell him that she didn't believe in love. She said that she knew that he loved her, surely that was a good thing. He withdrew from their embrace reluctantly. He wanted to keep on holding her, but he needed to see her expression, he needed to know what she meant.

She seemed to have anticipated the questioning look on his face because as soon as they made eye contact, she began to speak. "I've never been loved the way you love me, so I hope you can forgive me for not knowing what to do, and for doing such a good job of making myself unlovable." She looked downward and tucked a strand of hair behind her ear in what he recognized was a nervous gesture.

He reached out a hand and tipped her chin up, looking into her eyes. "I think you're pretty lovable," he said.

"I want to believe that the forever kind of love is real," she said quietly.

"Let me prove to you that it is," he replied, taking her hands in his. "Every time you care about someone, it makes you vulnerable, because you take the risk of getting hurt, but I promise I'll always try not to hurt you. You mean so much to me, let me prove it."

"Clark, I…" Lois began. She reached out her hand to touch his face. He placed his hand on hers and held it to his cheek.

He smiled at her. "I managed to convince you that a man could fly, didn't I?" He watched her try to suppress a laugh.

He leaned forward and she did the same. Neither retreated, but instead she looked expectantly up at him. He bent his head down and covered her lips with his in the briefest whisper of a kiss. He felt an electric shock charge through him at that most innocent contact. He felt her hands slip around his waist as the kiss deepened.

His head was swimming and his knees were weak and all he could think about was the sweet smell of her hair, the taste of her lips, and the feel of her body pressed against his. The world around him melted away until there was nothing except the beautiful, vibrant and wonderfully responsive woman in his arms. Their lips parted and each took a shaky breath. He closed his eyes, and leaned forward until his forehead was touching hers. His arms still wrapped around her slender frame, he held her close to him. She shifted slightly to place her head upon his chest.

They stayed that way for a long while, neither moving nor speaking. The sun had set long before and the sky had grown dark. The cold wind stirred through the air, causing the candles to flicker. He felt her shiver. "Let's go back inside," he suggested. "I'm sure Mom has some hot apple cider waiting for us," he said with a simple smile that she returned.

***

Lois stepped down off the rope ladder; Clark was already waiting on the ground for her. In the darkness she could barely make out his face, but she knew he was smiling. She stayed close by his side as they walked back to the farmhouse and he obligingly placed his arm around her shoulder. For some reason, sitting by the fireplace with Clark and his parents sounded pretty darn good.

Even though it was cold and the bitter wind cut straight through her clothing to freeze her skin, she felt warm inside, at peace in a way that was completely unfamiliar to her. It took nothing more than a simple touch from Clark to keep at bay that coldness that had become part of her existence.

She was falling in love with him. She couldn't deny it any longer. She was falling in love with her partner and her best friend, the not so simple Kansas farmboy who had convinced her that she could trust him by showing her just how much he loved her.

THE END