Duet

By Shayne Terry <byron212@yahoo.com>

Rated: PG-13

Submitted: February 2002

Summary: In this Elseworld story, Clark Kent is a musician with a son and a secret to hide; but he's about to be discovered by hot-shot entertainment lawyer, Lois Lane.

Author's Note: I'd like to thank my beta readers: Wendy Richards, Jo March and especially Doc Klein's LabRat for all the help and useful suggestions they gave me. LabRat in particular was there from beginning to end for the full six months this took me to write, a long and grueling process that she was a real trouper in staying through till the end.

I'd also like to thank the readers at Zoom's Message Boards. Their support helped keep me on the right path, and their feedback kept me encouraged. Thanks for all the help.

Rights to all recognizable characters in this story belong to DC Comics and Warner Brothers, and no infringement is intended by their use in this story. Other characters are mine.

***

His voice was smoky, husky, filled with the pain of a lifetime of regrets, and as he began to sing, the darkened room fell silent. All eyes focused on a single dark figure perched on a stool at the end of the room, and his eyes seemed to be focused out into infinity.

He was lost in the music; his fingers caressed the strings of his instrument in a way that was almost sexual. His voice beckoned them all, sought to find a place in each of their hearts that resonated. As he segued from one song to the next, his eyes would sometimes focus and look out into the crowd. He'd play an entire set while focused on one person after the next. It was as though he was seeking something in each and every one of them.

When his eyes finally met hers, Lois was stunned. She'd responded to the music from the very beginning; it had moved her in a way she never would have expected. Now that he was focusing on her, she could hear subtle changes in the music. His husky voice was sensual and filled with promise. It was as though he were playing just for her, and she felt the heat rise to her face.

The music seemed to last forever, and Lois found that she couldn't look away. He was a darkly handsome man, with a mournful air that she instinctively knew was bad news. He was the sort of man her mother had warned her about; all sensuality and tragic innocence. She responded to him instinctively, viscerally.

It was as though his words didn't matter. He was speaking directly to her about the things that went on in the dark. He spoke of love, and her mind flashed to bare skin and intertwined limbs. He made her aware of herself as a woman in a way she'd spent a long time trying to forget, and aware of him as a man in a way she'd long forgotten.

When he finally turned his attention from her, Lois felt a sense of loss.

He continued to play set after set, touching person after person in the room, and all Lois could do was stare at him. She wasn't alone; the entire audience was focused on him. He held their entire attention; they were rapt.

When the last note echoed across the room, the crowd sat stunned into silence. It was several seconds before the applause began; when it did, it was thunderous.

"I told you!" Lucy yelled in her ear as the crowd began to cheer.

Lois hadn't wanted to come tonight; Lucy was always finding one musician after another to fall in love with. They'd all been handsome, and none of them had had a shred of talent. Lois didn't have time to search through the losers in life; her job was to find talent. She had an eye for it.

"What did you say his name was again?" Lois shouted in her sister's ear. She knew all the major players in the industry by face, name and reputation. If she'd ever heard this man before, she would have remembered.

"His name is Kent… Clark Kent!"

It wasn't much of a name for a musician; it certainly didn't fit his bad boy image. Lois was surprised by her reaction to him; she'd given up bad boys years ago. She'd given up on men; she'd learned all the lines, seen too much not to become jaded and cynical. To find that a part of herself she'd thought was long dead responded to someone she hadn't even met yet was unsettling.

He'd managed to hold an entire audience enthralled with nothing more than his voice and a single instrument. He practically radiated personal magnetism, and his skills as a musician were better than good.

By the time the crowd finally began to settle, Clark Kent had left the stage, and Lois could see another group setting up. She was familiar with the group; they were competent local musicians, but they didn't have what it took to become stars. Clark Kent did.

"Let's have a talk with Mr. Kent, shall we?" Lois spoke softly to her sister, then rose to her feet.

Lucy grinned enthusiastically, her eyes twinkling with unconcealed excitement. This was the first time Lois had ever agreed with her judgment, and Lucy was as proud as a puppy. Sometimes the differences in their ages seemed insurmountable. Lois wondered idly if Lucy had already found her way into Kent's bed; for some reason, the thought saddened her.

She quietly stood and made her way through a smoky maze of tables, with Lucy following close behind. The club was dimly lit at the best of times, and the chairs were crowded close together. It wasn't a dive, but it wasn't much more than one either. It was on the lower end of the many respectable clubs in the city.

Lois crossed the broad expanse of floor toward the doors beside the low stage. A large, heavily built bouncer stood beside the entrance, staring balefully out at the crowd. Lois knew that illegal gambling occasionally went on in the back rooms, which explained the need to keep people out, but Lois had never taken well to being kept out of any place that she wanted to go.

She grinned at the bouncer, and he grunted sourly as he let her by. She'd been to this club before, and he knew better than to get in her way. There were advantages to her position in life; she had enough influence that club owners couldn't afford to lose her goodwill. The secrets she knew about many of them didn't hurt either.

The hallway behind the curtain was a different world. While the club had made at least small concessions to class, the back rooms looked as though they hadn't been painted since the 1950's. The shabby, greenish hue of the walls was a fair match for the faded brown carpet on the floor. A faint odor of stale alcohol filled the air.

Lois wondered what was wrong with Clark Kent. He had too much talent to be playing in dumps and dives; she'd seen famous classical musicians who were less accomplished with their instruments. His stage presence was overwhelming, which was almost as important as his skill. With his voice, his looks and his talent, he should have been on his way already. Lois was good at her job. She could spot that certain special quality that made the difference between a competent musician and a phenomenon. Clark Kent had that quality; he had more of it than anyone she'd ever seen.

Something had to be holding him back. Musicians of his caliber didn't work in dead end jobs like this one. Lois hoped it wasn't drugs; drugs meant endless headaches, missed concert dates, and sometimes worse.

Lois came to a badly hung door and rapped on it professionally. She felt the familiar sense of excitement in the pit of her stomach at the possibility of actually making a new discovery, but it was mixed with something else. It took her a moment to realize that she was nervous.

Lois stiffened. She was one of the best in the business. A dozen artists were begging her for just the chance to be heard. If anyone had the right to be nervous, it was he. She glanced back at Lucy, who nodded. Lucy knew better than to speak when Lois was making a sales presentation. If she hadn't, Lois would have left her behind.

The door opened quickly, startling Lois.

A pair of dark, hauntingly familiar eyes stared up at her. A perfect replica of Clark Kent stood before her; Clark Kent as he must have been a quarter of a century before. The child had the same hair, the same eyes, and disturbingly, the same pain. The child simply stood in the doorway and stared up at her without saying a single word.

"Josh!" Lois glanced up to see the figure she had been expecting stepping around a corner. "How many times do I have to tell you to keep the door closed?"

Clark Kent was even more impressive in person. He wore simple black denim jeans and a tight black shirt. He worked out; the muscles in his chest and biceps were hard and taut.

Lois found herself speechless for a moment as he stepped in front of the boy. His expression was anything but welcoming.

"I've got the paperwork showing that I'm home-schooling my son. I wish you people would…"

Lois found herself glancing at his left hand; no ring. The child couldn't have been more than five years old. The boy peered up at her from behind his father with wide, guileless eyes.

"I'm not here to cause any trouble, Mr. Kent." Lois smiled professionally. "I'm here to help you."

"You aren't with social services?" he asked, still tense.

"No. I'm here to speak with you about another matter." Lois smiled down at the boy. "I didn't even know you had a son until just now."

Clark Kent hesitated, then smiled sheepishly. "I've been having some problems with the social workers lately. I'm sorry to have mistaken you for one of them."

The smile transformed his face, and Lois was forced to remind herself of all the handsome men she dealt with from day to day. There was no reason for this one to be any different from any of the others.

"My name is Lois Lane. I'm an entertainment attorney, a junior partner in the firm of McAllister and Lake, and I believe that we have a great deal to offer each other."

He smiled again, but this smile was harder, less innocent. "I've heard that line more often than I care to admit. I don't need an attorney."

"I'm more than just an attorney, Mr. Kent. I match clients with recording companies, working out deals which are equitable for all parties."

"So you think I should produce albums, go on tour."

"I know talent when I see it. I could get you a recording contract in less than a week." Lois watched Clark Kent carefully. His body language was all wrong; most artists fell all over themselves at the prospect of a recording contract. A few were more hesitant. Clark Kent looked as though he'd bitten into a lemon.

She knew what he was going to say before he opened his mouth.

"I'm not interested."

"If you have issues with the ethics of the major studios, I have contacts with a few of the independents." Lois had dealt with musicians who resented the studio system. They took special handling. "The money won't be as good, and the distribution won't be as wide, but I can assure you that these companies are run by musicians for musicians."

Many artists gave lip service to idealism, but most changed their mind quickly when real money was involved.

"I'm happy with my life as it is, Ms… what did you say your name was again?"

"Lois Lane." Lois pulled a small card from the pocket of her pant suit and handed it to him.

Her fingers tingled as they brushed against his, and she glanced quickly up at him. Their eyes met and held for a moment longer than was socially acceptable. Lois was attracted to him, and she was almost certain that he was aware of her as well.

She looked away from him quickly. She knew better than to get involved with clients. Musicians were bad news; she knew from hard experience that they all had issues struggling to rise to the surface. It was part of what made them creative, she supposed.

The pain in Clark Kent's eyes told her that he had more at stake than most.

"Perhaps you might discuss this with your wife." With any luck, his wife was already heading backstage. If he was married, all her problems were solved. She'd be able to focus on business with barely a sigh of regret; she'd cursed her own father's many infidelities too many times to consider a married man even remotely eligible. It was the one rule she had never broken, and she was proud of that.

"My wife passed away two years ago."

The pain in his eyes intensified with that statement, and Lois ignored a thrill of excitement. Clark Kent looked like a man who was still mourning his wife. It was impossible to compete with a ghost from the past, and Lois knew better than to even try.

It meant he was single.

"I'm sorry to hear about your loss." Lois tried to sound sincere. A glance at the child behind him made her feel contrite. The man had lost a wife, and the boy had lost a mother. She had no doubt that he'd already had offers from women wanting to comfort him.

She hesitated for a moment. "I'm one of the best attorneys in the city, even if I do mainly work with contract law. Keep my card; if Social Services gives you any problems, give me a call."

He hesitated, then slipped the card into his wallet.

"I doubt that I'll have much trouble. I'm only in town for a few more days, and then I'll be moving out of state."

Lois would have a paralegal track down his itinerary. Clark Kent wasn't going to be an easy sell, but Lois was fully confident that she'd manage to bring him around.

The boy yawned, and Clark smiled apologetically.

"It's been nice meeting you." He glanced at the boy waiting behind him. "I've got to get Josh to bed and then play another couple of sets."

"I enjoyed your music, Mr. Kent, and I hope that we have a chance to speak again." She held her hand out to shake, and there was again an almost electric shock as her skin touched his.

"I think I'd like that."

With that, Lois left the room with Lucy trailing after her.

"So that's it. You're just giving up?"

Lois looked back at her sister and shook her head. "Of course not. I'm just going to give him a little time to get used to the idea. In the meantime, I'll have one of my people dig up everything they can find about his background. It'll give me a better idea what tactics I'll need to use."

"So you finally agree with me? I found a keeper?" Lucy's expression was expectant, eager.

Lois sighed. "He's too good to be playing here."

"So I was right?"

"He's a little too good to be true. I'm sure we'll dig up something unpleasant in the report."

No one chose to be poor. If Clark Kent was refusing her offer, he had to have reasons. Once she knew what they were, she could work around them.

They were almost to the door when Lucy grabbed Lois's arm.

"What?" Lois asked.

"You can't admit that I was right." Lois blinked at the outrage in Lucy's tone. "You've never been able to admit that anyone else was right."

"We still don't know enough to know whether he'd be a good candidate to sign up."

"You heard him. If you didn't think he had something special, you never would have made him an offer."

Lois stood and looked at her sister for a moment.

"For once, I guess you were on to something."

Lucy grinned. "I told you this one was different."

"You aren't sleeping with this one." Lois knew that without a doubt. Unless she missed her bet, he wasn't dating anyone. He probably hadn't dated anyone since the death of his wife. That sort of loyalty appealed to her in an odd way.

"I never let my romantic entanglements cloud my judgment about music," Lucy said, with a superior air.

Lois grinned at her sister, and Lucy broke into giggles. Lucy allowed her romances to cloud her judgment about everything. She just hoped that her attraction for Clark Kent wouldn't cause any problems.

She had no doubts that she'd find his weak points. It was only a matter of time until they were working closely together. She ignored the excitement in the pit of her stomach at the prospect. She was a professional, and she knew better that to lose her head over a handsome man. All it would take would be a little willpower. She hadn't gone to college and law school and then worked in the music industry for more than four years without learning something about what it took to be a professional.

She had a potential star on her hands, and this time no one was going to steal him out from under her.

***

Clark watched as the two women walked down the hall, and he winced as he heard Lois Lane say she'd have him investigated. That was the last thing either he or Joshua needed. They'd need to move on, and quickly.

As he closed the door behind him, he resisted the impulse to look through the wall at their retreating figures. It had been all he could do to pretend not to recognize Lois Lane in the first place; he'd been uncomfortably aware of her from the first time he'd set eyes on her.

She made him nervous. He hadn't been interested in a woman at all in the two years since Lana had died, and he wasn't ready to start now. Lois Lane could cause him more trouble than anyone he'd ever met, and he couldn't afford to be attracted to her.

Joshua made a small, incoherent sound, and Clark rushed to crouch beside him.

"Don't worry, partner, we'll be just fine."

He'd been telling Joshua that for two years, but he'd never really believed it. Neither of them was good at dealing with the pain of loss; Lana's death had left a gaping hole in their lives, one that had never healed.

Dealing with his own grief was difficult enough. In the space of a single moment, he'd lost almost everything. He'd lost the woman who was his bestfriend, his lover, and his wife. That he'd lost his mother too had almost pushed him over the edge. Losing his father when he was very young had been hard. Being an adult hadn't made the losses any easier.

It would have been easy for Clark to sink into a morass of depression and despair. He might have, but he'd had to be strong. Josh had needed him, and Clark had had to set his own grief aside for the sake of his son.

Clark knew what it was like to lose a parent as a child; he was intimately familiar with the pain and guilt and fear that caused. He'd lost his father when he wasn't much older than Joshua had been, and he'd never really gotten over it.

He hugged his son tightly. Joshua was all the family he had left; they needed each other.

"You need to be more careful about opening the door to just anyone," Clark said as he released his son. "We've talked about it before."

His son nodded silently.

Clark sighed. "Well, we'll just have to do better next time. It's time for bed."

He felt a tickle in the back of his mind, and he sighed.

"This would all be a little easier if you'd just talk out loud."

In the wake of their grief, they'd discovered something unique, another legacy from Clark's unknown heritage. Joshua could speak without moving his lips, from a distance. He could project his emotions as well.

Clark supposed it meant that Joshua was going to inherit the other parts of his legacy; in a way it was a relief. As long as he could get Joshua safely through the next few years, he'd never have to worry about him having broken arms or scraped knees. His son would be safe.

Joshua shrugged. Clark felt another tickle in the back of his mind.

"Brush your teeth and I'll tuck you in."

As Josh headed for the bathroom, Clark sighed. He'd enjoyed being in Metropolis. He'd enjoyed the rhythms, the energy, and the heartbeat of the city. Metropolis had something special, and he'd hoped to play here for a while.

With the threat of investigation, and with Social Services breathing down his neck, he'd need to cut his next engagements short. He didn't like doing it; a reputation for being undependable was the ruination of many musicians' careers.

It would have been nice to have met Lois Lane under different circumstances. There was something about her that attracted him. She had self-confidence, a vibrancy that seemed to make her the only spot of color in a black and white world. She demanded to be noticed.

He couldn't afford an investigation. Social Services already had questions about the appropriateness of raising a child in a series of bars and nightclubs. They weren't happy that he'd chosen to home school Josh; Clark hadn't seen any other choice.

Lana and Clark and Josh had been a family in Smallville. They'd worked at making a home, at building something that would last. It didn't feel right, somehow, to make a home anywhere else. The proceeds from renting his parents' farm left enough money to survive on, and his music allowed money for luxuries.

Money had never been important to Clark, and he doubted that it would be important to Josh either. If Josh grew up to inherit all of Clark's abilities, he'd never need to fly on a plane, he wouldn't have to eat if he didn't want to, and he'd never grow sick. Without a need for food or shelter or money for travel, Josh wouldn't need much money to live.

It'd be a lonely life, though. Clark had been lucky to find someone like Lana to confide his secret to. They'd been friends since he was a child, and even so it had been difficult for her to deal with his secret. She'd sworn him to secrecy, and he'd never broken that promise.

He'd been willing to give up his music for her, for the chance to be part of a family. He'd even been willing to work for her father, though he'd chafed under all the restrictions involved. Lana hadn't always been an easy woman to love, but at least she had been willing to give him a chance.

Clark efficiently pulled out the cot and began setting the blankets and comforters in place on top of it. Josh liked to be tucked in, and Clark made a point to be there for him every night without exception. Children loved stability and rituals, and with all the uprooting in Josh's life, it was important that he have some things he could count on.

Clark heard the sound of the water being shut off, and Josh's footsteps as he padded back out of the bathroom. Before Josh could react, Clark swung him up in his arms and swung him around.

Josh grinned at him but did not laugh. He never did. He hadn't spoken a single word since his mother's death, and if it hadn't been for Clark's discovery that they could speak mind to mind, he would have been more worried.

Clark gently sat his son in bed, wrapping the blankets tightly around him.

"Which story do you want to hear tonight?" Clark found a chair and sat down beside the cot.

He felt the familiar tickle in his mind and sighed. "Don't worry, I'll take care of everything."

His son looked up at him with guileless eyes. Another tickle in his mind made Clark want to wince.

"Yes, she was pretty, but that doesn't mean she was a good person."

Lois Lane had been uncomfortably attractive. It was difficult to lie while speaking with the mind; too much emotion came along with the words. Clark glanced down at his son and felt suddenly uncomfortable.

"We're really going to have to get you talking again."

If he was starting to be interested in women again, he didn't want his son listening in. The innocence of childhood was fleeting enough without knowing your father was attracted to someone other than your mother.

It probably hadn't been entirely healthy, allowing Josh to use his mind in the way he did. It had been an amazing novelty at first. Clark hadn't even been aware that he had the ability until his son had shown him the way, and he had wondered how many other people were able to do it.

Clark began to recite Josh's favorite story aloud. It didn't take any unusual trick of memory; Josh, like most children, loved to hear the same stories recited over and over again. Clark didn't mind. He remembered what it had been like when his own father had died — years of uncertainty and fear. He'd worshipped his parents, thought they could do no wrong. When his father had died, it had left him with nightmares for years. He'd been afraid for his life; if his father, with all his power and knowledge could die, how much easier would it be for a three-year-old?

Clark didn't mind any of the things Josh asked to reassure himself that things would remain the same. Clark was the only stable part of his son's life.

Of course, he wasn't exactly like other people, and neither was Josh. Even as a teenager, he'd thought that others like him might be wandering the world, and he had made sure to travel to places where miracles had occurred. He'd interviewed Indian fakirs and played music with aboriginal shamans in the outback. He'd never found anyone like him, but it was entirely possible that they were concealing themselves, just as he was.

Since Josh had shown him the way, he had begun brushing the minds of the people around him, the minds of the people for whom he played, hoping to find someone who shared his gift. In all the nights, and with all the people he had searched, he'd never felt an echo of what he'd felt when he'd touched Lois Lane's mind.

He hadn't read her thoughts; it wasn't easy to get anything but feelings from anyone except his son. Instead, he'd felt a thread of loneliness that matched his own. Lois Lane was a woman capable of deep passions; he'd sensed it in the space of a moment.

It was her mind that attracted him as much as anything; while she was beautiful, he'd had to gently turn aside the advances of countless women who were as good looking. He'd never met any of them who had responded the way she did.

She'd almost reached back.

Lois Lane was a dangerous woman for more than one reason. Her mind was quick; he'd sensed that immediately. If she were to look too closely, she'd notice discrepancies in his life. She'd use them against him; she seemed like the pragmatic type.

He wasn't ready to think about any woman other than Lana, and Josh wasn't ready for him to do so either.

He finally noticed that Josh was asleep, and he sighed. It was getting harder to keep Josh protected from the world. It had been easy when he was smaller, but he was reaching an age where he needed playmates of his own age. He needed people he could call friends.

If he didn't get them, he'd be even more isolated than Clark had been. His mother had at least given him a chance. He'd grown up in Smallville, and developed a small circle of friends. The music had helped, of course.

Josh needed the chance for a normal life. The social workers couldn't irritate Clark any more than his own conscience. He couldn't go on living the life he had been living, but he didn't know how to do anything else.

He'd have to talk to the manager in the morning. The man was short- handed, and Clark wasn't willing to leave him high and dry. However, when the gig was over in three days, he'd cancel his further concert dates and leave the city.

It would take Ms Lane time to investigate him; by the time she found out enough to do any harm, Clark and his son would be long gone.

***

Lois slipped quietly into her office. It had been a long night, and she hadn't yet been to bed. She'd already made arrangements to have Clark Kent investigated; hopefully she would find something that would help her tailor her sales pitch. She'd already discovered that he wasn't represented by anyone in the industry, and the private detective she used most often had promised preliminary results by the close of business.

Lois loved her office. A single window looked out over Hobbs Bay, with the lights of the skyline showing like a million glittering stars. It was beautiful by night. Lois loved to stand and look out onto Metropolis during the quiet times. She'd received the office only three months before, and she still appreciated it. It was a major improvement over the small, cramped office she'd had before.

She'd only officially been in the business for three years, though she'd interned for four summers before that, and in that time she'd done well for herself. She hadn't booked any superstars, but the performers she represented were solid, profitable producers. Lois knew the business, and she knew how to turn a sow's ear into a silk purse. She'd already had offers from a number of other agencies. A careful slip of the tongue had earned her this office. The senior partners knew as well as anyone that she was an asset. She liked to tell herself that no one was better in the industry.

Morning was Lois's favorite time. Musicians tended to play late into the night; the majority of annoying complaints came in some time after noon. Unless she had a meeting, Lois usually had at least part of the morning to herself. It was a time for contemplation, for sipping coffee and reading the Daily Planet. It allowed time for reflection and planning. She hadn't always been a morning person, but years of experience had finally changed her.

It amused her sometimes to think that she'd almost become a reporter. The fact that it horrified her father had been an almost irresistible incentive for her. In the end, though, she'd buckled under and gone into law. It wasn't medicine, but her father had been satisfied until he'd discovered her specialty. She'd enjoyed his consternation; now that she made more money than he did, she was finally able to relax a little and give up some of the resentments that had eaten away at her throughout her childhood.

She'd have been good as a reporter; Lois was just confident enough to believe that she would have been good at almost anything she set her mind to. She wouldn't have made as much money as a reporter, though, and she certainly wouldn't have had as nice an office.

Lois set her briefcase on the floor and walked to the small kitchenette on the east wall. The last resident had had a minibar installed; all Lois used it for was diet drinks and mineral water. She quickly went through the motions of making a pot of coffee. It would be an hour yet before the office help arrived, and she often preferred to make her own pot rather than waiting.

She moved to her desk while the water for the coffee heated, and checked her day planner. She had half a dozen items on her schedule: meetings with record executives, contract negotiations, and the beginning preparations of a copyright infringement lawsuit. All this would be interspersed with complaints from one musician about his personal manager, by another claiming that his booking agent was letting him down, and by a third claiming his accountant was cheating him. Lois's job was officially to solve problems. Unofficially, it was to browbeat people into doing things they should have been doing in the first place.

Clark Kent would be a fool not to accept her services. An entertainment lawyer did a great deal more than help write contracts. Lois took aspiring musicians and helped them assemble a team of people — personal managers, booking agents, business managers and accountants. Once the team was assembled, she was the lynchpin of their activities. She was the person who made sure that the people surrounding an artist continued to act in the artist's best interest.

She helped musicians navigate safely through the minefield of the entertainment industry. Many musicians were so desperate to sign with a recording label that they signed away all their rights. Lois made sure that didn't happen. Her job was to make sure that the artist understood exactly what he was signing; she'd become adept at translating the confusing mass of legalese into language people could understand.

She actively solicited deals for her clients; she had contacts in the recording industry that the average artist couldn't match. She could get an executive to listen to a demo tape where someone coming off the street wouldn't have managed to get in the front door.

Clark Kent would be foolish to turn down the services she had to offer, and Lois knew that she didn't want to lose him. He had the chance to be something none of her other clients did, a major hit.

Lois'd had a chance to have a superstar once, and it had been stolen from her. She wasn't going to allow it to happen again. It was only a matter of time before others began to notice Clark Kent's music; when they did, the offers would begin pouring in. His resistance would crumble soon enough.

Given that, she was going to do whatever she needed to in order to gain him as a client.

The fact that she was attracted to him wouldn't be a consideration. Clark Kent had more potential than any artist that she'd ever seen. She couldn't afford to destroy the possibility of a beautiful working relationship with a few fleeting moments of lust.

It wasn't like her to drool over a musician anyway. She'd learned her lesson about them in college: musicians were unstable people. The same emotional problems that led them to crave the attention they got at center stage made them flighty, unreliable, and unable to maintain a mature relationship.

Lois couldn't abide betrayal.

She poured herself a cup of coffee and walked over to the window to look out over the skyline. She sipped the black brew and stared at the sky, which was slowly beginning to lighten with the first rays of the sun.

The curt knock at her door was an unwelcome surprise. The man who stepped through without bothering to wait for her reply was even less welcome. Ash Benedict was one of the last people she wanted to deal with at six in the morning.

"It's good to see you up and working so early, Lois."

"What do you want, Ash?" There wasn't enough coffee in the world to make Ash's periodic visits bearable.

"I was just wondering what you might think about a merger."

Lois purposely glanced down the line of Ash's body. "I doubt you'd have the assets needed to complete the deal."

He scowled, but quickly comported his face into a smile. "I hear that you're having some new talent investigated."

"Just a little preliminary work. It'll probably turn out to be nothing."

Lois kept her expression carefully cool and composed. Ash had stolen her one superstar, and that client was the only reason he was still employed. She'd have to find out who had leaked the information to Ash and have them fired. Discretion was one of the most important factors in being an in-house private detective firm. Anyone who couldn't keep their mouth shut within the company probably wouldn't be able to outside the company either.

"I hear that Blaze hasn't been happy lately."

He chuckled uneasily. "When is Blaze ever happy? It's a full time job just dealing with his palimony suits."

"Word on the street is that he may be shopping around for other representation. I don't think the partners would be pleased to lose the business of a cash cow like Blaze Armstrong."

Ash's face twisted. "You'd know all about the street, wouldn't you, you little…"

"I'd be careful about the people I insult; your position here is tenuous enough without making waves." Lois sipped her coffee calmly. "If you lose Blaze, I doubt you'll be able to keep a job as a janitor."

He scowled. "You'd be surprised what I can do if I have to."

"I doubt that." Ash lacked the slightest trace of ethics or morals. Lois had little doubt that he'd do anything short of murder to get ahead. She hesitated before speaking again. "Why are you here?"

"I thought I'd offer you a little extra work. Between three palimony suits, the drunk driving charge, and the defamation case, Blaze has me swamped. I thought you might like a chance to deal with his contract negotiations with Virgin Records."

Ash was weak at contract law; he'd made bad mistakes that had cost Blaze Armstrong a great deal of money. Lois suspected that Blaze had given him an ultimatum: one last chance to forge a decent contract or he was going to lose the business.

Lois's voice turned cool. "I'd have thought you'd have gone to any of the others; Blaze nearly signed a contract with me. With all his dissatisfaction lately…"

"He won't even be involved. He's still in Europe working on a movie. He thinks he's an actor." Ash's laugh was brittle. "Give people a little success and they get to be full of themselves."

"You know that from experience, do you?" Lois lifted an eyebrow, and Ash flushed.

"I'm not worried about Blaze. I take care of everything he needs."

"Unfortunately, I'm caught up in things and can't help you at the moment. Maybe one of the others…"

"None of them would help me." Ash gritted his teeth. "They're all jealous of what I've got."

None of them liked Ash Benedict any better than she did. He'd found ways to harm each and every one of the six other lawyers on staff. He didn't dare ask one of the senior partners, of course.

"I'm swamped with the Bradley case. I'd like to help you, but I don't think I can."

Lois smiled sweetly at him, and she could see his face flush with rage.

"I was trying to do you a favor. You never know how much a little reflected fame will do for your reputation. What do you have? Half a dozen solo musicians eking out an existence on the bottom of the top 100? A middle-of-the-road rock-and-roll band?"

He shook his head. "I don't know how you convinced the partners to give you this office, but I wouldn't get too comfortable."

He turned quickly and left.

Lois stared after him, then shrugged and took a sip of coffee.

In the long run, it was probably better that she hadn't gotten a contract with Blaze Armstrong. The man was a prima donna; rumor had it that Ash was supplying him with both women and drugs. Lois wouldn't have tolerated that sort of behavior from any of her clients.

She'd had to deal with the aftermath of drug overdoses, with temper tantrums and fits, but Blaze's behavior edged into the criminal. She was certain that Ash had stepped over that line a long time before he'd even thought about taking the bar exam.

Hopefully, he wouldn't be around much longer. The partners weren't stupid; if he lost the Blaze Armstrong account, he'd be out of work in a flash.

The sky was lightening behind her. She wondered what she'd have to do to bring Clark Kent into the fold. She had ideas already about how to promote his career; she knew the executives who were most likely to be impressed by his sort of music. She wondered how he'd sound with a band; he'd been powerful enough with just an acoustic guitar and his voice. With the right sort of accompaniment, he could go right to the top of the charts.

The sky behind her brightened as she made a phone call to start working out preliminary details on the Bradley contract. She barely noticed when the secretarial staff began to bustle about in the main office.

The day flew by even faster than usual; she didn't have time for lunch in the midst of an unending round of phone calls, meetings and contract negotiations.

It was late afternoon when her contact in the in-house investigation division arrived.

Lois was on the phone when she saw the small woman peek around the corner of the door. She waved the other woman inside while continuing her conversation.

"He's not trying to screw you. We've had problems getting bookings in Atlanta before; I think one of their promoters doesn't like the music. I'm sure I can work around it." Lois paused, listening. She gestured for the other woman to sit down. "I know it's your home town. I'll see what I can do."

She set the phone into its cradle and turned to the woman sitting in the chair opposite her desk.

"Did you find out who discussed what we talked about yesterday with Ash Benedict?"

"He's been dating our night receptionist." Pilar Montoya sighed. "She's new and didn't realize that confidentiality applies even to others within the firm."

"What are you going to do about it?" Lois stared at the other woman.

"I'd prefer to give her a second chance." The older woman stared solidly at Lois for a long moment.

Lois coughed. "If she's seeing him romantically, what's to say she won't make the same mistake again?"

"I do." Pilar met Lois's gaze unflinchingly. "I'll route all your requests through a separate line for the next few months, and I'll keep an eye on her."

Lois nodded. She respected Pilar; despite all the dirt and embarrassing material she went through on a day-to-day basis, she never seemed to lose an aura of dignity.

"All right. Did you get the information I requested?"

Pilar silently handed Lois a thick file folder.

Lois opened it and said, "What are your immediate impressions?"

"He seems to be legitimate enough. I didn't find any hint of the usual problems. He doesn't have a criminal record, there's no evidence of drug use, I'm not sure that he even drinks. He's a widower, he receives an income from the rental of a tract of farmland, and he travels a great deal."

"So he doesn't actually need more money?"

Pilar shook her head. "It's enough to live on, just barely; he supplements his income with his music. It keeps him from living hand to mouth, but doesn't offer him any real kind of independence."

"It looks like he's traveled a great deal."

"I don't think we've even begun to scratch the surface there. I've got articles that have him playing in Memphis, in New Orleans, in Chicago. Right out of high school he somehow managed to seek out a lot of the old greats. He found enough of them that it couldn't have been by chance. He actively sought out some of the best old blues musicians and learned all he could from them."

Lois glanced up. "So he skipped college, then?"

"He's got a music degree at Louisiana State University. It seems he paid his way through several scholarships and grants, and worked almost continuously as a musician while he was getting his degree. He graduated cum laude."

Lois was surprised. Most of the musicians she dealt with these days had chosen to forego any form of formal education. Of course, she'd graduated magna cum laude, and had been at the top of her class in law school as well.

"He seems to have traveled to Europe and to other parts of the world for several years after college. Our information there is very sketchy. We know that he spend time in Britain, France, India and Australia, but there are massive gaps that we haven't been able to fill yet."

Lois leaned forward. "You weren't able to find any hint of scandal at all?"

Pilar shook her head. "As far as we could tell, he spent his time learning from musicians and speaking to holy men and mystics."

Lois sighed. He was probably something of a kook then. She'd known a few people who took the whole eastern mysticism thing too far. It was something that she could deal with.

"He'd gone to school with a woman named Lana Lang. He returned home in the summer of 1991 just as she was returning from her final year of college. They hit it off, and were married in the space of a few months. He went to work for her father at the Smallville National Bank."

Lois flipped through the pages quickly, finding a faded copy of a wedding photo. Clark Kent looked younger, and uncomfortable in his tuxedo. The bride looked brittle, as though the marriage had already begun in a bad way.

"They had a son, Joshua Martin Kent, within the first year of marriage. It was a difficult pregnancy, with complications that almost killed Lana Kent. I don't have any of the medical reports yet, but I think I can get hold of them with a little bit of effort."

Lois nodded. "I'd like to see those reports."

She felt guilty for a moment; she was prying into a seemingly innocent man's private affairs. It would have been different if he'd been a drug addict; there were issues she had to know about before she took a client on board. As far as she could tell, Clark Kent had never gotten as much as a speeding ticket.

"So he lived a normal life, then took to the road again when his wife and mother passed away in a car accident."

"That's pretty much it. This guy has apparently lived the cleanest life of any person I've ever investigated." Pilar hesitated. "Except… there are some oddities."

Lois felt her spine stiffen. Oddities usually meant trouble.

"First, we can't find any record of his ever flying on a plane in all the time he's traveled, even across the Atlantic. All this is despite the fact that he moved from place to place too fast to have arrived by any other means than flying."

***

Lois frowned. "What do you think it means?"

"It might not mean anything." The older woman sighed. "The airports would normally be hell to work around, but I have a cousin who works in the FAA. She won't give me any current records, but she can be very helpful with background checks."

Lois frowned. The less she knew about anything illegal, the better. She was usually so grateful for Pilar's services that she rarely inquired how the information arrived so quickly. She didn't have ethical problems with exposing private sins, even if underhanded methods occasionally had to be used. Nevertheless, she'd prefer to skip the details. She gestured for the older woman to go on.

"We wouldn't have been able to get this much information so quickly five years ago. The recent newspaper mergers and Global Media's insistence on putting everything onto the net made it a lot easier. It doesn't look as though he tried to cover his tracks; it's the sheer number of places that he's been that make the search more difficult."

"So you don't think these irregularities with his air travel mean anything?"

Pilar scowled. "His travel budget should have been incredible. The man never even owned a car until he got married, and every dime he had went to pay for his education. How was he able to pay for all the trips to India, Britain, Europe and Taiwan?"

"Maybe he inherited some money you don't know about," Lois said uneasily.

Pilar lifted an eyebrow. "We've only had seventeen hours to collect information. There are still a great many gaps that need to be filled in."

"You don't think that's it, though."

Pilar spoke slowly. "We have a young man who travels a great deal with no obvious means of support. Assuming we don't find anything, I'd start to wonder what sort of activities he was involved in."

Drug running was the first thing that came to mind. Clark Kent didn't strike Lois as being either a drug smuggler or a drug dealer, but she'd only had a few minutes to speak with him. While she had confidence in her ability to judge people, she knew better than to believe that she could tell all a person's secrets at first sight.

"I'd like you to find out everything you can," Lois said quietly. "This man has a great deal of potential, but I'd just as soon pass if he's involved with the drug cartels or organized crime."

Pilar nodded approvingly. "We'll see what information we can squeeze from the airlines, and we'll do a more detailed background search." She glanced at the folder Lois was holding. "We've barely scratched the surface."

"You think he's too good to be true?"

"Everybody has secrets."

Lois nodded. Secrets were important, especially in the music industry. Lois had always hated not knowing what went on behind closed doors; it was one of the reasons she'd considered becoming a reporter. Knowledge really was power, and Lois knew how to use it to its greatest extent.

She glanced at the files again. Background information was useful, but it wasn't any substitute for face-to-face interaction. She already had enough information to formulate a plan of attack; a dozen possible strategies were flying through her mind already.

"Find out everything you can about him. If he has anything dangerous in his background, I need to know as quickly as possible."

Pilar nodded and rose to her feet.

Lois spoke again without looking at Pilar. "I'm trusting that there won't be any more leaks."

"I'll take care of it personally."

Lois flipped through the file as the older woman left the room. She trusted that Pilar would be professional enough to take care of the matter. She liked the woman, but was careful to maintain her reputation as a tough negotiator. It bothered her sometimes, but as the only female lawyer in the firm, and the youngest, she knew that she had to seem tougher than any of the others.

She carefully set the file into her briefcase. It was a rare day that she left by the close of business, but luckily, her meetings had gone well. She had time to stop by the club and speak to Kent again.

She slipped out of the offices and down the elevators without being seen. That was a second piece of good luck; usually she would have been stopped by a couple of paralegals or by one of the partners with questions.

In the underground parking garage, it didn't take her long to find her silver Jeep Cherokee. She made enough money to have gotten a sports car; Ash had one. Unlike most of the other members of her firm, however, she still made a habit of visiting the older clubs in town in search of new talent. A sports car would have been stolen or vandalized in some of the areas she frequented, yet she couldn't afford to keep a cheap, older car. She needed to maintain an appearance of success both for the partners and for the people she was representing. In the entertainment industry, appearance was sometimes as important as reality. The Cherokee was her best compromise between practicality and appearance.

As she swung out onto the streets, Lois slipped her sunglasses on and frowned. She hoped that Clark Kent wasn't involved in drugs. She'd had clients who had problems with their addictions. She knew better than anyone the sort of devastation that addiction could cause; her mother's alcoholism was still a sore point. She'd practically had to raise Lucy alone after her father had left, and she still felt responsible for Lucy's excesses, even though she knew objectively that a child of thirteen couldn't be expected to be a good mother. Lois had learned the lesson at an early age: addictions destroyed lives.

It was difficult enough dealing with an addict; Lois wouldn't tolerate a dealer as a client. She hoped that Clark Kent turned out not to be involved in anything dangerous. He was the best opportunity she'd had since allowing Blaze to slip through her fingers. If her instincts were right, he had a chance to be bigger than Blaze could ever hope to be.

The fact that he was handsome was a point in his favor. He'd demonstrated a remarkable range of musical styles during his performance, but he'd held his audience enthralled throughout every piece. He looked a little clean-cut for the MTV crowd, but the music would be the main selling point. With the right marketing and promotion, he could be a superstar.

He had to have a reason for avoiding the limelight; it was difficult for Lois to believe that someone hadn't already made him an offer. He'd traveled too widely, and had too much press not to have been noticed at one time or another. Yet he'd reacted to her offer as though the thought of fame repelled him.

He wasn't entirely averse to publicity. From what Lois had seen as she flipped through the newspaper articles, he'd gone out of his way to seek out musicians who had been famous once, individuals who had been instrumental in the development of their musical genres. The list of people he'd played with read like a who's who list of blues artists.

If he'd wanted to avoid publicity completely, he never would have left Kansas. He could have made an adequate living playing the small-town circuit. The clubs he was playing in now didn't pay much better. Furthermore, with the sole exception of the club he was currently playing in, most places didn't offer lodging. The expenses in Metropolis were higher than most artists were able to pay; the price of a hotel room could eat away at the minuscule payments most musicians received.

It was possible that he had some idea of his own potential. Clark Kent seemed to be a devoted father, and it was possible that he was afraid of the price fame would demand of himself and his son. Many artists became victims of their own success, trapped in their own homes because of the risk of being mobbed everywhere they went.

Lois had half a dozen counterarguments in mind already. She was fully confident that she could convince him to join up if a fear of fame was his only problem. Fame could be managed; it was one of her jobs.

As she approached the club she realized that she was actually nervous. She had an excited fluttering feeling in the pit of her stomach that she hadn't experienced in a long time. Clark Kent was an attractive man, and under other circumstances she might have been interested in seeing him again. The fact that he was forbidden to her probably made him more exciting.

Lois knew better than to try to mix business with pleasure. Office romances were difficult enough, but sleeping with a client was a bad idea. When the relationship ended, as it inevitably would, the fallout would be ugly. Lois had never understood how people were able to part amicably and remain friends after a relationship ended. Her relationships had always ended on an ugly, bitter note; she was too smart to combine something like that with her business interests. Losing a major client because of a simple physical attraction wasn't something she did.

It wouldn't do much for her reputation either. She'd worked long and hard to be accepted as an equal. The partners had no problems with her being a woman. If she hadn't believed that, she wouldn't be working for them. However, they did have problems with her youth and relative inexperience. She had to work harder than anyone to gain the same amount of respect. She didn't want to throw all that away on a casual fling.

Still, he was an attractive man, and there weren't any rules that said she couldn't enjoy her work. Lois allowed herself to relax a bit. She was mature enough to enjoy a handsome face without doing anything about it.

As she pulled into a parking spot on the now empty street in front of the club, Lois took a deep breath. Another sort of excitement shot through her, one she was more familiar with. It was the thrill of the chase, the challenge involved in convincing people to do things that they were at least initially reluctant to do.

She enjoyed parts of her work; the challenge, the negotiations, the feeling of being in charge. The partners gave her a great deal of personal autonomy; it was almost as though she had her own practice with someone else to handle all the petty details of paying bills, hiring help and screening calls.

She didn't enjoy office politics. Luckily, she avoided problems with most of her co-workers by ignoring them. She dealt with her own clients and interfered in the work of the others as little as possible. Only Ash Benedict insisted on inserting himself in her life, and with any luck, he'd be gone before long.

She crossed the street quickly and pulled open the door to the club. They'd been open for almost an hour, though it'd be a couple more before the musicians set up to play.

The place was almost deserted. The bouncer at the door nodded curtly at her; he was the same man who had been watching the entrance to the backstage area the night before.

There wasn't any guard now to the entrance to the area behind the stage. Lois carefully made her way across the club floor, avoiding the tables clustered closely together, and slipped through the doorway that led to the back entrance.

Brannagan's was unusual in having a special area for musicians between sets; in the twenties, it had been a speakeasy with separate areas for illegal gambling and dressing rooms for torch singers. Illegal gambling still took place every now and again in one of the upstairs rooms. Lois had played a few games of poker there with executives from the industry. It had helped her fit into the old boys network a little more quickly, and Lois had enjoyed the challenge. Truthfully, she liked to gamble; it was in her nature.

She knocked on the ill-fitting door twice, then waited for a response. When she didn't hear one, she gently pushed against the door, which swung open easily.

The room beyond was empty and sterile, cleaned so thoroughly that the walls were a different color than those of the hallway. It was as though eighty years of cigarette residue had been scrubbed away, leaving the walls almost gleaming.

"The boy does a good job of cleaning up after himself, doesn't he?"

Lois turned; startled at the sound of a familiar voice, she nearly dropped her briefcase.

Joe Brannagan was a fat, balding man in his mid-sixties. He set a ridiculous figure in his white shirt and red suspenders. As the owner of the club, he'd been one of Lois's first contacts out of school. Despite his appearance, Lois respected him, which was something she couldn't say about most of the people in the industry.

"He's gone, then."

"I had a suspicion that he was going to run when I saw that you'd talked with him."

Lois glanced at him. "You've used him before?"

The older man nodded. "He plays a few sets around here every few months. He's paranoid about publicity, but when I put an ad out in the paper, he's a real draw."

"I'll bet," Lois said. "You don't have any idea about where he might have ended up, would you?"

"I might." Joe glanced at her and pulled a handkerchief from his pocket to mop his head. "Are you looking to take him away from all of this?"

Lois nodded cautiously.

"Good. I like the boy. He deserves better than all of this."

"There isn't anything wrong with Brannagan's."

"It's small potatoes compared to where he should be. I've been lucky to have him as long as I did."

Lois hesitated before asking her next question. "He's not involved in anything dangerous, is he?"

The older man's laughter was almost a barking sound. "Kent? He's the straightest arrow I know."

Joe would know better than anyone. When he wasn't hosting poker games with record executives, he was holding meetings with the members of at least three local crime syndicates. Lois was careful to avoid the club on those days, and Joe was generous enough not to involve her with the shadier side of his business. If anyone knew whether Clark Kent was involved in anything shady, it would be him.

That left the possibility that he was involved in something somewhere else, but the odds were that Joe would have heard something. He tended to have his employees screened only a little less thoroughly than the heads of governments did; the possibility of a federal agent or a spy for another criminal agency coming into his employ was something he took quite seriously. He hadn't remained in business as long as he had without being cautious.

Lois felt a moment of relief. She doubted Pilar would discover anything Joe hadn't. All she had to do was convince Clark Kent to sign on the dotted line, then shop his music around to a few of the executives she knew.

"So where did he go?"

"He probably went home. He rents a couple of rooms in Durham."

"North Carolina?" Lois scowled. She'd have to rearrange her schedule to follow Clark Kent. She should have handled him differently the night before.

The older man nodded. "From what I hear, he likes to play at a little club just down the street. My brother-in-law heard him there one night, and that's the reason I booked him."

Lois scowled. She'd have to book a flight to North Carolina and rearrange her schedule completely for the following day. Given the distance, she'd probably reach the place before Kent did.

"Do you have the address?"

The older man nodded and handed her a small sheet of paper. "I thought you might want this when I saw you talking to him last night." The older man hesitated. "Make sure to have him play here a couple of times after he makes it big. The publicity will do wonders for the place."

"When did he leave?" It would be easier if she could catch him on the road. However, there wasn't any telling what route he'd take, and whether he'd make side trips to restaurants and the like. She didn't even know what vehicle he drove.

"He didn't leave till after three."

He'd had time to reach Durham. If Lois was going to catch up with him, she'd have to fly. She'd have to find a cramped seat in the middle of a group of tired travelers, screaming kids and horrendous food, and on this late notice, she'd have to pay outrageous prices for the privilege.

Lois hated flying; she hoped that Clark Kent was worth it.

***

Normally he cheated, using traces of his ability to gauge the emotions of his audience, but tonight he didn't feel like bothering. The music he played was for him, a catharsis for his pain. He had experience enough to know that the audience was with him without looking into their souls. It was enough.

He'd left Josh at home; at times it was better for him not to be around his son. Josh could see deeper into his soul than anyone, and for the most part, Clark had been strong for him. At times, however, his grief grew to be almost more than he could bear. When that occurred, he took Josh to the home he'd made for them both. It was a temporary place, little more than a couple of rooms in another person's house, but he knew he'd never truly be able to return home again.

The club was a dive, but it was close to home, and the manager was always willing to let him play a few sets. He knew quality, and knew better than to question the reason why Clark Kent was always surrounded by an aura of palpable tragedy when he came to play. It was enough that he came.

No matter how fast Clark flew, he couldn't escape the demons within. He'd had them as long as he could remember; it was one reason he'd turned to music as an escape. Losing his father at an early age had traumatized him; he held desperately even now to the few memories he had of Jonathan Kent.

His sense of being alone in the universe had only made things worse. Every child went through changes in his or her body during puberty; the changes in Clark's body had been a thousand times as bad. He'd come to regard himself as a freak, and Lana's reaction when she found out about his abilities hadn't helped. He was different from any other person that had ever been, and he was all alone.

He'd thought it was unbearable, as a teenager; the sense of loneliness and alienation. He hadn't had any idea about what pain really was. Jonathan Kent was a dim, albeit beloved memory. Losing Lana and his mother had shown him the true meaning of despair.

He'd always taken his mother's love for granted. She was the one constant in his world, a small, sad woman who gave herself wholly to her art, and to the life of her son. Clark had suspected for years that she'd lost something when his father had died, some essential spark of vitality. He'd never understood that, never understood how devastating it could be to lose the most important person in one's life.

He'd been shocked by the feelings evoked by the Lane woman. The guilt had only come later. In a vague sort of way, he felt as though he was dishonoring the memory of his wife. It had only been two years, and the emotional wounds were still raw. What right did he have to feel desire?

She'd been too perceptive, too intelligent. He'd felt as though she would be able to strip his secrets away in the space of a single breath. She overwhelmed him, and it was frightening.

So he did what he'd been doing his whole life. He ran.

Objectively, it was the right thing to do. She was a dangerous woman, bright, intelligent, inquisitive. She was determined, unwilling to let anything stop her. He'd had a glimpse of her emotions while playing for her in the audience, and he'd been inexplicably drawn to the purity of them. Her focus was something that he'd been desperately lacking.

She was dangerous in many ways. Clark had never been able to stand by and watch when he was able to help. His mother had raised him better than that. He'd done as much as he could indirectly, but had been forced to risk exposure on occasion.

He'd made mistakes, and people had gotten occasional glimpses of him. It always frightened him, leaving him waiting for the other shoe to drop. He wouldn't have hesitated if he'd been the only one at risk, but he'd always worried about his mother, about Lana, and eventually about Josh.

It hadn't been bad while he was living with Lana. Smallville rarely had anything important happen, and by the time he heard about anything in the wider world, it was usually too late to do anything about it. With Lana's disapproval, it had been easy to drop out of sight. It had almost been a relief.

He hadn't been as lucky since. Bigger cities had larger problems, and Clark felt compelled to intervene from time to time. He wouldn't want to live in a city the size of Metropolis for long. The cries of help and need would overwhelm him, and his secret would be out.

If it wasn't for Josh, he wouldn't care. He'd lose all chances at a normal life, but it wouldn't matter in the face of saving lives. He could always fly to the north pole and dig himself out a place to live, an ice palace where he could live like a hermit away from the human race.

He'd never love again, and it was wrong even to lust.

Time seemed to conspire against him sometimes. If he'd met Lois Lane before meeting Lana, his life might have been completely different. He'd have had the confidence of youth, and might not have been afraid to have his face plastered on billboards and in music videos. He'd have felt with supreme confidence that he could protect his mother even if his unique abilities were discovered.

He'd have focused on his career, on the music, and he'd have found a way to repay his mother for all the sacrifices she'd made for him over the years. He'd have bought her a big house and given her every luxury he could afford, and she would have been completely free for the first time to pursue the art that she loved.

Lana might still be alive as well, enjoying the privileges of marriage to a wealthy man.

But Josh wouldn't exist, and in spite of it all, Clark couldn't regret any world that brought his son into existence.

He ignored the audience now, going beyond the blues, beyond folk music. He wanted to cheer himself up, not dwell over opportunities that had been lost long ago. In a deep dark place inside, Lois Lane's offer had been compelling, and not merely because of her personal attractiveness.

It would be a chance to change the direction of his life, to escape the endless rut he'd fallen into. He'd been wrapped in a morass of darkness for so long, that he almost wanted to jump on any chance to escape. Lois Lane seemed like the sort of woman who would jump at any weakness, and he suspected that he wouldn't be able to spend much time with her without breaking down.

It was better this way. She'd forget about him soon enough, and he'd avoid Metropolis. In the long run, this was yet another meaningless incident in a long line. The fact that he was flattered that a professional thought his music was good enough to take a risk on wasn't enough to make him seriously consider it.

He tried to focus on the music, and for a time it worked. He allowed the entire world to shrink until it was just him and the stage. He didn't bother trying to look into the darkness of the audience, didn't bother trying to look beyond himself. The music was everything, and he played as well as he knew how.

Unlike other musicians, Clark didn't actually need to take breaks. His throat never grew scratchy or dry, his hands and fingers never got tired. He never even needed to stretch his legs after sitting in one position for hours on end. Usually, he took breaks anyway. It was important not to seem any different from anyone else.

Tonight, however, he didn't even bother with the pretense. He played song after song in an unending set, not giving himself a chance to think or reflect, or to do anything but play.

The crowd's response was enthusiastic when he finally decided it was time to call it quits. Last call for alcohol was coming soon, and Clark preferred to leave before the drunks were out on the road. The dive was out of the way, and the twisting, narrow road that led to it could be a hazard late at night. He did what he could to avoid tragedy when he was in town, but had discovered that it was easier not to have to make explanations if he left before the drunks did.

Usually, he would have had his van. It wasn't much, but he kept it to forestall any questions. The bar owner understood Clark's desire to leave before the drunks. He didn't have his van this time, due to circumstances beyond his control, but hopefully no one would notice.

He smiled absently as he began to slip his guitar back into its case, then stiffened as he noted a familiar scent. While he could differentiate one person from another by their unique scent, he usually couldn't do it in a crowded room. The accumulation of smells usually overwhelmed his sense of smell.

She didn't have any reason to be in North Carolina, unless she'd followed him. If she had, then she was far more determined than he would ever have believed.

As he stepped off the small stage, he saw her standing near the back of the room. Setting his guitar case aside, he quickly made his way to her. Ignoring the bouncer at the door, Clark quickly pulled her aside.

"I'm a little surprised to see you here," Clark said.

"I was disappointed to miss you at Brannagan's. When I heard that you were headed in this direction, I didn't even take time to go home and get a change of clothes. It's not as easy as one might think to get a plane flight at the last moment. With layovers, it took forever to get here."

Clark nodded absently. It was near closing time, and he didn't have his vehicle. While he could always pretend that someone had dropped him off, he hadn't made arrangements to be picked up. He had less than ten minutes before she would be wondering why he wasn't heading for his vehicle.

Lois paused, and her voice changed. "It's funny. After three o'clock, no flights left until five fifteen, and I took the fastest flight here. I didn't get in until 11:30, and while I did spend a little time getting a rental car, I really don't understand how you could have been working here since nine."

Clark felt the blood rush from his face for a moment, but his mind scrambled quickly for an explanation. He found one, and forced himself to shrug casually. "It's almost as fast to drive as it is to fly. It's easy to speed once you hit an interstate."

He watched her carefully, wondering how much she knew. He'd gotten careless again, convinced that no one really cared enough about him to try and track his movements. Lana had warned him, but he'd never really listened.

She watched him suspiciously. She had questions, he suspected, but with luck, she'd never get any evidence that he was lying.

"Does it really matter how I got here? I'm not sure what bearing any of it has on my signing a contract with you."

"At the most basic level, the main purpose of a lawyer is to discover the truth."

Clark couldn't help but grin sarcastically. "You aren't that sort of lawyer. I doubt that anyone is these days."

Lois ignored the insult. "Are you really happy with your life?"

The patrons, many intoxicated, were beginning to file out of the bar, ignoring Clark and Lois as the bouncers began to usher them out. Clark wondered how long he had to convince Lois Lane to go back to Metropolis before they were both thrown out along with the customers.

"I'm not sure what business that is of yours." Clark couldn't keep the resentment from his voice. Lois Lane didn't know a thing about him; who was she to judge the way he lived his life?

"Is this really what you want to do for the rest of your life? Playing music for groups of drunks? Is that the life you want for your son?"

"Leave Josh out of it," Clark said irritably as he watched small groups of intoxicated patrons pass by. He'd been tired of the whole scene for longer than he could remember. It surprised him; he'd always had a good-natured tolerance for drunks. Since alcohol didn't have any effect on him, he couldn't really know what they were experiencing.

"He's involved whether he likes it or not. You're the only family he has; where you go, he goes. When you spend your life in a succession of rat-trap motels, so does he. When you spend all your time with musicians, drunks and bar people, so does he. Where are the children his own age that he should have as playmates? Where is the home, the stability, the life at school that he deserves?"

"You don't give a damn about Josh. Is the life you are offering any better?" The fact that he'd recently begun worrying about every point she was listing only made Clark more irritable. His own sense of guilt had been bothering him for months. He'd suspected for a long time that he wouldn't be able to continue the life he'd been living forever. To have a stranger confront him with his own guilt was almost more than he could bear.

"You'd probably still have to tour if you got a contract with a recording studio, but you'd be able to stay in one place for at least six months out of the year. You could offer Josh a stable environment, a home, a life at school. He could travel on tour with you during the summers."

Clark shook his head. He'd dreamed of success every now and again, but he knew that it couldn't ever be.

"I'd have to worry about paparazzi, stalkers, people out to kidnap Josh. He'd be isolated at home. At least this way he gets to see what the world is really like instead of a rich man's fantasy. That all assumes that I was successful. If I wasn't, it'd be all for nothing."

"What would you lose? Compared to the money you are making now, it's likely that you'd make more even if your records were a flop."

She was as beautiful as ever, completely focused on the question at hand. Once again Clark was struck by how long it had been since he'd been attracted to a woman, and once again he was reminded of his own guilt.

Clark shook his head. He couldn't afford the publicity that went with a successful career, and he couldn't afford a personal relationship either. He doubted he'd ever be emotionally ready for a relationship, and he certainly couldn't face the trauma of revealing his abilities to horror and disgust ever again.

The only reason he'd been able to maintain his secret for so long was because no one had any reason to suspect him. As a nobody, he was free to make minor mistakes. With the eyes of the world on him, it wouldn't take long for his secret to be out. If he'd been alone, he might have taken the risk. Despite what Lana had believed, he didn't think the government had the means to hold him against his will, or to dissect him.

He wasn't alone, though. He had to worry about Josh, who was still as tender and vulnerable as any normal child his age. Even if Josh had already begun to develop some of the physical abilities Clark had, there would still be the issue of his mind.

Josh hadn't dealt well with the deaths of his mother and grandmother. At times, Clark wondered if Josh would ever speak again. If it hadn't been for his son's ability to speak mind to mind, Clark would have sought the help of a psychiatric professional long ago. As it was, he felt as though they were barely holding it together.

He'd given up music for Lana. He'd give up everything for Josh.

"It wouldn't be a good idea." His voice was flat. Hopefully Lois Lane would take the hint and give up.

"It's because of your secret, isn't it?"

Clark stiffened before he could stop himself. He glanced at Lois and saw that she'd noticed.

"I don't know what you are talking about," he said. Once again he wondered how much she knew, and he found himself growing more and more alarmed. They were almost alone in the bar by this point, and the service staff was beginning the process of cleaning for the evening.

"How long do you think it will take me to find out?" she asked quietly.

"You can take forever as far as I'm concerned. I don't have a secret." Clark felt his stomach clench in a way that he hadn't felt since the day a pair of policemen had shown up on his doorstep with grim expressions on their faces.

Lois looked up into his face and nodded decisively. "Everyone has skeletons in their closet, but I've got a feeling that you've got something special."

"I don't know what you expect to prove, but this doesn't seem like the way most people would try to sell a client on joining up." He hated the sound of desperation in his voice and hoped she didn't notice.

"I'm not most people," Lois said. "Though some people won't admit it yet, I'm the best at what I do."

"You're persistent enough, I suppose." Clark shook his head. "But you are wasting your time here."

Lois pulled a card from one pocket of her coat and a pen from the other. "I'm staying at the motel a couple of miles down the road. Here's the phone number if you change your mind."

Clark numbly took the card, trying to ignore the flash of awareness that occurred when their hands touched.

Lois smiled knowingly as she turned to walk out into the darkness.

Thunder crashed, and Clark thought it was an appropriate end to their conversation. She was a dangerous woman, and Clark knew that he'd have to talk to her again. He wondered why the thought produced equal measures of excitement and terror.

***

She'd pushed Clark Kent, making points about his personal life, but nothing Lois'd said wasn't true. That was her main consolation as she stepped out into the darkness and away from Clark Kent. She kept her head high and her posture professional. Listening to the sound of her shoes clicking against the pavement, an observer wouldn't have thought that she was nervous.

Lois had either ruined everything or won. She wouldn't know until he called her. It had been a risk bringing up personal matters, but Lois hadn't seen any other choice. Clark Kent's son seemed to be one of his primary reasons for not seeking fame. Without dealing with that issue from the outset, she'd never have convinced him.

Nonetheless, she'd gotten personal, and she'd run the risk of offending him to the point of losing the deal. It was a risk that she always ran; negotiating the narrow gap between being too pushy and closing the deal required a keen judgment of character. Lois always did her homework; she felt slightly handicapped by not having full background information before attempting to close the deal. She hadn't been given any choice; once Clark Kent began to run, it would be difficult to find him.

She'd struck a nerve in questioning him about his secret. It was difficult for her to imagine how he could travel from Metropolis to North Carolina so quickly. She'd felt sure that someone must have got the timeline wrong, but the expression on his face had confirmed that more was involved than simple speeding. She'd practically had to burn money to catch a last-minute flight, and it had still taken hours. Lois had always had more curiosity than was good for her; if Clark Kent did sign on, it'd be tough not to keep looking.

Of course, the advantage of secrets was that they gave the possessor power. Lois had never actually blackmailed anyone, though she'd come close a time or two. If she could find out Kent's secret, it'd only make the deal easier to close.

The muggy heat of the night air struck her like a fist as she pushed the door open to the outside world. She detested the south in the summer; the wet heat always made her feel a little like a drowned rat. She heard the first rumbling of thunder and cursed to herself, especially when the first fat, lazy drops of rain began to drip onto her face.

The parking lot was nearly empty; most of the patrons had already left. Only a few vehicles remained, most likely belonging to the club employees. Most were older-model vehicles, battered and covered with mud and grime. None had the shiny newness of her rental car, a cherry- red Mustang.

For a moment, Lois wondered which vehicle was Clark Kent's. She'd often thought that a person's choice of vehicle reflected their personality, though she knew that didn't hold true for people who didn't have the money to make their own choices. She didn't see anything that looked remotely like her conception of what he might drive.

Lois looked back toward the darkened entrance to the club, and after seeing no sign that Clark Kent was coming out, she slid into the Mustang.

As she slipped the key into the ignition, she took a last look at the darkened nightclub. Shattered glass from beer bottles lay in places, with trash blowing across the deserted lot.

What she'd said to Clark Kent about his son was true. The life of a musician wasn't any sort of life for a family; what she offered was the best option without leaving music altogether.

Lois turned the key, and the car purred to life. She'd done all she could do; the choices now were Clark Kent's.

It had been a long day; the plane flight had been as bad as she had feared, and Lois had left so quickly that she hadn't even managed to find a change of clothes. She'd give Clark Kent no more than two days; she already had return tickets ready. If he was still interested afterwards, he had her number in Metropolis.

The nightclub was outside the Durham city limits, and street lights were placed only intermittently. The road was winding, with thick stands of maple and hickory trees on all sides. Lois had thought it beautiful on her way, with the moon high in the sky. Now, with clouds obscuring what little light came from above, and the first few sprinkles of rain, it was a dangerous annoyance. What had been a scenic route had become treacherous and dark.

Lois focused carefully on the road. She was a veteran of the streets of Metropolis, and while the traffic wasn't as bad as the traffic in Manhattan, it was bad enough. She knew that the hotel was only five miles down the road; while she enjoyed taking risks, she wasn't stupid.

The rain began to fall more quickly, fat, heavy drops that forced Lois to switch her windshield wipers on. The regular rhythm as they moved back and forth was a counterpoint to the rain, which came faster the farther Lois drove.

Lois scowled, idly wondered how her clients were faring. Her secretary was adept at screening unwanted calls, and she'd been instructed to forward messages only if there was an emergency. That she hadn't had any calls yet was encouraging.

The problems would begin tomorrow, when the time came for the appointments and meetings that had had to be moved later into the week and on into the next. It was difficult to get time off in her profession; Lois hadn't had a vacation since she'd left law school.

The road grew slicker; Lois slowed accordingly. It was becoming harder to see the sudden curves and turns in the road, and Lois gritted her teeth. She'd have been happier to be in her Jeep Cherokee; the Mustang was low-slung and likely to stall in any deep pockets of water.

Lois had never really been the outdoors type. The beauties of nature had always seemed like something meant to be looked at through a window on the way to somewhere exciting and important. Only repeated trips to parts of the south had given her any appreciation for land that wasn't covered with high-rise buildings.

At the moment, she would have preferred the safety of nice, well lit city streets. The road she was on had no shoulder, or she would have pulled over until the rain thinned.

As the road rose, she thought she saw lights in the distance, and she wanted to sag with relief. The lights started shortly before her hotel did. It wouldn't be long before she reached the safety of her hotel room.

She didn't see the car sitting motionless in the middle of the road until it was almost too late.

She slammed on her brakes, but even at the speed she was going, it was futile. The wheels slid sickeningly as Lois did everything she could to avoid the collision. She tensed, and shuddered as the rental car spun, watching in horror as the hulk of the car surged toward the passenger door.

There was a thump; it wasn't the sickening, curiously non-metallic sound Lois had come to associate with cars crashing, but Lois wasn't in any position to appreciate it as her head slammed into the window. It felt as though her stomach dropped out from beneath her.

She was stunned for an endless moment. When she finally managed to open her eyes, she was startled to see a manlike form standing outside her window. Before she could react, the figure pulled her door open.

To her relief, it was Clark Kent.

He ignored the rain as he quickly checked to see if she was injured. His touch was gentler than she would have expected. She groaned as he shone some sort of light into her eyes.

"You've got a nasty bump on your head." His voice sounded oddly guilty. "Let's get you out of here."

He pulled her from the car, and out into the rain. He closed the door behind them, and lifted her into his arms as though she was as light as a feather. It felt good to be carried by him, comforting in a way she hadn't even experienced when she was a child. She closed her eyes and tried to ignore the fact that she was getting soaked. It had been so long since she'd been held by anyone that she was shocked at how much she'd missed it.

It seemed like only a moment before he set her down on her feet. She wanted to protest, but didn't. Despite the throbbing in her head, she still had her dignity. She was more than 30 years old; she wasn't a little girl to sag into the arms of the first man who came along.

She felt a little woozy, but managed to keep to her feet by leaning on him. She heard the sound of a key turning in a lock, and in the next moment, they were out of the rain.

She'd gotten the best room in the motel, but that wasn't much. It was clean; otherwise, it was just a bed, a dresser, a television, nightstand and bathroom.

She shivered; the room seemed colder than she would have expected. She'd set the window air conditioner on low before she'd left, knowing that most room units were weak at best. Now that she was soaked, she couldn't stop shivering.

She felt a strange sense of warmth beginning at her feet and slowly rising. When she opened her eyes, the sensation stopped.

He'd gotten towels from somewhere — the bathroom, she supposed — and quickly began drying her. When she finally thought to protest, he handed the towels to her.

"Go ahead and get yourself dried off. I'll go back for your car."

He was out the door before she could respond.

Lois cursed when she realized that she hadn't brought any changes of clothes; she'd left so quickly that all she had was a small travel pack with a comb, a tiny toothbrush, toothpaste and mouthwash, which she kept in her briefcase for emergencies. She rarely carried a purse, and was careful to keep personal items in a small, nondescript case in her briefcase.

The briefcase was in her car, as was her laptop computer.

Realizing that he would return soon, Lois quickly moved into the bathroom and began to dry herself off. Her pants weren't as wet as she had feared; a trace of warmth still clung to them. She must have gotten a warm draft from somewhere.

Her top was soaked, however, and she didn't have anything to replace it with. She glanced up at herself and winced as she saw the bruise spreading on the side of her face. It would be difficult to explain to clients and the people she dealt with; she hoped she'd be able to conceal the worst of it with makeup.

The back of her shirt wasn't as wet as the rest; he'd carried her in his arms and her body had blocked most of the rain. It hadn't been until she'd stood up at the last moment that the rain had gotten bad.

Lois cursed to herself again. She was almost certain that Clark Kent was going to be back in the next few minutes; he'd said something about going after her car.

She stepped out into the room wearing only her bra and pants. With a suspicious eye on the door, she quickly shut off the air-conditioning unit at the base of the window. She peered through the curtains and saw that it was still raining heavily. She could barely make out Clark Kent as he crossed the parking lot.

She dashed back to the bathroom and slipped back into her wet blouse. She buttoned it quickly, but didn't bother tucking it in; she could hear Clark Kent knocking on her door and she didn't want to leave him outside in the rain. The roof didn't offer much of an overhang to protect him from the rain.

She opened the door and ushered him in.

"I got your car into the lot. We'll have to take a look at it tomorrow to see if there was any damage."

From the impact, Lois would have expected at least some damage. It hadn't felt like a normal crash, however, and Lois could certainly understand his not wanting to examine the car for damage.

"What about the other car?"

"It was probably one of the drunks from the club stalled out in a pool of water. It happens sometimes; usually they just stagger home." He grimaced. "It's a bad stretch of road."

"That's a good way to get someone killed!" Lois said indignantly.

Clark nodded soberly. "People aren't always as careful as they should be with the safety of others." He glanced at the bruise on her cheek and looked away, a slight look of guilt on his face.

For the first time Lois noticed that he was carrying a dark bundle in his hands. A closer look showed that it was a plastic garbage bag wrapped around a bundle. She gestured toward it and he smiled gently.

"You said you hadn't had time to get any changes of clothes, so I thought you might like to borrow something until your clothes had a chance to dry."

He unwrapped the bundle. Inside was a thick terrycloth robe and a black T-shirt like the one she'd seen him wearing before. She hesitated for a moment, then nodded. It would be better than standing miserable, or facing him wearing nothing more than a sheet.

She slipped back into the bathroom and slipped out of her wet blouse. She dried off yet again, then slipped into the T-shirt. It had a clean, cottony smell, along with an underlying scent that she was coming to associate with him. She found it vaguely comforting.

It had been tight on him, but it almost engulfed her, enough that she felt comfortable with removing her wet bra. She left the pants on and slipped into the robe. A quick check in the mirror showed that she wasn't going to win any beauty contests; her hair was plastered to the sides of her head and there wasn't much she could do about it.

"So you live nearby?" she asked as she stepped back into the room.

He was standing by the window looking out onto the parking lot outside. He glanced back at her and nodded.

"I share the rent on a house just around the corner. Josh and I stay there sometimes." He didn't look at her, continuing to stare out the window.

Lois had known, of course, that he lived nearby. It was one reason that she'd chosen the hotel.

Lois didn't remember seeing any headlights, though it was possible that she'd been too stunned to notice. She didn't remember being put into his vehicle, after all. She doubted that he'd carried her the mile between the site of the accident and the motel, or she would have been even more drenched and miserable than she already was.

Whatever the reason, she'd been lucky that he'd come along.

Lois hesitated, then said, "Thank you. You didn't have to help me."

He glanced back at her. "Yes, I did."

That simple statement said a great deal about what sort of person he was. Lois knew a hundred people in the entertainment industry; the majority wouldn't even slow down when driving by a car wreck.

"Thanks for watching out for me."

"My wife and mother died in an automobile accident. I couldn't stand by and let that happen to anyone else."

Lois could understand survivor's guilt. That Clark had lost his wife and his mother on the same day must have been almost unbearable.

"You can't save everyone."

"I can try." He continued to stare out the window, into the rain.

The silence stretched on longer this time, with the only sound being that of the rain. Lois was almost startled when Clark finally spoke.

"It looks like it's starting to let up." He pulled her keys from his pocket and tossed them onto the bed. "I guess it's about time to head out."

"Don't just toss my offer out. Think about it, really."

Clark nodded. "I'll consider it." He paused. "You should get a doctor to take a look at your neck. It'll probably be at least stiff in the morning."

Lois nodded. Her neck wasn't hurting at the moment, but her face was throbbing, and she had a headache. She knew that neck injuries often didn't start hurting until hours later. He'd taken a risk in moving her without securing her neck; she was tempted to say something, but decided not to. He hadn't had to rescue her, after all, and there had been a strong risk of being struck by yet another car coming up from behind.

"I'd like to discuss all this with you tomorrow, in more detail. Once I've had a chance to get a little better organized."

He nodded somberly. "I can't guarantee that I'll change my mind."

"Just give me a chance to go over the specifics." As long as he was willing to listen, Lois had a good chance of convincing him.

He was motionless for a moment, then nodded curtly. "I'll see you tomorrow for lunch."

Lois smiled, and was pleased to notice that he had a sudden deer-in- the-headlights expression. On an impulse, she stepped forward and offered him her hand.

"It's a deal, then."

He took her hand almost reluctantly, and there was the same electric spark she'd noticed before when her flesh connected with his.

The handshake lasted only a moment; before she could react, he pulled away and stepped out into the slowing rain.

She stepped to the door but he was already gone.

She couldn't help but be excited at the thought of having lunch with him. It was as close to a date as she'd had in years; she had a sneaking suspicion that it would be utterly unlike the countless business lunches which had been part of her life since she'd first began working.

She was actually excited to see Clark again, which led her to another thought.

When had she begun thinking of him as just "Clark"?

It was going to take everything she had to maintain a professional distance. The sort of man who would look out for orphans, strays, and old men who didn't have anyone sounded too good to be true. Clark Kent had secrets just as Lois did. Perfection was a myth.

The sort of man that Lois wanted didn't exist. A man who was strong, yet willing to be her equal, who was romantic without being weak. Lois dreamed of a man who would walk by her side, who would be able to keep up with her and sometimes make her work to keep up. Lucy said that her expectations were too high, and Lois was slowly starting to believe it. No matter how handsome and nice Clark seemed, he wasn't the man of her dreams. He wasn't a white knight on a stallion ready to ride to her rescue. He was simply a man.

Lois would keep her mind on business, and with luck she'd succeed. There wasn't any point in fantasizing about a man who didn't exist outside her dreams.

Supermen were the creatures of fantasy, and Lois lived in the real world.

***

The sound of metal impacting metal still fueled his nightmares.

Clark trembled, hovering directly above the motel as he watched Lois Lane peer out into the rainy darkness. He'd almost allowed history to repeat itself, almost allowed a woman to die because of his fear that she'd discover his secret.

Human life was fragile; he'd learned that on the day he realized that his father wasn't ever coming home. He'd been terrified; at the age of three, his parents had been gods. If they couldn't even keep themselves safe, how could they protect him?

No one was safe, and he'd been desperately afraid.

He was afraid now. Every time he stopped a car accident from happening, it was like a knife in the gut. He made mistakes, grew careless, became rattled by the similarities between the accident he was facing, and the one which had changed his life forever.

This time was different. Always before he'd been a stranger. On the few occasions he'd been seen, it had always been by drunks or children, people who weren't reliable witnesses, people who did not know him.

Lois Lane knew him: she knew his name, and she knew where he lived, since she'd had him investigated. She knew more than enough to be a danger to him, and she had the intelligence to piece together the clues to who and what he was.

He didn't think she'd seen him, but he'd still made far too many mistakes.

Flying her the short distance to the hotel, warming her; he'd been so rattled by the close call that he'd lost all sense of caution. She'd been hurt, and it was his fault. He hadn't been able to see any further than that.

His only hope was that she had been just as shaken up as he had been; if she hadn't, it would mean trouble. Lois Lane struck him as being both intelligent and perceptive. He'd have to move very carefully around her in the future.

He finally allowed himself to relax when she closed the door. She was a threat in more ways than he cared to admit. He was attracted to her in a way that he hadn't been attracted to anyone since Lana. It made him want to confide in her, trust her, and he knew that was more than foolish.

He wasn't free to fall in love again. It wasn't fair to ask a woman to become involved with someone who wasn't even human. Even Lana had been troubled by the revelation, and she had loved him.

He couldn't expect another woman to accept him when the knowledge had almost destroyed the love of his wife. Yet after Lana, he could not imagine beginning a relationship with a woman with a lie.

Even if he could find a woman who could accept his differences, his secret was a threat to everyone he loved. Lana had lived every day as though a sword had been hanging over their heads. She'd been convinced that government agents would come to take Josh away. While Josh shared Clark's secret, he would presumably become less vulnerable as the years passed. However, any normal woman either of them became involved with would be at risk.

He'd been willing to take that risk with Lana. He hadn't understood how hard it would be for a woman to live with a secret like his. He'd been young and innocent, and he'd believed in happily-ever-afters. He'd been convinced that they'd find a way to make it all work, find a way for Lana finally to accept what he was, and what his son would likely become. The chance of that happening had ended in the space of a moment.

Josh was all he had left of her. His birth had been very hard; they'd both known that whatever it was that made him different from everyone else was probably the cause. Clark had felt guilty about that, guilty for depriving Lana of the chance to have other children. She'd never blamed him openly, but there had been something in her eyes, something that had made his soul wither a little.

Losing his mother had been devastating; losing Lana had only made it worse. He'd entered an endless spiral of depression. No matter how strong he'd tried to appear to be for his son, inside it had felt as though his soul was dying, a little more every day.

He'd worried when Josh had stopped speaking, but his misery had been so total that it had been hard to concentrate on anything in particular. He'd been lucky that the Langs had stepped in; he never could have managed the funeral arrangements on his own.

He might have continued to rot inside if his son hadn't reached out to him and touched him with his mind. It hadn't taken long for Clark to realize that he couldn't hide anything from his son. Josh had seen the shriveled thing his soul had become, and it had hurt him. Clark had felt his horror and pain, and he'd had a revelation.

His mother and Lana were dead, but Josh was alive. He'd been wallowing in self-pity, and it was hurting the only family he had left.

He'd thrown himself into his music, using it as a form of catharsis. It had helped, in the same way it had helped when he was a teenager with a million questions about who he was and why he was different from everyone else.

He hadn't been able to face the house he'd spent days and nights with Lana in, and the farmhouse where he'd grown up had been even worse. He'd taken to the road, fleeing his demons, and for a time, it had been enough.

He'd managed to cheer himself enough to reassure his son. Josh hadn't seen Clark's mind before the accident, or he would have known how much darkness remained. He hadn't seen the joy Clark had lost, or he would have wept at the contrast. Clark had made an uneasy truce with his demons for the sake of his son; he'd never really banished them. Mostly, he'd allowed himself to become numb.

Seeing Lois Lane tonight, watching her almost die, had brought it all back.

The pain, the anger, the rage at the uncaring world that had given him the power to make a difference, and then hadn't allowed him to save the people who had meant more to him than anyone in all the world.

His body was shaking, and it wasn't from the cold.

Calming himself, he looked back toward the accident scene. He'd moved the car already so that it wouldn't endanger any more lives, but he'd purposefully ignored the driver. Given his feelings about drunk drivers, he'd felt it best not to deal with the man for a time. A single moment of rage would be enough to kill, and Clark never wanted that sort of guilt.

Nevertheless, as he flashed through the air, his eyes penetrating the rainy darkness, he trembled.

He'd seen the man stumbling by the side of the road before. He had little doubt that the man had seen him playing in the club. Clark suspected that he'd left the vehicle to throw up, and had been surprised not to find it on his way back.

Needing to be careful, he arced around behind the man. If he knew the drunk by sight, the drunk might recognize him as well.

The man was stumbling down the road, ignoring the light drizzle as he looked around, moving with an exaggerated sense of caution. The man stumbled, and Clark grabbed him from behind.

Anger made Clark squeeze tightly, enough to make the man protest in pain. He was in control, however, when they both began to rise into the air.

This wasn't the man's first infraction. Most locals were cautious enough to have at least one member of their party at least half sober to drive them home. Those who didn't were known to have troubles with flat tires, tires that were burned instead of slashed. Rumors had even arisen of a ghost.

Clark had encouraged the rumors; it helped to keep people from investigating the burn marks too closely, or why they only occurred when a certain musician was in town.

This man was a belligerent drunk; Clark had burned his tires on a number of occasions, yet the man never seemed to learn.

"Lemme go." The man's voice was slurred. He was too drunk even to realize that his feet were no longer touching the ground.

They both rose higher, through the sodden misty air. Only when they began to pass through the clouds did the man begin to realize that something was wrong. Clark ignored his struggles; the man would hurt himself long before he could loosen Clark's grip on him.

"You almost killed a woman tonight." Clark kept his voice to a low, unrecognizable hiss.

The man didn't react at all for a moment. When he did, it was only to renew his struggles.

"Let… me… go." The man spoke slowly and clearly. Clark considered for a moment, then did as the man asked.

The man shrieked as he fell, and for a moment Clark had an image of the frozen moment of time when he'd opened the door to see two state troopers. He'd known instantly why they were there, and in a single instant his world had collapsed.

For a single moment Clark was tempted to ignore the man's shrieking. A dark place existed within him, a place that wanted revenge, but he knew that his mother never would have wanted that. Violence damaged the soul, and his mother wouldn't have wanted him to harm himself by harming anyone else.

Clark sighed as he flashed downward. His parents had taught him right from wrong. His few memories of his father had shown him the sort of man Clark wanted to be. His father wouldn't have wanted him to do wrong; most likely, he would have argued that Clark had even more of an obligation to do right than a normal person, because he had so much more power to help, or to harm.

He grabbed the man ten feet from the ground, allowing them both to drop to reduce the impact, landing with a jarring thud.

He released the man, who fell forward, throwing up yet again. Clark waited patiently for him to finish, then leaned down and spoke in his ear again. "Risk another person's life and I'll find you. Next time, I might not be so fast to catch you."

The man fell to his side, and his eyes rolled up in his head. Clark checked him quickly with his special vision, reassuring himself that he hadn't actually harmed him. He might have had a few bruises, but mostly, he'd just passed out.

Clark grabbed him, and in a quick flight took them both to the man's car, which he'd placed in the parking lot. He stuffed the man into the driver's seat, though he took the keys. Looking around quickly, he flashed to the motel payphone.

He dropped a quarter and a dime into the phone, and then spoke into the receiver.

"I'd like to report a drunk. He's passed out in the middle of Richard Trice Road, about one mile from the motel."

Clark listened for a moment, and then said, "He's completely blocking the road. If you don't send someone out quick, he's going to cause an accident!"

He glanced at Lois's window, and at the drunk in the car. No movement from either place.

"No. I've done my duty as a Good Samaritan. I don't want to get involved. I just thought I'd better inform the police before someone got hurt."

He hung up the phone, taking care to rub any fingerprints off the receiver with his handkerchief.

A moment later, he was beside the drunk's car again. He glanced around for a moment, glad that the rain was beginning to pick up again. Once he was sure that no one was watching, he bent down and grabbed the car from the bottom.

He lifted it carefully, and a moment later he was flying through the air. He returned it to its original position, making certain to switch the lights on and to drop the keys in the floorboard. He then rose a hundred feet into the air and began watching in both directions. If anyone approached other than the police, they'd quickly get a view of an unidentified flying automobile, assuming they could make it out in the rain.

An eternity passed while Clark waited for the police to arrive. He wouldn't allow himself to relax even when they approached for fear that they might not see the vehicle in the rain and the darkness and with the hills. If they seemed to be approaching too fast, he'd do what he'd done with Lois's car, while being more careful.

Having the drunk face justice for DUI charges was the best solution. The city had been cracking down in recent years, and if Clark's suspicions were correct, this wouldn't be the man's first offense. He'd face stiff penalties; the local prosecutor was zealous in going after drunk drivers.

His secret would be served as well. If Lois had discovered the man's vehicle in the parking lot, she'd have wondered how it had been moved without a tow truck.

Clark relaxed as he saw the police car moving cautiously along the road. They slowed in plenty of time, and a moment later, both officers were out of their vehicle.

It was only as they pulled the man out of the car that he realized that he should have placed the car closer to the motel. He'd told Lois Lane that they weren't very far from the motel, yet he'd put the car back in its original position.

He was rattled. His reaction to what had almost happened, his anger at the drunk, his attraction for Lois Lane; it was all mixed up together. He was continuing to make mistakes, and some of them were dangerous.

He knew he couldn't return to Josh like this; the boy would know instantly that something was wrong. He had to calm himself, bring himself back to the state of numbness that had been his constant companion for the past two years. He'd discovered that Josh could sense him even while he was asleep, if he was close enough. Distance helped, though Josh could reach him even from far away if he needed to.

Lois Lane made him feel, and that was a dangerous thing. He'd spent a great deal of effort in channeling his emotions only through his music. He couldn't afford to lose that, for his son's sake if nothing else.

He allowed himself to rise once he saw the drunk being pushed in the police car while the other officer started up the drunk's car. He ignored the rain; he was already soaked and a little more water didn't concern him much. He'd had so much rain in his life that he almost didn't know what sunshine was like anymore.

It took only a moment to rise above the clouds to the secret place he'd shown only to Josh. It was as beautiful as it always had been, this place between the heavens and the earth. He'd come as a teenager, seeking solace in the quiet beauty of the stars and of a moon that seemed to fill the sky. It had been his special place, the place he'd retreated to when everything had become too overwhelming, when he'd felt the most utterly lost and alone.

He'd wanted to share it with Lana. Sharing his secret place would have been his way of showing her that he wasn't alone any longer, that he had no secrets from her, and that he took solace in the love they shared together.

Unfortunately, she'd always refused. She'd never enjoyed flying with him. Being high above the ground had terrified her; the thought that someone might see them had frightened her even more. He'd told her what it meant to him, but she'd always refused to come. He'd always hoped she would change her mind. She had never had the chance.

It had only been after her death that he'd dared to take Josh. Lana would have been horrified at the thought of his taking their only son thousands of feet into the air, but flying was one of the few ways Clark knew of dealing with pain. Flying and music had always been his ways, and Josh had been too young to take solace in music.

Josh had loved flying as much as Clark did. With any luck, it would be something Josh could do himself one day. Flying was the best part of being different, of being alone in the world. It was almost spiritual, soaring aloft through the air, letting his cares fall far behind.

If he'd learned to fly earlier, Clark might even never have bothered with music.

He was beginning to relax now, as he soared above the clouds. Flying was a luxury he didn't often allow himself except when traveling from city to city, and then he was usually carrying Josh and was loaded down with bags.

Clark allowed himself a barrel roll in the air, and a leisurely flip. He spun as quickly as he could, driving the moisture from his clothes. When he was done, he was only slightly damp, no longer soaked.

Flying felt as good as it always did, and the place between the moon and the clouds had always calmed him. Clark felt his tensions begin to ease as he began to release the fears that had gripped him earlier. At last, he began to think rationally.

Lois's head and neck injuries were only minor; he'd checked. While head wounds could be dangerous, Clark doubted that she'd suffer anything worse than a headache and a stiff neck. Her pain was his responsibility, but if he hadn't acted, she might have been killed.

He'd made a few mistakes, but he could take care of them with a few well-placed fibs. He'd meant to claim that the accident had happened close to the motel. With any luck, she wouldn't bother to check the police reports, especially if he kept her busy.

He hadn't done anything that couldn't be explained away, and even a woman as bright as Lois Lane wouldn't be looking for supernatural explanations. Even if she did, she wouldn't be able to explain what he was. He himself didn't know.

As he angled downward, heading for home, Clark sighed. He and Josh were alone in the world, and no matter how distracting Lois Lane proved to be, she was unlikely to change that.

***

The car didn't have a single scratch on it, which was impossible.

Lois had checked three times, even checking the passenger's side, and she couldn't find a single sign of any damage. If it hadn't been for the throbbing pain in her head and the stiffness of her neck, she'd have thought it had all been a dream.

Her head had slammed against the window when the car had come to an abrupt stop. If the car had simply slid to a halt on its own, impacting nothing, Lois would be pain-free. The car had definitely struck something, but there wasn't a single sign of what that might have been. It was a mystery, and Lois hated mysteries.

On the good side, it meant that she wouldn't need to call her insurance company, which was something she'd been dreading. Her insurance rates were expensive to begin with because Metropolis was considered a high risk area, and even higher because she'd been caught speeding on a few occasions. Adding a wreck on top of it all would have been more than she needed to deal with.

Nevertheless, she couldn't understand how the car hadn't suffered a single scratch, and she hated the fact that she didn't have the slightest clue.

She was a little suspicious about how quickly Clark Kent had shown up at the accident site. Lois didn't recall the trip to the motel, and that worried her. If she'd blacked out, then her injuries were more severe than she'd thought. The line between unconsciousness and brain damage was razor thin.

Lois would need to see a doctor to rule out serious complications if she'd actually blacked out. She didn't have any signs of a concussion, but losing consciousness was serious. She made a mental note to drop by a local clinic.

Clark had carried her, and the trip had seemed to take no longer than the walk from one end of the parking lot to the other. Yet Lois had been sure that the lights of the motel were at least a mile away.

Sliding into the vehicle, Lois experimentally turned the key in the ignition. The engine purred to life. Assured that the engine hadn't been somehow damaged, Lois closed the door, snapped her seatbelt into place and pulled out of the parking lot.

Driving slowly along the winding road, Lois carefully watched her rear view mirror to make sure that no one smashed into her from behind. It would be ironic to have a real wreck after the rental car had miraculously came up undamaged.

Lois grinned as she saw a flash of color by the side of the road; no matter how hard she'd looked, she hadn't been able to find one of her shoes.

She glanced in the rear view mirror and was barely able to make out the motel through the stands of trees. She'd been right in thinking that it was a mile away from the spot she'd had her accident.

The road was narrow enough that she couldn't turn easily, not without risking someone flying over a hill and barreling into her. However, she remembered seeing a dirt road a half mile ahead which would make the task a little easier.

Lois drove a short way, then nodded with satisfaction. The road was graveled so that it wouldn't be a mud pit during the frequent rains, and it wasn't large enough for more than one car to pass at a time. It did allow her to turn into it and then back up onto the road facing the other direction with a reasonable amount of safety. She stopped at the top of the hill and switched her blinkers on. In daylight anyone should be able to see her vehicle in plenty of time to stop.

She slipped down the road and found her shoe. It was muddy, but wearable. Thick puddles of water still remained, but Lois could see a long, black set of skid marks where she'd tried to stop.

She couldn't see any sign of the other vehicle. More importantly, she couldn't see any sign of anything she might have hit instead of the other car. It would have had to have been something fairly massive to have stopped her vehicle. If it had been a rock, Lois suspected it would simply have been moved to the side of the road until a later road crew could take care of it; it hadn't been all that long since she'd had her accident.

For the first time, she wondered how Clark Kent had gone back for her car. If he'd driven back, he would have had to leave his own vehicle in the same precarious position as hers had been in. Even at a brisk walk, it would have taken at least 15 minutes for him to walk the mile to her vehicle, and he hadn't been gone nearly that long. He would have been soaked, and yet her seats were entirely dry.

None of it added up. The only possible explanation would have had him driving a tow truck, and Lois had a strong suspicion that Clark Kent didn't even know where to find a tow truck.

Lois wasn't entirely certain what sort of equipment one would need to use a regular vehicle to tow another, but she knew that Clark Kent hadn't had time to hook it all up, tow her car and remove it in the time he'd been gone.

She doubted he'd have had time even with a normal tow truck, though it might just be possible. She'd parked illegally on a few occasions, and had been surprised at the swiftness with which some Metropolis towers worked. Still, it had been raining heavily, and Lois would have thought that would have made the entire process much more difficult.

Glancing around one final time, Lois slipped her shoe on. She grimaced at the mud, but it was better than walking around in one stockinged foot.

Clark Kent was lying, and Lois fully intended to discover the truth. First, though, she needed to go shopping. Lois had left without as much as a single change of clothes, and she was already feeling unclean.

She was going to have some very pointed questions for Clark Kent when they next met.

***

"You let Lamar drive the van." Clark's voice was flat as he stared at the older woman. She was heavyset, and the expression on her coffee- colored face was stubborn and unmoving. She stood with her arms crossed in front of her, and Clark knew that he'd taken the wrong tactic. She'd defend her son to her dying breath if she had to.

"He's a better driver than he used to be." Her voice was defensive. "And you weren't supposed to be back for almost a month."

"He's not listed on my insurance policy; you are."

Given the prices insurance companies charged for sixteen-year-old male drivers, Clark couldn't have afforded to have Lamar on his policy in any case. That was assuming that he would have been comfortable having Lamar drive his vehicle without an adult supervising, which he wasn't.

Maisy's sullen posture relaxed slightly and she sighed. "I was on call all night, and I couldn't take him to school."

"He didn't just take it to school, though did he? It looks as though he drove it through a mud pit."

If he'd had the van, he wouldn't be in as much trouble with Lois Lane. It wasn't fair to allow his irritation about that to spill over to the woman in front of him. However, he had every right to be angry about Lamar driving the car. He'd seen the boy drive and he was a menace. "He met with some friends after school."

Clark sighed. He'd been lucky to get the van back without any serious dents.

"I only left the key with you for emergencies."

He'd have taken the van with him everywhere he went, but it would be tough to hide something that size while flying low, and flying high, it would show up on radar. He'd tried it once, and had barely managed to hide it from the F-15's the government sent up to intercept it.

He supposed that she didn't have much of a choice. Maisy Adams was a single mother whose only possession of any value was the home she'd inherited from her parents. She'd barely been able to keep afloat financially before he'd shown up to rent two of her rooms.

Even now, she didn't have it easy. Teenage boys were expensive at the best of times, and Lamar had been growing more sullen with each passing year. Maisy had a great many worries; Clark hated to add to them, but he had to insist on this issue. He wasn't certain that he'd be able to replace the van if it was wrecked, and he needed it.

Most places weren't like Metropolis or New York. In those cities, people could get along easily without vehicles. In the rest of the world, Clark needed to drive to do things like buy groceries, get his son vaccinated, and reach gigs. He couldn't fly during the daytime, not and hope to keep his secret.

"He's been saving up to get a car, but it's the insurance that's going to be the real problem."

Clark nodded. Lamar hadn't had any accidents yet, though that was more a matter of luck than skill. Still, insurance rates were monstrously high.

"You haven't had any luck in getting a raise?"

Clark heard the sound of a car door slamming. It was unusual for this time of the day, but not really worth his attention, so he ignored it. He heard Lamar prowling sullenly through the other end of the house. Clark knew that the boy wasn't doing drugs; during his years in the music industry, he'd learned to see the signs from a mile away. He couldn't smell any drugs on the boy in any case, and as near as he could tell, his nose was even more sensitive than that of a bloodhound.

Still, he suspected that the boy was finding more trouble than he could handle. He could only hope for Maisy's sake that Lamar came to his senses before he got in too deep. Clark wasn't around often enough to set any kind of example, and Lamar treated Clark and Josh with an ill- disguised rancor.

"They tell me that the company has been laying people off. It's only because I'm a good worker with seniority that they keep me around at all."

The economy had suffered a recent downturn, and Maisy was doing the best she could. Normally, she had no problems defending herself or her son to anyone. For the first time Clark noticed a defeated expression on her face, a subtle slumping of her shoulders that indicated that her problems were more severe than he had imagined.

"Maybe Lamar could find work," Clark said gently. "It might do him good."

Clark knew what it was like to be a teenager, confused about his place in the world. Nothing was worse than having large stretches of time with nothing to do but think about how different he was. He'd never been sullen, but he had been occasionally moody, and he'd been happy to discover music.

"He's been looking, but he thinks he's too good to work at McDonalds, and he doesn't have the education to get anything better." Maisy sighed. "He manages to get an odd job here or there, but not enough to make much of a difference."

"He'll find something." Clark tried to sound reassuring. "In the meantime, I need my van. Try to be a little more careful."

She sighed and nodded. "It was just so convenient…"

His head snapped up as he heard the words, "… mad because I took the van and he didn't have anything to drive."

He winced as he heard Lois Lane's voice reply, "Isn't that interesting."

"I think I just heard the door," he said quietly. "I'm expecting a visitor."

He stepped away from Maisy and out into the hallway, heading for the living room.

He stopped, shocked when he saw her crouched on one knee beside Josh. She'd cleaned up since he'd last seen her, and was now wearing a navy blue blouse tucked into a tight pair of jeans. She looked like many of the women he would have grown up with, yet somehow much more beautiful.

Josh was looking up at her and smiling. He hadn't smiled at anyone other than Clark since his mother had died.

***

Small children made Lois a little nervous. She'd practically had to raise Lucy, but Lucy wasn't that much younger than Lois herself was. Dealing with five-year-olds was a little like dealing with space aliens; Lois had no idea where to start.

Joshua Kent was different. Unlike the other children Lois occasionally noticed, he wasn't continually running and screaming, or wheedling in an irritating whiny voice. Instead, he was unnaturally silent and still. He had the same hidden pain in his eyes that his father had, a certain aura of somberness and sorrow.

He'd stared up at her for an endless moment before hesitantly holding one hand out to her. He'd seemed vulnerable in that moment and she'd sensed that her rejection would hurt him. When she'd knelt down beside him, he'd rewarded her with a slow, shy smile, and she'd had the oddest sense that he'd judged her worthy of some indefinable purpose.

She heard footsteps and looked up to see Clark Kent entering the room.

He stopped and stared at them both, an expression of shock on his face. Lois had a momentary impulse to rush to a mirror and see whether she'd suddenly developed a second head.

Lois glanced back at Josh, who was still smiling at her. He released her hand and stepped back, and she slowly rose to her feet.

Clark cleared his throat. "I guess you managed to find some other clothes."

He was purposefully looking away from her now, and Lois wondered if it was the small bruise on her forehead, or if it was something else. She'd done her best to conceal it with makeup.

She glanced down at herself, then said, "I didn't have much time to shop, but most of my things are still a little damp."

He didn't say anything, instead watching his son, who hadn't taken his eyes off Lois.

"I wanted to thank you for everything, and I came by to return the clothes." She gestured toward the small pile of clothes on the couch. "There's no telling how long I would have been out there if you hadn't come along."

"You'd almost reached the motel already. You could have walked there as soon as the rain had let up a little. I didn't do anything that anyone else wouldn't have done." His tone was dismissive, but he still didn't look her in the eyes.

Lois stiffened. He was lying, and she knew it.

"So I was almost to the parking lot, hmm?"

Clark nodded. "You weren't very far at all." He hesitated. "Did you have a doctor look at your head and neck?"

For the first time he actually looked directly at her, and she thought she saw a flash of something; guilt, concern and desire wrapped up into one package.

"They didn't find any swelling, but the doctor prescribed pain medication anyway."

He winced and looked at her. "I'm sorry you got hurt."

Lois watched him closely as she said, "I could have sworn that I hit something, yet somehow, miraculously, there wasn't a single dent on the car."

"You were lucky." He looked away quickly, but not before Lois saw a flash of guilt in his eyes. Clark knew something about her accident, more than he was telling her, and he was lying about the rest.

"Do you think they'll find the drunk?"

Clark nodded. "I called the police, and the car has already been impounded. I doubt the drunk got very far, and even if he did, he should be easy to track down from the license plate number."

Clark glanced back up at the slight bruise on her forehead. It suddenly occurred to Lois that she could use his odd appearance of guilt for her own purposes. "The doctor said I really shouldn't be driving, not once I take the pain medication." She hesitated carefully. "I don't want to take any until I've had something to eat. I haven't had breakfast, and taking those sorts of pills on an upset stomach…"

"But you ARE going to be all right…?"

Lois did not intend to pretend to be totally helpless. Helpless people didn't make good lawyers, and the entire point was to get him to hire her. Despite her attraction to him, and her frustration over the mystery he represented, the main goal had never changed. She waved the question off with a simple gesture.

"I'll be fine; I'm just hungry." She paused as though the thought had just occurred to her. "You wouldn't happen to know of a good restaurant in the area, would you? The motel's idea of a continental breakfast is simply pitiful. By the time I got up, all that was left was an overripe banana and a half eaten pop-tart."

Clark nodded soberly. He looked sharply at his son for a moment, even though the boy hadn't moved, then said, "Why don't you let me take you to lunch? It's the least I can do for letting you get soaked."

Lois ignored the feeling of triumph that stabbed through her and simply nodded. "We may as well get a little use out of my rental car. I've rented it for the next two days. Would you like to drive?"

Her head really did hurt, and she wouldn't be in much condition to drive after she took the pills the doctor had prescribed. In that sense, she wasn't lying to him.

He was lying to her, though. He was hiding things from her, both about her accident and about himself. As long as she could keep him talking, there was a chance that he might slip up. Furthermore, the longer she talked, the greater her chances were of signing him on.

He smiled slowly at her, and Lois knew she had him. Sometimes all it took was a foot in the door; once she managed to get him to actually listen to her, it would all be over.

She handed him the keys, and they stepped out into the sun.

***

The interior of the restaurant was cool and dim, well insulated from the noises of the streets outside. It was a tiny place, filled with the mouth-watering aromas of southern cooking, and as the matronly waitress led them to the back, Lois was impressed.

Clark Kent couldn't have chosen a better place. Lois wasn't dressed well enough to go to an expensive restaurant, yet she wasn't in the mood for fast food. Casual dress seemed to be the norm here, and if the food tasted as good as it smelled, she was in for a treat.

They were led to a table in the back, well away from any of the other patrons. The red-and-white checked table and wickerwork chairs were inviting; the sense of intimacy was even more so.

As they took their seats, Lois looked around and said, "This place looks cozy."

"I try to stop by at least once every time I'm in town. The cooking reminds me a little of my mother's."

Lois hesitated. She'd always found it difficult to deal with other people's grief; it made her uncomfortable on a level she wasn't even aware of. She'd never felt comfortable offering empty condolences; it had always felt dishonest. Yet ignoring the other person's grief seemed to trivialize it somehow.

She thought for a moment, then said, "It's always nice to have a little taste of home. Every time I eat my sister's lumpy gravy and burned baked beans, it reminds me just how bad a cook my mother really is."

Clark Kent grinned. "My mother was the best cook in the state of Kansas. I have the awards in storage to prove it. Lana on the other hand… well, let's just say that she grew up expecting to hire a cook."

Lois lifted an eyebrow. He seemed comfortable about talking about his mother and his wife, which was a relief. She considered herself a good judge of people; she was certain that it still bothered him more than he was willing to admit. However, he was doing a good job of covering his pain, and she was more than willing to play along.

"It might be a little dangerous, raising my expectations so high. What if I'm disappointed with the meal?" Lois allowed herself a small smile.

"Well, I said that it reminded me of my mother's cooking, not that it was as good." Clark's smile slowly faded, and his expression turned pensive. "I don't think I've ever found any cooking as good as my mother's anywhere."

There was an endless moment of uncomfortable silence. Lois shifted uncomfortably in her seat, then began examining the menu, and Clark did the same.

Two years had passed since the accident, yet Clark's life was still in a holding pattern. He'd allowed himself to stagnate, and Lois suspected that wasn't good for either him, or for his child. He was good at concealing his emotions, but Lois had made a career out of reading people, and she suspected strongly that his feelings about the issue were still raw, the emotional wounds unhealed.

Eventually, Lois broke the silence. "I'm surprised that some other talent scout hasn't already snapped you up."

She had little doubt that he'd been approached before. He hadn't been ready to change his life then, but Lois hoped that enough time had passed that he might be ready now.

He shrugged. "I tend to play small cities mostly. Metropolis was a bit of an experiment."

A fair excuse, but Lois knew better. She'd gotten his itinerary, and she knew that other agents couldn't have missed him at some points along his journey.

"In spite of that, other agents have approached you before." Lois spoke with assurance, noting the startled look on Clark's face. It was best that she separate herself from the rest of the pack. There wasn't much point in repeating the same mistakes the others had made.

Clark nodded soberly. "From time to time, I've had people make offers. None of them followed me from city to city though."

Lois allowed herself a small smile. "I don't give up. When I see something that I want, I go for it."

She saw something flare in Clark's eyes; a moment of sexual awareness that passed when Lois said hurriedly, "I'll be just as determined when I represent you."

"You assume that I'd be interested in what you have to offer."

It was a statement with more than one meaning. Lois caught Clark's eye and said steadily, "If you weren't interested, you wouldn't be here."

Being so direct was a calculated risk, but Clark Kent struck her as the sort of person who was impressed by honesty. He'd been in the industry long enough to smell a slick line from a mile away, and Lois didn't believe in playing her clients falsely in any case. With luck, her relationship with her clients would last for years; any lies she told would come back to haunt her.

Despite being a cliche, honesty really was the best policy.

"I'm not sure exactly why I'm here," Clark admitted. "I didn't give any of the others the time of day."

"Maybe it's my winning personality." Lois smiled at his wry expression. "More likely, you're finally getting to a point where you aren't satisfied going to the same run-down clubs night after night and being paid less than a minimum wage."

"Money isn't everything." His expression was closed, noncommittal.

Lois noticed, however, that he didn't deny the assertion.

A young waitress set large glasses of water on the table and asked for their order. Lois quickly made her selection; a salad covered with grilled chicken, with dressing on the side and an iced tea.

Lois sipped her water, discovering that she'd been thirstier than she had realized. She found herself watching Clark and the waitress as he ordered.

Reading body language was a valuable skill in Lois's profession, and the waitress couldn't have been more obvious about her attraction to Clark. Many waitresses flirted with male patrons as a means of getting higher tips, but Lois knew the signs of genuine interest. The girl was pretty, and college-aged, and she was giving off all the right signals.

Unlike most of the men she had known, Clark didn't seem to notice. Other than a polite smile as he ordered, he barely seemed to notice the girl at all. If it hadn't been for the sparks of sexual interest that she'd seen in his eyes from time to time as he looked at her, she might have thought that he wasn't interested in women.

It might have been easier if he hadn't been. Clark Kent was a temptation that Lois couldn't afford to indulge. He was dangerous; if she succeeded in gaining him as a client, he'd be even more so.

The waitress finally left, leaving Lois watching Clark.

Pushing him any further on the issue of signing would be a mistake. She'd made her point and would return to it later. She cast around for another subject to discuss in the meantime.

"You've spent time with a lot of the old bluesmen," Lois said carefully, "but you play music from a number of different genres."

"My musical interests tend to be a little eclectic," Clark said, brightening. Music was a subject he was passionate about, as Lois had suspected. "I've played with everything from rock musicians to sitar players in India."

Lois nodded. She'd seen Pilar's partial list of the musicians he'd played with; she'd been impressed.

"You've played with many more blues musicians than any other genre though, right?"

"Bluesmen just tend to be a little more accessible than musicians in some other genres. A lot of them are old, old men. At this stage in their lives, most of them are happy to talk about the good old days and play a few licks."

"You must have seen some fascinating people on your travels around the world." Lois sipped her water before continuing. "You must have racked up some impressive frequent flyer miles."

Clark stiffened, and Lois felt a moment of excitement. He did have a secret related to his travels. Mentioning it might not be the wisest thing to do, but her curiosity about the issue was killing her.

"You've had me investigated." His voice was flat.

"It's my business to know as much about the people I'm dealing with as I can," Lois said carefully. Her curiosity wasn't reason enough to alienate a potential client. "While your music was more than enough to pique my interest, I had to know more before I was willing to offer you a contract."

"And you haven't found anything that would make you reconsider such a deal?" His body almost radiated tension.

Lois shook her head, and he visibly relaxed. He was as obvious in his own way as the waitress had been. Most of the men Lois knew were adept at telling people what they wanted to hear. It was almost refreshing to find someone as open as he was.

She found it increasingly hard to believe that he was involved in anything serious. While he obviously had secrets, he was too open about them. If he'd been involved in drugs or murder, he'd have been more used to lying. Crime hardened people as they rationalized what they'd done to themselves, and Clark Kent certainly didn't seem to be the hardened type.

"Why do you want to represent me so badly? I'm sure you have more clients than you can handle."

Even his attempts at flattery were obvious.

"I represent a number of people. Most of them make enough money to live comfortably. None of them have the qualities that make for big successes in music these days."

"I'd have thought that my sort of music was too folksy to be commercially successful." Clark took a sip of water. "While I can play in most genres, I'm not really at my best in most of them."

"There will always be a market for love ballads." Lois watched him carefully. Some musicians had a sour-grapes attitude toward success, believing that mainstream music had to be inferior because it was commercially successful. While Lois had to admit that a great deal of mainstream music tended to sound very much alike, and her personal tastes tended to be a little more eclectic, she never lost sight of the fact that music was a business.

"I suppose that's true, but still…"

"I wouldn't be here if I didn't think it was possible for you to be successful." Lois found herself leaning forward and placing her hand on his. Her skin burned where it touched him. "The music industry is changing; people go out of business trying to follow the same old tired trends."

"So you think it'll be nothing more than a fad."

"You've developed a good fan base, and you have a very strong stage presence. Your music is compelling. I think that your career could last a very long time if it was carefully managed."

"But there's no assurance of that."

"If you want a sure thing, you can go back to working for a bank." Lois leaned forward slightly. "I offer investment advice to my clients. With one big hit and the right investments, you might never need to work again."

"I enjoy working." Clark's face was becoming set, with a stubborn expression.

"If you fail, you can always return to playing in bars. Why not take the chance to build up a nest egg?"

"Money isn't everything."

"You've said that before. It's true, as far as it goes, but it certainly doesn't hurt." Lois paused. "It might make things easier with Josh."

Clark spoke sharply. "Josh has everything he needs. I've made sure of that."

"He may not need much now, but raising children is an expensive proposition. They need new clothes every few months, there are doctors bills and field trips and vaccinations. Eventually, he'll want some of the toys he sees on television. Later on there are car expenses and college."

Everything she said was true, but Clark Kent looked as though she'd tried to force him to eat a lemon. His expression was sour, and for a moment, Lois wondered if she'd gone too far. Clark's family was a sensitive subject, and he was particularly defensive about his son.

He looked as though he wanted to argue, but finally he sighed and took another sip of water. He stared at the table and was silent for several moments before speaking again.

"I suppose kids really are expensive." His voice was low and sad. "Money was always a problem for my mother too. Even with the rent from the farm, it wasn't always easy to make ends meet. I think it bothered her, knowing that she couldn't get me some of the things the other kids had."

"Parents always want more for their kids than they had themselves." Lois kept her voice calm and encouraging. Letting him convince himself was the best strategy.

"It wouldn't even have bothered me except that it bothered her. I started making money on the side with my music as much to help her as with anything. Eventually, I got hooked."

Lois nodded. "It can be addictive; the acclaim, the crowds, the music."

"You're a musician?"

Lois laughed uncomfortably and shook her head. "I have the ear for it, and I've been told I have the voice, but I've never had the time to give music the time it deserves."

"That's too bad," Clark said quietly. "You should explore your talents. You never know where they'll lead you."

His rueful smile was the first expression that wasn't like an open book to her. It was as though he had inner knowledge that he kept secret from the rest of the world.

She smiled slightly. "I'm more than happy making sure that people get to hear the musicians who DO have the drive for it."

"It would be nice to be able to be able to give Josh a few of the things he's been missing." Clark's tone was wistful.

"A musician's life really isn't any life at all for a family man, and it's more than just money."

Clark sighed. "That's what social services keeps trying to tell me."

"I've seen your schedule. I wouldn't think that you spend enough time in any one state to be bothered by social services." Lois hesitated. "Besides, isn't Josh too young to be harassed about going to school? He's only five years old. Lots of parents hold their kids back a year."

Clark sighed. "Lana's parents are behind a lot of it. They never really approved of my life as a musician, and so they make many telephone calls. I think they hope that I'll get tired of the harassment and finally settle down."

"There are steps you could take…" Lois began.

Clark shook his head. "There's no way to prove that it was them. The phone calls are anonymous, and Good Samaritan laws protect the people who make the accusations, even if they are false."

"I'm sure I could subpoena their phone records…"

"My relationship with them is bad enough as it is. It worries me sometimes; the social service people tend to be judgmental. They assume that if someone has made a call that there is a reason behind it. I tell them I'm home-schooling to keep them off my back."

"ARE you home-schooling?"

"I'm teaching Josh to read, add and subtract."

Lois wondered how Clark knew Josh was actually learning to read if the child could not speak. Perhaps Josh knew sign language.

"Do you think Lana's parents would be happier if you were more successful?"

Clark was silent for a moment.

Before he could speak, the waitress had returned with their meal. Lois blinked as she saw the size of her salad; in Metropolis, it would have been a salad for three people.

Clark's order covered his side of the table and edged over onto hers. A double-sized gravy-covered breaded steak, a mound of french fries, toast, a large side salad, side orders of potato skins covered in melted cheese, fried breaded cheese sticks and fried, breaded zucchini.

Lois blinked. She'd seen Clark's figure; he didn't look like he had an ounce of added fat.

He noticed her expression. He grinned. "I've got a great metabolism."

Lois found herself glancing down at his chest and then back up again. She didn't blush; she'd dealt with far too many handsome men to lose control that much. It was close, though.

"I didn't realize how much you need the money."

"Oh?"

"To buy food and pay up on your life insurance. You might as well be mainlining grease."

He grinned again. "It's even better than it looks. Would you like to try a taste?"

Lois shook her head quickly. Small tastes tended to lead to trouble, both in food and romance. "I'd better not. I'm not sure I can afford to buy a complete new wardrobe. I'm gaining weight just smelling your food."

They ate in companionable silence for quite some time before Clark finally spoke.

"What would be involved if I were to consider your offer?"

Lois was careful to keep her expression neutral, even as she felt like grinning in triumph.

"I've got the contracts to sign if you'd like," Lois said, "though realistically there are many issues we'd have to discuss before coming to an equitable agreement."

"Just the basics, then." Clark watched her closely. She was as dangerous as he'd believed. "On a practical level, how would my life change?"

Lois sipped her tea, then said, "Initially, not much of a change. I'd need to get a recording of your music, and maybe get you into a venue where I could get executives to hear your music. That might be New York, Metropolis or Los Angeles. It'll take time to shop around."

Clark nodded. "I expected as much." He hesitated. "How long before my face was plastered on every billboard from here to the West Coast?"

"You don't lack for confidence, do you." Lois smiled slightly. "It'll take time to get a label to sign you. Then you have to spend time in a recording studio. It's not as bad as the publishing industry, but it still takes time to burn all the CD's."

"Are we talking about a year, then?" Lois shook her head. "It'd be a matter of months. I think I could find you better venues to play in almost immediately."

Clark sighed. "I don't think I'd mind playing for larger audiences. The whole idea of being famous, though…"

The idea made him uncomfortable. He'd occasionally used his abilities to help people, and while he'd always been careful, anonymity had always been his biggest protection. All he needed was for one person to make a connection between the face of the mysterious stranger who had rescued him and the famous musician, and his world would collapse.

Lois leaned forward. "I don't know what you are running from, but if you think you haven't been noticed, you're fooling yourself."

Clark stiffened. "I'm not running from anything, Ms Lane."

"A musician of your caliber attracts attention, and you've gone out of your way to spend time with famous people. While some of them have left the limelight, there are all sort of newspaper articles about you, some with pictures."

He relaxed. She'd had him investigated, but his public record wouldn't tell anyone very much. He'd never worried much about local press coverage until after Lana and his mother had died. As a teenager, he'd thought that he could simply move on if anyone found out. Now that he had Josh, he was more concerned. He'd worried about it for a time, but had finally decided that it didn't much matter. Newspapers rarely included photographs of local music events, and when they did, the photos tended to be grainy and out of focus. He was still careful to keep out of the picture as much as he could without arousing suspicion, of course.

He spoke calmly. "Those are local papers. That's nowhere near as intrusive as national coverage. If you go on MTV, your face is known across the world, and suddenly you can't go to the supermarket anymore. I'm not sure I want to raise Josh in an environment like that."

"Is the environment you are raising him in now any better? He's just as isolated as he would be if you were wealthy. Children don't really belong in bars, and I think you know that."

Clark sighed. He'd been concerned about Josh for quite some time. For a time, when they'd both been overwhelmed with grief, they'd only needed each other. That couldn't continue on forever. Josh was growing up, and Lois was right. Clark would never be the only person in Josh's life, and he wouldn't want to be. He'd caught traces of Josh's loneliness from time to time; it had been a perfect reflection of his own.

He'd caught a glimpse of something when Josh looked at Lois, a yearning that was different from his own. Josh had connected with her instantly, something that he rarely did with anyone. That spoke favorably of her; whatever ability allowed Josh to speak to Clark without words also sometimes gave him insights into people. Josh tended to be a very good judge of character.

Lois Lane was beautiful, smart, and determined. If she was someone who could be trusted as well, it made her arguments more convincing and harder to deny.

"So what ARE you running from?" Lois asked quietly. "If you engage my services, I'm bound to keep any discussions between us confidential."

"I haven't agreed to anything yet, although that's a nice try." Clark forced himself to smile slightly. No matter how trustworthy Josh thought she was, he wasn't going to reveal his secret anytime soon. Lana had found trouble accepting what he was, and she'd been in love with him. For a stranger to know would be dangerous to both Clark and his son.

He'd given her too many clues the night before not to be careful now.

"Penny for your thoughts?" Lois said. "And if you actually pay me that penny, I'm bound to keep your secret."

"Do I look like I have a secret?" Clark allowed his eyes to look around the room for a moment before settling on Lois. She was looking at him steadily.

He sighed. "I haven't made any enemies that I can think of, other than maybe the Langs. I am not nor have I ever been involved in anything of a criminal nature. I don't drink excessively, I don't take drugs, and I'm not a violent man."

"That would seem to cover most of the bases," Lois admitted. "Still, you must have some reason for wanting to avoid the spotlight."

"I'm a private person. I enjoy being able to live life without being harassed by photographers and fans. A great many famous people are practically prisoners in their own homes."

"We're getting a little ahead of ourselves anyway. The chances are that no matter how good you are, you won't be more than a middling success." Lois watched him steadily. "I see people all the time who have all the right qualities and never make it to the top. It takes a little something extra to make it to superstardom."

Lois had seemed so confident while she was encouraging him to sign. It was nice to see that she was willing to be honest.

Clark smiled. "So you don't have a direct line to what people will like?"

Lois shrugged. "Nobody knows which albums will be a big hit and which won't. I'd be making a lot of money consulting if I had an accurate measure. However, I know good music, and I know what sells. Only one song in five thousand ever actually makes any serious money, so I wouldn't expect to be a millionaire for a while."

"Assuming I'm not a big hit, what can I expect?"

"Mid-level royalties from your CD sales. More money when you go on tour. Especially given that you already have money coming in from your parent's farm, I think you'd be able to save money quickly. I'd be able to show you ways to invest what you make so that you could probably be financially independent within five years. That's assuming that you are at least a moderate success."

Clark nodded. That sounded like something he'd be more interested in. With enough money, he could simply play music for the pleasure of it, much as he once had. With a stable home, Josh would probably be happier, and summer tours might even allow him to have his cake and eat it too. He could go to school, assuming he could overcome his aversion to speaking. If necessary, Clark could afford to find a child psychologist who might be able to help.

For a moment, he was tempted. He suspected that the Langs might stop harassing him if he were more of a success. It would be nice to allow Josh to spend time with his only remaining grandparents without being afraid they'd kidnap him.

The work schedule wouldn't be any worse than what he had already, the living arrangements would be nicer, and he'd have a chance to give Josh all the things he hadn't had as a child.

Only the publicity bothered Clark, and even that might not be so bad. It might be possible to control his exposure. He'd have to be even more careful on those occasions when he was forced to help people, but it might be worth the risk.

Clark hesitated. "Could you leave me a sample contract, that I could look over on my own?"

Lois nodded. "I've got several in my briefcase. Feel free to look over the terms and what might be involved."

"I'll think about it."

They both ate in silence for a time. The food was as good as Clark had remembered, and it really did remind him of his mother's cooking. There was always something bittersweet about eating at this restaurant.

Lois spoke. "I didn't recognize many of the songs you sang on that first night, but I liked them."

"Most of the ones you didn't recognize were original. The rest were just updated versions of old blues favorites."

"Do you write your own material?"

"I'm forced to write my own songs," Clark admitted. "My voice doesn't have the range to do certain types of music, so I tend to write music that makes me sound good."

"Your musical range seemed quite wide, from what I could hear."

Clark grinned. "It's all an illusion. I know my limits, and I do as much with them as I can. Truthfully, there are a million people out there who have better voices than I do."

"You've got something most of them don't, though. You have stage presence."

Clark sighed. "I'm not sure how much of that will translate over in the recording studio."

He cheated sometimes. While he couldn't speak with normal people in the way he did with Josh, he could sometimes get a hint about what they were feeling. That made it easier to tailor songs to his audience's mood. He didn't do it all the time; he didn't want to become dependent on it. Still, it would be hard to translate.

"It'll probably lose something in the translation, which is why I'll want the record executives to have a chance to see you in person."

"Do you really think you'll be able to find someone to sign a deal with? Most record companies like to pigeonhole people into categories."

Clark wasn't entirely certain that he had a specific sound. He tended to play music from all sorts of genres, though he always seemed to return to the blues.

"You might have to restrict yourself to certain types of music for specific albums, but I'm sure I can find a label that is willing to take a chance on you. I think blues music is having a resurgence."

Clark smiled weakly. "I've always liked the blues, but over the last few years…" He sighed. "Since I lost Ma and Lana, I've spend a lot of time playing the blues."

Lois touched his hand, and it burned like fire. "You've had a hard time."

"If it had been just me, I don't know what I would have done. But I had to be strong for Josh."

It would have been all too easy to have sunk into a pit of gloom and despair. Without a need to eat, or for shelter, or even any way to harm himself, he might have stayed in a very dark place for a long time.

Luckily, he'd had to be strong even within his own mind, because Josh could see within. Of course, he couldn't help the feelings of sadness and depression that had nearly overwhelmed him on occasion. He worried sometimes that Josh's exposure to his pain so early in his development would cripple him emotionally.

Lois tightened her hand around his reassuringly, and he found himself unable to look away from her. Something sparked between them, a moment of sexual awareness, and it was Lois who pulled away.

They completed their meal in silence. When Lois was done, she said, "You were right about this place. The salad was just about the best I've had."

"You should try living a little," Clark said, smiling slightly. "Salads and tofu just don't have the same taste."

"I've got to watch my figure. In this business, appearance is everything."

"There's nothing wrong with your figure," Clark said, allowing himself to glance down for a moment. He smiled uneasily when he caught her watching him steadily.

"What sort of example are you setting for Josh?"

"With any luck, he'll inherit my metabolism."

"With any luck, you won't keel over from a heart attack at the age of forty."

Clark shrugged, suppressing a grin. He didn't have any way of knowing, but he suspected that his inhuman nature protected him from many of the problems associated with overeating. He didn't gain weight, and he was able to eat more in one sitting than should have been humanly possible. He'd even discovered in college that he didn't actually have to eat. It had been a convenient way to save money when finances grew difficult. He'd been able to pay his way through college with his music and scholarships, and by scrimping and saving. He'd been proud not to be a financial burden on his mother.

"Would you like dessert? Banana Foster maybe? Apple pie a la mode?"

Lois shook her head. "I'm not sure I could afford to replace my entire wardrobe."

"With all the money I'll be making you?" Clark grinned. "Assuming, of course, that I sign on."

He was surprised to realize that he wanted to sign on. He'd been stuck in a rut for a long time. Perhaps a change would do both Clark and his son good.

"You haven't seen what they charge for clothes in Metropolis."

Lois Lane was doubtlessly used to the best in everything. For a moment, he became self-conscious. He'd never had a great deal of money, and he doubted that he ever would.

"When are you leaving?" His question was abrupt, meant to cover his own sudden feeling of being a lump of coal in the presence of a diamond.

Lois looked startled at the change in subject.

"Tomorrow, I suppose. I've got clients who really can't wait."

Clark nodded. "I just wanted to see how long I have to make up my mind."

"Take a look at the contracts," Lois said. "They are standard forms, but they specify most of the services I'll be performing for you."

"Most of them?"

Lois smiled slightly. "Well, calls at two a.m. to negotiate between a client and his business manager aren't actually specified, but they seem to happen."

"That doesn't sound like fun."

"If it was fun, everyone would be doing it. I enjoy my work for the most part, and I'm willing to go the extra mile for my clients. I haven't had a dissatisfied one yet, and that's saying a lot."

Clark nodded. He slipped a twenty-dollar bill out of his wallet and set it on the table. Lois looked as though she wanted to protest, but Clark stood up and didn't allow her time to argue.

"I'm not broke, and I have a little pride. Besides, most lawyers would just tack the cost of the meal onto the bill." Clark grinned to take the sting out of the insult.

"We could always put it on the corporate expense account."

"That's all right," Clark said. "If I do sign up, and you accomplish what you say you can, then this will all be worth it. If I don't sign up, well, it's been a long time since I've had dinner with a beautiful woman, and it will still have been worth it."

Lois's face lit up the room, and privately, Clark thought that alone was worth the price of admission. He felt the same dangerous excitement he'd felt before at the thought of working with her, but intermixed was a new excitement at the thought of doing something different with his life.

He'd spent his life traveling from one place to another from the moment he'd found he could fly. It had only been since meeting Lana that he'd set aside the excitement of the new.

Perhaps being a family man didn't mean that he couldn't explore new horizons. He'd been in a dark place for a long time, a rut that he hadn't known how to break free of. Lois Lane offered him the chance to change his life.

He was tempted to sign the contracts right away, but he knew better than that. With his unique abilities, it wouldn't take him long to check through the fine print, and even less time to think about the ramifications.

Still, the thought was exhilarating.

As his hand drifted to Lois Lane's back to help guide her out the door, he wondered what possibilities the future might bring.

***

They stepped out into the sunlight, and Lois had to force herself not to smile. The art of convincing people was really about getting them to convince themselves, and as far as she could see, Clark Kent was already doing most of the work for her.

She headed for the car, humming to herself; once he had the contracts in his hands, it was only a matter of time. Lois pulled the keys from her purse, grateful that he'd returned them to her after driving. She doubted that he'd have been able to get the keys into his pants pocket. While she appreciated tight clothing, assuming people had the body for it, there were limits.

She pushed the button to unlock the driver's door via remote control. From behind her, Clark spoke.

"Would you like me to show you around Durham this evening?"

His tone was hesitant, which made Lois pause. She'd turned down countless similar offers, from both clients and co-workers. Workplace romances were unwise, and in some cases could actively be a conflict of interest. Most men who asked didn't care about a woman's reputation for professionalism, just as they really didn't care about a woman's mind. Lois's resistance made her a target, a prize to be won.

If Lois hadn't heard the vulnerability in the question, she would have turned him down. She'd had plenty of experience in preserving men's egos while not allowing them to have what they wanted. Clark Kent wasn't like the other men she dealt with every day. He wasn't the same sort of arrogant, selfish, egotistical man she'd come to believe was the norm.

She wanted to spend more time with him. The realization was unwelcome, and disturbing. It went against everything that she'd learned during her years as a lawyer. Lois turned, and slipped on the curb, stumbling. Clark grabbed her arm and kept her from falling.

She stared up at him for a moment, wondering if it was actually wise to be entering into a contract with him. She'd have to work with him, closely at times, and despite her determination to keep the relationship professional, he was a very handsome man. If she was already tempted after knowing him for such a short time, how much harder would it be to resist once she got to know him?

He smiled at her, and she shivered for a moment. Getting involved with him wouldn't be good for her career. She'd worked hard to achieve her successes, and all it took was one hint of scandal to make it all come to nothing. Rumors that she was sleeping her way to the top would undermine her credibility, and it'd make her job harder.

"Your plane doesn't leave until tomorrow morning, and I've got the afternoon to look over the contracts. Why not take the night off?"

Lois hesitated. "I make a policy of not mixing my professional life with my personal life."

Despite the risks, she realized that she did want to take the evening off. It had been a long time since she'd done anything fun. Despite Lucy's urgings, she tended to spend too much of her time working and too little doing the things she really liked to do.

Of course, one of the things she really enjoyed doing was working, but she'd forgotten what it was like to spend time relaxing.

"We don't have to talk shop," Clark said. "As for anything else, well, it's just one night. There is something special about showing people places that you love. It's like getting to see it again for the first time through their eyes."

The few times she had done things in recent memory, it had been with Lucy. Clark Kent was right, bringing another person into your world was rewarding. It wasn't as though she wasn't reachable by phone.

She forced herself to smile impersonally, and said, "It sounds tempting, but…"

"You haven't really experienced the south until you've seen some of the things I'd like to show you." He smiled again, and Lois found herself wondering what it might be like to kiss him.

"I've got copies of the contract in my briefcase." She pulled away from him, unwilling to look him in the eye. She quickly turned and stepped toward her trunk, anxiously pulling the briefcase out. She'd been right from the beginning. Clark Kent was a dangerous distraction, one she couldn't afford.

Dating a client was somewhat suspect and wouldn't do her reputation any good. If he hadn't been the chance she'd been waiting for, she might have considered having a discreet relationship. He wasn't married, which was a line she would not cross, and he traveled a great deal, which would have fit wonderfully into her schedule. He would almost have made a better boyfriend than a client.

The fact that she was tempted to sabotage herself shocked her. Losing the contract wouldn't be doing either of them a service. Lois sincerely believed in the arguments she'd given Clark, and allowing him to continue the life he was living, allowing him to continue spinning his wheels fruitlessly just so that she could satisfy her own selfish needs, was a shock.

The smart thing to do was to avoid temptation, to keep Clark Kent at arm's length. Neither of them would benefit from an affair, and the best thing Lois could do would be to go home and go to bed.

Lois straightened. It was decided. Putting Clark Kent off was the best solution. Of course, to do so would be to admit that she couldn't control herself. She'd have to admit that she was no more in control of herself than the other people in the business, and somehow, that rankled. Furthermore, the thought of returning to an empty room alone for yet another night had all the attraction of a bran muffin made of sawdust.

She was stronger than that; she wasn't a schoolgirl experiencing her first crush. She'd simply have to ignore the way that his music had touched her soul. She'd have to forget her awareness of him physically, forget the way he looked at her. She'd concentrate on the important things.

They could work well together, and in doing so provide a better life for the child Clark loved so much. Clark Kent impressed her as a decent, honest man, despite his secrets. That those same secrets made him more intriguing was something she'd have to deal with.

She was able to handle her primal urges as well as anyone. That being so, there was no reason to deny herself a pleasant evening. Once they returned to Metropolis, life would return to its usual, hectic pace. Lois looked up at him and said, "All right, I'll join you this evening. We can discuss the terms of the contract then."

"Don't you ever stop working?" Clark frowned as she shoved the contracts into his hands. She closed her briefcase, and Clark shut the lid of her trunk. He was always the gentleman.

"Who can afford to stop working?" Lois spoke quietly, gesturing him away. She was in control of herself, as she'd always been. "My job is to do everything I can to make your life better, and the lives of my other clients. That responsibility doesn't stop when five o'clock rolls around."

Clark nodded. "I suppose it's a little like being a parent."

"More than you'll ever know, Mr. Kent." Most men in Lois's acquaintance were like children, petty and squabbling. Sometimes half of her job was settling their arguments; it was the part of her job that she liked the least. "You aren't one of those who hates to read while driving, are you, Mr. Kent?"

"You want me to sign by the end of the drive?"

"I just thought we might be able to use the time to our best advantage. I'm sure that you will have all sorts of questions. I'm anxious to begin answering them as soon as I can."

Clark nodded. "I'm fine with reading, assuming that you drive."

"I can find my way back." Lois had been careful to keep track of the route home. She'd learned the value of caution early, and made sure that she was always prepared. She'd gained her black belt in Tai Kwon Do, and kept a bottle of pepper spray on her key chain. She'd also learned to trust her instincts for danger.

Somehow, Clark Kent slipped through all her defenses. She had a deep feeling that he was to be trusted, and despite her intentions to remain on her guard, she kept having to remind herself that she didn't know him all that well.

It had been a long time since she'd been with anyone. She colored as she realized that she was staring at his rear end. She quickly averted her eyes and headed for the driver's side. It would be hard enough to keep a professional demeanor without focusing on sexual thoughts.

She slid into the driver's seat, slammed the door, and switched on the ignition. She ignored Clark as she pulled out of the parking lot, and they made the trip in silence.

Out of the corner of the eye, she saw Clark alternate between watching her and flipping through the contract. He didn't ask any questions; Lois had hoped that he would. Focusing on work would be the easiest way to ignore any inappropriate desires.

The silence between them was palpable, and Lois found herself so aware of Clark Kent that she was barely aware of the drive. She was on autopilot, retracing their route back to Clark's house.

As Lois pulled into the driveway, Clark said, "I expected something a lot more complicated and longer than three pages."

"This is as much a written agreement as it is a contract. It's designed to be understandable by the man off the street, while still remaining legal and binding."

"So we both have the option to leave at any time?"

Lois nodded. "Of course, we'd continue collecting a percentage for any contracts we'd gotten for you, while ceasing our other services. Unless you really have a problem with our representation, it'd be more convenient to stay with us."

"Half the contract deals with that."

"We've occasionally had problems with people using us as a stepping stone, then wanting to cut us out the moment they made it."

"I suppose the smart thing to do would be to ask for references." Glancing at her, Clark grimaced.

"I've got names and phone numbers in my briefcase, though one or two of them don't like being disturbed."

Clark was silent for a long moment, seeming to struggle with himself. After a time, he seemed to come to a decision. "Do you have a pen?"

Lois nodded. She pulled a silver pen from her purse and handed it to him. "You'll need to sign both copies on all three pages."

Taking a final look at the contract, Clark hesitated.

"I can't guarantee a recording contract, and that's specified in the contract," Lois said. "But if the best entertainment lawyer in Metropolis can't get you a recording contract, no one can."

He nodded, then took a deep breath. "This is a pretty major decision."

"If you want more time, you can have until this evening, or you can make an appointment to meet with me in my office in Metropolis."

Clark shook his head. "I've been drifting for a long time. I'm afraid that if I wait, I'll come up with a dozen reasons why it would be easier just to keep drifting."

"I'm not trying to pressure you into anything," Lois said quietly. "You've got no obligation to sign. I've explained why I believe it would be a good idea, but you are the person who has to make the decision."

Clark took a deep breath, set the contract on the dash, and signed on all three pages, then did the same to a second copy.

Lois nodded and gestured for the contract. She took it, and placed her signature next to his in all three places on both sets.

She smiled at him. "I'd like to believe that this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship."

He smiled, looking overwhelmed. He'd just taken the first step toward changing his entire life.

"We've got a great deal to discuss. Making demos, farming them around; it's all going to take a while. It might be a good idea for you to see if you can resume playing in Metropolis for a while."

Clark nodded. "I've got a bit of money saved up. I know that recording fees can be exorbitant."

"I've got contracts with some of the best recording studios in the business. I also know some that are relatively cheap, but more than competent."

Clark nodded. He watched her for a moment, then his head snapped around, and he looked at the house.

"I guess I need to go. I'll pick you up at 7."

Lois handed one copy of the contract to Clark. "Keep this someplace safe."

He nodded, looking back toward the house. He opened the door, and stepped out of the car. Lois pulled her keys from the ignition, and did the same. Peering over the hood of the car, she spoke to him, curiously unwilling to let him leave.

"Do I need to worry about what to wear?" Lois asked.

Clark shook his head. "Dress casually. I'm not really a formal sort of person."

"I'll look forward to it."

Clark nodded, then turned back toward the house. "I'd invite you in, but my landlady and her son are fighting again."

"How do you know that?" Lois asked quickly. She couldn't see anything, or hear any signs of an argument.

"They usually argue about this time of day. I don't like Josh to be around it much, so…"

His explanation sounded weak and uncertain even to Lois. He turned quickly, and headed for the house. The moment he opened the front door, Lois heard the sound of raised voices.

Clark Kent had better hearing than Lois did, and Lois's hearing was excellent. His explanation had felt like a lie, and Lois wondered why he'd bother lying about something like that.

She shook her head, watching as the door closed behind Clark Kent.

She should feel more excited. She'd convinced him to sign, beginning what was certain to be an excellent partnership. Musical talent wasn't everything in the industry; connections were. Lois had the connections Clark Kent needed to be a success, but she wouldn't bother using them for someone who wasn't worth listening to. Her greatest asset was her reputation.

If she was judging him right, Clark Kent wouldn't let her down.

She slipped back into the driver's seat and carefully pulled out of the driveway.

Less than a minute later, she was back in the motel parking lot. Lois was feeling a curious desire for chocolate; luckily, the motel had a small gift shop attached to it.

She carefully placed her copy of the contract in her briefcase in the trunk of her car, then locked everything tightly. A few moments later, she was headed for the gift shop.

She heard the distinctive ring of her telephone from within her purse as she entered the shop.

"Lane speaking."

She listened to the voice of her secretary on the other end of the line for several long moments.

"Just give me a list of the things that need to be taken care of. I don't have a pen with me, so I may have to call you back."

Lois moved through the aisles of the small gift shop, focusing as quickly as she could on the chocolate.

"Reschedule that for me, won't you?"

She gathered a small store of candy and headed for the counter.

"I'll be sure and call him." Lois continued to speak into the phone as she dropped the candy on the sales counter. It was a typical sales counter, with racks covered with candy, trash tabloids and other last- minute impulse-buy trinkets. "Be ready to break out the confetti, I've signed another one."

She smiled at the sound of her secretary's congratulations.

Lois froze as the cashier began to ring up her candy purchase, her eyes fixed on one of the magazines on a local rack.

"I've got to go." She said, grabbing the magazine and setting it beside the candy as she switched the cell phone off.

The bored-looking cashier sneered at her as she grabbed the copy of the National Inquisitor from the pile. Ignoring the woman, Lois quickly flipped through the magazine, ignoring the stories about Nostradamus being reincarnated as a potato, Elvis being secretly Bill Clinton and the Pope's stock market predictions.

It took her only a moment to find the article in question, and a moment later, she was heading back for her car.

She dropped to the ground on the passenger's side and quickly began searching.

Two sets of four indentions marred the straight lines of the frame of her car. Hesitantly, Lois placed her hand over the marks. Though the marks were larger than her slender fingers, they were in exactly the shape that a human hand might have made.

She stared at the paper once again. A cartoonist's rendering of a dark human figure grabbing the underside of a car moments before it tipped over the edge of a bridge covered the front page.

The picture accompanying the story showed the underside of the car in question.

The marks in the picture were identical to the marks on her car.

For several minutes Lois simply stared, unable to move or think. Her world had turned on its axis; what she'd once believed to be an orderly, understandable universe no longer made sense. She'd been rescued from a car accident, and she could see the proof with her own eyes.

She tried to think of an alternate explanation, of another way that the metal might have coincidentally bent in the shape of finger marks, but she couldn't. The metal was smooth and unblemished except for the marks, and if the vehicle had slid onto anything, it would have bent the metal of the rear fender.

The explanation in the tabloid wasn't something that she could buy. The ghost of a drunk-driving victim or alternately an angel that had been watching over this singular stretch of road was simply too fantastic an explanation.

Yet Lois couldn't come up with anything else. It was obvious that something had stopped her vehicle from slamming into the drunk's car, yet Lois hadn't seen anything until Clark had knocked on her window.

The marks were the only sign that anything unusual had occurred to Lois, and if she hadn't known better, hadn't seen the article, she might have thought it was only a fluke. That it had occurred more than once made it more than a lucky accident. Something was happening, and it was maddening that she didn't understand it.

Lois had always hated mysteries; they gave her a sense of being excluded. Not being in the know was difficult, and so Lois had always done her best to remain well-informed.

Eventually, she rose to her feet, dusting herself off. She didn't have a great deal of time to investigate; she was scheduled to leave town in the morning. It wasn't as though there weren't other mysteries that had already grabbed her attention. Clark Kent himself was a man who purported to have no secrets, yet was surrounded by mystery.

The question of how he was able to move from place to place quickly and easily without having either the time or the money still nagged at Lois. Brannagan had investigated him and found nothing in the way of criminal involvement, though it was possible that he might have lied if Clark was currently working for the mob. However, Lois suspected that Brannagan would have found a way to warn her away from Clark Kent if that was the case.

She allowed herself the momentary fantasy that he might be working undercover for a police agency, though his record of travel had begun at too young an age. Most spy agencies required their agents to be college-educated, though contacts certainly didn't need to be.

Lois sighed as she grabbed the paper and her briefcase and headed for her room. She had time before she was supposed to meet with Clark. While Clark's mysteries didn't seem as if they'd be solved anytime soon, this one was something she could do something about.

Laying the tabloid article out on the hood of her vehicle, Lois flipped her cellphone open, pushed a button, and waited for Pilar to pick up.

"Pilar, it's Lois. I'd like you to find a phone number and an address for me. Mark and Lucy Greenbriar here in Durham."

The tabloid had given the names of the family with the car, and Lois thought it might be a good idea to talk to them. She wasn't going to tell Pilar why she needed the information, however. She doubted that the partners would approve of her using the company staff for her own private investigations.

Furthermore, she wasn't about to explain that she'd been through a potentially supernatural experience. She couldn't afford to lose her credibility. This wasn't something that she could discuss with anyone, other than perhaps Lucy.

A moment later, Lois pulled a pen from her purse and wrote the address and phone number on the margins of the paper.

"Thanks, Pilar. I'll call if I need anything else."

She pushed a button, ending the call. Looking around for a moment, Lois grabbed the paper and slipped back into her vehicle.

Coolly, Lois checked the number then tapped it onto the keypad.

"May I speak to Mary Greenbriar?"

She paused, listening to the response of the woman on the other end of the line.

"My name is Linda King. I work for the Associated Press. I'd like to talk to you about a story that appeared in the Inquirer."

The woman seemed pleased to talk about her story. If it had been Lois, she'd have kept quiet about it.

"I can meet you in an hour," Lois said. That would give her time to buy a map and find the place.

***

The enormity of what he had done was overwhelming. In a single moment, he'd given into impulse and signed away his life.

Change had always been frightening; from the time his father had died Clark had been struggling for stability in his life. Change had come to mean sadness and the aching pain of loss.

Only occasionally had it been a blessing: his discovery that he could fly, his first meeting with Lana, Josh's birth. Those changes had all been for the better.

Clark shook his head and smiled down at his son. This change was for the better. He'd known it from the moment that he'd set eyes on Lois Lane.

At his son's inquisitive probe, Clark bent down. "We're going to be spending a little more time in Metropolis, Sport."

A trace of anxiety from Josh didn't surprise Clark. Change was scary, even for an adult. For a child, it was even more frightening. While Josh didn't have a steady home, Clark had always been careful to keep a steady routine. It comforted them both.

"We'll still do all the important things together," Clark said. "We just may not move around as much. We might even have more money to do things with."

Josh didn't understand. Clark sighed. He wouldn't have understood at that age either. He'd lost his father at about the same age as his son had lost his mother. He knew exactly what his son was going through. In the space of a moment, the world had become a scary place. All the routines had changed, and none of the comforts of childhood had remained.

Making Josh understand would come later. For now, Clark simply had to reassure him.

"Everything is going to be all right."

Clark grimaced at his son's next question. "No. Ms Lane isn't going to be your new mother."

Josh had mixed emotions about Lois Lane. He admired her, but she frightened him as well. In the space of a moment, Clark knew exactly how Josh felt. Underneath the anxiety was a sense of longing, as well as a feeling of guilt, as though he was betraying the mother he barely remembered.

His son's feelings were a startling reflection of his own.

"I'm not interested in Ms Lane romantically," Clark said. "But with luck, she'll want to be your friend."

Josh stared at him doubtfully. It was the first lie he'd ever told his son, and they both knew it.

***

The trip had been wasted. The Greenbriars hadn't known much more than had been included in the tabloid article. They'd been driving near Richard Trice Road late at night when something had stopped their car moments before they would have been struck by a drunk driver.

They'd all been too shaken up to notice their surroundings, though the youngest child claimed to have seen a man standing beside the rear bumper of their vehicle. She hadn't been able to describe him except to say that he had dark hair.

The Greenbriars weren't sure whether the man was an angel, or the ghost of a drunk driving victim. They had the marks on the bottom of their car, and it was enough for them to believe that a miracle had occurred.

Lois didn't know what to think. Ghosts, angels, Clark Kent and the mysteries surrounding his life: it all made her head hurt. She couldn't help but wonder if it wasn't all connected.

The tabloid had mentioned at least six miraculous incidents within a two-year period, all within a few blocks of Richard Trice Road. Some believed that it was the ghost of Richard Trice himself, but Lois knew that the man was still alive and living in a nursing home nearby.

Something nagged Lois about the dates of the rescues as given in the tabloid article. As she pulled into a parking space in front of her hotel room, Lois reached for the paper on her front seat.

The incidents had occurred almost regularly during the winter months, usually at two-month intervals. Something nagged her about that schedule, something that she couldn't quite grasp.

She considered asking Clark. He'd been in the area during most of the events; the appearances of the ghost seemed to match up pretty well with his appearances in Durham. He'd have heard the news, what with his working at a bar on Richard Trice road.

Lois's eyes narrowed, and she quickly grabbed her briefcase and the tabloid and headed for her room. Once she was inside, she spread the paper out on the bed and quickly pulled out the information packet Pilar had given her about Clark Kent.

He'd been working in Durham on every single occasion that the ghost had made an appearance. Most of the accidents had occurred within a ten- block radius of the nightclub, and all had occurred late at night.

The thought that Clark might be something other than human was absurd; he was more human than most men she knew. Her frustration at not being able to unravel the secrets he did have was simply causing her to have flights of fancy.

In truth, his secrets weren't any of her business. She had the contract with him; as long as his secrets didn't affect their professional relationship, she could easily afford to ignore them. The partners would tell her to let it go; a drug problem would show up soon enough in his performance, as would problems with the law.

That she couldn't let it go was her own problem. She'd always hated secrets, and her curiosity was burning.

She'd have to leave it unexplained. The moment she left Durham, she'd put everything out of her mind except her plans for the future. She'd immerse herself in work, in finding Clark Kent the appropriate venue for his music. Despite what she'd told Clark, it wouldn't be easy to find him a recording deal. His music was new and unique. Only her excellent relationships with recording executives throughout the industry gave her hope.

Quality wasn't enough in the music industry. Hundreds of excellent musicians were waiting tables and pumping gas while lesser talents were pumping out CD after CD of the same, indistinguishable dreck. Tens of thousands of competent musicians could do as well as many who had made it.

The interconnected web of debts and favors that allowed the industry to run was something that Lois was skilled at negotiating. She'd worked hard to maintain the relationships that she needed, and she knew how to browbeat people into doing what needed to be done. Her string of minor successes had been a balm to the feelings of those she might have otherwise offended. In the music industry, success was king.

Lois checked the clock on the stand by the bed. She didn't have long to get ready for her evening out, and unlike prima donnas, Lois preferred to be on time.

The wild ideas she was having didn't have any grounding in reality. There was an explanation for the hand marks on the bottom of her car; she just hadn't figured it out yet. Most likely they weren't hand marks at all, the configuration was just similar.

The fact that Clark Kent had dark hair just like the ghost was simply a coincidence.

***

Taking Lois out on the town was undoubtedly a mistake. She'd made her feelings quite clear about their relationship. Though he'd pushed, she'd insisted on keeping everything at a professional distance.

She was attracted to him; he was sure about that. Whatever it was between them was palpable; he could feel the heat. Clark was looking for more than a one-night stand, even if she was the sort of woman to do that sort of thing. They'd be working together, possibly for a long time, and any mistakes made now would mar their relationship well into the future.

If he'd been thinking clearly, he wouldn't have asked her out. The smart thing to do would be to cancel even now, or simply to take her dinner and discuss business.

Clark had never been accused of doing the smart thing. No matter how often he told himself it was a bad idea, he couldn't force himself to forego the pleasure of her company. He'd been alone too long, and his attraction to her was too great to be able to resist.

He'd spent almost fifteen minutes trying to decide on an outfit. Given the speed with which he was able to move, that had allowed him to try on every outfit that he owned in every variation. In the end, he'd settled on a simple pair of black slacks, a black polo shirt, and a pair of black shoes.

Casual dress was almost required for what he had in mind, and given the weather, he was further restricted. While he could have worn a three- layer parka without the slightest discomfort, it would have made the illusion that he was a normal person hard to maintain.

Knocking on the door, he resisted the impulse to peek inside. If she was running late, there was no guarantee that she was decent. He could hear her moving around inside, and Clark knew that he had to be patient.

The door swung open, and the sight of her took his breath away.

She'd been shopping since he'd seen her last. Now she was wearing a simple red cotton dress that clung to every curve, yet left her shoulders bare. Lois smiled tentatively, and Clark found himself responding, almost in spite of himself.

"You look great," Clark said, groaning internally. He should have said something more articulate, but now his mind was unable to handle more than one thought at a time.

Her smile, and the slight flush to her cheeks assured him that she felt the same way, although she didn't speak. She simply glanced at him with an expression of approval and closed the door behind her.

Clark quickly led her to his van. He'd cleaned it until it gleamed in the fading light of the sun; now that it wasn't covered with a layer of dust and grime, it almost looked presentable.

Opening the door for her, Clark noticed that she seemed to be looking closely at his hands. A quick glance showed that he hadn't left any traces of grit or grime. Nevertheless, she seemed to be fascinated by them.

A thought flashed through his mind, of his hands caressing an expanse of soft, bare skin. It had been a long time, and Clark flushed as he wondered whether she was thinking the same thing he was.

He walked around the car and slid into the driver's seat. He smiled at Lois, buckled his seatbelt, and switched on the ignition.

Clark pulled out of the parking spot, and said, "We're driving to Raleigh. It's just twenty minutes outside of Durham."

Lois nodded. As they pulled out onto Richard Trice road, she finally spoke. "Have you ever heard of the Hawthorne Ghost?"

The groaning of the steering wheel alerted Clark just in time, or he would have snapped it into pieces. As it was, it was all he could do to maintain control of the car.

"I've heard of it, yes." Clark knew that denying it would seem out of place, and he was proud of how level and unconcerned he'd made his voice sound. He allowed himself a moment to calm down before looking at Lois. "Why do you ask?"

She was watching him carefully. "Oh, no reason in particular. It just sounded like a fascinating piece of local culture, especially since the incidents just started a few years ago. They started around the time you got into town, didn't they?"

Clark forced himself to shrug nonchalantly. "I guess if you believe in ghosts, there have to be new ones as well as old ones."

Lois looked at her lap. "They say that the oldest ghosts fade away eventually, so I suppose that's true."

"Durham has a lot of ghosts, if you know where to look." Clark said. "I suppose every city with a colorful past does."

"Some ghosts are more substantial than others," Lois said quietly, looking at his hands again.

The idea that she might know was terrifying, yet the thought had an odd sort of attraction. He hadn't had anyone to confide in since the death of Lana and his mother. It would almost be a relief to have someone know, especially someone he was attracted to.

She didn't know, despite her occasional glimpses at his hands. The cracking sound could have simply been the anxious groaning of an unstable, aging car.

"So where are we going?"

"There's a museum in Raleigh that shows movies outdoors. Couples lay out blankets and picnic baskets on the grass and have a chance to talk, be under the stars and catch a movie all at the same time."

"What's showing?"

"Somewhere in Time. It's an old movie starring Jane Seymour, about a man who falls in love with a woman's picture, and goes back in time to find her."

Lois smirked. "Trust a man to fall in love with a picture."

"You haven't ever met anyone you've felt an instant connection to?" Clark glanced at Lois out of the corner of his eye. He'd felt something for her from the very moment he'd seen her; of course, given his ability to feel something of people's inner selves, it wasn't just a matter of appearance.

Lois was silent for a long moment, purposely avoiding his eyes. Eventually, she said, "I've learned that no matter how attractive the packaging is, what's inside doesn't always live up to expectations."

Clark nodded slowly. "I suppose that's true. The entertainment industry is often more about style than substance, right?"

"I've known enough musicians not to want to get involved with them."

Clark turned onto the main road, and said, "You can't blame everyone for the actions of a few bad apples."

"People get into the arts for a reason. They have something to prove, emotions that aren't settled, an unhappy childhood. Art comes from pain."

Speaking carefully, Clark said, "I suppose that's true. I doubt you'll find anyone who doesn't fit that description though."

Lois finally looked directly at him. "I've known a lot of people in the industry. Maybe people at the low end are relatively normal, but the real successes, they've had a lot of pain in their lives."

"You aren't interested in anyone who's had a lot of pain?"

Her eyes never left his. "I'm cautious, that's all. Sometimes life leaves scars that you can't see, scars that show up when you least want to deal with them."

"Everyone has their secrets." The instant Clark said it, he wished he hadn't. She'd been suspicious, and he'd given her an opening to ask questions he wasn't willing to answer.

"Such as not being human?"

He nearly drove the car off the road.

Clark pulled into a parking lot as quickly as he was able, and he trembled.

"I was feeling a little dizzy for a sec. I must not have been eating." Clark's mind raced. His extreme reaction had been as much as an admission; he could see it in Lois Lane's eyes. "What were we talking about?"

"We were talking about not being human," Lois said. "You've been sloppy."

Clark switched off the ignition carefully. His face felt frozen and numb, but he forced himself to smile.

"I'm not sure what you're talking about. Not human? What am I then, a monkey?"

His entire body was tense, but he forced himself to relax. The woman beside him was dangerous; he'd known that from the very beginning. If he made too much of what she'd said, she'd take it as proof that she was on the right track.

"I'm not sure yet." Lois's expression was serious. "But you left hand prints underneath my van last night, and hand prints underneath another van a few months ago. A little girl saw you, and her family told their story to a tabloid."

The world seemed to fade out for a moment as Clark tried to deal with the shock. His worst nightmare was coming true, and he hadn't even had a chance to enjoy a normal life. He wondered how long he had to retrieve Josh before the reporters showed up at the boarding house.

Possibly, government agents were already on their way there. For a moment, Clark was tempted to simply step out of his vehicle. He could slip off into the darkness and grab Josh in the space of an instant.

He glanced at Lois. From the very beginning, he'd instinctively trusted her, and even now he was finding it hard to believe that she'd called anyone.

If she was the only one who knew, all he had to do was to convince her that she was mistaken.

Uneasily, Clark laughed. "Tabloids are well known for journalistic integrity. I suppose you believe that Elvis is running a Dairy Queen in Raleigh, too."

"I went and talked to the family myself." Lois's expression was calm, but a glint in her eye that said she wasn't fooled by his attempts at prevarication.

"So you base all of this on sets of muddy or oily handprints… prints that could have been made by kids or mechanics. Lots of people don't clean their cars very well."

"The prints are set into the metal, bent." Lois watched him carefully, then said, "Dented in the same way you just dented your steering wheel."

Clark glanced at the steering wheel. Unlike others, his steering wheel hadn't had indentations for finger grips. It did now.

"Those were always there," Clark said quickly. It had been years since he'd lost control to that degree, and it frightened him. His strength was so dangerous that the smallest mistake could kill. The thought of what he might have done to human flesh was more terrifying than the idea that his secret might be out.

He could always take Josh and hide, if he had to. There were remote places in the world where no one lived, places where he could home- school Josh until he came into his powers and abilities.

Killing someone, though, was something he'd never be able to escape.

"The wheel was smooth before." Lois said calmly.

"What do you want me to say? That I'm some sort of freak?" He couldn't help a trace of bitterness in his voice.

"You're the Hawthorne Ghost, aren't you? You've been saving people when you were in town."

Clark shook his head. "Do I look like a ghost? I'm just a man, like any other man." That was a bald-faced lie, and Clark could see that Lois wasn't buying it.

"We both know that's not true. Why do you keep denying it?" She hadn't taken her eyes from him the whole time, and the weight of her stare made Clark want to look away.

"Why do you keep making ridiculous accusations?" He looked directly into her eyes. "You haven't got a shred of proof that anything is odd about me at all. Why are you risking a potentially lucrative contract on something as ludicrous as this?"

"I've got proof that you've done a lot of traveling, and that you didn't use any conventional airlines. I wonder how much other proof I could dig up, if I really tried. Our private investigator was really interested in coming up with an explanation."

Clark froze. Somehow, deep down, he didn't believe that Lois would betray him. Other people, though, he couldn't trust at all. He began to wonder how much time he'd have to gather up all his possessions.

Lois continued. "Of course, if you were just to let me know, I wouldn't feel any need to dig around any further. Pilar trusts me enough that if I tell her it was nothing important, she'll believe me."

He'd made too many acquaintances in the music industry to continue on, even if he moved to another region. If he had to relocate, he'd have to give up his music altogether. While that might not be the worst thing in the world for Josh, he remembered how much trouble he'd had fitting into a nine-to-five job.

"I don't know what to say." That, at least, was the truth. If Clark had any sense, he'd drive them both home. By the time she could call the military, he'd be long gone.

Something about her made him want to stay.

"You could snap my neck with a flick of your wrist," Lois said calmly. "I knew that, and yet I still decided to come. If I could trust you that much, why can't you trust me in return?"

He would have expected to see fear in her eyes. In her position, he would have been terrified. Someone strong enough to snap metal could kill without even thinking about it. Clark hesitated before looking up into her eyes. If he saw fear, he'd have to find some way of lying to her.

Her eyes showed no fear at all. Instead, they showed fascination. She'd leaned toward him when Clark would have expected her to pull away. He hesitated a moment then came to a decision.

If he was to have any chance at a normal life, he'd have to trust her. The life of an outlaw wasn't any sort of life for a child. If Lois was as trustworthy as she claimed to be, he might be able to live with her knowing.

If she betrayed him, he wouldn't be much worse off than he was now. He doubted that he'd be able to convince her that he was normal by any conventional means. However, he might be able to convince her to keep his secret.

"It'd be easier if I was the only person I had to worry about. I can take care of myself."

"You're afraid of what would happen to your son," she said quietly. "The media can be cruel."

"I felt like a freak when I was young. I don't want that for Josh." Clark stared out into the darkness. "I shudder when I think what people might do to him if they found out how different he was."

Lois hesitated, then touched his forearm. "I'll never tell anyone else."

Clark sighed. "I guess I have to trust someone."

They were both silent for a long period. Eventually, Lois spoke quietly. "Just how strong are you, anyway?"

"I don't know how strong I am." He sighed. "I've never found anything I couldn't lift."

"You can do other things too, can't you? Run really fast maybe, or something." Lois's face had an expression of wonder. "You got me all the way to my room without getting me soaked. We were moving pretty quickly, right?"

Clark looked away, unsure of how to deal with her fascination. After Lana, he'd been certain that any woman who learned his secret would be horrified.

"I can fly," he said after a long moment. "It's probably the best thing about being what I am."

"That's how you were able to get from place to place without paying outrageous airfare." It was almost as though Lois was going over a list in her head. "And it's the real reason you didn't have your van in Metropolis. You didn't need it."

Nodding slowly, Clark looked back at her without speaking.

She frowned. "It sounds like it would be awfully useful. How did it happen?"

"My parents found me in a spaceship when I was a baby."

Lois laughed. Her laughter trailed off after a moment. "You aren't joking."

"They always assumed that it was something sent up by the government, or possibly by the Russians. Government agents started combing the area a few days after they found me, and the spaceship disappeared." Clark stared off into the distance. "People from the government would come by every few years, asking questions."

"So you think you're the result of some sort of government experiment?"

"I don't have any idea," Clark said. "It's what my mother chose to believe, but I'm not sure. I don't think they had the science back then to make something like me. I don't think they have the science now."

"You're that different from normal people?"

Clark sighed. "There's nobody in the entire world like me. I searched the world long enough to believe that."

"You thought that if they'd made one, they might have made others?"

Clark nodded. "I think sometimes that I must be an alien, and I wonder if there are others like me somewhere out there in the universe."

"You had a child with a human woman," Lois said. She hesitated and looked at him with a question in her eyes.

"She was as human as anyone I ever knew," Clark admitted. It was true in more ways than one. Lana had been wonderful in many ways, but she'd been flawed as well. It was difficult for him to admit sometimes, now that she was gone.

"Then by definition you are human. We can't even interbreed with chimpanzees, and they share 98% of the same genes as we do." Lois spoke with an assurance that Clark couldn't feel.

"Having Josh left Lana barren. I always blamed my… differences for it, and I think she did too." Clark knew she'd blamed him; he'd seen it in her eyes every time she looked at him.

Lois touched his arm, saying, "That must have been hard for you both."

"We'd planned on having two children. I think Lana always wanted a daughter. After Josh… the pregnancy nearly killed her. Even if she'd been able to have children, we wouldn't have risked it." Clark wouldn't have risked it even if Lana had been interested, which she most definitely hadn't. In the end, his touch had repelled her.

Watching her, Clark wondered if that would happen with Lois also. She was accepting his differences much better than Lana had in the beginning, but that didn't mean her fascination wouldn't turn to revulsion later.

"This is the reason you didn't want to sign."

Clark nodded. "I was afraid of exactly what you were talking about. Is there really a tabloid story, and a witness?"

Opening her purse, Lois pulled out two folded pieces of paper. She handed them to him.

The first was the front page of the National Inquisitor. A picture of a terrified family falling off a bridge being pulled back by a shadowy figure covered the front page.

Clark stared at the drawing, then gave a short bark of laughter. "I never pulled anyone off a bridge."

"Apparently, stopping a car moments before a drunk driver would have run a stop sign wasn't exciting enough."

Clark turned to the other page. He grimaced at the picture of the Greenbriar family car pushed on its side so that the picture could be taken. The finger marks were circled, and a magnified picture was shown. He really had been sloppy.

He scanned the article, then sighed with relief.

"I spoke to the Greenbriars. Their daughter saw you, but she couldn't give much of a description, other than to say that you had dark hair."

"What happens when she sees my picture on a billboard, or a record?" The question had haunted him from the moment that she'd made her offer.

"I doubt many four-year-old children listen to blues music," Lois said. "The Greenbriars seemed more like country music types anyway."

That wouldn't stop them from seeing a billboard or an ad on television, but Clark didn't feel like arguing the point.

Clark handed the articles back to her. "What happens the next time I make a mistake? I can't just let people die, not if I can help them, but it's always a risk."

Lois frowned, considering for a moment. "I suppose not. You'll just have to be more careful. Nobody is going to believe that a celebrity can fly." She glanced at him. "I'm not entirely sure that I do."

"The government might. They've been sniffing around Smallville for years." Clark sighed. "Lana was terrified that they'd take Josh away from us."

Clark glanced around the parking lot, as though to reassure himself that government agents weren't already watching his every move. He'd had occasional bouts of paranoia about it for as long as he could remember.

"Would you mind if we went ahead and headed off? People in this area get suspicious if a van with tinted windows sits in a parking lot without anyone getting out."

Lois nodded. "Why'd you pick a van, anyway?"

Switching the ignition on, Clark said, "It seemed like the thing to do at the time. The car we had was… totaled in the accident with Lana and the drunk driver. Plenty of room to carry amplifiers and musical instruments, or to move all your possessions from one place to the other; it's easier than pulling a u-haul, I suppose."

Silence filled the air as Clark put the van into reverse and pulled back out into the traffic.

Clark found himself glancing at Lois from time to time as he made his way through traffic and onto the interstate toward Raleigh. She seemed lost in thought, and he wondered if she was already reconsidering her initial excitement.

He dreaded seeing revulsion in her eyes, but at this point it was too late to reconsider. His secret was out, and she held his future in her hands.

"What are you thinking?" Clark asked, finally breaking the silence.

"I haven't actually seen any proof that you're any different than anyone else. For all I know, you could just be a lunatic, and there could be a different explanation for the other things entirely."

Clark smiled. "Would that make you regret having me sign with you?"

"I've dealt with lunatics before," Lois said. "You'd be surprised how many people in the industry are two tacos short of a combo plate."

Clark gave a short laugh. He still had a chance. He could pretend to have been humoring her, allow her the illusion that the world was no more than she wanted it to be. It was almost a disappointment.

"If anyone else told me they could fly, I'd laugh at them. When you tell me you can, I believe you. Why is that?" Lois looked directly at him.

"My winning smile?" Clark glanced at her and grinned.

"You ARE going to give me a demonstration, aren't you?"

The question surprised him somehow; it shouldn't have. Lois Lane was an intelligent woman; she'd probably always doubt that he was really what he said he was until she saw the proof with her own eyes.

For a moment, Clark was tempted to avoid the question entirely. He could do everything he could to minimize his differences; if she never had any real proof, her doubts might allow it to become a non-issue.

"You aren't afraid of heights, are you?"

Lana had hated flying. If Lois were the same way, any demonstration wouldn't take very long. Somehow, he hoped for more.

Shaking her head, Lois said, "I've been skydiving before."

At his startled glance, she rushed to explain. "It was something Lucy got me into. She said I needed to date people who were danger junkies, and…"

Clark grinned at her, and Lois said, "Well, suffice it to say that the actual dive was less scary than some of the guys who were diving."

Turning onto the interstate, Clark said, "Oh?"

"I see people who are arrogant and self absorbed every day. I just can't find myself being interested in someone who spends more time in front of a mirror than he does working."

"You don't think working is overrated?" Clark glanced in the side mirrors. The traffic was heavier than he would have expected. Making sure that no one was likely to swerve into his lane, he used his special vision to look ahead.

He cursed as he realized that a traffic accident was blocking the road. It didn't look as though anyone had been seriously hurt, but traffic was going to be backed up for miles, and soon.

"What's going on?"

"There's an accident up ahead. Traffic is going to be backed up for miles." Clark looked ahead for the first exit. When he found it, he sighed with relief. He detested traffic jams; they always left him feeling a little claustrophobic. With the ability to be anywhere he needed in moments, being stuck on the road for an hour was sheer torture.

"How can you know that?"

"I've got very good eyes." Clark took the first exit he could find.

Lois squinted forward. "I don't see anything. Are you sure…" She glanced at him. "Oh. It's one of those things. It's not just the strength and the flying, is it?"

"I can do a lot of things that aren't remotely normal," Clark glanced at her. "Freakishly so."

Lois glanced at the traffic on the interstate paralleling them, which was already beginning to slow. "You don't sound happy about it. I'd have thought it would be rather useful. Being able to go anywhere you want, do whatever you want…"

"Flying's actually the best part, but the rest of it… It separates me from the rest of the human race. When every other kid was getting hair in places they hadn't realized they had, I was setting fires with my eyes and lifting refrigerators."

"You felt different as a kid and didn't know where you were coming from, or what you'd become."

Clark nodded silently. He watched carefully as they passed by the accident on the overpass.

"Everybody feels that way as a teenager. You were just a little more different than most people."

She didn't have any idea of just how different he actually was. Glancing at her yet again, Clark wondered if she'd still feel as confident when she realized just how strong, how fast, how different he actually was. He wasn't just someone with minor mutations that made him as strong as a gorilla. His abilities were at an entirely inhuman scale, as different from a normal man's as an elephant's strength was different from that of an ant.

Nevertheless, she was the first person he'd had to talk about any of it for a long time. In truth, Lana had wanted nothing so much as to forget that he was different at all. She hadn't been interested in hearing about his pain.

He hadn't wanted to burden his mother either. Martha Kent had always had a certain aura of fragility; from comments by the rest of the family, Clark had gathered that she'd lost a certain vital spark when Jonathan Kent had died. He'd never understood until he'd lost his own wife, and by that time it was too late. Nevertheless, he'd never wanted to burden her with his fears and insecurities. She'd had enough worries.

Clark made his way back up onto the interstate as soon as the traffic allowed. They settled into a companionable silence. The sun was beginning to set as they reached the outskirts of Raleigh.

It didn't take long for Clark to find the entrance road to the North Carolina Art Museum. The stark white curvy shape of the museum was easily seen even from a distance. The entrance road wound through gracious, expansive lawns.

The rains that had been falling on Durham had somehow missed Raleigh, which was part of the reason Clark had chosen the place. Staying outside in the wet didn't sound like much fun, but he didn't have the money or the connections to take her to anything exceptional.

Given that she worked in the music industry, he'd wanted to avoid concerts, bars and nightclubs. He hadn't been able to get tickets to any good plays on a few hours' notice, and so he'd been forced to improvise.

"This is a lovely place," Lois said quietly.

"I've always enjoyed it. It's fun to do something a little different, sometimes. My parents took me to the drive-in movies a few times when I was a kid, but there aren't many places where you can see movies under the open sky anymore."

"I would have thought the weather was too hot and humid for this sort of thing, but the weather is actually pleasant tonight."

The weather never really made much difference to Clark at all. He could vaguely recall what it was like to be hot and cold, but he hadn't really experienced any kind of physical discomfort since he'd hit puberty.

He pulled into a parking space at the end of the lot and smiled at Lois. "I wouldn't have offered to come here if the weather wasn't nice."

"I suppose you've brought good food."

Clark nodded. "You don't smell it because it's cold. That's not a problem for me, of course."

"Because you can set fires with your eyes." Lois's tone was disbelieving. "How were you going to explain having piping hot food?"

"I wrapped it in foil. People generally don't ask questions. Besides, now that you know, I imagine that the food will be a bit hotter than it otherwise would have been."

Lois smiled and opened her door. "That's one advantage to knowing."

Clark nodded. He exited the van, slipped around to the rear, and retrieved an oversized picnic basket and a large, heavy quilt.

As they headed for the museum, he reflected that it was nice having someone who knew what he was. He could only hope that she continued being so accepting when she learned the true scale of what he was.

***

As they walked through the expansive, light-filled halls of the museum, Lois's mind whirled. She'd thrown out an outrageous statement, expecting to relieve her own suspicions. If he'd laughed off her comment, she would have pretended it was a joke, and she would have been much relieved.

Instead, he'd burst out with a story that was too outrageous to be believed. His claims of being found in a spaceship sounded like something directly out of the tabloids; if anyone else had told her that, she would have laughed at them.

Even though his story fit the evidence, it was beyond the realm of probability. Other than the odd cracking sound of the steering wheel, she hadn't seen or heard any real evidence that he was telling the truth. While he'd predicted the accident long before she'd seen it, it would have been easy to notice the changes in traffic flow and draw conclusions.

Of course, there were the marks on the bottoms of the cars and the other evidence that she'd presented. No matter how Lois struggled, she couldn't find any explanation that fit better than the one Clark had given, no matter how unbelievable it was.

Perhaps he really was a mutant or the result of genetic engineering. Chimpanzees that weighed less than she did were able to bench-press twelve hundred pounds. Animals were stronger than humans because they didn't bother keeping anything in reserve. Human beings had been known to have occasional bursts of superhuman strength during times of need. Perhaps Clark was simply able to touch on those untapped reserves at will.

His claim to be able to fly couldn't be explained nearly so easily. Lois would believe it when she saw it, and she'd insist on seeing it sometime soon. If it was true, she couldn't imagine how exciting it would be. The entire world would be open to someone who could fly, with no need to worry about plane fares, crowded coach seats, screaming babies and flight schedules.

Even the wealthiest men in the world had to drive to private airstrips and get permission from air traffic control before taking off. They weren't able to simply find an unobserved place and soar into the air.

Most likely, he'd been exaggerating. If he could fly at all, it was probably more of a floating, like the Indian Fakirs claimed to do. Even that would be impressive, though not useful.

The museum had the usual antiseptic smell, but it was refreshingly original in presentation. Exhibits were grouped by theme, such as Truth be Told and Fantasy Reverie.

Clark walked ahead of her, and Lois found herself watching him. He looked fully human, with a physique most men would kill for. She didn't see any signs that he was different from other men. He didn't have odd bulges under his clothes; she doubted that he had a prehensile tail or any sort of deformity.

He'd done everything he could to minimize his differences. Rather than ending the date and going someplace private to give demonstrations of his abilities, he'd chosen to continue. Lois suspected that looking at him as though he was a freak would be the best way to lose him. He'd run, and he'd be careful never to confide in anyone ever again.

They passed through a set of glass doorways and found themselves in a massive amphitheater. A wide swath of grass covered a section of ground that was in the shape of a bowl. Couples were already beginning to set up blankets and coolers in various spots around the area.

Looking up, Lois could see the twinkling of the stars. She was glad that it was cooler and less humid than it had been the night before. It was comfortable, which was a relief.

Clark was already setting up his blanket in a spot away from the others. Most of the couples were clustered toward the center of the bowl, and Clark had chosen a position away from the glass doors and near the back.

He busied himself with setting out the food. Lois wondered if he was already regretting his earlier admission.

Assuming it was true, he must have been dying to tell someone. If she'd had such a secret, it would have been hard not to confide in Lucy at least. Being forced to keep it all in would have been tough because it impacted on all the other problems in his life.

If he didn't run, Lois had no doubt that he'd want to talk to her about his problems. Part of her job was in soothing the talent and keeping them stable and happy. For some reason she didn't want to think of him as simply being someone she represented, but it would be safer to keep a professional distance.

The idea that he might actually be something more than human was exciting to her. It suggested that the world might offer more possibilities than she'd ever imagined. Instead of becoming smaller and smaller with each passing year, it opened up a whole new world of the unseen.

The blanket Clark had put down turned out to be an old-fashioned, heavy quilt. She wondered for a moment if his mother had made it.

Lois sank carefully onto the blanket. If she'd known what they were doing, she would have worn slacks.

For the first time, she noticed the smells that were beginning to rise from the basket as Clark glanced inside. She remembered his comments about setting fires with his eyes, and she wondered if it might possibly be true.

"I wasn't sure what sort of food you liked, so I picked up a selection."

He began pulling food from the basket. Chinese food in bamboo containers with labels written in Mandarin, gumbo and jambalaya, enchiladas, tamales and roasted corn wrapped in foil, as well as several unfamiliar dishes, a large Caesar Salad, and a bottle of wine and soft drinks as well as glasses.

She was startled to discover that the bottle of wine was chilled, as were the drinks. One dish began to steam after another as Lois watched in astonishment.

No signs of any special equipment existed. She didn't see any chemical packs or heating coils, and the speed with which things heated was impressive.

"You've outdone yourself." She wondered if his differences accounted for his ability to eat like a high school football team without gaining weight.

He smiled sheepishly. "I wanted to impress you."

Lois took an experimental bite of one of the Chinese dishes and gasped. "This is amazing!"

"There are advantages to being a world traveler."

Lois wondered what he meant by that; she had little doubt that he knew good food; given his appetite and his travels he could hardly have avoided experimenting with exotic cuisines.

She couldn't imagine that he'd actually picked up food in exotic locations. Even in a Concorde it would take forever to cross the oceans which divided the United States from Europe and Asia. Presumably, he simply knew the best restaurants in the area.

Filling her plate was an experience. Lois had been watching her weight carefully, but in the light of the evening's events, it didn't seem as pressing. Given the smell of some of the dishes, Lois suspected that she'd be jogging the meal off for weeks, but she didn't care.

"Have you seen the film before?" Lois asked, as Clark poured her a glass of wine.

He nodded. "I always liked Jane Seymour. It's got a young actor named Christopher Reeve too."

"I've never heard of him."

Clark shrugged. "He never found that one role that would define his career, I guess. He gets a few minor parts every now and again."

"You could say that about you, too, up till now." It was a situation Lois intended to change. His differences didn't change his potential as a musician. They were merely a factor that needed to be compensated for. Every musician needed special handling. That was part of Lois's job, and she was good at it.

Taking a bite of his meal, Clark regarded her silently for a moment. "You surprised me tonight. I would have thought you'd have had a harder time accepting what I've told you."

Lois glanced around. None of the other couples looked as though they were within earshot, but she'd need to be careful anyway. Clark was watching her carefully, doubtlessly for any sign of revulsion, and she'd need to coach her reply diplomatically.

"You've only shown me minor things," she said. "I find the concept fascinating, but as far as I'm concerned, it doesn't change anything between us."

"You aren't ready to jump out of the contract just right yet then, are you?" He smiled lopsidedly.

Lois grinned. "I'm a lawyer. Some of my colleagues would sign the devil himself if they thought he'd sell platinum records. Some of the talent isn't far from being the devil as it is. By comparison… well, let's just say that your problem is preferable to some I've seen."

"You consider it a problem then?"

"If it's a problem for you, it's a problem for me. I'm here to help you enjoy your career so that you can make money for both of us."

Clark nodded soberly. The lights around the walls began to dim, and the speakers began to crackle. One massive white wall flickered to life, and the opening credits began.

She took a bite of the Jambalaya, enjoying the burn of the spices as they caressed her tongue. As the movie began, she quietly finished her meal, glancing occasionally at Clark.

If even half of the things he claimed were true, he wasn't like any other man in the world. Lucy had once told her that her expectations were too high, that she was looking for a man who didn't exist, who couldn't exist. While Lois doubted that Clark Kent was the man of her dreams, he was certainly worth her attention.

He was attractive in ways that weren't physical. She admired his talent; more than that, she admired the way he hadn't allowed his talent to go to his head. Music was all about temptation: the temptations of easy money, easy sex and drugs or alcohol to medicate one's pains away.

As a father, he hadn't always made the right choices, but he loved his son in ways that were apparent even to Lois. His devotion to his family spoke to her; her own family life had always been tempestuous enough that she'd yearned for that sort of loyalty.

The idea that he might be just as loyal to a woman he loved was intoxicating and forbidden. He'd obviously not gotten over the death of his first wife; even if Lois had been completely free to indulge in a relationship with him, she'd have been leery. He had emotional baggage.

The best thing that she could do for everyone involved was to be the best friend she could be to him. Finding him a decent contract and jump- starting his career was going to involve a great number of changes in his life. In the midst of all the emotional upheaval involved, she'd probably have an easy time of beginning a relationship with him. He was clearly attracted to her.

In the long run, however, it would probably end up fizzling. Taking advantage of someone's weakness wasn't a good way to begin any relationship, and it would make her professional relationship tenuous.

Friendship was the best she could offer. Glancing at Clark, Lois knew that he needed a friend. Satisfied with her decision, she turned her attention to the movie.

She barely even noticed him clearing away the meal. While the beginning of the movie seemed a little slow, the familiar strains of Tchaikovsky seemed to work in perfect counterpoint to a sweet love story. The end of the film disturbed her, however.

"I don't agree with that at all," she said, as the final credits began to roll.

"You don't believe that people are destined to find each other?"

"We make our own destinies. What I really disagree with is the idea that there isn't anything left after the loss of love."

Clark lay on his side, motionless as he stared at the screen. "After Lana and my mother… I felt like that. My mind was numb, and I didn't want to do anything. I just wanted to lie down and die."

"You got over it, though."

"Josh needed me." Clark didn't look at her.

After two years, he hadn't moved on with his life. Lois suspected that there was something unhealthy about obsessing for so long, but signing a contract with her was a definitive first step.

Lois sighed. The rich meal and wine was finally beginning to go to her head. She felt languorous and relaxed. She allowed herself to lay back for a moment and stare up at the stars.

"I'm glad you decided to stick around." She didn't bother to look at Clark, and it was several moments before he responded.

"I am too."

As the last strains of music faded, the other couples began to pack up, but neither Lois nor Clark moved. Only when the lights along the wall began to brighten did they begin to stir.

The other couples were beginning to pack up, and Lois slowly, reluctantly, rose to her feet. Dusting herself off, she watched as Clark slowly gathered the quilt.

By the time they were finally ready to go, most of the other couples had already left.

"I've had a good time," Lois said, and to her surprise, she meant it. She felt more relaxed than she had in years, buoyed perhaps by the wine and the food. In part, however, it was because she trusted Clark. She was coming to believe that he'd shown her his greatest secret. In her professional life, she was so used to cautiously judging people's motivations and her own actions in response that it was a welcome relief to be able to relax around someone.

Usually, she was only able to confide in Lucy, and even with her sister, Lois felt the need to be the adult.

"The night isn't over yet," Clark said.

Lois glanced at him and smiled. "What do you have in mind? "

He hesitated as the last of the couples filed through the set of doors. "You aren't feeling queasy, are you?"

"I'm feeling fine."

Clark smiled slightly. "Then I'd like to show you something when we get back to the van."

He pushed forward, holding the doors open for her. As they passed through, a janitor passed through the doors behind them.

The chill, antiseptic air of the museum was a shock after the languorous warmth of the outside air. Lois followed Clark, wondering if he intended to show her his floating trick before they went home.

They were back outside and into the warmth of the night air, seemingly in the space of a few moments. Most couples were already pulling out of their parking spaces, though a few were slower, talking among themselves in the parking lot.

The far corner of the parking lot was even darker now than it had been before. Given a choice, Lois never would have parked in an area so easy to be ambushed in. As a veteran of big city life, she knew better than to make herself so vulnerable.

Normally, she wouldn't have gone into a dark, deserted area with a man she barely knew, not even with a new client. While she was proficient with martial arts and carried pepper spray in her purse, she knew that prevention was the best form of protection.

Clark opened the rear door of the van and tossed the quilt and basket inside. He then closed the door, and turned to her.

She could barely make out his figure, especially after being blinded by the lights from inside the van.

"You wanted a little proof of what I can do." His voice was quiet.

"I never said that."

"You didn't have to." Clark stepped toward her. The headlights of a car that was backing up to leave the parking lot illuminated his profile.

Lois glanced back, startled to see how quickly the parking lot was emptying.

"We aren't leaving?" She felt a little uneasy.

"Even the janitors don't stick around very long. Security won't check the parking lot for a couple of hours; we've got plenty of time."

"Time for what?"

As the last few couples began to get into their cars, Clark said, "I'm going to show you my world."

He grabbed her, and before she could struggle, the world fell away from below them.

Lois gasped, and it was all she could do not to scream.

Clark Kent couldn't just float; he could FLY.

If she hadn't known that Clark expected her to scream, Lois would have done so. A stubborn streak prevented her from uttering anything but a small gasp as the ground retreated beneath them. Lois couldn't help the fact that her body had gone stiff, but she was able to keep from trembling.

Dizziness was followed by excitement; nothing was between them and the earth but the open air, and it felt as though all she had to do was reach up and touch the stars. They were flying, unencumbered by anything, and after the initial rush of fear, Lois realized that she'd never felt so free.

She hadn't really believed that he could fly; a gentle float was the most she'd allowed herself to consider that he might be capable of. Even that had strained the limits of credulity. This was more than she ever could have imagined.

Clark was watching her closely, as though he expected her to struggle in his arms.

For a moment, she allowed herself to worry about their respective positions. He'd picked her up as though she was a child, with his arms under her legs and her back, and somehow, it didn't quite feel dignified.

She didn't worry long about how it might look; flying was too overwhelming. She'd always thought that she hated flying; being trapped in a tin can at the mercy of someone she didn't know, surrounded and crushed between boring and annoying people. This was something else altogether.

There was no claustrophobia here; in truth, the wide-open spaces in all directions made her giddy. She felt this in a visceral way that an ordinary plane simply could not match.

"This is… more than I expected," Lois said quietly.

The lighted rectangle of the museum was dwindling beneath them, and now she was seeing the beauty of the city, strung out like a field of stars below them. She'd never realized just how impressive a city could be by night; the view from a tiny airplane window couldn't compare to having it spread out beneath her in all its glory.

"This doesn't bother you?" Clark's voice was uncertain.

Lois shook her head. "This is like a dream."

The truth was, she couldn't be entirely certain that it wasn't a dream. She'd dreamed of flying when she was a little girl, and she'd dreamed of finding an honest man. After seeing what her father's weakness had done to her family, she'd never been able to seriously consider any other sort of man.

Finding both in one person was a dream, and in the back of her mind, Lois knew it was too good to be true. No one could be as perfect as he seemed at the moment, honest, attractive, and with the ability to fly. He had something that had been missing in her life. He had magic.

He was silent for several long moments. "Lana hated flying. It terrified her."

Clark's voice was filled with vulnerability, and with a remembered hurt. The pain in his voice was a reminder that he hadn't always made the right choices. Whatever he might be physically, mentally he was as human as anyone she'd ever met.

Lois felt a moment of pity. A man who was able to touch the sky shouldn't have been married to a woman who was afraid of heights. She'd suspected for quite some time that his marriage to Lana hadn't been as rosy as he'd made it out to be. The woman hadn't appreciated what she'd had.

She chose her words carefully, however. "That's too bad. I'll bet she missed out on a lot."

Clark was silent for a long moment as he stared off into the distance. Now that they'd left the lights of the city behind, his face was wreathed in shadow. "I always wanted to show her the good things about what I am. She saw enough of the bad. If she'd only been willing…"

"She wanted you to be a normal person?" The picture that Lois was forming of Lana was even less flattering than the one she'd had before. She'd had access to something wonderful, and she'd wanted to hide from it. Sometimes in life, one had to take risks. "It seems to me that there is a lot to like about what you are."

Silently, they continued to rise, and almost imperceptibly, the dwindling city began to move beneath them. Clark still didn't look at her as he spoke again. "She was afraid for me and Josh. Lana was terrified that the government would find out about me and take Josh away."

"There's nothing wrong with being afraid," Lois knew better than to criticize Clark's first wife too harshly; she was dead and he'd loved her. No one liked to hear ill of the dead. "But you can't let fear run your life."

"She was just worried about what might happen if my secret got out." Clark's voice held a note of stubbornness. Lois had little doubt that he'd had the same thoughts as she had; he might even have expressed them to Lana. Throwing his own words back in his face, even inadvertently, wasn't going to do either of them any good.

Lois was silent for several moments. While the city moved slowly beneath them, she felt no sensation of movement. She'd been on a balloon once, drifting in the wind and it had been something like this. No feeling of wind, no sensation that anything existed other than her, the warmth of the air, and Clark's arms holding her firmly.

Changing the subject seemed to be the best option, so Lois said, "I didn't really believe that you could fly; not like this."

He glanced at her, and even in the darkness, she could see his grin. "You haven't seen the half of it."

"Then show me." Lois's tone was teasing; after what she'd already seen, she wasn't going to disbelieve anything. She doubted that she could be surprised by anything else he had to show her; after the series of shocks she'd had, she was numb.

She was wrong. In the space of a single moment, the world changed from a calmly drifting womb to a hurricane. The wind in her face made tears come to her eyes, but she could still see the world spinning beneath them, lights and darkness flashing past faster than she could see. As the seconds passed, the sky brightened around them, the black of night changing into a bright azure blue.

It took her more than a moment to comprehend what was happening, that the world wasn't spinning out of control. The wind was so strong that she had to gasp for air, but before she could struggle, it was over.

They were floating again, this time over the ocean. Though they'd been traveling less than a minute, the stars had disappeared. The sun hung low in the sky, and they'd left night behind.

She gasped for breath, and Clark smirked. Lois felt a moment of irritation: Clark Kent liked to show off.

Doubtlessly, he'd had all too few chances in his lifetime.

"I'd have liked to show you a Hawaiian sunset, but that won't happen for another couple of hours," Clark said. "I'm not sure I want to leave the van sitting in Raleigh for that long."

"You took us from North Carolina to Hawaii in what? Less than a minute?"

Clark had the grace to look embarrassed. "I could have flown a lot faster, but I don't think you'd have been able to breathe."

"I should have been burned to a crisp! Five thousand miles in sixty seconds?" The thought was terrifying. If Clark had taken Lana on the same sort of trip the first time out, it was no wonder she was terrified.

He was watching her closely, and Lois stiffened her resolve. She wouldn't give him the satisfaction of seeing her fear.

"I'm able to protect my passengers when I'm flying, at least to a degree," Clark said. "I practiced for a long time to find out what was safe."

Lois stared at him. No place in the entire world was closed to him; no distance was too far for him to travel. Lois had little doubt that he'd taken advantage of the ability far more than even Pilar's records had indicated. In his place, she certainly would have. Living with Lana must have been like living in a cage; Lois had little doubt that Lana hadn't approved of Clark's traveling.

The island below them was shaped roughly like a cigar. The waters of the Pacific were as purely blue as anything she'd seen. At this height, she could see the shapes of other islands on the horizon.

They dropped quickly and Lois found her grip on Clark tightening. It had been easy to forget that they were suspended in midair with nothing to support them while they were in the dark, but now Lois could see every foot that lay between her and the surface of the island. Furthermore, they were dropping so quickly that it was almost as though they were falling.

"I wouldn't go so fast, but I'd hate to risk someone looking up and seeing a flying man." Clark's voice was apologetic. He'd noticed her tenseness.

Lois coughed and said, "I suppose it's more troublesome during the day."

"Molokai is the least inhabited of the islands, and the place we're headed for isn't very well populated. Still, we're visible from miles around, so it's best not to dawdle."

Forcing herself to relax, Lois smiled and nodded. Though she was still tense, she didn't want Clark to think that she was afraid.

They drifted down quickly, passing over mile after mile of untouched beaches, jungles, and waterfalls. Lois suspected that even now they were too high for anyone to make out what they were; she couldn't make out individual human figures on the beaches as anything other than specks.

One long stretch of white sand caught her eye; three miles of beach against which the surf crashed. They passed that quickly.

She could see that they were descending into a valley hundreds of feet below, where hundreds of waterfalls fell into the pristine jungle.

They descended quickly, dropping to the jungle below. As they dropped, Lois caught glimpse of a trail in the distance, winding to and fro against a wall of solid rock. By this time, they were moving in a blur. She thought she saw a glimpse of people making their way along the trail, but she doubted any of them had noticed her. They dropped among the trees.

They landed quietly in the midst of the jungle. Startlingly, it was slightly cooler than the Raleigh evening had been.

Clark slowly allowed her to drop to the ground. Lois stood unsteadily, still more shaken by her flight than she was willing to admit. Her entire world had been set on its ear, and she had yet to regain her equilibrium.

Holding out a hand, Clark smiled at her. She slipped her hand into his, enjoying the thrill of bare skin touching. She'd been too shocked, too off balance during their flight really to enjoy the sensation of being held in his arms, but this she could enjoy.

Now that she was on land again, she was again aware of a smoldering sensuality. There was something intimate about holding hands, more intimate in many ways than more obvious public displays of affection.

They stepped onto the path, which was deserted. The path was clearly marked in places by faded orange marks on the trees. It was bordered in places by brightly glowing flowers, mangoes, cherries, and tiny strawberries, ginger and elephant ear plants. The jungle teemed with life.

"My mother used to love Hawaii," Clark said, as they started up the pathway. "We didn't have much money, but I was able to take her places."

Lois glanced at him, surprised. "You traveled with her a great deal?"

He shook his head. "I traveled on my own a lot. I had an idea of the sort of thing she'd like and every once in a while she'd agree to come along. It was fun, and after all the sacrifices she made to raise me, I was glad to be able to do it for her."

The jungle fell away into a massive clearing, and Lois could see a double tiered waterfall beginning two hundred and fifty feet above. Winds whipping up through the valley caught the water as it tipped over the two brinks of the falls, sending ghostly mists into the air.

The path ended at the edge of the stream and continued on the other side. Giant dry boulders filled the streambed here, four feet tall.

Clark took a quick look around and then smiled at her as he slipped his hand around her waist. A moment later they were both floating gently over the boulders and on to the path on the other side of the stream. Lois could see that the boulders had painted marks on them; people were supposed to clamber over them to reach the trail on the other side.

"I would have dropped us right on the spot, but there are often people there. I thought it best to drop back a bit."

Clark's voice in Lois's ear made her want to tremble. His hand on her hip burned, as did his other hand that held hers. She could feel the length of his body pressed against hers, and even though only their sides touched, she found herself wondering what it would be like to be even closer to him.

They made their way down the path silently, not separating even after they dropped to the ground.

Lois pulled away when she saw five people coming down the trail wearing tropical shirts and carrying cameras. She was acutely conscious that her evening dress and shoes were wildly inappropriate for the setting.

The people were red faced and puffing, except for a barrel-chested Samoan in the lead. As they came near, the Samoan grinned and spoke quickly in a language Lois had never heard before.

Clark stepped forward, grinned and grabbed the man's hand, speaking quickly in the same tongue. Both men began a quick exchange, and Clark looked back at Lois once, as did his friend.

The man noticed the sour looks Lois was giving both of them and switched quickly to English. "You never stop by anymore! When are you going to bring that boy of yours for a Luau?"

"Next time I'm on Molokai I'll give you a call, I promise." Clark had switched to English as well with an apologetic look at Lois.

"You've got about an hour left, then you should start back. Even as often as you've been down the trail, I wouldn't want to be stumbling around after dark, and it's a good hour back. Are you sure you don't have time to meet up after we get back?"

Clark shook his head and said something in the foreign language again. The Samoan glanced at her and laughed. He gestured, and the tired looking tourists behind him trudged by, grumbling about the delay. Luckily, they were too busy complaining about the heat, the mud, and the mosquitoesto notice how oddly Lois was dressed.

As the small group passed behind them, heading for the boulders they would have to climb, Clark leaned close to Lois and said, "Kawaimaka complemented me on my luck."

Lois looked at him archly. She'd begun to fume slightly at the looks Clark and his friend had been directing at her. "Oh?"

"He said that any woman who could look as beautiful as you after an hour on this trail was a keeper." Clark grinned at her. "He runs a tour group and he says that most of the tourists seem to expect a sidewalk leading all the way up to the waterfall."

Lois scowled. "You speak Hawaiian?"

Shrugging, Clark said, "I've done a lot of traveling, and I seem to have a knack for languages."

"What about Spanish?" A facility with languages could be useful; being able to sing in other languages would open new musical markets. While Lois didn't have many contacts in the European or Spanish markets, she did know people who had those contacts.

"I'm fluent in all the major languages, and many minor ones as well." Clark grinned. "I know how to order breakfast in one hundred and eighty six languages."

"Given the way you eat, I'm not surprised." Lois tossed off the comment as she stepped forward in the trail, ignoring the occasional gust of wind that drove cold droplets of water against her skin.

They'd continued walking, and a moment later they reached the pool at the base of the falls. It was wider and deeper than she would have expected. The sound of the waterfall wasn't deafening, which surprised her.

One giant boulder remained in the water, and Clark looked around quickly, then reached down and grabbed it with both hands. He heaved it effortlessly up onto the shore, carrying out of the spray, ignoring the brown algae at the base.

Lois gaped. A rock that large would weigh tons, and yet there wasn't any sign of strain or effort on Clark's face.

He set it down carefully, and looked carefully at the rock. The water on the surface of the rock began to sizzle and hiss. He touched the rock, and frowned.

"I think this is about right," he said, "but I'd be careful."

Lois reached out carefully, touching the rock with one finger. It was completely dry, and as warm as a stone bench which had been left out in the sun.

"That's how you warmed me up the night of the accident." For some reason, she hadn't made the connection when he was heating the food before, but now it was perfectly clear.

He nodded slowly as he picked her up to place her on the rock. A moment later, he was on the rock beside her.

"You were taking a lot of risks that night. Why did you risk it all for me?"

Clark looked away from her for a moment before sighing. "Does your head still hurt?"

Guilt would explain a great deal, but Lois wasn't sure it was warranted. The accident hadn't been his fault, and he'd done more than anyone else would have been able to do.

"My head would be in much worse shape if you hadn't come along." She laid her hand on top of his, and he sighed.

"I should have been more careful. If I hadn't been afraid to reveal myself, I have no doubt that I could have stopped you a lot earlier."

Lois hesitated, then said, "It must be frustrating, having to hide what you can do."

"I can do things that no one else on earth can do, and I can't help but believe that I was meant to do more to help people."

She could understand his frustration. He had a child to care for, and a life, and a career. Going public would require him to sacrifice everything, and yet continuing to keep his secret would hamstring him. Half his protection was that people didn't believe that anyone could do the things he did. If Lois had known of the existence of a flying man, she would have figured out his secret long ago.

"You'll need to be more careful now," she said carefully. "You need to at least cover your face."

He nodded ruefully. "I've been dreading the day that something would come up that I can't ignore. I can't just stand by and let people die just to protect my secret. All it would take would be one train crash or earthquake, and I'd be in trouble."

"There must have been at least a few." Lois said.

"I've never gone out of my way to look. Usually, by the time I find out about something, it's already taken care of."

"Maybe you should try to come up with some sort of disguise just in case that happens." Lois hesitated. "Of course, it would be better not to reveal yourself at all, but if you have to… it'd be better to be prepared."

Clark looked up at her. "What do you have in mind?"

***

"Revealing yourself to the world… you'd better be prepared; at some point you may face a choice between letting a lot of people die and actually revealing yourself." Lois's voice was calm.

Uneasily, Clark watched her. He hoped it hadn't been a mistake trusting her with his secret.

"Are you suggesting that I hold a press conference?" Clark asked, carefully keeping his voice neutral.

Giving him a withering look, Lois said, "Of course not. You've got a hundred good reasons not to want anyone to know your secret."

That she wasn't ready to reveal him to the world was a relief. "If it came down to saving a couple of hundred people… I guess I'd worry about the consequences later, but still…"

Lois looked at him steadily. "Worrying about the consequences later will get you in trouble. What you need is a plan. Obviously, letting the world know that Clark Kent can fly is out of the question."

Nodding slowly, Clark carefully avoided her gaze. Sitting so close to her in a place he'd dreamed about taking Lana was disturbing. He'd had dreams of making love beneath a waterfall, and the thoughts that were flickering through the edges of his mind now weren't appropriate.

As perceptive as she was, he didn't want Lois to know what he was thinking. In many ways, the fleeting thoughts disturbed him. It seemed wrong somehow, disloyal to the only woman he'd ever loved. If he'd been free to pursue a relationship with Lois, it might have been different. She'd made it more than clear that she wanted to maintain a professional distance. The attraction between them wasn't something that either of them was free to follow up on, no matter how much they wanted to.

Lois had a life, a career and a reputation to worry about. She lived a fast-paced life as a professional, which probably left little time for a husband and a small child. Clark, on the other hand, was haunted by a lifetime of memories, the specter of his dead wife, his own guilt. He and Josh were alone in the world, unique, and unless Josh was very lucky, that wasn't going to change.

"It would be best if the world didn't know that anyone could fly, but there may come a point where you feel you have no choice."

Clark glanced at her, and sighed. She was all business, just as she had always been, and she was right.

Facing such a choice had been something Clark had feared from the moment he'd started using his abilities to help people. He'd been lucky; usually, by the time he'd heard about any major disasters, they'd been resolved. On occasion, he'd done what he could to help, but always from the shadows.

He sighed. "It's one of the reasons I've been avoiding signing on. As long as no one knows who I am, I can always just move to another town if someone sees my face. If I become famous…"

"What you need is an alias, an alternate identity." Lois sounded confident, as though it was something she arranged every day.

"I'm not sure what you mean." The idea of being able to duck into an amateur witness protection program if he was discovered had its merits, but Clark wasn't sure how it would be set up.

Lois spoke carefully. "You need to do more than just wear a disguise. You need to create an entirely new persona. If you can create an alternate persona that is believable, no one will believe that he's a minor musician from North Carolina. Image is everything in the music industry, and it's no different when dealing with the press."

"When you were trying to sign me up, you didn't seem to think I'd end up as a minor musician," Clark said, his lips quirking. "I'm already that."

"It's the same thing with major artists. Would you really believe that Madonna was faster than a speeding bullet?"

Grinning, Clark said, "Well, I've heard stories…"

"This is serious." Lois said. "You can go on as you have been, but there will come a point…"

Clark sighed, then frowned. "I can see wearing a mask, maybe, and gloves. Wouldn't it be best to just flash in and flash back out again as quickly as I can?"

"Sure, as long as nobody catches you doing something on a video camera," Lois said. "Once they catch you flying people out of a plane crash or a train wreck, there are going to be a lot of questions. It's best if you have answers already prepared. The best way to keep people from digging into places you don't want them to is to make them think the real gossip is somewhere else."

Shaking his head, Clark said, "It all seems needlessly complicated. I could wear a mask and gloves, do what had to be done, and I could be out of there faster than anyone could follow."

"Think about it," Lois said. "You could at least wear something different than your daily clothes, even if you don't bother giving people any explanations, something that would throw people off."

Clark thought for a moment. "I am able to do things faster than a normal person. If I change clothes too quickly, friction tends to set them on fire, but with a little practice… I suppose it could be done."

Lois was looking at him oddly.

"What?" he asked.

"Why would your clothes catch fire when I didn't?"

"I had to practice protecting the people I was carrying. Sometimes, with clothes, I forget. Besides, I can move lots faster than I did with you."

Lois blinked. "So as long as you remember to be careful, you should never have a problem with making a costume change."

Clark thought for a moment. "Any kind of costume would need to be skin tight. Things a few millimeters from my skin… I don't have to think about protecting those."

"It might be embarrassing to arrive in the nude."

Flushing, Clark said, "Don't even joke about that. It happened once when I was just learning the limits of my abilities, and unfortunately, we lived in town. I had to hide until nightfall, and even then…"

It had been more than humiliating. He'd been afraid to fly for days, and for years afterward he'd been careful to keep stashes of clothing in uninhabited places. Even now, he had a few stashes of clothes and money in hidden places for emergencies. He'd discovered that having local money and clothing made it easier for him to blend in when he was buying food.

"So that's why you wear your clothes so tight?" Lois asked, her eyebrow quirking. Clark thought he saw the beginning of a smirk on her lips, but he couldn't be sure.

So she'd been aware of his body enough to notice; Clark found himself starting to grin, but suppressed it.

"It just seems prudent; I never know when I'll have to get somewhere quickly, and the idea of having to go through something like that again… Well, it wasn't one of my more pleasant childhood memories."

"Sometimes experiences like that make the best stories later on. Telling them takes some of the sting out." Lois grinned. "There are stories I could tell you about my trip to Ireland in high school… embarrassing doesn't even begin to cover it."

Clark allowed himself to return the grin. "And you'll hold out on telling me till I'm actually making you money."

Quirking an eyebrow, Lois said, "What do you expect? I'm not giving that stuff away for free."

The teasing look in her eye as she said it made Clark want to chuckle. Without realizing it, he allowed his hand to drop onto hers. They both froze, then looked down.

From the first moment he'd seen her, Clark had known there was something special about Lois Lane. At first, he'd thought it was dangerous, and in many ways it still was. She was physically attractive; Clark found himself responding to her ways that he hadn't experienced in a long time. Since Lana's death, he hadn't been able to appreciate any woman's attractiveness except in a purely aesthetic sense.

With many women, even the dispassionate appreciation of their beauty faded quickly as he came to know them. Shallowness, selfishness, a disinterest in anything beyond the trivial; Clark found it all tiresome. Of course, he'd known that the prospects to be found in bars and nightclubs were limited. He hadn't been looking ever to get married again, and it hadn't mattered. He hadn't thought that he'd ever be interested in another woman.

Lois was different. The longer he knew her, the more attractive she became. She was intelligent, articulate and mentally flexible. Unlike anyone he'd ever known, she didn't give up, no matter what the circumstances. Furthermore, she was brave. Lana had been terrified even by a gentle levitation into the sky. Clark had found himself challenging Lois, unconsciously expecting her to fail as Lana had.

He felt instantly guilty for making the comparison. Lana had loved him; no other woman in the world would have accepted an alien thing into her bed the way she had. This was something he'd known for a long time. If he hadn't grown up with Lana, he doubted that he would have ever had the chance to have Josh.

No matter how much Lois Lane seemed to like him, nothing would change their basic natures. Once she'd had time to process everything she'd learned, he had no doubt that she'd have the same sort of revulsion that he'd seen from time to time in Lana's eyes. It wouldn't be fair to take advantage of her during the heat of the moment.

His hand had lain on top of hers for far too long. Lois's eyes met his, and she slowly pulled her hand away. He'd been foolish to torment himself with something that couldn't be allowed to happen. Despite the fact that he'd known better, he hadn't been able to resist.

Clearing his throat, Clark quickly leaped off the boulder, and extended a hand to help Lois. He didn't meet her eyes, and he tried to make the contact as impersonal as possible. The moment she touched the ground, he released her and turned back to the boulder.

A quick check of the water with his special vision made sure he wouldn't inadvertently be crushing any of the life in the pool. Quickly, he grabbed the boulder and slipped it back into place. Wiping his wet hands on the front of his pants, he stood up.

"Just how strong are you?" Lois asked, watching him.

"I'm as strong as I need to be," Clark said. "I've never really found my limits. I have to be careful with really heavy things though, protecting them the same way I protected you. If I don't, they sometimes collapse under their own weight."

Lois was quiet for a moment. "That must be scary."

She had no idea. As a teenager, he'd been terrified that he'd hurt someone. Until he'd developed a certain measure of control, he had left a trail of bruises and small injuries. When his heat vision had developed, he'd had nightmares every night about accidentally setting a person on fire. He'd hated what he was becoming, and the music had only been able to draw a certain amount of his attention.

Even as he grew older, he'd found the idea of becoming intimate with girls terrifying. The thought of what his strength might do during an unguarded moment had been more than he could bear.

Lana had been willing to take that risk, and his love for her had been great enough for him to overcome his fear. He knew now that it wouldn't be a problem, but somehow, even thinking about another woman seemed disloyal.

"At least Josh won't have to go through it alone like I did," Clark said. "He'll know what to expect."

"That won't be enough to protect him from the usual round of teen angst," Lois said quietly.

Clark took a quick look around, scanning with his special vision as far as he could. "At least he won't have to deal with the uncertainty that I did. If he could have a normal life, I'd be happy."

"Normality isn't all that great," Lois said. "My family was the typical, maladjusted nuclear family, and now we almost never speak."

Clark's eyes met Lois's, and he said, "You should do what you can to mend fences. You never miss the time until it's gone."

She must have seen a hint of the longing and pain in his eyes, because she quickly looked away. "You must have really loved your mother."

"I loved everybody in my family, and there's not a day that I don't regret the times that I didn't spend with them."

In many ways, regret had poisoned his soul. He'd gone over what might have been a thousand times over; wondering if he might have changed things if he'd made different choices. Even if he wouldn't have been able to change their eventual fate, he regretted the times he'd been too busy with his own concerns.

Of course, with Lana, he'd wanted to do more, and she'd rejected him, but even the thought felt disloyal. He should have tried to conform more to what she enjoyed; if he'd known how short their time together would be, he wouldn't have spent a day away from her.

"I've been lucky," Lois said. "I've got a small family, and I've never really lost anyone."

"It changes you," Clark said. "You look back on the times you had, and there are times when you'd do anything to get some of those times back. Sometimes they come to you in dreams…"

Lois seemed uncomfortable, awkward, lacking her usual self-assurance. She'd managed to conceal her fear of flying far better than her current unease. Doubtlessly, she was uncomfortable with other people's pain. It wasn't something that had ever been a problem for Clark; undoubtedly the gift he shared with his son made him more open to the feelings of others. Perhaps it was his art. Music was more about emotion than anything.

Clark stared somberly into the distance, then blinked.

"The other tour group is on its way," he said. "I suppose they want to get one last trip in before nightfall."

Lois looked him curiously. "You don't want to meet up with them?"

"Jake Kiernan is a little more observant than Kawaimaka. He pays a lot of attention to what happens on the island."

"And disappearing isn't going to be a problem?" Lois asked. "What if this Kiernan talks to your friend?"

"They hate each other's guts," Clark said. "If we vanish now, it'll avoid all sorts of problems."

"By all means, let's relocate, then," Lois said, offering him her arm.

Clark grinned and scooped her up in his arms. A moment later, they were moving quickly through the air.

Flying had terrified Lana and even Lois had been a little tense during their first flight. This time around, Lois seemed much more relaxed, almost seeming to enjoy the experience. Of course, he wasn't flying nearly as quickly, but he had to admire her adaptability.

He flew low, near the surface of the jungle. He doubted that Lois could appreciate the island the way he did; the human ear couldn't hear the sounds of a thousand waterfalls all falling in unison. The human nose couldn't smell the aromas of ten thousand flowers covering miles upon miles of jungle. They couldn't appreciate the peace that the islands gave him.

Cities were always an assault on his senses. The distinctive aromas of ten million people, the smells of cleaning products, cosmetics, baking asphalt, automobile exhaust, as well as the smell of thousands of other things, alone would have overwhelmed him the first time he'd entered one.

His sense of smell was his least developed; his other senses were assaulted even more. The sounds of millions of people talking, fighting, shouting, working and making love, along with the sounds of all the machinery it took to make civilization run smoothly, were a never-ending din. It was like always being in the middle of a room filled with people shouting; sometimes he felt that he was lucky to be able to understand what the people around him were talking about.

It was a relief to find a place filled with silence, free from the overwhelming tumult that was society. While even Molokai wasn't as quiet and unspoiled as other places in the world, it had the advantage of its own beauty. Here, he could hear the sounds of the wind and surf, the sounds of water falling and birds, and he could find a measure of peace. This was a beauty he could share, unlike the stark beauty of the ice fields of Antarctica, the deepest jungles of Brazil or the simplicity of the Sahara desert.

Of course, he could hear the distant sound of human habitation, but here, at least, it was tolerable. He couldn't smell human civilization, only the flowers and mud and the smell of the earthy loam.

The weather here was delightful year round, and while that didn't affect him, it did normal people. This beauty he could share. Here, he could finally relax and enjoy the person he was with, or at least that had been the plan.

Lois was good at keeping him off balance. Just as he'd begun to relax, she'd bring something else up. She seemed to think one step ahead, and at the rate she was going, she'd be perfectly comfortable flying with him in just a short time.

They passed over the mountains, flying very low to the ground. In the space of a moment, Clark landed among the trees, coming as close as he dared without being seen.

He set her down reluctantly; there was something comforting about the feel of her in his arms. It had been a long time since he'd had physical contact with anyone other than Josh, and it was surprising how much he'd missed it. Unlike Lana, he hadn't grown up in a family that was afraid to touch. It had taken time for her to adjust, but when she had, she'd been enthusiastic. He'd taken comfort from her touch then, as he was now from Lois's.

Releasing her left him with an empty feeling. She amazed him; deep down, he'd thought she'd treat him like the freak of nature that he was. Instead, she'd taken his abilities in stride. The flight had made her a little tense, but she was already relaxing, and by this point she was talking as though his abilities were a given.

Nothing she could have done would have comforted him more.

She smiled at him shyly, and he quickly led her through a stand of trees to the wide expanse of beach. Papohaku was a three-mile stretch of perfect white sand, averaging three hundred feet from the shore to the edge of the water. It was isolated at the best of times because of the water breaking directly on the shore, and he'd chosen the most isolated spot he could see.

The dangerous shore break meant a freedom from surfers or swimmers, but it made for a nice piece of scenery.

"This is beautiful," Lois said quietly, staring out onto the rushing waves.

"It's nice to get away from the city sometimes," Clark said. Despite the beauty of the scenery, his eyes kept being drawn to Lois's face.

The sun was low in the sky. While it was still an hour till sunset, the view was still beautiful. Looking at Lois, Clark had to admit that the scenery paled in comparison to her.

"I never got to share this place with anyone special," Clark said.

Lois turned to him, and said, "I'm glad you decided to share it with me."

Clark grinned. "There's this little place in Shanghai that I'd like to take you to sometime. The food is simply amazing."

Asking her out on another date was beyond the limits they'd set. Clark felt a moment of panic at the thought that he might have insulted her. She'd agreed to a casual date for one night and he was asking her out again.

She stared up at him for a moment, then licked her lips slightly. "You think the way to a woman's heart is through her stomach?"

Clark felt a moment of relief. She wasn't upset. On the contrary, the look in her eyes showed a spark of something indefinable, something dangerous. Lois was swaying toward him, and Clark felt something pass between them, a moment of intense attraction so powerful that it was almost painful.

For a moment, he allowed himself the fantasy that she was the woman he'd always been waiting for, the woman that he'd dreamed about. She was beautiful, intelligent and engaging, and furthermore, she accepted him in ways that Lana never had.

Like a splash of cold water, the thought brought him back to reality. He'd had true love already and lost it. Lana had been the love of his life, and thoughts that put her in a bad light were disloyal and unworthy. He'd loved Lana, and had a child with her, and they'd planned on spending the rest of their lives together.

Guilt was a heavy burden. While Clark had lived with guilt each and every day for the past three years, this was a new kind of guilt, one he hadn't experienced before. He'd never felt as though he was betraying Lana's memory, because he hadn't been attracted to anyone since she'd died.

The relationship with Lois couldn't go anywhere, and so it was foolish even to flirt with the idea of kissing her. It would be better to avoid the issue altogether.

"Maybe we should be getting back," he said, his voice rough. He refused to look at her; even now, his treacherous body felt a pull toward her.

Blinking, Lois straightened. Her mouth firmed, and she said, "You may be right. I have an early flight tomorrow."

Clark took a step away from her, and said, "When do you want me back in Metropolis?"

She looked up at him and said, "Give me a couple of days to get my other affairs in order. You'll need to record a demo tape; I know a place that's cheap, but good."

Nodding, Clark said, "I haven't even canceled most of my gigs yet. I should be able to slip back into the routine fairly easily."

He'd planned to cancel by telephone when it was necessary. The stray thought that he might always have planned on returning was ridiculous.

"You need to come up with six songs that give an example of your range," Lois said quietly. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw her staring out onto the ocean. "You'll want songs that you can really knock them dead with… preferably your own songs."

Music producers weren't impressed by simple reiterations of the old classics. They needed a new sound.

Luckily, Clark had the songs he needed.

"Are you ready to go back?" he asked.

She nodded silently.

When he picked her up this time, he did his best to avoid thoughts of what could not be.

***

"He's not human." Jason Taskerman stared at Clark Kent through the thick recording-studio glass.

The soundman's voice was casual, but Lois couldn't help flinching. Even though she'd had a week to adjust to the idea, the idea that a man could fly still seemed like a dream to her. The night he'd taken her flying already seemed like a dream and the days apart had given everything a hazy glow.

"What do you mean?" She was careful to keep her voice from seeming too curious. Being overly sensitive would be a dead giveaway that something was wrong.

Not bothering to look at her, Jason nodded in the direction of Clark in the soundproofed booth. "He's been singing without a break for six hours. I haven't even seen him take a sip of water. If he doesn't learn to pace himself, he's going to blow out a vocal chord."

Relaxing slightly, Lois nodded. Under normal circumstances, she'd have insisted on regular breaks. Musicians who didn't take care of their voices were quick to lose them. However, Clark Kent wasn't exactly like other musicians. Despite the time he'd spent singing so far, he showed no sign of flagging.

She still wasn't entirely sure about the extent of his abilities. He'd shown her some, but she was sure there were others he had yet to show her. If they'd had more time together, she'd have insisted that he show her. Curiosity had always been her great flaw.

However, they hadn't seen each other from the time he'd seen her off on the plane back to Metropolis, and this morning, when they'd met at the studio. The studio was in a low-rent area, on the edge of the industrial district. Few people wanted to live in the shadow of power plants and factories, and so the studio was cheap. It made up for a great deal with extra soundproofing, cheap prices and good service, however, which was why Lois had chosen it. The price was worth the extra drive.

The morning had begun promisingly enough. Without other band members or instruments to worry about, Clark had played half a dozen quick variations of each song without a single hitch. His playing had been workmanlike and proficient, if not as brilliant as Lois had remembered.

However, when the time had come to lay his instrument aside, slip on a set of headphones and sing, everything had fallen flat. While his singing was proficient, somehow he hadn't been able to reach the depths he'd reached before.

Even under ordinary circumstances, not all songs that worked with an audience recorded well. Some songs needed the energy that an audience provided. Lacking the feedback, they failed to have that indefinable extra something that allowed them to touch people.

With Clark it was even worse. In front of an audience, he had something truly magical. Here, in the silence of an empty room, his music was mundane. Lois could see the mounting frustration on his face. He was paying by the hour, and yet he couldn't get the music to do what he needed it to do.

She wasn't sure what his financial limits were. Luckily, she'd found the best cheap recording studio on the East Coast. The prices were only about thirty dollars an hour, and the soundman was good at his work.

Of course, the dācor was run down, a leftover from different periods. Heavy metal office equipment from the fifties sat on orange shag carpet from the seventies. The odor of mildew in the background was irritating, but Lois had suspected that Clark would be willing to compromise. If the building was falling apart, the sound equipment was kept in loving condition.

"If I don't get a chance to have a cigarette and a bathroom break soon, I think I'll explode," the soundman muttered as Clark finished another uninspiring attempt at singing.

Although he shouldn't have been able to hear them, Clark Kent glanced up and spoke into his microphone. "Why don't we take a break?"

The sound technician heaved a sigh of relief. "Finally."

He grabbed a package of cigarettes and a lighter from the bag on the floor by his feet. "I'll be back in fifteen."

As in most recording studios, smoking was forbidden inside the building. Besides being bad for the singers' voices and the equipment, it was an unacceptable risk for the management. Given the age and run- down condition of the building, fires were probably even more dangerous at this particular studio, and the technician knew it.

Lois glanced down at Josh, who was playing with a pair of small toy dinosaurs on a run-down couch at the back of the booth. The condition of the place hadn't even fazed Josh, and Lois suspected that he'd been in worse. Josh seemed able to shut out the entire world and focus completely on what he was doing.

She'd developed the same skill as a child. In her case, it had been a way of ignoring her parents' constant fighting. After her father had left, she'd practically raised her sister alone as her mother descended into the depths of depression.

Even so, she'd had the comfort of knowing both her parents were alive. She couldn't imagine what it must have been like for a child as young as Josh to have lost a mother and a grandmother all in the same day.

As though he sensed her scrutiny, Josh looked up and stared at her. Lois often had the feeling that Josh was looking straight through her. It was an uncomfortable feeling, and would have been more so except for the feeling that Josh didn't judge. He simply accepted with the innocence of a child.

The door opened behind her, and Lois turned.

Clark entered the room, and from the expression on his face, she knew he wasn't happy.

"I'm starting to wonder if this isn't all a wild goose chase."

She could understand his frustration. She wasn't certain that she'd be able to sell his music the way he was playing now.

"Nobody gets a perfect take right off the bat."

Clark scowled. "Most people probably have a little more money saved up to pay for hours of mistakes too. It's a good thing I don't actually have to eat."

"You don't?"

Glancing behind her at his son, Clark said, "When things got tough in college, I discovered that I could go for long periods without eating without any obvious effects. As far as I could tell, I didn't lose any weight."

Long periods weren't the same as not needing to eat at all. Lois found that thought comforting; the idea that Clark Kent was entirely alien was too much for her to comprehend.

"Look, you just need to relax a little. You've been singing for six hours straight, and you spent two hours before that laying down the instrumental tracks. We've got a couple more hours until it's time to close up for the night. If you don't get it today, you'll get it tomorrow. Even if you don't get it exactly, you'd be surprised at what Jason is able to manage. He can cover a dozen flaws."

"He shouldn't have to." Clark grimaced. "I should have known it wouldn't be as easy as it sounded."

"Everybody goes through this," Lois said. In a way, it was even true, although some of her other clients had had a much easier time. She could understand his disappointment. Some people were never able to make the transition from live music to recordings. If this were the case, his career would always be stuck in limbo.

"I suppose so. It's just frustrating." Clark sighed. "I'm going to have to be more careful too. I heard what the engineer said about me being odd."

"You heard that with earphones on and inside a soundproofed room?"

Clark shrugged. "My senses are enhanced."

Lois wasn't entirely certain that was a blessing. She heard many things in Metropolis that she wished she didn't have to hear already. She'd have to remember how good his hearing was, though; the chances of Lucy making a comment about him within earshot was strong unless Lois was quick to cut her off.

"Maybe it's the songs you've picked. I really liked them when I heard them the first time, and they seem to be real crowd pleasers, but…"

"But they might not record well." Clark nodded grimly. "I wrote all of my songs with an audience in mind. None of them was really meant to be recorded."

"Try something different. Maybe if you go to something else, you'll get out of the rut you're in. In any case, there's always tomorrow."

"All right. I suppose there's nothing else I can do." He glanced sharply down at his son, and quickly stepped across the small room and knelt down beside him. He began to speak to him in low tones.

Lois quickly decided to step outside. Despite the fact that she'd practically raised her younger sister, small children made her a little uncomfortable. Josh was better than the other children she'd seen; he wasn't noisy, he didn't misbehave, and his nose wasn't constantly running.

If it hadn't been for a constant feeling of melancholy that surrounded him, the sense that something was wrong, she would have thought him to be the perfect child. He was self-contained, yet he seemed affectionate to his father.

She grabbed her purse and stepped quickly outside, to a small, dingy hallway.

For some reason, she seemed to spend half her life in one dingy, dirty building after another. Her expensive office and apartment were a stark contrast to the places she often found herself in, and for a moment, Lois found herself wondering if she was going to spend the rest of her life traveling from one rat hole to the next.

Despite what she was telling Clark, there was no guarantee that he'd be able to find his music. His budget was limited, and if the recording session were a failure, he'd likely never try again.

Lois had seen the stresses of recording break up bands; one of her functions was to smooth such conflicts over. This was simpler in some ways; Clark wasn't dealing with the mistakes of others. The responsibility rested solely on his shoulders.

His frustration was palpable; Lois could understand because she shared it. She'd spent a great deal of time and money based on her judgment of his talent. To be proven wrong made her feel ill.

She quickly stepped down the small hallway to the old Coke machine at the end. She pulled a pair of coins from her purse and dropped them into the slot, choosing the most sugary and caffeine-filled beverage in the bunch.

Sighing, Lois headed for the ladies' room. Clark hadn't taken a single break in the past several hours; it wasn't enough to make anyone suspicious, but he'd need to be more careful in the future, especially if the news of a man being able to fly came out.

The bathroom hadn't seen much use; other than the occasional female band member and girlfriend, it was undoubtedly always unoccupied. Still, Lois was cautious about using the facilities. By the time she was washing up, she could hear the sounds of music vibrating through the walls.

She turned the corner and stepped quickly down the hall, only to stop as she saw a familiar figure leaning into the control room. Through the open door, she could hear the familiar flat refrains playing. Clark hadn't improved a single bit.

"What are you doing here?" Lois hissed.

The figure turned, and Ash grinned at her. "I just thought I'd come down and see what you've been spending so much time with. It looks like I don't have anything to worry about."

Lois glanced through the door and the window at Clark. Ash was speaking in a normal tone of voice, but Clark didn't give any sign that he was listening.

"What I choose to spend my time on isn't really any of your business. I'd have thought you'd have had your hands full with Blaze."

Blaze's career was self-destructing, and with any luck, he'd take Ash right along with him. Given the trouble he was causing now, Lois was almost grateful that Ash had stolen him from her. Of course, she wouldn't have tried to hold on to Blaze with music and drugs; Lois had no doubt that Ash was contributing to Blaze's downward spiral.

"Blaze is happy where he is," Ash said quietly. "I was just afraid I'd have to convince another poor sap that he was better off with a real entertainment attorney instead of a wannabe."

"Who has the big office?" Lois asked quietly. "You were lucky with Blaze, but the partners respect consistency. My clients may not be big stars, but they have careers that will last. I don't think the same thing can be said of Blaze… or you."

Ash glanced back in the control booth, and said, "You play with small potatoes. You always have, and you always will." His voice had escalated, and Lois noticed a small sound.

Josh was standing in the center of the control room, staring up at Ash's back. He was pale, and the aura of sadness that he'd worn like an overcoat was gone. In its place was fear.

The music stopped at a gesture from Clark.

"I'd like to try something else," he said. "Let's do a live feed."

Josh's head snapped around, and though he was too short to see inside the studio, he visibly relaxed, as though he was receiving some sort of comfort or strength from his father.

Clark was staring at the spot on the wall of the studio where Josh was, fixedly, as he blindly reached for his instrument.

Josh nodded reluctantly, and with a sideways glance at Ash, headed for the couch again. He was careful to sit as far from the door as he could.

Ash hadn't noticed any of it, but Jason the soundman had. After a moment, Jason shrugged, and made the necessary adjustments to the equipment.

"It's your dime," he said.

Most musicians laid separate vocal and instrumental tracks. It tended to save time, when a seven-member band didn't have to record a song a hundred times for one member's mistakes.

Clark's instrument was already in tune; on her advice, he'd made sure of it before they'd even reached the studio. He glanced at his son, now visible on the couch through the window, then at Lois.

The moment he began to play Lois almost sagged with relief. Whatever had been missing from his music was back, with a vengeance. As the first tones of the unfamiliar song began to play, the sound engineer straightened, his expression going from bored to alert.

Lois hadn't heard this song before, yet somehow the rhythms seemed almost familiar. Clark was staring at her through the glass as he played the slow, steady notes of a simple love song, and Lois found that she couldn't look away.

He sank huskily, as though he was once again in the middle of a smoke- filled hall, singing about the woman he'd lost and what he'd do to find her again. Lois knew the song had to have been written about Lana, yet somehow, he made it sound as though it was all for her.

Ash's head had snapped around, and he turned to stare through the glass. His expression went blank as he listened to the music, and as the last strains filtered through the speakers into the booth, he scowled.

Clark was a more talented musician than Blaze had ever been. When Ash turned back to Lois, she saw that he recognized that fact.

His voice was a little strained as he spoke. "There are ten thousand talented people out there waiting tables for every idiot who makes it. You don't really think any of this makes a difference, do you?"

Ash pushed past Lois quickly, before she could respond. A moment later, he had left the building.

Lois couldn't help but hope that his career self-destructed soon. Ash was vicious when crossed. Lois had little doubt that he'd try to cozen Clark away from her at some point, but even if she hadn't known Clark's secret, she doubted that Ash would have succeeded. Ash didn't have anything to offer a family man.

"How was that?" Clark asked the soundman.

"I think you actually managed to get it in one take." Jason's voice was quietly astonished. "We'll have to hear how it sounds when I tweak it a little, but I don't think it'll take much."

Lois glanced back at Clark, who was openly grinning at her. She had little doubt that he'd heard her conversation with Ash. She hoped that he wouldn't lose whatever it was that he'd found.

"I've got a few more songs that I'd like to try before we break for the evening."

For the first time, the soundman sounded enthusiastic in agreeing. Lois closed the door and sat down in the seat next to the console. As Clark prepared for the next set, she was startled to feel a pair of small hands tugging at her leg.

Josh was looking up at her with an inscrutable expression. He'd been frightened by Ash, and somehow Lois suspected that it wasn't anything the man had said. Before she could protest, he climbed up in her lap and settled into the crook of her arm.

Lois was a small woman, and she would have expected a five-year-old to be a bit much to carry. However, Josh was small for his age, and somehow, as he settled down, it seemed to fit.

Sitting stiffly for a moment, Lois eventually forced herself to relax. Ash had frightened Josh, and from this position, he could easily see his father. She found herself patting his back gently.

Looking up, she saw Clark watching them. She couldn't read his expression, but as he began to play again, his voice was warm and enveloping.

***

As the last notes of the day hung silently in the air, Clark heaved a sigh of relief. He hadn't realized that recording music would be so different from playing it. In many ways, it was like learning music all over again.

He'd played music for himself in the beginning, using it as a way of expressing emotions that he wasn't free to express. He hadn't wanted his mother to know just how lonely he was, to know just how much pain filled his day-to-day living. He'd focused that emotion into his music, and for a long time, that had been enough.

When he'd begun playing for money, he'd discovered that he had a talent for touching people when he played. He had a sense of how people responded to his music, and over time, he'd learned to tailor his music to his audience.

He supposed the talent was a subset of the talent he shared with Josh, the ability to speak mind to mind. No matter how much he'd tried, he'd never been able to use it with anyone else, and even during his musical performances, he wasn't able to reach everyone. Music was about emotion more than thought, and somehow, he was more open to people while playing.

It was something Josh was much better at than Clark was, though he suspected that was in part because children were more in tune with their emotions than adults were.

Being forced to play without an audience wasn't something he was used to anymore. He'd taken some solace in music since Lana's death, but rarely played for pleasure anymore. He couldn't remember the last time he'd played for himself; the joy he'd once taken in playing with people had turned to ashes on the night he'd lost his mother and wife.

Lois was still sitting in her seat in the booth, cradling Josh. Clark wasn't entirely sure how he felt about that. Knowing that Josh accepted her made Lois more attractive in ways that Clark couldn't afford to think about. However, seeing a woman holding Josh just as Lana once did cause a sharp pang of guilt.

No one could replace Lana in his heart; she was his first love, and the mother of his child. He could vaguely grasp the idea that he might love someone again in a different way, but it still felt like a betrayal of a kind.

Clark carefully slipped his battered guitar into its case; despite broken strings, the instrument had been with him since he'd bought it in college. In a way, it looked like he felt; battered and a little damaged inside, but not yet ready to finish his work.

If he was going to play larger venues, he might have to switch to an electric guitar. He'd avoided excessive equipment in the past, and had made quite a career out of an acoustic folksy sound, partially so he could fly from place to place without carrying vanloads of heavy equipment. He hated long drives.

He supposed that he'd have to set the instrument aside and switch to something new. Clark knew that he'd regret the day that he'd finally put it to rest. The instrument was filled with memories of better days, and he'd always keep it in an honored place.

Glancing back at Lois, Clark had to admit that change wasn't always for the worse, though it had felt that way during parts of his life. The future was uncertain, and while that was frightening, it was also exhilarating. Lois had given him that; she'd given him hope that life wasn't doomed to be lived in a continual downward spiral.

The lid to the case slid closed with a click, and Clark picked it up by the handle. He could hear Lois thanking the sound man, and rising to her feet. He quickly grabbed his case and headed for the door to the small studio room.

He was almost grateful to the man who'd come by to taunt Lois. The music had been flat and lifeless, and he'd grown increasingly frustrated. The harder he'd tried, the more he'd tensed. The frustration had been almost more he could bear.

When he'd heard the man threatening Lois, the frustration had been completely wiped away. He hadn't minded the man's slurs on his own skills; he'd known he wasn't playing up to snuff. The fact that he was upsetting Lois had been a different matter; the fact that he was frightening Josh was even worse.

Clark had been tempted to charge straight through the wall, grabbing the man and throwing him out of the studio altogether. The urge surprised him; he rarely had vivid fantasies about violence of any kind.

It had taken him a moment to realize that he was feeling Lois's emotion, her anger and irritation.

Focusing on her then had been easy; her emotions had almost reached out to touch him rather than the other way around.

Playing the music had been Clark's way of not charging to the rescue. Leaving the recording booth would have been a serious mistake, one that might have led to legal consequences. While Clark doubted there was any prison in the country that could hold him, the life of a hunted man wasn't any life at all.

He'd chosen a song of love and loss that he'd written long before Lana had passed away. While the sentiments in the song seemed shallow and načve to him now, it was a song that he'd played for himself long before he'd shown it to an audience.

Lois had responded intensely, and the spike of anger from the man bothering her had been doubly gratifying.

When the man had gone, and the song was done, Clark knew that he had the key. Focusing on Lois and the soundman as an audience, he nevertheless played mostly for himself. Josh had never been a good audience for music. He had little interest in it, and rarely listened.

None of that had prevented him from having miscues; some of the songs he chose on the spur of the moments hadn't been rehearsed in years. However, with his abilities giving his fingers preternatural speed and agility, Clark had found it easier to cover any mistakes than a normal musician might have. His singing had been more troublesome.

Nonetheless, he'd managed to get five songs recorded, and depending on what the sound man was able to do with them, they might be finished.

The thought was a relief.

Clark stepped into the control room and smiled at Lois and his sleepy- eyed son. "What do you think?"

The soundman grinned and gave him a thumbs up. Given his earlier comments during the long hours Clark had been stuck, Clark thought it was an encouraging sign.

"I'll hardly have to do anything with these," the man said. "I like this last set a lot better than the earlier ones."

"Do what you can, and get the master copy to me tomorrow," Lois's voice was businesslike, but there was a glint of approval in her eyes. She was still carrying Josh, and Clark wondered whether the weight was starting to bother her.

The sound man nodded, then glanced toward Clark. "It's always a pleasure to work for Ms Lane's clients."

A ringing sound came from Lois's purse, and she grimaced. "I'd better take that call."

Clark set his instrument case down, and picked up a sleepy Josh, who was disgruntled at being further jostled around.

She pulled her phone from her purse, and stepped out into the hallway.

The sound man glanced in her direction, then back at Clark. "I figured I was in for a treat when I realized that she was going to be here in person."

"She doesn't stay for all her new clients?"

Shaking his head, the other man said, "Usually, she has a producer that she hires. It's an extra expense, but usually worth it."

"We seemed to do well enough without one," Clark said quietly.

The truth was that Lois had made dozens of small suggestions during the evening, suggestions that Clark were certain was going to lead to a better end product.

"She's able to do the work herself, but it's not really in her job description. Usually, she hires the people that the artist needs, and mediates any disputes between them."

Clark glanced sharply at the sound man. "How do you know so much about what she does?"

Shrugging, the man knelt to unhook a number of connections. "A lot of it is the industry standard. She likes to use us a lot, so we get a taste of what it's like to work with her. She's one of the best."

In the hallway, Lois was calming an angry musician on her cell phone. Her voice was calm, and she was expertly handling the situation.

"Yes, she is," Clark said. He wouldn't have signed on with anyone other than Lois.

"We rarely have any problems with her clients, and when we do, she takes care of them. Not like some other people in the business." The look the man gave was significant, and Josh stirred uneasily in Clark's arms.

"The man who was here earlier… what do you know about him?"

The soundman grimaced. "The less I know about him, the better. He's Blaze Armstrong's handler. I worked with both of them once… now, I use my sick days if I hear that I'm to work with them again. Usually it's not a problem though; they like the expensive studios uptown."

Clark nodded slowly. Lois was finishing her conversation, having calmed the musician on the other line sufficiently.

"Do you need any help with the equipment?" Clark asked quietly.

The man looked up gratefully. "Thanks, but I'm covered. I should have several copies of your demo ready by tomorrow afternoon. Drop by, and I'll let you have them."

Lois returned quietly, and said, "Well, I guess that's it for today."

"I'll walk you out to your car," Clark said, switching Josh to one arm while he picked his guitar case up with the other.

Lois nodded, and held the door to the sound booth open for him. A moment later, they were in the hallway. A moment after that, they were outside.

The sound booth had provided a certain degree of relief from the pounding rhythms of the city. Clark had arrived overnight, hoping to minimize the effects, but it had still bothered him during his recording sessions, at least until he was able to focus on Lois.

Now it pounded and pulsed with a renewed sound, the lives of ten million people blending and mixing into one overwhelming, throbbing sound that was almost more than he could bear. He grimaced and Josh stirred beside him.

The studio was at the edge of the industrial district, near the factories and power plants. Part of the reason the prices were so low was the poor location; few people wanted to work near the pounding sounds of massive engines. Because of that, the studio had superior soundproofing, but Clark had always been aware of the pounding rhythm of thousands of machines. It had kept him off kilter; it hadn't been the entire problem, but it hadn't helped.

The rhythm had changed somehow, but in the midst of all the machine noises, Clark couldn't pinpoint it.

More than anything, it was an annoyance, and Clark would be glad to move out of the area.

Josh was lucky; if he was anything like Clark, he'd have another five years before his hearing began to kick in. Even then, it would be several years before it was fully developed.

"You did well today," Lois said, walking beside him carefully.

Clark grinned. "I wasn't so sure I was for a while. I was glad to be able to show off for your friend."

Lois sniffed. "Ash probably won't have a career much longer. It makes him a little testy though."

"Doesn't it, though?"

From what Clark had heard of Blaze Armstrong, the musician had rocketed to success almost overnight, and had begun a downward spiral almost as quickly. If this Ash was responsible for that spiral, his career might well be over when Blaze's was.

"I'd stay away from him," Lois said quietly. "He let all his clients slide except for Blaze, and now he's desperate to find someone else he can control."

They reached Clark's vehicle. He set his guitar case down, then reached for the key in his pocket. A moment later, he'd opened a rear door, and set his case inside. He carefully set Josh down to the ground, then closed the door.

"So what do we do now?" Clark asked Lois quietly.

"Your work is done for a while," Lois said. She didn't meet his eyes. "I'll shop the tape around for a while, and see what sort of bites I can get. In the meantime, you should continue playing, just as you would normally do."

"But we'll keep in touch, right?" Clark wasn't certain, but something seemed wrong. Lois had been moved by his music; he was certain of it. Now, however, she was pulling away from him.

"You've got my card, and even if you lose it, you can find my agency in the phone book," Lois said. "I've got a copy of your itinerary. If I find what looks like a promising deal, I'll track you down."

"Would you like to go to dinner? I know you haven't had anything to eat all day."

Shrugging, Lois still didn't look him in the eye. "I'm used to it. I'll just eat something at home."

Clark hesitated. "Have I done something to anger you?"

Lois's head snapped up, startled. "No, of course not."

"Why the professional act, then?"

Lois turned slightly, smiled tightly, and waved at the soundman, who was just locking up.

"I'm just trying to protect both of us." She sighed. "Now that Ash has seen what you can do, he's going to do everything he can to undermine my credibility, and yours."

"You mean he'll talk to recording companies?"

Lois nodded. "He's done it before. Nobody's ever been able to prove it, but the partners suspect. Blaze or no Blaze, they'll throw him out on his ear if they ever find out that he is doing it."

"They lose profits when he undermines a client of the firm."

Lois nodded. "He'll try to convince people that we're dating, and that's the only reason I'm representing you. He's tried it before, and it's never worked, but I don't see any sense in adding fuel to the fire."

"I see." Clark said, his voice carefully neutral. "So neither one of us can afford to be seen together."

"Image is everything," Lois said quietly, "especially in the music industry. Once you start producing successful albums, nobody would care if we were dancing naked on the roof of Buckingham Palace. Until then… it's best that we keep things professional."

"Are you saying that you'd be interested in spending time with me after I get a contract?"

Lois didn't speak for a long moment. "I don't know. I like you quite a bit, and I'm fascinated by your secret, but I'm not sure yet."

"I… see," Clark said, though in truth he didn't.

"I don't know what I'll want, but I'd like the chance to find out." Lois glanced around the parking lot. "Until we can, though, we'd better keep everything professional."

Clark hesitated before nodding. He wasn't entirely certain how to feel. She was turning him down, yet she was acknowledging that there was something between them. She was leaving the door open for something to happen between them, and he couldn't help but feel that was a hopeful sign.

Of course, it was possible that she'd throw other roadblocks up in the relationship, but with time, he was confident that they'd reach an agreement. Taking things slowly was probably for the best in any case. Jumping into a relationship would feel wrong somehow when he was still mourning his wife.

"I can live with that," Clark said.

Lois nodded, then looked quickly around the parking lot. The sound man was pulling away, and she gave him a little wave.

Clark grimaced. The background noise was growing even louder; hopefully someone would notice it soon and correct the problem. If not, he'd have to leave the area soon.

"Have you given any thought to my idea about an alternate identity?" Lois's tone of voice made it clear that she'd said all she had to say on the previous subject.

Focusing on Lois made ignoring the sounds around him easier; it always had. Clark had to think a moment before replying.

"I'm still not sure," Clark said. "Letting people know what I am… that's a big step,"

"Hopefully you'll never have to," Lois said. "However, being prepared never killed anyone."

"I know. I'm just not sure…"

Clark felt a jolt of something from Josh, and he looked down quickly.

The sound had reached a fever pitch, and as Clark turned, he realized something.

A massive complex of natural gas refineries loomed only a few blocks away, serving much of Metropolis. Somewhere within the complex, the sound had reached a fevered pitch, and Clark could hear the sounds of men shouting in panic. A moment later, the sky burned as something in the plant exploded.

The fire streaked across the sky, a vision of Dante's inferno. For a moment Clark couldn't do anything but stare at the flames which leapt from the top of the complex nearby. He'd recently read that Metropolis Power and Light was replacing equipment that had been built in the 1930's with machinery that was more modern. Something had obviously gone terribly wrong.

The smell should have tipped him off. It was obvious now, a cloying, thick miasma of gas being borne along the breeze. He'd been distracted by all the other smells; the scents of petroleum products in the air from the traffic alone was almost overpowering. The smell of gas had been subsumed among all of the other odors; in any case, it didn't matter now.

He could hear men shouting inside, trying to pull people out of danger as the flames began to spread throughout the complex. People were going to be hurt soon, if they hadn't already been.

A sense of unreality washed over him. This was like every nightmare he'd ever had. He couldn't ignore this, and he wouldn't be able to hide.

"I want you to take Josh and get out of here." The words Clark was speaking seemed almost as though they were coming from someone else's mouth. Despite his shock, he seemed to know what he had to do.

He wasn't certain what sort of chemicals the fire would release, especially if it spread to surrounding factories. His son wasn't immune to fire yet, and even if he had been, smoke inhalation killed many more people than flames ever did. He couldn't do what he had to do if he had to worry about Josh… about Lois.

"I'll take him home," Lois said, reaching through her purse. She found a business card and a pen, and quickly jotted an address down.

As she handed the card to him, their fingers brushed. Absently, Clark noticed just how beautiful she was in the reflected light of the fires. He wanted to kiss her, but there wasn't time.

Lois hesitated, then looked at the flames. She nodded, saying, "Be careful."

Clark nodded. The world felt unreal somehow. The fire was too big for him to fight in secret, and it was growing. He felt a moment of bitterness; he'd been on the cusp of a career, of finding an acceptable life for Josh. This was going to cost him everything.

His head snapped around even as he felt his son flinch against his leg. Men were screaming, and he was out of time.

Gently, he picked Josh up and gave him a hug. A moment later, he handed his only son to Lois Lane. He didn't wait to say goodbye.

***

In the space of a moment, Clark Kent was gone, and Lois was left staring after him. All she'd seen was a blur heading for the inferno in the distance. The flames were as hypnotic as they were deadly. From this distance, it seemed as though nothing would be able to survive.

If Clark could move faster than most meteors without catching on fire, hopefully he'd be able to survive this.

She wasn't sure, though. Lois knew far too little about what he was capable of. She knew he was strong, and that he could fly and hear very well, but she didn't know much more. She'd do what she could to find out when he returned.

Assuming he ever did.

The thought that Clark might not ever come back was frightening. Josh struggled in Lois's arms; undoubtedly he was as worried as she was. Lois made calming motions to him, while she attempted to quell her own anxiety.

She didn't really know how to handle a child. Allowing one to sleep in her lap while the father watched was one thing, but her home was certainly not childproofed. If there'd been any other choice, she wouldn't have taken Josh; even though she'd practically raised Lucy from the age of ten, Lucy had been relatively close to her own age.

Josh's struggles grew stronger, but he still didn't make a sound. Lois looked down at him and said, "It'll be all right. Don't worry."

Children could sense tension and fear; Lois remembered that much from her own childhood. She'd always been able to tell when her parents weren't getting along, even when they'd done their very best to hide it. She'd simply have to do her best to convince both Josh and herself that everything was going to be all right.

Looking down at Josh, she stroked his back and said, "I'm going to take you to my house, and we're going to have a nice big bowl of chocolate ice cream."

Undoubtedly it would spoil his dinner, but these were unusual circumstances. Ice cream always calmed Lois; even the thought now was a little calming.

Clark knew what he was capable of withstanding, and he loved his son. He'd be back.

Josh stared up at her for a long moment, then finally began to relax.

Lois smiled and nodded. Despite being small for his age, Josh was quickly getting heavy. "Let's get going then."

Allowing Josh to slide to the ground, she kept an eye on him while fumbling for her keys in her purse.

"Your dad probably won't be happy about us having chocolate ice cream for supper, but we don't have to tell him."

She found the keys and glanced back up to see Josh staring back at the fire. He flinched periodically, as though he was seeing things she couldn't see.

The thought that he actually might be was horrifying. Clark had never told her how quickly his abilities had developed. If Josh was actually listening to the screams of the dying, she needed to get him out of the area as quickly as possible.

Lois grabbed Josh's hand and pulled him away quickly. A moment later they'd reached the jeep.

Lois opened the door, and lifted Josh into the front seat. He stood up when she went for the seat belt and scrambled into the back.

"You don't have to sit in the back," Lois said. "There aren't any airbags on the passenger's side."

Josh stared at her stubbornly. His expression gave her little doubt that he'd struggle if she tried to bring him to the front. After a moment, Lois shrugged.

Sighing, Lois reached to buckle Josh in. "I'm pretty new at this, so you'll just have to let me know when I'm doing something wrong." She smiled at Josh apologetically.

Young children were creatures of habit; Lois remembered that much. They felt safer doing things the same way time after time. She couldn't remember how many times she'd read the same bedtime stories to Lucy even at the age of ten. Every child had its rituals, and Lois wouldn't know any of Josh's.

She'd have to watch Josh carefully once they got to her apartment. While he seemed to be quiet and obedient, she didn't know what sort of trouble he'd get into while she wasn't watching. Her apartment wasn't childproofed.

Lois wasn't even sure what she had to watch out for. Were five-year- olds still likely to stick forks in electrical sockets, drink cleaning fluids and gobble down an entire bottle of vitamins? Or had they learned better by this age? With Josh unable to speak, and without Clark to ask, Lois would simply have to be very careful.

Closing the passenger's door, Lois quickly circled the jeep and slid into the driver's side. The engine purred to life as she looked over her shoulder. The parking lot was deserted except for her jeep and Clark's van. Josh was still staring at her in a way Lois found unnerving.

She quickly pulled out of her parking spot, and made her way onto the street, doing her best to ignore the reddish light coming from the burning factory nearby. To cover the sounds of the periodic explosions, Lois quickly switched the radio on.

Driving in silence, she glanced occasionally in the mirror. Each time, Josh was silent and motionless, staring at her in a way that was unnerving and uncanny.

Lois rarely listened to the radio for pleasure. Usually, she was trying to get a glimpse into the market, trying to see musical trends, and when she was done for the day, she listened to the news channels.

Luckily, she'd been listening to a soft rock station earlier, hoping to hear one of her clients' latest recordings. She doubted Josh would have wanted to hear any local news.

The music was turned down low, and Lois glanced in the mirror again.

"If your father gets a recording contract, you might get a house of your own." The urge to fill the uncomfortable silence was almost overwhelming, even though Lois knew that Josh couldn't speak.

Truthfully, Lois didn't know what Clark's plans were, but she doubted that he'd want to continue to live in North Carolina with his landlady and her son. Besides the fact that it was too far from the recording capitals of New York and Metropolis to commute, at least without raising questions that couldn't be answered, there was the fact that he'd need some place to keep his things.

Glancing back, Lois could see that Josh looked a little confused. Clark probably didn't confide much in Josh, at least if he was like most of the men Lois had known. Her father had been that way too; he'd made decisions for the family without consulting anyone. After the divorce, of course, Lois had practically had to run the family.

She could barely remember a time when she hadn't had to worry about the future. Glancing back at Josh, Lois was almost certain that Clark would have done what he could to protect Josh from those decisions, and she approved. Childhood was something precious. There wasn't any reason to have it ripped away any sooner than it had to be.

The streets ahead were clogged, and Lois cursed under her breath. The sooner she got back to her apartment, the sooner she could turn the television on and see what kind of coverage they were facing. Clark would undoubtedly expect her to do damage control, and even if he didn't, it was part of her job. She was responsible for handling the media in the case of any sort of scandal. She'd been lucky with her clients so far, though if she'd gotten Blaze that might not have been true.

Lois did her best to maneuver her way through the increasingly crowded streets, but at last she could go no further. In the distance, she could see the flashing lights of an ambulance, lights that weren't moving at all. She wondered whether there had been an accident, or whether the ambulance was somehow trying to reach the disaster behind her and was being unsuccessful.

Josh stirred in the seat behind her, and Lois forced herself to smile into the mirror. "Don't worry. We'll get there soon."

She could hear the sounds of horns honking in the distance, the sounds of angry shouts as frustrated drivers screamed out of windows at each other.

A glance in the mirror showed that Josh was beginning to get upset again. Wondering again whether he had Clark's sense of hearing, Lois looked behind her and cursed as she realized that she was blocked in.

Josh sniffled, and Lois realized with horror that he was on the verge of crying.

She didn't know how to deal with people crying. It always left her uncomfortable and unhappy, not knowing what to do. Her mother had used that against her for years, knowing that she'd usually give in just so she wouldn't have to listen to tears.

With a child, it was even worse. At least with her mother, Lois usually knew an ulterior motive was involved.

Shifting the transmission into park, Lois turned hastily to Josh.

"You don't have to cry." Lois hated the sound of panic in her voice. She'd never dealt well with children. Children were strange, alien creatures who acted on whims. The one thing Lois did know was that children were like hyenas or music executives; if they smelled fear, they attacked.

Josh stared up at her, his mouth scrunched up, his lip trembling. His eyes seemed unnaturally large and luminous.

"Your father will be back soon," Lois said. If she'd believed it herself, it would be easier to convince Josh. Unfortunately, her stomach was clenched into a knot.

Josh stiffened, and he unsnapped his safety belt. Scrambling to his knees, he stared out the window.

"Hey!" Lois protested. "We aren't parked yet! You'd better-"

Her voice trailed off as she discovered what Josh was looking at. An ambulance was rising slowly into the air ahead of them. Lois could barely make out a small figure dressed up like a fireman holding the vehicle, and she gasped.

The angry voices of the crowd stilled as people stopped and stared in unison.

A moment later, the ambulance passed a short distance overhead.

"Your father is going to be just fine," Lois said absently. "You'd better get back into your seat."

For the first time, Lois believed it. Clark had undoubtedly already been inside the factory. If he were able to carry something the size of an ambulance, he would probably be able to handle just about anything.

No one made a sound for several long moments. Eventually, however, the horns began honking again. The people of Metropolis could adapt to anything, given time.

Lois's relief was almost overwhelming. Clark was safe, and a quick check showed that Josh was back in his seat. His face had smoothed; it was as though he'd never been upset at all.

The cars that had been blocking her in from behind backed up and swung onto a side street. Lois was quick to follow.

The drive home was almost anticlimactic. Lois took side streets to avoid the crowds, and she didn't bother speaking to Josh. The silence in the car seemed almost comfortable.

Lois pulled into her spot in the parking garage underneath her building, and greeted the doorman at the elevator.

They reached her apartment without incident.

Josh stopped in the entranceway, staring, and for a moment, Lois tried to see her apartment through his eyes.

The entire apartment was open and airy, everything visible from the doorway except the bedroom and bathroom. Wide expanses of brass and glass, black-painted wood and modern furniture filled the room sparsely. Lois had been told from time to time that her apartment was decorated like a man's, and except for her bedroom, she had to admit that it was. A massive entertainment center dominated one wall, with a big-screen television and the best sound system she could afford.

It was a big apartment, and Lois had purposely under-furnished it. After the cramped quarters she'd had as a child and during her college years, she liked the space. She hated clutter and feeling closed in. She often left the French doors against the far wall flung open; on the twentieth floor she wasn't much worried about burglars.

"You can't fly yet, can you?"

Josh stared at her for a long moment before shaking his head.

"We'd better stay off the balcony then, at least until your father gets back," Lois sighed. Undoubtedly, she'd have to keep a close watch on Josh. While he seemed like a responsible child, that was undoubtedly just because he wasn't loud or noisy.

Josh took a tentative step inside the room before looking back at her to see if it was all right.

"Just try not to break anything," Lois said absently, closing the door behind her and switching the security alarm off. She brightened, "Hey, I promised you ice cream!"

For the first time in the day, Josh's face brightened. Lois smiled. Everyone liked chocolate; it was the one universal constant.

It seemed like only the work of a moment before Josh was sitting on a bar stool inside the kitchen digging contentedly into a large bowl of ice cream. While the stools were usually on the other side of the breakfast nook, the thought of chocolate ice cream hitting her white carpet made Lois shudder.

When Lois was sure that Josh was busy eating, she grabbed the television remote and headed back into the living room.

It took a moment to find a local news channel. Keeping the volume low, Lois stared at the picture that emerged.

The power plant was burning merrily, and after a moment, bright flashes of light showed that something had exploded. The commentator was speaking rapidly but firmly about unconfirmed reports of a flying man.

Lois increased the volume when the camera swung violently. A figure had emerged from the smoke above the plant. Though it was barely visible through the smoke and the fog, even with the camera zoomed in; it whirled when it saw the cameras, turning its back to the cameras.

The gas mask it had been wearing came off, and a moment later an enormous cone of white mist emerged, striking place after place on the roof, dousing fires instantaneously.

When most of the external fires had been doused, the figure slipped the mask back on, and flashed back into the building.

Lois started when she felt a small hand touch her knee. She grimaced at the chocolate on her desk, but stilled as she saw Josh staring at the television with wide eyes.

"He'll be all right," Lois said. This time, she believed it, and something of that must have communicated itself to him, because he relaxed.

"Let's get you washed up," Lois said. "Did you like the ice cream?"

Josh nodded. Lois picked him up quickly and headed back for the kitchen. A moment later she was wiping his face and hands.

Something tickled in the back of her mind, almost the way it had the night she'd first seen Clark play. Lois frowned.

"This doesn't mean I'm your new mommy."

She blinked. In answering a question Josh had never asked, Lois was almost admitting that she was hearing voices in her head.

The unfamiliar sensation returned. Josh was staring at her, and the moment she looked into his eyes it was as though he was looking straight through her again.

"I barely even know your father!" she said, stung.

The world had shifted on the day that she'd learned that a man could really fly. Lois had an uneasy feeling that she was on the edge of another shift, one that would change everything.

"You can read minds." Lois's voice was flat. If Josh could do it, so could Clark, and that was enough for her to doubt everything.

Josh shook his head solemnly, hesitated, then nodded slightly.

"Not all the time, but sometimes?" That was somewhat better, but even so, it made Lois want to flee the room. What if Josh had seen the thoughts that she'd had about his father?

Lois grimaced and did her best not to think about it, but she found herself blushing. Some thoughts weren't meant for children.

Josh stared at her in confusion, then shrugged.

Running was always an option. While Lois had always loved discovering the secrets of others, she'd always guarded her own secrets fiercely. The thought that anyone, even an innocent child, could simply read her like an open book was deeply disturbing.

Trying not to think about something was impossible. The more Lois tried not to think about naked skin and silken bed sheets, the more she did.

Lois stumbled back, her face blazing hot. If Clark could read her as easily as Josh could, he'd known all along just how attractive she found him. He'd taken advantage of her weakness, taken advantage of her.

The hot surge of anger was a welcome change from Lois's deep embarrassment. It was only when she heard Josh whimper that she realized that Josh was still staring at her.

"I'm just a little angry at your father. It has nothing to do with you."

There wasn't much point in not being honest with the boy. Lois closed her eyes for a moment, then offered him her hand.

"Why don't we go watch a little television?"

Josh calmed, then nodded.

As they headed back for the couch, Lois grimaced. "I don't get the Disney channel, I'm sorry. Don't worry, we'll find something."

Impulsively, the little boy hugged her leg, and when he looked up at her again, Lois felt something stir within her that had nothing to do with telepathy.

"You know, I think we'll be great friends before this is all over. I don't know if I can say the same about your father."

***

Clark landed silently on the balcony. This high up, he didn't have many worries about being seen, though he had been forced to dodge three news helicopters and fly in a false direction before backtracking and making his way to Lois's apartment.

She'd left the doors to her balcony unlocked; at this height, Clark doubted it would make much different. With a glance backward, Clark stepped silently inside.

Josh was sleeping again, lying nestled in the crook of Lois's arm as they both sat on the couch. They looked natural together, almost the way Josh and Lana might have looked, had Lana survived.

For a moment Clark allowed himself the fantasy that he was returning home from work to find a loving family waiting to greet him.

Lois's head snapped around, and she stared at him for a moment before hissing, "I've got a bone to pick with you!"

He stared at her dully for a moment. The fire had been much harder than he ever could have imagined, blood, pain and death, and the greedy eyes and hands of reporters clutching at him. He was emotionally exhausted, and he wasn't entirely sure why Lois Lane was angry with him.

Exhaustion almost made him not care.

Lois was gentle in moving out from under Josh, even though she was visibly angry. Josh didn't awaken, though his hand tightened on Lois's for a moment before she pulled away.

Despite everything he could do, he hadn't saved everyone. It was a familiar guilt, but this was raw and new, a scab ripped away from a wound that had never healed. Not wanting Lois to see the expression on his face, Clark turned away quickly and began to slip out of the fireman's outfit he'd managed to pick up. He allowed the equipment to drop to the floor with an audible thump; with a guilty look, he checked to see if he'd awakened his son.

Lois grabbed him by the shirt cuff and pulled him toward what was obviously her bedroom.

"Um, Lois, I'm not sure we're ready for…" Clark attempted a lopsided smile, but it was difficult. She'd see the pain in his eyes if she looked too closely; he needed to deflect her attention. Humor had always served to defuse Lana.

Apparently, Lois was more focused.

"Don't be an idiot," she said shortly. "We need to talk."

He felt a mixture of relief and apprehension. She was too angry to notice his pain, but whatever she had to say probably wasn't anything he wanted to hear.

"Would you like to step out on the balcony?" It wasn't difficult to keep his voice flat and calm; at the moment he could barely summon the strength to speak at all. All he really wanted to do was to sit down and stare off into the distance.

Lois obviously had other plans.

"I don't think my neighbors need to hear what I've got to say."

Given the level of the wind outside, Clark doubted Lois's neighbors would be able to hear anything unless Lois was shouting. With a glance back at Josh, Clark hoped Lois would keep her voice down. Josh had always hated it when he and Lana had fought; no matter how far away they'd been, he'd always grown upset.

Josh's empathic gift could be as much of a curse as a gift sometimes. He'd have to do what he could to calm Lois before Josh woke.

Clark followed her into her bedroom. Unlike the rest of her apartment, this room was almost girlish, with decorative, lacy pillows covering much of the bed, and a color scheme that included something other than black and white.

Lois closed the door quietly behind them then turned to Clark.

"When were you going to tell me that you could read minds?" Lois hissed the question, obviously wanting to shout, but making a visible effort to keep her voice down.

Whatever he'd thought she was going to say, this wasn't it.

"I don't know what you are talking about," Clark said, bewildered. "I can't read minds."

He had an uneasy suspicion that he knew what she was talking about. The woman had a mind like a steel trap. How she'd been able to take his occasional glances at Josh and come up with mind reading was a complete mystery.

"That's not what your son said," Lois said quietly.

Sudden excitement blocked everything from his mind. "Josh spoke? That's wonderful!"

"He didn't speak, exactly." Lois gave him a significant look, then tapped her forehead.

Shocked, Clark couldn't do anything but stare. Deep down, he hadn't believed that Josh would ever be able to speak with anyone but him. Despite his own abilities, he'd never been able to touch anyone with anything approaching words. He'd always assumed that the ability to speak was something he could only do with his own kind.

Perhaps he simply hadn't tried hard enough.

"I didn't even know he could do that with anyone other than me." Clark was surprised to hear a hurt tone in his own voice.

It WAS exciting to think that Josh was taking his first steps toward living in the world. At the same time, a small, dark part of him felt jealous. The special way of talking Josh had was something that had been unique, something they'd shared between them and with no one else.

Clark supposed there was always a little pain when children reached for independence.

Quickly, Clark crushed the thought. If Josh thought his father disapproved of his speaking to other people, even with his mind, he might withdraw even further within his shell and never come out.

"Well, he can. When were you going to let me in on this little tidbit anyway?" Lois's voice was rising, and Clark had to gesture to her to keep quiet.

"I'm as surprised as you are. I can speak to Josh that way, but I've never been able to…"

Lois crossed her arms and stared at him contemptuously. "If you think I'm really going to believe that, you're wrong. The first night I heard you play… I felt something. Until my little session with Josh today, I had no idea what it was."

Clark sighed. "I can sometimes feel people's emotions, usually when I let myself feel instead of think. It happens sometimes when I play, but even then it's hit or miss."

There was another time that it happened as well, but Clark felt his face grow hot at the thought of revealing it. It had been the one part of his alien nature that Lana had enjoyed, though she hadn't wanted to admit it. In the bedroom, she hadn't been able to hide anything from him.

People were the most real when they were fighting… or making love.

"That's a far cry from what your son was doing in my head today." Inexplicably, Lois blushed.

The thought that she might have somehow caught a glimpse of what he was thinking was alarming. Clark knew it was impossible; unlike Josh, he'd never been able to do more than get the most basic sensations from other people. He'd never been able to project his own emotions on others.

"Josh is… different than me. I don't know if it's because he's half human and I'm not, or if it's like learning languages. Small children pick up languages a lot easier than adults do. There's a period when the brain is just a lot more receptive to new information like that."

"So you're saying that he's a lot more developed at this talent than you are?" Lois's voice was still skeptical, but Clark saw an expression that was almost like one of relief pass over her face.

Clark nodded. "I guess I didn't have anyone to talk to when I was a small. Josh had me at least. If he's able to speak to normal people in the way he can speak to me…"

Josh would have to be very careful who he spoke to, if he was suddenly able to speak to anyone at all with his mind. The world already knew of the existence of a flying man. Clark had no doubt that once it was accepted, things like telepathy would gain a great deal more credibility than they had before.

Lois stared at him without speaking for a long moment before nodding. "I believe you. If you could read my mind, you'd be bleeding."

Inside, he WAS bleeding.

"Then I'm glad I can't." Clark was telling the truth.

"Josh is such an innocent… I can almost accept having him rummage through my mind. The thought of having an adult do it… it would be a violation."

Even the thought that Lois might have picked up some of what he was feeling was embarrassing. Clark could easily understand why she might feel that way. He would as well. Of course, if they were ever to make love, things would be different.

Grimacing, Clark said, "I didn't find out about Josh's special way of talking until after his mother died… and it wasn't easy hiding things from him. It's not always comfortable having your life be an open book."

Helicopters sounded in the distance, and Clark could hear the ambulances making their way away from the power plant. He'd removed the worst injured, but others had inhaled smoke and would need medical attention.

A curious popping sound came from several locations. A moment later blackness enveloped them.

"I suppose I should have expected this," Lois said, her voice dry.

"Did you blow a fuse?" The bedroom was almost pitch dark, but Clark could see due to the small amount of light coming from under the door leading to the rest of the apartment.

"The plant you were dealing with serviced a quarter of Metropolis's energy needs. I'm sure the other plants tried to take up the slack, but there is only so much they can do before people start having blackouts."

"I did the best I could," Clark said, his voice sharp.

Lois nodded, fumbling through the darkness toward the door. Clark reached it before she did and ushered her out.

The light of the setting sun coming through the French doors was the only light in the room.

"Things will probably get better overnight; the power load is less. I don't even want to think about tomorrow."

Blackouts in a city the size of Metropolis could be serious. Clark felt a pang of guilt. He should have been faster, he should have worked harder to preserve the plant.

Clark hesitated. "Have you been watching the news?"

"Every local station has footage of you flying." Lois stepped toward her open kitchen. "Would you like something to drink?"

Clark hesitated, then nodded. "I think I inhaled a few hundred gallons of carcinogens. It'd be nice to get something to wash the taste out of my mouth."

It was a hopeless task, of course. He'd never be free of his own guilt, but seeing Lois and Josh together gave him a sense of hope for the future. Josh had always given him that, but with Lois, it was something new.

He gestured toward the restroom, and after nodding at him, Lois turned back to the refrigerator.

The bathroom was filled with a medley of powerful scents that made Clark's eyes burn. Having a sensitive nose was as much as a curse as it was a blessing.

Most of the cosmetics and perfumes looked barely used, though a few looked as though they were favorites. Lois had always struck Clark as a woman who preferred a light touch with perfumes and make up, but he imagined that she was willing to adapt to the needs of a situation.

Staring at himself in the mirror, he couldn't see any sign of his inner misery. He'd gotten good at concealing it over the past few years, concealing it even from himself. His face was covered in a thick layer of soot; Lois had barely even noticed.

He cleaned the soot off his face and hands, but there really wasn't much he could do with his clothing other than thorough washing. He really needed a shower. As it was, he felt embarrassed about leaving one of Lois's towels filthy. He'd have to be careful about sitting on her furniture.

"How long do you think it'll be before they identify me?" Clark's voice was strained as he emerged from the bathroom.

For the first time, Lois seemed to notice something in his expression, and her voice softened, becoming almost friendly.

"It looks like you've been lucky so far. It doesn't look as though anyone got a good close-up of you."

Lois handed him a large glass of orange juice.

Clark relaxed. "Maybe I'll get away with it after all."

"They know a man can fly," Lois said.

Half his protection had been the disbelief of the public. Now, that was gone.

Lois continued. "If you'll recall, I was the one who suggested you get some sort of alternate identity. It's something you'll need to think about."

Sighing, Clark leaned on the counter. "I didn't want to have to deal with this."

He didn't want to deal with anything at all.

"You can't put the genie back into the bottle. The news will have gone national by tomorrow, maybe even worldwide." Lois hesitated. "It would have been better if you'd showed up in costume from the very beginning. This is going to arouse people's suspicions. Still, we'd better get to work."

"So how do we start?"

"You need some sort of uniform. Fireman and policemen wear them so that they will be easily recognizable during emergencies. A uniform has an added advantage: people tend to see the office and not the person."

Hesitating, Clark frowned. "I suppose I could continue wearing the gas mask and fireman's coat."

"You want to call yourself The Fireman?" Lois asked, with one eyebrow raised. "Be my guest."

Clark sighed. He couldn't run around impersonating a fire fighter.

"If I'm going with some other sort of costume, it'll need to be something tight-fitting. I can't really fly at top speed in looser clothes without risking having them burn off me."

Lois grabbed a pen and small notepad from the counter by the phone. She began writing. "So any outfit needs to be tight… what about color?"

Clark shrugged. "Black has always looked good on me."

Lois shook her head. "You aren't getting into the spirit of things. Black is the color of Clark Kent the musician. This other person should be as different as possible."

"What would you have me wearing, then? A yellow jumpsuit?"

Lois smirked. "I guess you could call yourself The Canary. Seriously though, I think you should wear something that is bright and attention- getting. We want to avoid the impression that you are attempting to hide anything."

"So what do you have in mind?" Clark asked, sipping his orange juice. Despite himself, he was becoming interested in what she had to say.

"I order a lot of clothes off the Net," Lois said. "If I can get your measurements, I think I can order a tight-fitting ski suit, one that we can modify. I'm not much at sewing; homemaking was the one class I didn't do well at in high school."

"Actually, I'm pretty good at it," Clark said. "My mother was pretty strict about making sure I'd be able to live on my own if I had to."

"Nobody really needs to know how to sew anymore," Lois said.

"They do if they accidentally tear clothes as often as I did when I was a teenager. We couldn't really afford to replace three shirts and a pair of pants a week."

Lois watched him closely for a moment. As he sipped his orange juice, she picked up the phone, listened for a dial tone, then nodded. "The phone lines are still working. They've got a separate power source."

Leaving the kitchen, she quickly found her briefcase. Pulling a small laptop from it, she returned and plugged it into the kitchen phone jack.

"Figuring you'd come around, I already took the liberty of bookmarking a few keys sites. I'd use my large computer; it loads up a lot faster, but…" Lois gestured at the growing darkness around them.

Clark nodded. By the time the laptop had connected, he'd finished his drink.

A few keystrokes and several irritating moments to load later, they were looking at a front and rear view of a human figure, with a list of options on the side.

Quickly clicking, Lois showed him one possible combination. Clark scowled. "Iceberg blue arms, a gold body, silver collar and black back? I'm not exactly a figure skater."

Lois stood beside him, leaning close to make the selections. His nose, finally recovering from the shock of a bathroom full of cosmetics and perfumes, was pleased to detect her enticing scent. It was a good thing she couldn't read minds, or she'd know just exactly how she made him feel.

She glanced up at him, and he forced himself not to flinch. "What do you think of this one?"

Clark shook his head. "A rainbow pattern for the body? Ugh."

He reached for the trackball in the center of the laptop. Lois moved her hand back, but couldn't avoid brushing his hand in passing. Clark's fingers tingled.

Finding an acceptable costume wasn't as easy as Clark had thought. Combination after combination of legs, backs, bodies and arms flashed across the computer screen, each making him grimace.

Finally, he thought he'd found something he could live with.

"You want a solid royal blue outfit?" Lois asked. "That's not much of an outfit."

Clark frowned. Grabbing her pen and pad, he quickly sketched a symbol. "My mother said this symbol was on the blankets left in the ship my parents found me in. If we put it in the center somewhere, it might liven it up a bit."

Lois nodded. "It'd look great on the chest. The colors are red and gold? Why don't you try a cape and boots in red, or maybe gold?"

Clark nodded slowly. He clicked a few more buttons, then grimaced. A photograph of the ski suit he'd selected worn by a model came up. "Maybe I need to get a pair of shorts or something to go with it, in a matching red."

Looking at the picture, Lois shook her head. "I think that'd look stupid. Other than Madonna, who wears their underwear on the outside of their clothes?"

"I hadn't realized this would be so… revealing," Clark admitted.

"Everything is about misdirection. The more you keep people looking at your body, the less you'll have them focusing on your face."

Clark nodded grimly. "I suppose we'll just have to order it, then see."

"I don't suppose you know your measurements?" Lois's voice was droll.

Clark shrugged.

"I re-measure myself whenever I decide to buy something else online," Lois said, pulling a cloth measuring tape from the kitchen drawer. Lois approached him and said, "Put your arms to your side."

She leaned close to him as she slipped the tape around his back and up around his chest. She had to lean close to him to do so, and he found himself highly aware of her closeness.

Lois Lane was a much smaller woman than one would expect. Her personality gave her a presence that somehow made her seem larger than life. It was only as she leaned close with her arms around him that he became aware of just how petite she actually was.

Her hands dropped, drawing the tape around his waist, and he shivered. For the first time she seemed to be aware that she was touching him.

Lois glanced up and said, "This is okay, isn't it?"

With a husky voice, Clark said, "You don't have to ask permission to touch me."

Silence hung between them as the shock of what he'd said went through them both. Lois flushed, but her hands didn't leave his waist.

She cleared her throat, then moved to his arms. Doing her best to measure quickly and efficiently, Lois wouldn't look at him. Nonetheless, he could hear her heartbeat speeding up, thundering in his ears. The gentle brushes of her hands against his arms were unintentionally sensual.

When she dropped to one knee to measure his inseam, Clark barely managed to keep still. He gritted his teeth and did his best to think neutral thoughts as she made a whole series of measurements. If Lois had been looking, she might have noticed the effect she was having on him; she wasn't looking.

As she rose to her feet, however, she allowed her hands to run gently up the outside of his legs before allowing them to drop to his side.

"I've got what I need," she said.

"I haven't," Clark said. He cupped her face in his hand, and leaned forward to kiss her.

No matter how she worried about appearances, they had both known it would eventually lead to this. The reasons to stay apart seemed as thin as wet paper.

The world seemed to dwindle around them as he leaned in for a kiss. He felt a dark temptation to lose himself in her, to let all his troubles drift away in the hazy afterglow of lovemaking.

An inquisitive tickle in the back of both their minds caused them to spring apart.

Josh was standing on the couch, staring at them.

***

Lois quickly stepped away from Clark, smiling at Josh despite the heat that was rising to her face. The thought that Josh could read her mind was mortifying, but after an initial moment of panic, she got herself under control. "Josh!" Keeping her voice as steady as she could, Lois said, "Your father made it back, just like I said he would. After he takes a shower, maybe we could go to dinner."

Suggesting that Clark was going to take a shower had been a mistake. The harder Lois tried not to think about naked steam-sheathed flesh, the more those images flashed through her mind. Few things were as disconcerting as a mute gaze that could see all your secrets.

Luckily, by this time Josh was looking at his father. Clark had undoubtedly had a great deal more experience in dealing with his son, and as long as Lois could keep focused on something else, she'd be fine.

Josh was turning back to her when the phone rang. For once, Lois was grateful for the interruption. She turned quickly and started for the kitchen before she realized that the laptop was still connected to the phone jack there. She quickly headed for the bedroom, where she kept a cordless phone.

"I'll head for the shower," Clark said, and Lois nodded absently as she stepped into her bedroom and grabbed the phone.

"I'm here. What do you need?" Lois spoke quietly, hoping not to disturb either Clark or his son. Given Clark's hearing and Josh's mental abilities, it was a lost cause, but she made the effort anyway.

Pilar's voice was on the other end of the line, somewhat agitated. Lois listened for a moment, and her temporary relief at being called away from Josh evaporated.

"I'm not working with Ash." Lois's voice was flat. The investigation she'd had Pilar perform hadn't been enough to lead her to Clark's secret, not by itself. Now that the world knew that a man could fly, however, it was much more damning.

"I want you to destroy all the records, erase all the computer diskettes, and get rid of anything you can. I trust you, but Ash has a bad habit of talking secretaries into uncovering confidential records."

Pilar's voice on the other end of the line was consoling, but it didn't help Lois's sense of unease. Ash had known of her investigation of Clark, and the moment he'd heard Clark sing, he'd run directly to Pilar. Luckily, Pilar'd had the sense to call her rather than take his assertion that they were working together and that he needed another copy of the results.

Ash had stolen Blaze out from under Lois, and Pilar knew that. While she undoubtedly believed that Ash was trying to do the same thing with Clark, Lois had other, more pertinent worries. Ash wasn't stupid; for that matter, neither was Pilar. While she suspected that Pilar could be trusted to be discreet, Ash would revel in the chance to ruin Clark's life.

"I'd really prefer that you delete it even from your personal records. I've already signed the client, and I know what I need to. He was never involved with anything illegal."

Pilar spoke again, and Lois sighed with irritation.

"Just delete it. You remember what Ash did the last time with that sort of information."

Silence on the line, then a quick affirmation. While Pilar wasn't exactly Lois's friend, she had her own code of ethics, a code that was offended by the use Ash sometimes made of her information.

"I'm glad you called me," Lois said. A moment later, she replaced the phone in its cradle.

Ash had been a thorn in her side from the moment she'd joined the firm, but this was going to be a great deal more serious than the usual round of undermining her in business. She cared about all of her clients, in an impersonal way, but Clark and Josh were special.

As Josh appeared at the doorway, Lois smiled. "Let's get you ready for dinner."

She'd never been sufficiently motivated to take care of the problem Ash posed. Getting him fired would require her to take certain risks, risks that had never seemed worthwhile before. Looking at Josh, and listening to the sounds of water sluicing in her bathroom, Lois realized that her priorities were changing already.

***

Clark's abilities were a real boon when it came to getting food. Real Chinese food from Shanghai was amazing, and Clark even said that the place he bought it from was clean even by American standards.

They hadn't spoken of anything serious during dinner; neither Lois nor Clark had wanted to be reminded of things they shouldn't be thinking in front of Josh. It wasn't just a matter of the undeniable attraction between them; now there was the specter of Clark's worldwide debut and the danger that Ash represented.

Josh was, as always, the perfect gentleman during the meal, so quiet that he could almost fade into the background unless you were looking directly at him. Of course, once you looked into his eyes, you couldn't help but be aware of them. His eyes seemed to take in the entire world, and on the rare occasions they focused on one person, it was as though every dirty secret that person ever had was exposed to the light.

Lois watched as Clark lowered Josh gently onto her bed. Leaving the door open, he quietly returned to the living room.

"Should he sleep this much?" Lois asked. "I really don't know what's normal for a child Josh's age, but it doesn't seem right."

Clark sighed, lowering himself onto the couch beside her. "Most kids his age have energy to burn. They run hard, play hard, and then sleep like logs."

Glancing through the open door to Josh lying on her bed, Lois said, "He's got the sleeping part down. I haven't seen him do anything active though since the first time I saw him."

"Losing Lana… it did something to him. He was an active three-year- old, but ever since losing his mother, he's been quiet. I'm not just talking about not speaking, either."

The thought that Josh was easy to be around because there was something wrong with him was disheartening.

"You lost your father at about the same age Josh lost his mother. You can't think of anything that might make him feel better?"

Clark was silent for a long moment. "Losing a parent is one of the worst things that can happen to a child. I don't think anybody deals with it in quite the same way. Josh and I certainly didn't."

Sighing, Clark stared down at his hands.

"Oh?" Lois asked.

"Losing my father put my entire world off balance. Life went from being comforting and secure to a dark and scary place. I clung to my mother, and it took me a long time to let go."

"Josh didn't do that?" Lois asked quietly.

Clark glanced up at her. "With Josh, it was as though someone had snuffed out a candle. In the space of one night he went from a happy, active child to a shadow of what he once was."

"I can understand something like that happening for a while… but it's been two years. Hasn't he gotten any better?"

Clark's lips tightened into a bitter line. "I think the only reason he even tried to use his special speech with me was that what I was feeling was intolerable for him."

"Oh?" Lois was careful to keep her voice as neutral as she could. She was entering volatile territory here, and her experiences as a negotiator told her she'd have to tread carefully.

"Did you ever see your father cry when you were a child?" The question was deceptively soft.

Forcing herself to meet his eyes, Lois said, "Once. It was horrifying."

Fathers weren't supposed to cry. Nobody ever spelled it out, but somehow it seemed to be the universal rule. Parents were supposed to be the rock that a child always felt safe leaning on. Mothers cried occasionally, but fathers were supposed to be stoic.

Seeing her father cry had been frightening.

"Imagine how much worse it was for Josh. He didn't even have to be in the same room, and since I had no idea that I needed to guard my emotions…"

Lois nodded slowly. Clark struck her as a man of strong feeling; looking into his head shortly after his wife had died wasn't an experience she envied Josh.

"How did you stop it, then?" Lois asked. She hated the thought that she'd always feel uncomfortable around Josh; she'd been mortified at the thought that he'd seen her lust for his father. If Clark knew how to keep his mind to himself, Lois would very much like to know.

Clark glanced through the door at his son. "I think I'd have been in a darker place if I hadn't had to worry about Josh. I couldn't allow myself to get too depressed. I found that if I focused on one thing, I could forget about what I was feeling for a time. I spent a lot of time flying and composing music."

Hesitating, Lois asked, "You never minded that he could read your mind?" "It's an effort for him to read minds and to speak in his special way. I can usually tell when he's doing it, too." Clark shrugged. "Josh can't help feeling what other people feel, but I don't allow him to rummage around in my head any more than necessary."

That Josh would be reading her emotions was bad enough, Lois thought. She'd have to be very careful around Clark while in his son's presence. Glancing over at Clark again, Lois felt a moment of heat. Knowing that Josh could feel what she felt, embarrassment alone would probably eventually take care of the problem. Even if it didn't, Lois was enough of a professional to control her own impulses.

Silence filled the air for an endless moment. Lois broke the silence, finally, saying, "There will be fallout from this whole exposure thing. We're just going to wait and see how it comes across to the public."

"I had nightmares about something like this when I was married to Lana."

Watching Clark closely, Lois said, "I'm not Lana."

"I know that," Clark said. "It's just…"

A shadow seemed to pass over his face, fear and guilt and bitterness all rolled into one.

"You've been afraid for a long time, I know." Lois hesitated then said, "I'm here, and you don't have to worry."

Clark laughed shortly. "You know, that actually makes me feel better. It's ironic."

"What, that someone who can do what you can would feel safer having someone willing to fight for them?" Lois asked, with one eyebrow quirked.

Clark nodded.

"I don't think anyone can make it alone, no matter how strong they are," Lois said, then she grinned. "Besides, I'm good at what I do, and I don't give up."

"I knew that about a minute after I met you." Clark's lips twitched. "You make a very good first impression.

Lois found herself smiling. She wasn't the only one who made a good first impression.

"I've ordered the outfit, and it should be here within two days. I'm sure you'll be better at finding whatever supplies you'll need to modify it than I will. In the meantime, we'll keep an eye on the news."

"If anyone got a good picture of my face…"

"We'll watch out for that," Lois said. "At the moment, we have a little time. Our best bet is to go about our lives as we normally would."

Clark nodded slowly.

"I'll shop the demo tape around to various labels, and you should continue to meet your obligations as far as playing the local clubs."

"I'll do what I can," Clark said. He glanced at his son again. "I'd like to thank you for watching Josh. Given his ability to read people, the fact that he's opened up to you says a great deal about the sort of person you are."

"You don't regret signing on?" Lois asked, trying to ignore the small feeling of pleasure that his praise aroused within her.

"I don't regret meeting you," Clark said. "I'd say that meeting you was the best thing to happen to me in a while."

"Keep that in mind when it comes time for the bill," Lois said, then grinned.

"Just make sure to take it out of my check before I see it, and I won't have the chance to see how much you are gouging me." Clark was grinning as well.

***

The nightclub was similar to a thousand other clubs, a dreary, dull place empty of soul. People laughed hollowly, attempting to pretend that their lives had meaning, throwing themselves at each other with a sort of futile desperation that was more pathetic than anything.

Ash flinched as he heard the first strains of music coming from Lois's new talent. The music was strangely compelling, but he knew that it was all a lie. The man wouldn't come to work for Ash; scuttlebutt had it that several agents had already approached him at various times to come and record for them.

Lois had undoubtedly used her feminine wiles on him, using her sexuality like a tool. Ash wasn't a fool; he knew that a woman like Lois was meant to be used by men. The fact that she continually refused him was a constant irritant, especially when he was convinced that she was sleeping with all her clients.

Of course, she might not actually be sleeping with the men; the thought that Lois might be more interested in… softer pursuits had occurred to Ash more than once. After all, it seemed more likely that she was interested in women than that she was somehow repelled by Ash. He was a good-looking man; he knew it and made sure everyone else did as well.

Life was what you made of it; those who didn't seize what they wanted would be ground in the dirt in the space of an instant. Ash had learned that lesson at an early age, and anyone who didn't learn it after being burned a couple of times was a fool. He'd been trying to do Lois a favor with Blaze and the others, but she always refused to learn.

She remained naively optimistic that life was somehow fair. Eventually, she'd learn that fairness had nothing to do with it. All that mattered in life was the game and being a winner.

Ash felt carefully in his pockets as he approached the backstage area. Blaze was going to be furious at being shorted, but it was for the best. The man had almost overdosed twice already, and while Ash didn't care what people did on their own time, if Blaze was killed he'd lose a great deal of money.

Lois probably thought that he was selling the drugs to Blaze himself, but Ash was far too clever for that. He'd discreetly given the musician a few names, but had scrupulously kept his own hands clean. Drug dealing carried stiff penalties in New Troy, and Ash didn't care for the thought of getting a bullet in the back of the head because of a drug deal gone wrong.

He watched carefully; the crowd was enraptured by Kent's pathetic attempts at music. No one would notice a man slipping backstage; this place didn't even have bouncers covering the back entrance.

It took only a moment to slip through an open doorway. Like many clubs in this section of Metropolis, this place was built on the remains of an old speakeasy from the nineteen twenties. It was thus more elegant than a club in another city might have been, with an actual backstage area.

Clark Kent had made a place for himself; a pile of luggage and a musical instrument case sat at the bottom of an old makeup mirror. Watching himself in the mirror was Kent's brat.

Ash smiled. The kid was mute and didn't yet know how to read. He was as good at doing his homework as Lois was. All he had to do now was distract the kid for a second, and everything would be perfect.

"Hey kid!" Ash said. "Your dad wanted me to give you something."

He held out a large candy bar. Kids loved chocolate, and if the snack spoiled his meal and made his stomach hurt, then all the better. Clark Kent owed him some pain.

No one should be so talented that they made everyone else feel small.

Josh stared at him for a moment, his expression growing fearful. In the space of an instant, he jumped out of the chair and agilely dodged out of Ash's grasp.

The kid was a coward; it just confirmed Ash's opinion of the father. After a moment, Ash shrugged. It was better that the kid was away anyway.

With a quick look in all directions, he pulled a small package of cocaine from his pocket and slipped it into Clark Kent's personal pack. He'd been careful about the dosages; the package was large enough that possession would be a felony, a federal crime with mandatory sentencing. By the time Kent got out of jail, Ash would have the big office, and Lois Lane would be nothing more than a memory in the music world.

Zipping the bag up, Ash was careful. He'd worn gloves, of course, but he didn't want to be near any of the drug-sniffing dogs when they came, lest they smell the powder residue that was almost impossible to remove.

He slipped quickly out the back and made his way out of the alleyway to his car.

The moment he was inside, he carefully slipped the gloves off and dropped them into a plastic bag he'd placed in the front seat. He'd burn his clothes when he got home as well.

His cell phone made calling easy, especially since he'd recently invested in a voice distorter.

"I'd like to report a drug deal that's going down. If you hurry, you should be able to catch them in the act; they've got a big package in a bag backstage at the Kit Kat club. They might try to hide it; you'd better bring the dogs."

Ash hung up quickly. Now, to drive the knife in deeper.

"Child Protective Services? I'd like to report a child being endangered. The father's name is Clark Kent, and he's a drug dealer. He keeps the kid backstage at a club where alcohol is being served, and… You've had complaints about him before? Why didn't you do anything?"

Ash listened to the person on the other end, and it was all he could do to keep from grinning. "He's at the Kit Kat club now, and I think he's going to be arrested soon. You'd better send someone out. I think he's been beating the kid too; the poor thing's so frightened it won't say a word to anyone."

A flick of the button, and Ash grinned. Clark Kent wouldn't have time for a career, given all the problems he was about to have.

In the distance, Ash could hear the sound of police sirens. He pulled out of his parking spot and headed home.

He had no need to see the disaster he'd made; it was enough to see the aftermath.

***

Something was wrong. Clark knew it immediately, and it was all he could do to finish off the last song in his set. Josh's distress was palpable, yet a quick glance through a couple of walls showed that he wasn't in any physical danger.

Smiling impersonally at the audience, Clark grabbed his instrument and headed for the backstage area. It was nice having a place to go between sets; luckily, many clubs in Metropolis were built on the sites of old speakeasies. The older buildings had dressing rooms, backstage areas, and other luxuries that were rare in newer buildings where space was at a premium. Metropolis was a good place to be a musician.

Josh leapt into his arms the moment he passed through the doorway. He held tightly to Clark, and he trembled, but he did not cry. Clark tried to reach out to him through their special bond, only to discover that Josh was confused and almost incoherent. A burst of images came through, bewildering and incomprehensible. The only thing that came through clearly was a strange smell, and an image of a plastic bag. Clark held Josh carefully with one arm while listening to the sounds of police sirens approaching.

"You've got to tell me what's wrong," He said quietly to his son.

The image of a face appeared in his mind, and Clark grimaced. The man who'd been speaking to Lois, who'd insulted her, had been talking to Josh. The thought of a stranger having anything to do with his son made Clark's stomach clench.

A quick glance showed that he was nowhere nearby now.

"It's all right, Josh. He's gone." Clark's voice was soothing, but he couldn't help the internal tumult that rushed through his mind.

He'd have to have a word with Lois; he didn't like the idea of strange people around Josh, especially people who'd made it clear that they weren't friends.

Carefully he carried his son to the dressing table and set his instrument down by his bag. He wondered for a moment where the police were going; he hadn't seen any accidents or heard any gunshots. It wasn't really his business of course.

As he sat, he noticed his son glancing at the garment bag, and he frowned.

"If you want a toy, why don't you just get it?"

For the first time, he noticed an odd, acrid smell. It wasn't anything he'd smelled before, yet it seemed oddly familiar. It wasn't the burned-rope smell of hemp, or the chemical smell of a dozen other drugs he'd noticed hovering over other musicians.

Oddly reluctant, he glanced inside the garment bag with his special vision, then grimaced. A small bag filled with white powder rested inside, like a snake waiting to strike. The police sirens seemed awfully close now, and a quick glance showed that some of them had dogs.

The mayor of Metropolis had recently instituted a crackdown on drugs as a preliminary step toward his re-election campaign. Consequently, enforcement was particularly harsh.

He'd need to be very careful; if he could smell the drugs, so could the dogs. The last thing he needed to do was to get residue on his hands. Clark frowned for a moment, distracted only a little by the sound of police vehicles pulling to a halt outside.

Carefully setting his son to the side, Clark glanced around at the shadowed backstage area. For the moment, the other musicians were out in front playing, and no one else was visible. The police had the backdoor covered as well as the front door, but they hadn't covered the roof.

"Be careful," Clark said. "I'll be back in a second."

The world shifted and slowed around him, and he quickly grabbed the handle of his bag. Moving through the weird silence of a motionless world, he was careful not to allow the bag to burn up. While he had no use for illegal drugs, he needed to see if there was any evidence that he could use to prove that Lois's enemy was trying to frame him.

The backdoor was held wide open; the man on the other side was frozen, staring at the motionless police cars in the alley, his face bathed in the red lights that did not revolve or move.

Clark was in the air, moving too fast to be seen. His passage would be noticed as a great wind, but he couldn't do anything about that. He dropped the bag carefully on the rooftop of a building across town, one without any apparent roof access. He'd never been in the building before, and so the police wouldn't have any reason to search before he could retrieve the bag.

A moment later, he was moving through the same pathway he'd taken before. Hopefully, the wind of his return would cancel out the wind of his original passage through the area; if not, there wasn't anything he could do about it anyway.

He could still smell the acrid odor in the air when he returned, allowing the world to shift back into focus for a moment. Clark grimaced. Dogs had senses of smell nearly as keen as his; it was his weakest sense except for touch. They'd be sure to set up an alert unless he was somehow able to disguise the scent.

Clark grabbed his son and quickly moved him across the room. He could hear the sounds of footsteps in the distance. He allowed the world to shift again, and then he was in the middle of the room, spinning.

In the space of a moment, he'd created a massive wind that scattered the remaining molecules of drug scent throughout the building.

As he allowed the world to return to normal, he heard a sound like that of a thunderclap as the air rushed to fill the area of low pressure that he'd created.

Even now he could smell faint traces of the drug, but hopefully the dogs wouldn't be able to.

Grabbing Josh, he returned to his seat. The sounds of footsteps were thunderous now.

***

The flashing lights at the front of the club were alarming. Lois could see four police cars covering the entrance, with officers guarding the front.

She parked a block away and quickly made her way along the car-clogged street leading to the club. While she hadn't heard of any discoveries about the identity of the flying man, what she saw now disturbed her. If the police pushed Clark too hard, he'd grab Josh and leave in an instant. She'd never see him again, and that bothered her more than she wanted to admit.

"What seems to be the problem ,officer?" she asked as she approached the door.

"You can't go in, Miss." The officer at the door barely looked at her, seeming to be more interested in the ugly murmurs of a disgruntled crowd of people inside. He had the hardened look of a veteran used to dealing with recalcitrant criminals.

"I've been retained as counsel," Lois said, "and I'd like to see my client."

"You can meet him down at the station." The officer glanced down at her. "If we don't take him downtown, then he doesn't need to talk to you."

Lois carefully pulled a small pad from the inside of her overcoat, as well as a pen. She glanced at the two officers' badges, and quickly jotted down the badge numbers.

"What are you doing?" one of the officers asked uneasily.

"I'm taking down the relevant information," Lois said, as she continued to write. She ostentatiously checked her watch. "Hopefully, this'll be enough to get the case thrown out on a technicality, even if my client was guilty."

The officer glared at her, then stepped aside with a jerk.

Lois grinned at him angelically before moving through the entranceway.

While there were groups of policemen gathered around various tables, the club was mostly quiet. Rumors of police misconduct had been circulating for months, and no one wanted to set off an angry group of police officers.

Clark was nowhere in sight, which likely meant he was backstage. Lois walked as quickly as she could without arousing the alarm of one of the policemen in the area.

It took only a moment to see the crowd of policemen and dogs standing in a crowd around one end of the stage. Luckily, that crowd seemed to be dispersing already. Lois heaved a sigh of relief when she saw Clark standing in one corner, Josh clinging to his leg as they spoke to an officer and two people in gray suits. He wasn't handcuffed yet, though Lois doubted that handcuffs would do anything at all to restrain him.

"Nightclubs are not allowed to have patrons under the age of eighteen," the woman in gray was saying. "This establishment is risking its liquor license by having a young minor present at all."

Lois stepped forward quickly. "My name is Lois Lane. Mr. Kent has retained me for legal counsel."

"Joan Boyles, Child Protective Services." The woman stared at her sourly for a moment before continuing. "We are concerned about the environment Mr. Kent is providing for his son. Besides the fact that his presence is illegal, the boy is being exposed to alcohol, cigarette smoke and drugs."

"You have evidence that Mr. Kent is involved in drugs?" Lois had practiced an expression of amused disbelief. It came in handy at times like this.

The policeman spoke, "We had an anonymous call."

"What evidence have you found?" Lois asked, carefully keeping her voice professional. From what she understood, illegal drugs wouldn't have any effect at all on Clark, so unless he was dealing them, it would be senseless for him to have any in his possession.

"The dogs found traces of an old scent, but nothing recent." The officer grimaced. "We have, however made three arrests in the audience."

Lois nodded calmly and said, "Mr. Kent is perfectly within his rights to have his child here. The club owner recently applied for and received an SRX license."

The SRX license was a temporary license giving the club the right to operate as a restaurant. While nightclubs and bars weren't allowed to admit anyone under the age of 18, restaurants were allowed to set their own rules, as long as they didn't serve alcohol to minors. The owner had gotten the license so that the club would be able to host a Young Republican convention. The license was due to expire soon, however.

If the CPS checked, however, they'd easily be able to find out that the other clubs Clark had played at didn't have such paperwork.

"Joshua Kent is separated from the patrons of the club," Lois said quickly. "His exposure to bad elements is minimal."

"What about the other musicians?" the woman sniffed. "It's well known that musicians are prone to drug addictions and other sorts of anti- social behavior."

Lois smiled grimly. "That's a stereotype. Are you a bigot, Miss Boyle?"

The best defense was a quick offense. Lois had learned that when she was a child.

Gasping, the woman said, "Making such accusations can be…"

"Dangerous for a person in your position," Lois continued smoothly. "If word gets out that you are prejudiced in the way that you obviously are…"

The older woman's face turned red. "I'm not prejudiced."

"You just made an inflammatory and unwarranted generalization about an entire profession. It would be as bad as my saying that people who work for Child Protective services like to engage in witch hunts, seeing abuse where none exists."

The older woman's eyes narrowed. "The abuse here is clear. There have been other complaints about Mr. Kent in the past. He has a record of skipping town just as social workers begin moving in on him."

Lois shook her head. "Mr. Kent's work is transient. He goes where the work is, just as everyone in the profession does. No evidence of misconduct has ever been produced against him."

The police were beginning to clear out of the backstage area, obviously not having found what they were looking for.

"I think we'll have to insist on having this child examined." The woman sniffed irritably, staring at Lois as though she was something dragged from under a rock.

"Any examination will be performed by a private doctor, not by ham- handed social servants with questionable motives." Lois watched the two people in gray step forward. "My understanding is that unless you have clear and obvious evidence of some sort of immediate danger, you are not allowed to remove a child from the home of its biological parent."

The older woman stopped and said, "If Mr. Kent was innocent, he wouldn't have any problem having his son examined."

"We'll have him examined tomorrow," Lois said smoothly. She glanced at Clark. Hopefully, a routine examination wouldn't show any unusual abnormalities due to Joshua's alien nature. "In the meantime, we'll have to ask that you cease and desist harassing my client. Joshua Kent is obviously not unclothed or unfed, he doesn't have any apparent injuries, and he's obviously not afraid of his father. He doesn't fit any of the criteria you need to remove him from the home."

When Clark had first told her about his potential troubles with Social Services, Lois had taken the time to look up the relevant laws and procedures. Preparation was the key to success, and she was relieved that she hadn't put it off.

Ms Boyle glared at her for a moment before saying, "You haven't heard the last of us."

She turned quickly on her heel and stalked away.

The man in gray spoke for the first time. "I'd like to apologize for my partner. She tends to get a little overzealous at times."

"I can sympathize with the pressures both the police and social workers are under," Lois said. "But once you begin to assume that people are guilty simply because they are accused, you become as much a danger to the community as the people you are working against."

The man stiffened. "That's a little sanctimonious, Ms. Lane. Spend a few weeks in our position, and I suspect that your attitude would be a little different. When you've seen what we've seen, you prefer to err on the side of the weak and innocent."

"Ruining the lives of innocent people doesn't help anyone," Lois said quietly. "There's a reason we require due process before convicting people."

The man stared at Clark for a moment, then handed Lois a card. "We'll be in touch."

With that, he turned and walked slowly away.

The police officer said, "Don't forget that we have our eye on you, Kent."

Clark nodded silently, his face expressionless. The whimper coming from Josh, however, made Lois suspect that Clark wasn't as calm as he pretended to be.

The officer pulled the radio from his belt, spat in a cryptic set of comments, then headed for the door.

Clark touched Lois's arm. When she turned to him, he said simply, "Thank you."

"We'll need to talk about your options," Lois said quietly, watching to make sure no one was listening in on their conversation. Noticing the portly club owner approaching, she stiffened. The expression on his face didn't bode well.

The owner's voice was curt. "Pack up your things, Kent."

Clark turned and said, "What?"

"I can't afford to have the police raiding my club every time you get a yen for a little nose candy." The older man shook his head. "I thought you were better than that."

"The police were unable to find any evidence of wrongdoing…" Lois began.

"Whether he's actually doing drugs or just has a malicious ex- girlfriend calling in fake reports, I can't afford the disruption in my business." The man turned to Clark and said, "You can pick up your check at the end of the evening."

Clark simply stared at the retreating back of the club owner.

"You know, this is the first time I've ever been fired." His voice was carefully neutral.

"Trust me, it's not as bad as it seems." Lois had never been able to hold a job for long until she'd joined the Firm; she'd always ended up having differences of opinion with her bosses. Luckily, she'd learned to choose her battles.

"It will be if your friend keeps harassing me."

"Which friend?" Lois asked.

An image of Ash appeared in her mind, along with the familiar tickle of Josh's special abilities. Ash's face seemed distorted however, as though he was in the middle of a rage. The image of a bag of white powder made Lois gasp with comprehension.

"If your lawyer friend continues to do this sort of thing, I won't be able to find work anywhere." He glanced down at Josh. "If I think Josh is in danger, I won't have any choice but to disappear."

"You've got the bag?" Lois asked.

Clark nodded.

"Find some place where it won't be found, but keep hold of it. I've got some ideas about how to deal with Ash."

Clark looked uneasy. "I'm not sure I like the idea of any plan that involves…" "You hired me to make your problems go away. So trust me."

He hesitated, then nodded.

Lois smiled. "I didn't come here to ward off the police, anyway."

"You came to hear me play music?" he hazarded.

Lois shook her head, grinning.

Clark's lips began to twitch. "You've got good news for me?"

Lois nodded. "I couldn't get in the door with any of the biggest companies." That had been a disappointment. Lois had hoped for better, given her contacts. "However, I did get a second-tier company interested. Metro Records is ready to sign on the dotted line, provided you can show them more of what they heard on the demo tape."

Clark looked shocked. "You managed to get something this soon? I didn't expect to find anything for weeks or months."

"If it had been any other agent, that would be true," Lois said, winking. In reality, she'd made finding him a contract her top priority. She hadn't wanted Ash to have any more time to poison people against him than necessary. Lois had her suspicions that Ash had already begun talking to some of the big companies, spreading rumors and worse.

Suspecting that he might do something as illegal as framing Clark for drug dealing had never occurred to her. He'd crossed the line, and Lois didn't have any sympathy left for him. If she could find a way to get him fired, she would do it.

"I never should have doubted you," Clark said.

Before Lois could say anything, he leaned down and kissed her.

The kiss was a shock, but her reaction to it was not.

From the beginning, she'd known she couldn't trust herself with him. Something about him drew her inexorably, like a moth to a flame. It wasn't physical beauty, it wasn't an admiration for his musical talents, and it wasn't even the mystery he represented. Something about him simply called to her.

Lois melted into the kiss. She knew that objectively she should push him away; she'd been through the many reasons they shouldn't be in a relationship, at least now. Ash was still a problem, for one thing, and Clark's contract hadn't yet been signed.

Yet it all melted away at the touch of his lips.

The world dwindled around her, and for a moment, it seemed as though they were the only people in the whole world. Lois found herself wondering why she'd ever bothered to fight it. Deep down, she'd known that it was a battle that was impossible to win. Why bother?

They'd simply have to be discreet about their relationship until Ash was taken care of. Ash had surprised her with his willingness to sink into the depths. A small matter of whether her relationship with Clark was real or not wouldn't stop him at all.

Lois sighed, and allowed herself to relax finally. For a time, she didn't think at all.

At last, Clark broke the kiss. He smiled at her uneasily and said, "I'm sorry…"

"I'm not." Lois's voice was husky, and she knew she had to look like a mess.

"What about Ash and…?"

Lois shook her head. "He's already gone way beyond just trying to sabotage our reputations. It won't matter whether we're doing anything or not; he'll claim that we are."

Clark nodded slowly, and frowned.

"We shouldn't go public until your deal is signed; after that, I doubt it'll matter much."

"What are we going to do about him?" Clark asked. "If he was willing to do something like this…"

She glanced at Josh, who was watching them both. Josh's expression was inscrutable, but Lois could sense his confusion. Undoubtedly, Josh had dim and distant memories of his father and mother kissing. This, however, was different. Despite the best Clark could do, Josh always seemed to be at least minimally in tune with his father's emotions, and the thought that he might be also be reading the desire Lois was feeling made blood run to her cheeks.

Josh was Clark's greatest vulnerability. Just because they signed a contract didn't mean that Ash would stop attacking, and if he was already desperate enough to go as far as he had… Josh might actually be in danger.

Watching Clark step toward his son, Lois thought that they'd have to be more discreet. While Josh might be able to accept Clark kissing her in front of him, experiencing even the slightest threads of what they were feeling wouldn't be good for him. Dealing with passion, affection and love were issues difficult enough for adults who'd spent their teenage years learning to cope with the impulses of their own bodies. As a child, Josh had to be protected from feelings that he couldn't understand.

Clark spoke to his son in low tones and Lois turned away. It was a problem that would need to be dealt with, but other problems were much more pressing. Chief among these problems was Ash. Getting Ash fired wouldn't be enough to remove the danger he represented to all of them; if anything, it would make him more bitter and vengeful than he already was.

The one thing that Lois had in common with Ash was persistence. Ash would do everything he could to make both of their lives hell. Lois had believed that a line existed that Ash wouldn't cross. She'd been wrong. He'd keep coming at them until he was stopped.

Glancing at Clark, Lois sighed. For a moment, Lois wished Ash would simply disappear, that he'd just step in front of a convenient bus and cease to be a problem to anyone.

The owner of Brannagan's would have simply made it happen, and Lois had spent a great deal of time trying not to think about that aspect of his business. In the end, she knew he'd come to a bad end, no matter how congenial he seemed to be in person.

Murder was a line no one should cross. Though Lois had sometimes been able to stretch her ethics in associating with people she shouldn't have, she knew that some things were unabashedly wrong. In a world of grays, some things remained black and white, and murder was one of them.

Even if someone committed the perfect crime, they'd never be able to escape the damage it did to their own soul. If they had a conscience, they'd have to live with the guilt of what they'd done for the rest of their days.

No matter how much Lois might fantasize about Ash falling into a manhole and never coming out, she had to deal with him as he was, alive and dangerous.

She sighed. Clark wouldn't like the only thing that came to mind. "There's only one thing we can do."

Clark didn't say anything, just watched her carefully.

"Would you agree that Ash should face justice for what he just tried to do?"

"We can't go to the police," Clark said. "We don't have any proof. I already checked the bag for fingerprints."

Lois shook her head. "I never even thought about calling them. We don't have enough evidence, yet."

"So we should try to find evidence of his wrongdoing?" Clark asked.

Lois nodded. "Or manufacture it."

At Clark's stare, she said, "What? We already know he's been involved in one felony at least. It would be poetic justice to re-plant the drugs he tried planting on you."

Clark shook his head. "It just seems wrong somehow."

"If you didn't have secrets to protect, maybe things could be different," Lois said. She doubted it, but if Clark wanted to delude himself that was fine with her. "But he attacked your family, Clark, and he'll keep attacking you and Josh until the authorities have dealt with him."

Sighing, Clark looked at his son. A moment later, he glanced back at Lois, scowling. "I'll do what I have to."

Looking around quickly, Lois said, "Why don't you collect your paycheck and meet me back at my apartment. I just received an overnight fed-ex from my Internet order."

The suit was in, and Lois couldn't wait to see what he'd do with it.

***

The outfit was hideous and embarrassing.

In many ways it was worse than being naked; Clark found it hard to see how anyone would be able to wear an outfit like this without blushing.

"Are you dressed?" Lois's voice on the other side of the door was an unwelcome reminder that he'd soon have to reveal himself- not merely to the world, but in the short term, to her.

"I'm not coming out," he said. Another glance in the mirror confirmed his first thought. The royal blue outfit did nothing to conceal his body; if anything, it highlighted it.

"You promised to at least try," Lois said. "We'll make any alterations we might need after taking a look at what we've got."

One look and Lois would know exactly what he had, Clark thought glumly. He'd have to do his best to think neutral thoughts around her, and not just for Josh's sake either.

"It's not decent," he said again, scowling at his reflection in the mirror. On the good side, he didn't have any real physical flaws that needed to be concealed. On the other hand, he hardly wanted to be arrested for indecent exposure on his first night out.

"Let me be the judge of that," Lois said. "I've got a bit of experience with what the public likes."

Clark took a deep breath and turned to the door. Lois was nothing if not persistent, and she wouldn't stop hounding him until he showed her what she needed to see.

He sighed, and stepped to the door. "There's no way I'm going out in public in this."

As he opened the door, he heard the indrawn hiss of Lois's breath. He grimaced as he noticed her eyes dropping down the length of his body.

"At least you won't have to worry about anyone looking at your face," Lois said after a moment. Her breathing had quickened and her face was almost as flushed as his undoubtedly was. Clark was suddenly glad that Josh had already been sent to bed.

"That's it," Clark said, his cheeks burning. "I'm not going to do this."

"You don't have much of a choice," Lois said. "If you keep trying to help people, you will be found out."

"An assault on decency is hardly the statement I want to make." Clark grimaced at the thought of what his mother would have said about the outfit. She'd been fairly liberal, but he doubted even she would have approved of this.

Lana would have had an aneurysm.

Lois said, "You don't want to end up naked on the way to an emergency, do you?" She stepped toward him, and her hands slipped to his waist, ostensibly to check the fit. "It has to fit tight."

The suit fit him tighter than he would have liked, especially with Lois so near, but she was right.

"Maybe I could get something to cover up…" Clark began, uncomfortably aware of Lois's hands as they checked the fit around his waist, on his arms and around his chest.

"What? Underwear on the outside? A skirt?" Lois smirked. "Nobody is going to laugh at you in this outfit, especially not with the crest on."

"What about a cape to cover my rear end?"

Lois glanced behind him and said absently, "There's nothing wrong with your rear end. I think all we need is a pair of red gloves and boots, and the insignia you showed me and we'll have it."

She pulled the boots and gloves from a sack she'd set by the door and shoved them into his hands.

The gloves were undoubtedly to keep him from leaving fingerprints, and Clark knew that the blue outfit needed some sort of contrasting color. Still…

"What about my face? All it'll take is one person seeing a newspaper article with my picture in it… and then a billboard of Clark Kent's latest concert, and I'm sunk."

Lois frowned. "Misdirection is the key to fooling people. You need to look as though you have absolutely nothing to hide."

"People have already seen me in a mask," Clark said.

"They'll assume you needed it for the fire… or that you really are a firefighter." Lois frowned. "The best bet would be to make it appear as though you were in two places at once, thus providing an alibi for yourself."

Clark said slowly, "So even if people notice any sort of resemblance, they'll ascribe it to chance?"

Lois nodded. "You'll need to do something with your hair, and maybe you should get in the habit of wearing sunglasses in public a lot as Clark."

"You want me to go Hollywood?" Clark's lips twitched.

He said, "Let me make the alterations. I'll be back in a minute."

Returning in fifty seconds, Clark waved the smoke away from the costume. He should have been a little more careful, but as far as he could see no harm had been done."

He spun into the costume, confident that Lois wouldn't be able to see him in the middle of the change at the speeds he was moving. The wind of his change knocked over a few objects on her end table, and Clark resolved to be more careful in the future.

The image in the bedroom mirror was definitely him, but somehow different. Clark straightened up, lifted his chin and stared.

Lois stepped in front of him, and said, "Bend down."

A moment later, she was spreading some sort of goop in his hair. When he looked back in the mirror, his hair was flat against his head, pulled straight backwards.

He blinked. This might work after all.

Then he realized that Lois's arms were still around him. He turned, and this time it was she who pulled him down for a kiss.

He didn't think about anything for a long time.

***

Somehow the police had failed, and the Child Protective services had allowed Lois to browbeat them. They wouldn't be put off forever, but Ash had little doubt that Lois would have a good lie to tell them.

Lois Lane was never going to be anything more than a thorn in his side. She'd stolen the office that was meant to be his, she'd stolen the respect of the partners, and now she'd stolen Clark Kent.

Irritation was the least of the emotions coursing through him at the moment. Anger bordering on rage was closer as well as a little fear. If they'd found the drugs, would they somehow know it had been him who planted them?

The mute kid had seen him do it, and while Pilar's files suggested that he couldn't read or write, he could probably point along with the best of them.

The radio was blathering on and on about a flying man; in irritation, Ash shut it off.

He flipped his cell phone open, and quickly dialed a number from memory.

"Mr. Brannagan? I just wanted to let you know that I just saw Lois Lane entering a police station. I can't be sure, but I think she's ratting you out."

He flipped the phone shut. Maybe if the police couldn't take care of Clark Kent, then the mob would take care of Lois. If Lois was to die, then Clark would still be bound by contract to the firm, and an agent would be reassigned to him. With any luck, that agent would be Ash.

Ash nodded, and restarted the car. The world would be his for the taking. He'd deal with the kid if he had to, but his first priority now was Lois.

***

"This was… unexpected," Clark said.

Lois was lying on the bed beside him, her head nestled in the crook of his neck. While they hadn't actually consummated anything, they'd gone far beyond what Clark felt was a casual flirtation. Lois's passion had surprised him, and it shouldn't have.

"In for a penny…" Lois said sleepily. "Ash will say what he's going to say whether it's true or not."

"You're okay with that?" Clark asked. The idea that she might be ashamed to be seen with him bothered him deeply; it had been one of his greatest fears about his relationship with Lana. She'd wanted so badly for him to conceal what he was. He suspected that she'd felt vaguely dirty sleeping with someone who wasn't a human being.

Lana. He hadn't thought about her at all while he was with Lois. The thought brought a pang of guilt. He'd promised her that he'd never forget her. That the promise had been made at her graveside didn't make it any less real. His entire life for the last two years had been a tribute to his inability to forget.

What right did he have to feel passion again? In his heart he was still married to his wife, and this felt more than ever like a betrayal. Even more than the passion, he'd missed the simple comforts of touching someone, of being held, of lying together and talking about his day.

He couldn't help but notice that Lois didn't have any reservations about touching him. It had taken him almost two years to get Lana comfortable with the idea. Luckily, she'd been affectionate to Josh in a way that her own mother hadn't been to her.

She'd been a good mother and a good wife, and he hadn't appreciated what he had.

Lois turned, and let her hand rest on his bare chest. Clark was glad he'd changed back into his pants; he'd gone farther than he was comfortable with already with Lois, and some deep dark part of him wanted to go even further.

He sighed and began to drift off to sleep.

***

Rumors were ugly things. Lois ignored her co-workers as she went through her day, hammering out the details of Clark Kent's contract with Metro records. Ash was waging an underhanded campaign; he'd tried similar things in the past, though he'd been subtler then.

This time, Lois couldn't even deny the accusations. She WAS romantically interested in Clark Kent. Lying to herself had been counterproductive; if she'd been honest from the beginning she might have been able to approach the relationship in a more mature, safer way.

Clark was everything her own father hadn't been; dependable, devoted to his family, honest and stable. He also shared the few qualities she'd admired in her father; he was talented, intelligent and hardworking. In the long run, she'd be getting a better deal than he would out of the relationship. Who really needed a compulsive workaholic with family issues?

The contract had to be her only focus at the moment. The fact that she could see the sidelong glances of her colleagues, that she could hear muffled snickers on the rare occasions that she left her office couldn't affect her business judgment. The damage to her reputation couldn't be helped.

Ash had spent a long time painting her as a frigid woman uninterested in men. Lois had been aware of the continual slanders he'd been making against her, but instead of fighting against the reputation, had capitalized on it. The music industry was still in many ways an old boys' club, and Lois had found that the movers and shakers respected someone who was willing to give up everything but the deal.

Naturally, though, people were titillated by the thought that the barriers she'd raised were finally being knocked down. What bothered Lois most was that when the gossips finally saw Clark, they'd assume that he was just another pretty face who happened to be musically talented.

They wouldn't see what a great father he was, how altruistic he was… how conflicted he was about his abilities and the needs of a helpless world. Clark Kent had depths that she hadn't even begun to explore; for the first time she could remember, Lois was excited about getting to know someone for reasons other than the deal.

In the long run, it wouldn't matter. Lois had cultivated personal relationships with many of the most powerful men in the industry. Most of them had learned to trust her judgment, and she believed that most of them would believe that she was more than capable of brokering deals without getting personally involved.

Still, she wanted the contract signed as quickly as possible. Once Clark was a proven commodity, everything would be easier. This deal was the one that might be influenced most by the vicious gossip Ash was spreading.

She'd deal with Ash in the way she should have dealt with him long before.

***

"You'll be happy with the contract as it stands," Lois said. "There are a few provisions that aren't favorable, but then again, there always are."

Clark nodded. Lois had explained the contract in layman's terms, and he'd read the contract all the way through several times. "I'm a little uneasy about being locked in for five years."

"If you are worried about being shelved for five years," Lois said, "I've taken steps to prevent that. Paragraph 16, subsection 37b."

Clark skimmed the section, then nodded. "I suppose they want some sort of guarantee that I won't jump to a big label if I'm a success."

"That's something you might consider when the time to renew the contract comes up," Lois said. "Metro records is a good company, but they are still relatively new. The bigger companies have better distribution networks and can afford to advertise heavily."

Clark nodded. "That assumes that my first CD is a success."

"There aren't any guarantees in this industry," Lois admitted. "And you'll make most of your money from concert tours."

Of course, the CD needed to be a success to fuel the demand for expensive tickets and large venues. The concerts increased the demand for the CD's and the CD's increased the demand for the concerts.

Clark re-read the contract one last time, being careful not to flip the pages so quickly that he'd set them on fire.

"I guess I'm ready to sign then."

Lois grinned, and quickly turned to her telephone. Hitting an auto-dial button, she said, "Jim? This is Lois. We're ready."

Clark rose to his feet and waited as Lois gathered her copy of the contract, slipping it into her briefcase. "The Metro offices are actually six floors above us."

Nodding, Clark grimaced. Something was nagging at him, and after the disaster with the natural gas plant, he was determined to be much more attentive.

He'd spent years learning to ignore the constant murmuring of millions of voices, doing what he could not to eavesdrop. Usually, it was impossible to make out any one conversation in the middle of the din, unless something specific caught his attention.

Hearing his name usually sufficed. This time, it was the sound of Lois's name.

Grimacing, Clark listened for a moment before stopping Lois as she was heading for the door. "You were right about Ash starting rumors."

Nodding grimly, Lois said, "Just don't say anything. Once the contract is signed, we could almost have sex on the Partners' desks, and they wouldn't care."

The thought of what they might do on Lois's desk was almost enough to make Clark blush, much less the thought of doing it elsewhere. He forced himself to do nothing other than give her a small smile.

"I won't make a scene," Clark said. If any relationship between the two of them were to work, they'd have to respect each other's boundaries. Lois had a reputation to maintain, and it wouldn't be a good idea to jeopardize that.

"Just follow my lead, and we'll have everything we ever wanted," Lois said quietly.

All Clark had ever wanted was a happy family; he doubted any recording contract would offer that. However, he had a son that he loved, and the possibility of finding romantic love again. Hope for the future was something he never would have dreamed of having, yet it was blossoming.

Everything was going to be all right.

***

Everything was going to hell in a handbasket.

Lois scowled as she pulled into the parking garage beneath her building. Three clients had canceled contracts with her already, and three more were in jeopardy. Whatever rumors Ash was circulating had been devastatingly effective. At the rate she was going, Clark would be her only client by the end of the week, and it would be quite some time before he had a steady income.

She hadn't let Clark know how bad things were getting, partially to keep him from feeling bad, and partially to maintain some sense of her own self-respect. Lois Lane was not a victim; she never had been and she refused ever to be one. She'd do what was necessary to survive.

Pulling into her parking spot, Lois switched off the ignition and allowed herself to slump against the steering wheel. Some headaches were more than she needed.

Celebrating with Clark would have been nice, but now wasn't the time to be flaunting their relationship. Lois had begged off, excusing herself for business reasons even though her new dearth of clients left her with extra time on her hands, time that she wasn't used to having.

Sighing, Lois unbuckled her seatbelt and stepped into the cold air of the parking garage.

After locking the door to her jeep, she headed for the elevator.

A figure in a black suit stepped out from behind a pillar. A quick glance behind her showed that another individual was pulling up behind.

"Mr. Brannagan wants to speak with you."

The voice of the figure was so studiedly neutral that Lois found herself stepping back.

"Eddie? What's going on?"

Joe Brannagan was more than just a nightclub owner. Rumor had it that he was involved in sundry illegal enterprises. Lois had always done her best to keep uninformed of any activities that might be dangerous. Despite her studied ignorance, she did know that the two men in the parking lot with her were much more than just bodyguards to Joe Brannagan.

Rumor had it that they took care of burying any bodies that needed to be buried.

Suddenly, her day was looking much worse.

The thought of running was almost irresistibly attractive, but Lois knew she wouldn't get three steps before being gunned down. She hesitated until she saw the man in front of her reaching into his pocket.

"I'd be happy to meet Mr. Brannagan at his earliest convenience," Lois said smoothly. She couldn't afford to show fear; it would be seen as a sign of guilt. While she couldn't imagine what she'd been accused of, Joe Brannagan wouldn't have sent this sort of welcoming committee unless it was something serious.

For anything short of a killing offense, he'd have gone through regular channels.

The man in front of her relaxed and gestured into the darkness. A moment later, Lois was blinded by a pair of headlights, and before she could get her bearings, she was grabbed from behind. A moment later, she was being shoved into the black interior of a limousine.

The temptation to yell for Clark was almost overwhelming, but that would give his secret away to the people most likely to misuse it. Josh wouldn't be safe ever again, and Clark would have sacrificed his entire life for her. The possibility still existed that she could clear up the misunderstanding before it escalated out of her control. Diplomacy was one of her job requirements, and she was good at it.

That assumed that Brannagan was willing to listen. If he'd already decided that she was a liability, this ride might be a one-way trip for her, one ending in a permanent nap in wet concrete. Lois found herself watching the men on either side of her; their faces were inscrutable. No hint of emotion appeared on either of them, and Lois found herself beginning to sweat.

In the close confines of the car, her martial arts skills wouldn't help much. She'd fight, but against men outweighing her by a hundred pounds and carrying guns, she doubted she'd last long.

She'd played cards with Joe Brannagan, and dealt with him as a club owner, but she'd been careful to ignore his dark side. Intellectually she'd known he was dangerous, but he was personable and friendly in his private life. It had been easy to forget that he was a killer.

That had been a mistake. Lois wondered how many other people had been taking this same ride, not knowing whether they were destined to live or die. She wondered how many had been allowed to return home to their families.

The ride seemed to last forever. Lois found herself watching the men on either side of her, not for any sign of emotion, but for any sign that they were reaching for a weapon. She doubted that they'd want to ruin the upholstery of such a nice vehicle, but the chance always existed that it didn't matter to them. Most likely, she would be in more danger when she left the car.

The first rule of not being a victim was not to allow oneself to be taken to an isolated place.

Several minutes into the ride, it occurred to Lois that she didn't know what Clark's hearing range was. Undoubtedly, it would be best not to trust that he'd be able to help her. Instead, as always, she'd have to rely on her own wits.

Her stomach clenched when the limousine began to slow. If they tried to take her to a secluded area, she'd fight and scream for Clark regardless of the consequences. She was glad now that she hadn't worn high heels today. The shoes she wore weren't sneakers, but she'd be able to run in them.

When the door was finally pulled open, Lois found herself blinking owlishly into a circle of hellish red light. Very little could be seen outside that circle; Lois could see the hulking outlines of a few stacked crates, but very little more. Undoubtedly she was in one of the warehouses on the outskirts of town, probably somewhere near the gas plant that Clark had kept from burning to the ground.

She composed herself quickly. They were doing their best to disconcert her, which meant that the last thing she wanted to do was comply. Instead, she'd face them coolly, professionally.

A voice came from the darkness. "Under ordinary circumstances, we wouldn't be having this conversation."

Brannagan's voice lacked the affectionate warmth it had always held before when he spoke to her. All traces of emotion had been wiped from it.

"What am I accused of?" Lois asked quietly. "You wouldn't have gone to this much trouble for anything less than an accusation of some magnitude."

Brannagan spoke again, and this time he was closer. "You always were smart. I'd have thought you'd have known better."

It was an old tactic, one her mother had used on her when she was a small child. Make an open-ended accusation and allow the other person to fill in the blanks. Sometimes the person would incriminate himself, revealing crimes that the accuser didn't even know about. Lois was innocent, but the tactic wouldn't have worked on her even if she hadn't been. She was in control of her fear; her fear didn't control her.

Despite her best resolve, Lois couldn't help shifting nervously from side to side, acutely conscious of the hard-eyed guards behind her and the others in the darkness.

"I'm not sure what my crime is," Lois said. "So I really can't comment."

Brannagan stepped into the light. His eyes had gone cold, losing all traces of humor. "Speaking to the police about family business is a good way to get yourself killed."

Leaking information was a serious offense in the mob. Lois had to address the issue quickly, or she might really find herself dead.

"I don't know anything that might be dangerous to you," Lois said. "I've always kept myself apart from this aspect of operations and you know it."

Brannagan stared at her expressionlessly for a moment before nodding. "You've been given more trust than most people in your position."

"I've done nothing to abuse that trust," Lois said. Truthfully, she couldn't even imagine why she'd been accused. "I'd wonder how trustworthy the source is who says different."

Staring at her for a moment with emotionless eyes, Brannagan said, "We've already considered that."

If they'd believed the source, Lois wouldn't have had a chance to say a word in her own defense. The location was more than suitable for disposing of bodies. She wouldn't get more than a moment to call out, and likely, by the time she did, she'd be dead. Even if Clark heard her, he'd never reach her in time.

Cold sweat wasn't pleasant under any circumstances, but Lois hoped that it didn't show. She stared silently at Brannagan, and for an eternity, no one spoke. Time seemed to stretch into a single, excruciating moment while she wondered if this was going to be her last moment on earth.

Brannagan stared back at her, and finally seeming to come to a decision, made a small gesture. "Contrary to what some may believe, we aren't stupid. We monitor the people close to us, and we've been watching you. If you HAD betrayed us, we wouldn't be having this conversation."

Hairs on the nape of Lois's neck rose as she wondered just how closely Brannagan's people had watched her. Had they discovered anything about Clark? Had they bugged her telephones, her offices, and her bedroom?

"What was all this about, then?" Lois asked quietly, managing to keep both her relief and her apprehension from showing. A calm, professional poker face was the best way to deal with this, although the thought that it had all been for show was beginning to make her angry.

Brannagan watched her for a moment more, then turned. "I think it'd be wisest if you no longer associated with any of us."

Caught by surprise, Lois could only stare. "You just said that you knew I hadn't betrayed you."

"You have enemies who know about our association. When they see that this fails, the next step will undoubtedly be unpleasant for everyone."

Ash Benedict would attempt to implicate her in mob activities. To do that, he'd have to deliver evidence against Brannagan and his associates. Lois had no desire to be killed on the way to a witness stand.

"I see what you mean." Privately, she doubted that distancing herself from Brannagan and the others would make much of a difference to Ash. He'd just manufacture evidence that he couldn't obtain.

Brannagan gestured to his men, and most of them retreated into the darkness. Two remained standing nearby, intimidating figures in dark suits, soulless men willing to kill at a moment's notice.

The thought that she'd ever associated with any of them astounded her. She'd been a fool, had allowed herself to be cozened by their outward appearance of congeniality, deliberately blinded herself to the evil that they represented. It had been easy; entry into Brannagan's club had delivered her the ear of powerful men, men who could make a difference. It had been a short cut, a cheat, and she'd been all too willing to go along with it.

"Give me a name, and I'll make it all go away."

Lois froze in shock, unable, at first to believe what she'd just heard.

"A name?" she asked, stalling.

"You know what I'm talking about," he said quietly. "Give us the name, and all is forgiven."

Making Ash disappear was something Lois had thought about often over the past few days. If it had merely been an issue of stranding him on a deserted island for a few years, she'd have jumped at the chance. She'd made a decision to see where her relationship with Clark would go, and deep down she was already attached to both him and his son. Ash threatened their entire way of life.

Saying two little words would be easy, but then, that was what Brannagan and his people were all about. Easy solutions to complex problems. Easy money, easy promotions, easy ways of dealing with people. The solutions they offered were false and wrong. Earlier, Lois had realized that a line existed that was never meant to be crossed.

This was that line.

Telling him would keep her from being killed. It would show that she could be corrupted just like anyone else, that she could be cowed into doing something that she knew was not right. Once fear was allowed a foot in the door, it never left a person free again.

Clark had the opportunity to become something greater than he was. Deep in the back of her mind, an idea had begun to germinate from the first moment that she'd realized just what Clark was. The world was filled with people like Ash and Brannagan, dark and corrupt, filled with people who believed that the easy way was the only way. The common person gave in to fear, allowed themselves to be cowed.

They needed a symbol, someone to give them an ideal to aspire to. Within Clark, Lois had seen the seeds of that person. Clark had risked exposure, repeatedly risked everything he had, because he couldn't stand by and see people being killed or injured when they didn't have to be.

Doing what was right wasn't always easy. Many times, it was anything but easy. If her time with Clark had shown her anything, it was that sometimes consequences had to be faced.

Lois couldn't send a man to his death, not even if it meant her own life. If what she was secretly hoping to create with Clark was to mean anything, it had to be built on a foundation of goodness.

"I don't have anything to say," Lois said. Despite herself, she tensed. Adrenaline was making her tremble, despite everything she could do to hold herself still. A single word was all it would take, and all Brannagan did was watch her closely.

He stepped toward her, and Lois barely managed to keep herself from retreating a half step.

Brannagan reached forward and took her hand. "You know that I always thought of you as a daughter."

If she'd betrayed the family, he'd have had her killed in a moment. Lois found herself unable to trust anything he had to say, even if his face was finally regaining the warmth and humanity that had been sorely lacking only moments before.

"But I'm not Family, am I?" Lois couldn't help the bitterness in her voice. She'd thought of Brannagan as a friend; she'd been fooling herself.

"No, you aren't." He hesitated. "Family can't leave."

"You're saying I can go?" The relief Lois felt was almost overwhelming when she saw the affirmation in his expression.

"Neither you, nor any of your clients are welcome at the club." A curious sense of finality was in his voice.

With a final squeeze of her hand, Brannagan pulled away and walked off into the darkness.

Lois felt as though an entire chapter of her life was being closed behind her. She wondered at the feeling of freedom it gave her, as though the world was filled with infinite possibilities.

***

Ash grimaced as he left the boardroom. The Partners weren't pleased with him; they'd caught wind of the rumors about Lane and Kent and somehow they suspected him. Undoubtedly, Lois had run to them at the first opportunity, complaining.

They didn't have any proof, and Ash was a good enough lawyer to cost them a great deal of money if they were to fire him without due process. He'd take Blaze with him if they forced him out, and Blaze was a substantial portion of the company income.

Of course, Blaze's last couple of albums hadn't done very well. The drugs were finally taking their toll on his ability to do his job, and as sales slipped, Ash's leverage with the partners diminished. Blaze was a candle that was burning far too quickly for Ash's tastes; it angered him that Blaze had allowed himself to slip so far so quickly.

Naturally, he'd known what the drugs would do to Blaze and his career when he'd arranged to get Blaze addicted. He'd simply expected to have several more years of success before the musician burned out and crashed. He'd thought he'd have made partner by this point, with all the benefits that went with it.

The drugs had been a necessary step in taking Blaze from Lois, as had the women he'd found. Ash had little doubt that Blaze would have found those temptations eventually; introducing him to them had been necessary to steal Blaze out from under Lois. Ash wouldn't waste time regretting something that wasn't really his responsibility. He'd offered the temptation, but Blaze had accepted.

Finding a new client was important now, and Ash knew just where to look. The Partners would reassign Kent the moment they found out about Lois's death, and given their current irritation with him, they'd be unlikely to give the contract to him.

He'd have to find a way to force Kent into it. The means used to ensnare Blaze wouldn't work here; by all reports, Kent was a devoted family man who was rarely known to drink, much less indulge in drugs. He'd been a musician for years, and if he hadn't fallen to temptation by this point, Ash doubted that he would now.

Joshua Kent was the key. Social Services was on alert, and Ash knew that all it would take was a small amount of manufactured evidence for Kent to lose his son entirely. He'd collect that evidence, then threaten to go to the police with it unless Kent signed with him.

Making Kent believe that he believed it would be an important part of the exercise. A righteous disgust at a man who would abuse his own child would give him a glimpse of what it would be like to have the world believe it. Ash had made the mistake of giving Blaze too much power. He'd keep Kent docile and humiliated, and Lois wouldn't be anything other than a distant memory.

Pulling out his cell phone, Ash dialed a number he hadn't dialed in quite some time. Blaze was beyond the point where he could be blackmailed; he'd never really cared what anyone thought of him. Kent didn't have that luxury.

"Pedro, meet me at Luigi's. I've got a job for you."

Pedro was an expert at what he did, and he loved his work. Within three days, he'd have manufactured enough evidence to make sure that Clark Kent never saw his son again. The evidence would be enough to send Kent to jail for several years if he didn't keep in line.

Everything was falling into place.

***

Staring down at his son, Clark sighed. So many changes in both their lives, and yet Josh was bearing it like a little trouper. He was doing his best to hide his agitation from his father, but deception wasn't really in his nature.

Clark wondered if he'd been able to hide his feelings about Lois any better than his son had hidden his fears.

He had the recording contract now, but it was becoming increasingly apparent that he would no longer be able to take Josh with him when he went to play music. Whoever had alerted Social Services had made sure that word had gotten around to all the clubs in town; Clark Kent was bad news if he had his child around him.

Now that Lois knew, Clark suspected that he could always leave Josh back in North Carolina with his landlady and her son, but that was only a temporary and imperfect solution. While he trusted Maisy somewhat, he wasn't certain that he trusted her son anymore. The boy was sullen and angry and occasionally violent, and he was making bad choices in friends.

If Clark had been able to spend more time there, he might have been able to help the boy. But as an intermittent presence in his life, and one with no real authority, Clark hadn't been able to reach him. He felt guilty about that, as he always did when he felt as though he should be able to do more than he'd done.

The excitement of signing the contract and of his new relationship with Lois had soon faded with the knowledge of all his immediate problems. Ash Benedict had left him in a precarious position, and Clark doubted that he was going to stop with what he'd already done.

Clark would simply have to be ready for him. Families protected each other, and he'd do what was necessary to protect Josh and Lois.

That he was already thinking of Lois as a member of his family didn't bode well for his attempts to hide inappropriate feelings from Josh.

For now, all he had to worry about was the interview with the child psychologist tomorrow. Lois had assured him that she knew someone competent, someone who wouldn't be inclined to automatically assume that the adult was abusing his child.

Nonetheless, most people tended to assume that where there was smoke, there was fire. There were parts of his life that had to be kept secret, and if the counselor sensed that and took it to be an indicator of something different than it was, he could lose Josh forever just as the Social Services people had always intended.

His head jerked as he heard the sounds of familiar voices in the hallway outside. A quick glimpse showed both social service workers along with two police officers coming down the hallway with determined expressions on their faces.

Grimacing, he reached for the telephone. Lois would know what to do.

***

"Lois, the social services people are at the door demanding to be let in. They have police officers with them."

Clark's voice was even and controlled, but she could hear the underlying tension. Lois squinted; it was four in the morning in the middle of the week, and for once, she'd been asleep.

"Do they have a warrant?" she asked quickly.

She heard Clark's muffled voice and an even more muffled reply.

"They say they don't need a warrant," Clark said. Clark's voice was becoming grim. Undoubtedly he'd heard the horror stories of Social Services coming to take children in the middle of the night, and he was right to be worried. Once Josh was taken from him, the legal issues might go on for years, during which Josh would be thrown to the mercies of the foster care system.

Lois was already out of bed and looking for her clothes. "They DO need a warrant. I'll be there as quickly as I can. Until then, don't say anything, and certainly don't let them in."

"If they get the motel people to give them the key…"

Lois moved quickly to her closet. "Hotel management can enter your room and search, but they can't authorize the police to enter and search without a warrant."

"Do what you can to stall them," Lois said, stumbling as she tried to slip a leg into a pair of jeans.

They'd come early in the morning, hoping that Clark would be disoriented and co-operative. Obviously, they'd hoped to catch him away from legal counsel, in a situation where they could remove the child from the home without much opposition.

She dropped the phone on the bed and finished dressing in the semi- darkness. She'd spoken with a friend who dealt with the Metropolis Department of Human Services on a regular basis. According to him, the organization was known for being over-zealous and for trampling people's individual liberties.

Nationally, there weren't any standards. Social Services in some places were so determined to keep children with their families that children ended up being further injured or even dead. In other places, including Metropolis, overzealous social workers had a hair trigger, seeing abuse where it didn't exist.

Lois doubted that any malice existed in most of the individual social workers. If they hadn't wanted to help people, they'd undoubtedly have chosen a better-paying profession. However, bureaucracies had ways of grinding people to paste amidst the gears of progress.

As child protection cases were resolved in civil courts, the standards of proof were a great deal more lax. Hearsay evidence was allowed, the accused didn't have the right to confront their accuser, and cases didn't have to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. Often, potentially biased social workers were allowed to report on what a child had said, and weren't required to do so verbatim.

Luckily, they wouldn't be able to use leading questions to get the sorts of testimony they wanted out of Josh. Clark, on the other hand, couldn't win whatever he said. Having decent legal representation from the beginning often made all the difference in these sorts of cases.

Dressing in record time, Lois grabbed her keys and purse and headed out the door.

It irritated her that they'd come at four in the morning, hoping to catch Clark groggy and unable to form a coherent thought. As a musician, he was used to working until the early morning; Social service interference had ensured that he wouldn't be working anywhere.

Of course, late night gigs weren't as common in the middle of the week, but she doubted that Clark changed his sleep patterns much. He'd sounded awake and alert when she'd heard him.

She was grateful that she'd vetoed his original choice of hotel. Given his abilities, he wasn't worried much about crime, and he'd originally wanted to find a cheap motel on the outskirts of town. Lois had insisted that he stay in a more upscale place near her apartment.

Nothing he could do would satisfy the social workers, but staying in a reasonably nice motel would give them less ammunition than living in a rat trap would.

The drive took less than three minutes, and making her way through the lobby and up in the elevator took another two.

Lois took a deep breath before the elevator doors opened, made a last, ineffectual swipe at her hair, then stepped out into the hall.

A small crowd was standing outside the door to Clark's room, with a harried-looking manager bending to open the door with the electronic key card. The looks in the social worker's eyes seemed predatory to Lois, while the police merely looked alert.

"I wouldn't do that if I was you," Lois said.

The manager looked up and said, "I'm well within my rights to search for any illegalities."

Lois nodded. "You are not, however, allowed to invite the police or other minor government functionaries into the room without a search warrant."

"If he doesn't have anything to hide, why won't he open the door?" The woman's voice grated on Lois's sensibilities, and she was wearing the same gray outfit that she'd been wearing when Lois had last seen her.

Giving the woman a contemptuous glance, Lois said, "I advised him not to. Without evidence of immediate harm, you have no right to invade his dwelling."

"We're trying to determine whether any harm has been done." The man was less confrontational, but his voice was just as firm. "He's already had five minutes to clear away any evidence. I'm not inclined to give him any more time."

"Dealing with civil liberties must seem like such an inconvenience," Lois said. "I'm sure the founding fathers meant to make an exception just especially for you. Since they didn't, I'm here to protect my client's rights."

Forcing her way through the crowd, Lois turned to the social workers. "You have a partial immunity to civil lawsuits as long as you believe you are acting in good faith. In your case, ignorance of the law IS a defense, and I'm not surprised that you've availed yourself of it."

With a knock on the door behind her, Lois said, "I'm informing you of the law now, and that leaves you liable. You don't have the right to enter without a warrant. If you maliciously attempt to violate my client's civil rights, I will see you in court."

With that, the door opened behind her, and Clark ushered her in.

The hotel room was immaculate, with packed bags placed in one corner. Lois had little doubt that Clark had been tempted simply to slip out the window when the Social service people had shown up at the door. Instead, he'd called her, and she was glad.

The police officers peered through the open door. Seeing Josh sleeping peacefully, they glanced at each other, shrugged and turned away. As the door closed behind her, Lois could hear the sounds of an argument between the social workers and the police.

Clark hugged her tightly, then pulled back.

"This isn't over!" The woman's voice was loud through the door, and Lois shuddered.

"She's right, you know," Lois said. "We've got some things to go over before tomorrow. I've got a meeting set up with Doctor Friskin at ten, and then we have to have an interview with the social workers."

Clark pulled away from her and sighed. "I've usually left town by this point."

"You've got to settle down sometime, and unless you fight, this is going to be a problem for a long time." Lois found that her voice was louder than she would have liked.

Clark nodded slowly, but the expression on his face suggested that he'd have preferred to be anywhere else.

***

Ash slipped the videotape into his briefcase with a smirk. Money would accomplish anything, and this had cost him far less than he'd dreamed.

Finding Clark Kent's place of residence had been easy. Getting the teenager who lived there to record false accusations had been easier than he would have imagined. Ash had seen the unmistakable signs of the addict in the kid; given a few more months, he'd undoubtedly sell his own mother for another fix.

The kid had been angry and resentful; he'd gone above and beyond what Ash had told him to say, coming up with stories about Clark locking Josh away in a closet, of occasional outbursts of violence, and of worse things. It'd be difficult to disprove, especially since the boy didn't have to face the person he accused in court.

He'd done it all without the help of Pedro. With his mob ties and computer skills, Pedro would undoubtedly be able to swiftly alter official records, falsify pictures, and suborn witnesses. Pedro's best work, however, was done in secret. It wouldn't do to allow Kent to see too much of what would be done to ruin his life and reputation. He simply had to know that Ash had the power to crush him. His mistake with Blaze had been allowing the musician too much freedom. He'd keep Clark Kent under a tight leash. The fact that Kent was handsome and had undoubtedly thawed the ice queen in days when Ash hadn't managed it in years was simply an added bonus. It gave Ash reason to hate Clark Kent, reason to enjoy what he'd do to him. Normally, Ash would have simply done what had to be done dispassionately, but this time, he'd gain personal satisfaction from seeing Clark Kent crawl.

First, to bait the trap.

***

"You must admit that you fit the profile," The man in gray spoke quietly, "A single parent, working through the grief process, dealing with a child with special needs. Josh is passive and withdrawn, socially isolated, and he has occasional pseudo-adult behavior."

"None of those factors are proof of abuse of any kind," Lois said quickly. "Otherwise, half the country would have children in the foster care system. You don't have a single shred of evidence that suggests that Clark Kent has been abusing his son."

"His work situation is enough to be problematic. Minors are not allowed in bars or nightclubs, and there's no evidence that Mr. Kent has any reasonable placement for the boy during his working hours. He doesn't even have a home," the man said. "Given the other evidence, my partner wants to proceed in having Josh removed from Clark and have him placed temporarily in special care until this matter can be resolved."

Lois glanced back at Clark. He hadn't said anything at all, having simply stared at the floor during the entire interview. They'd met with Lois's psychiatrist earlier in the day, and Clark had been quiet since then. To Lois's mind, the news had been good; Dr. Friskin was willing to testify that Clark wasn't abusing Josh, at least in her professional opinion.

Perhaps it was that Dr. Friskin had criticized Clark, saying that Josh should have been in therapy years earlier. Clark was taking the idea very seriously, and he'd seemed both depressed and subdued ever since.

Dr. Friskin was a good psychiatrist, but she didn't know a great deal of critical information. She couldn't know about the enforced secrecy both Josh and Clark had been living under; as far as she and Social Services were concerned, secrets usually indicated wrongdoing of some kind. Furthermore, she couldn't know that Josh hadn't been totally non- communicative. The woman likely didn't believe in telepathy; Lois hadn't, not until it was demonstrated to her.

Of course, after having talked to Dr. Friskin, Lois could see that Josh's quietness, his aura of sadness, his tendency to sleep more than he should, his refusal to speak out loud, were all indicators that he wasn't completely healthy. The death of a parent was traumatic for a child under the best of circumstances; Lois could only guess how much harder it would have been for Josh to feel his father's grief in addition to his own.

Turning her attention back to the man in gray, she said, "I'm given to understand that these matters often take years to resolve. You're willing to take a child from his only real family during his important formative years?"

"I didn't say I agreed with my partner," the man said soothingly. "She can be a little overly zealous at times. I'd be more than happy to resolve this without removing a child from his home."

He opened his briefcase and pulled out a set of forms. "If Mr. Kent is willing to sign these forms agreeing to correct some of the problems we've noted, this matter could be resolved to everyone's satisfaction."

Clark lifted his head for a moment, showing the first sign of real interest in the conversation. Before he could say anything, Lois took the papers.

She'd been warned about these forms. Quickly scanning, she found what she was looking for.

"This is unacceptable," she said.

Clark stared at her, seemingly shocked. "But Lois!"

"These papers constitute an admission of guilt, giving the New Troy Department of Human Services complete control over the disposition of Josh's welfare."

The language in the papers was deliberately obscure. Most laypeople, especially those who'd already had their children taken from them would have been fooled into signing away their children's future in an instant, in the hopes of everything being over.

"All we ask is that Josh receive the care that he deserves. Every child deserves a stable home life." The man barely changed expression, his voice being deliberately soothing.

Lois had been happy to deal with the man instead of his partner. Now she felt betrayed. Playing the good cop was an easy ruse to gain sympathy; undoubtedly it made it easier for the man to betray whatever trust he'd formed with various clients.

"You call being bounced from foster home to foster home while possibly being actually abused a stable home life? I've seen the research; taking children from their families is inordinately stressful."

The man spoke carefully. "Josh does have family other than Mr. Kent. The Lang family in Kansas has expressed a willingness to take custody of Josh should it be necessary. While that's not a preferable solution, due to the difficulty in monitoring Josh's progress in another state, it might be an acceptable compromise."

Lois noticed Clark in the corner of her eye rising to his feet. Before she could speak, he spoke. "I have every intention of doing what I can to make Josh's life more stable than it has been. However, I won't sign any papers that suggest that I've ever abused Josh."

"You don't consider neglect abuse, Mr. Kent?"

"For the last two years, I've spent most of my waking moments with my son. My job tends to take place after Josh's bedtime, and so most of his waking hours have been spent with me. While I admit that my lifestyle might not be the most conventional, I have done everything in my power to see that my son gets all the love and care that he needs."

"Does that include psychiatric and medical care, Mr. Kent? Abusers rarely want their victims in the care of someone who could reveal their secret."

Lois interrupted quickly, "Mr. Kent has hired the services of a prominent child psychologist this morning. He intends to find a permanent home, has signed contracts that will stabilize his working environment, and seems to be on the verge of making more than enough money to supply anything Josh needs."

"Does he still intend to home-school Josh?"

Lois glanced at Clark, who made a subtle shake of his head.

"Josh deserves the opportunity to form emotional bonds with friends. Mr. Kent recognizes this, and he intends to settle into a permanent situation that will allow Josh to attend a school with other children."

The man in gray hesitated. "I understand that musicians have to tour, even successful ones."

Lois nodded. "My client intends to reserve tours to distant cities to the summer, when Josh will be free to travel. During the school year, he'll do what's required to keep Josh well situated."

Lois handed the paper back to the man.

"If what you say is true, I'd have few problems with making periodic checks on the home situation. My partner, however, will undoubtedly want to continue this matter." The man stood up quickly.

"With no more evidence than you have of wrongdoing, you'd have a poor chance of winning in court," Lois said. "Be pleased that we're willing to take your suggestions under advisement."

The man nodded. "My partner is certain that she will find evidence of real abuse. If she does, we'll do everything in our power to have Josh removed from your home and taken to someplace safe."

Clark stiffened, but Lois was glad to see that he didn't make any threatening moves.

"However, if there's not any abuse, I have no intention of taking a son from the only father he's ever known."

Clark stepped forward to shake the man's hand briefly, and Lois breathed an internal sigh of relief.

As long as no more damning evidence showed up, they were almost certainly in the clear.

***

Clark stepped onto the street and breathed a sigh of relief. Being trapped in a room with the social worker had made him a little claustrophobic; he'd felt the same way earlier in the day when speaking to Lois's psychiatrist.

In some ways, the psychiatrist had been worse. At least with the social worker he knew the accusations were mostly groundless. He was a good father, for the most part, and he'd done everything he could to keep his professional life from affecting Josh. He spent more time with Josh than most mothers, and he'd always been careful to control what Josh was exposed to. Most of the time, Josh was asleep long before Clark started work. The social worker was dangerous, but he wasn't right.

Dr. Friskin had been different. She'd been unrelenting in her search for the truth, and while he'd managed to convince her that he wasn't a child abuser, she'd convinced him of something else.

He hadn't done as much for Josh as he should have. Clark had been so wrapped up in his own private grief that he'd failed to see that Josh wasn't thriving. It had seemed almost normal that Josh was so quiet all the time, that he slept all the time; Josh's depression had been a reflection of Clark's own. Unlike Clark, however, Josh hadn't had the catharsis of music. He hadn't had Clark's adult understanding to help him come to terms with Lana's death.

Clark was guilty, and that was almost more than he could bear.

Lois had managed to wrangle him a reprieve, and if he was lucky, the Social Services case would fall apart. Given the second chance she'd bought him, he'd do what he could to change. He wouldn't waste the chance she'd given him.

First though, he'd fly. Clearing his head would help him deal with the rest of the evening.

The street was deserted; Social Services was headquartered downtown, and now that everyone had gone home for the evening, not a soul was in sight. Only a few cars were left parked here and there on the narrow street, and all were empty.

Lois stepped out behind him, and he turned quickly. She had her cell phone to her ear, but gave him a quick smile.

"I can't thank you enough…" he began, but she raised her hand.

"Stay there and I'll be there right away." Lois's voice was all business, the same voice she'd used with the social workers and other people she'd been defending him from.

Snapping the phone closed, she said, "I've got to go bail a client out of jail; apparently he got into a bar brawl. Will you be able to get home all right?"

Glancing around the seemingly deserted streets around him, Clark said dryly, "I think I'll manage." He paused for a moment, and then said, "Is there anything I can do to help?"

Lois shook her head. "I've been through this before. I have it all covered. I'll see you tomorrow morning bright and early; we've got some radio stations to talk to about playing your demo."

Clark was a little disappointed that she wasn't offering to meet with him again tonight, but he supposed she had no way of knowing how long she'd be with her client. She had responsibilities.

He nodded slowly, and then blinked in surprise as she gave him a quick peck on the cheek. Before he could respond, she'd pulled away, slipped into her jeep, and was gone.

It was just as well; after the day he'd had, he needed the time alone to clear his head. Dr. Friskin had awakened a great deal of guilt in Clark. It wouldn't do to return to his son brimming with those feelings, feelings he'd be unable to hide. Josh wouldn't understand the feelings, and they'd frighten him.

Flying had always been a comfort and a relief in times like these. There were times when he'd thought he'd like simply to fly and never stop until he reached the ends of the world.

Without another glance around him, Clark launched himself into the air.

By the time he picked Josh up from Lucy Lane's apartment, he'd be perfectly calm.

***

Clark Kent floated into the air, then disappeared. Ash stared, his mouth suddenly dry as the video camera sagged in his hand. He leaned against the corner of the brick wall leading to the alleyway, glad he'd managed to duck out of sight before Kent had seen him.

He'd followed Clark Kent and Lois Lane all day, hoping to get compromising video footage to splice into something damning. It was infuriating that the mob hadn't already taken care of Lois Lane, but that wasn't Ash's only problem. Pedro was uncharacteristically dragging his feet. Ash wasn't certain why, but he'd find out. The blackmailer had been enthusiastic at first, but the last conversation with him had been stilted and odd.

Ash had been left doing his own dirty work, and for once, he was glad.

He'd hoped to find enough to fake, but instead, he'd discovered something amazing.

Clark Kent was the flying man, and that likely meant that he wasn't human. If he wasn't human, then neither was his child, and that meant that neither of them had any rights under the law. Ash didn't need the extra evidence about Joshua Kent; he had enough now to keep Clark working for him for life. If Kent didn't do what he said, both he and his son would end up as lab monkeys.

Suddenly fearful that he didn't have the footage, Ash rewound the camera and looked at the digital screen on the back. He sighed in relief as he watched the scene again. He had Clark Kent's future in his hands, playing and replaying repeatedly.

No wonder Kent didn't need airline tickets, and no wonder he'd been so well traveled. Perhaps he'd be more useful as a freak than he ever had as a musician. The news reports suggested that the flying man had a great deal of power.

Once Clark Kent was working for Ash, all that power would be his.

Life was good.

***

"He's been stalking Lane and Kent all day. I haven't taken my eyes off him."

Admitting that he'd seen a man flying in the distance, even if only for a fleeting moment, didn't seem prudent. Ash Benedict was his assignment. Besides, he'd barely had a glimpse of the man rising past the level of the roof before he'd disappeared in a flash.

Listening to the voice on the cell phone, the man on the roof shook his head. "I can't say for sure yet. Let's wait a little and see what happens."

After a moment, he nodded, never taking his eyes from the binoculars. "I'll let the others know."

Flipping his phone closed, he stuffed it back into his pocket.

Waiting was often the hardest part of the job, but he doubted he'd have to wait long this time. Ash Benedict was out of control; it wouldn't be long before he made his last mistake.

***

Lucy didn't recognize the woman at the door, but she recognized the attitude. How the Social Services woman could have found out that Josh was staying with her, she wasn't sure, but the last thing she was going to do was let the woman in.

"I don't know what you are talking about," Lucy said quietly. She could hear a whimper from inside her apartment, and she knew that the woman terrified Josh. How he'd known she was coming before she'd rung the doorbell, Lucy would never know, but she'd do what she must in order to keep him safe.

"I'm here to pick Joshua Kent up." The woman had a stubborn, angry look about her, one that Lucy didn't like.

Lois had warned her specifically about what she was to do if anyone came for Josh, and letting strange people in her apartment wasn't part of the plan at all.

"I don't know you," Lucy said. "If I had a child here, I certainly wouldn't give it to you based on your say-so. Why don't you go away?"

Josh was growing more agitated in the other room. Lucy was glad she'd only opened her door as far as the chain; he was upset enough as it was. They'd been having a nice time watching television until the woman had banged on the door.

"I'm an officer of the court. If you don't let me in, you'll be breaking the law." The woman's voice contained barely veiled animosity.

"Bring a policeman with a warrant, and I might believe you," Lucy said. She tried to close the door, but couldn't. The woman had stuck her foot in the door.

"If you don't move your foot, I'll be the one to call the police and have you removed." Lucy grimaced. "My sister's a lawyer. Trespassing will be the least of your worries when she's done with you."

"I know all about your sister," the woman spat. Through the door, Lucy could see the woman's face turning red. "She doesn't have a leg to stand on, and she knows it. I can't be sued for anything I do in the performance of my duty."

Lucy stomped on the woman's foot, and the moment she removed it, slammed the door closed.

"I'm going to see you prosecuted for assault, you little—"

Lucy slammed the locks on her door shut, glad for once that Lois had insisted on her having so many. She needed to call Lois as quickly as possible. The woman looking for Josh was psychotic.

Turning to Josh, she saw that he was white as a sheet. "It's going to be all right, sweetheart. Lois won't let anything happen to you.neither would your daddy."

The knock at the door made Lucy jump. Snarling, she turned and shouted. "I already told you once. Do you want me to call the police?"

"Lucy?" The voice on the other side of the door was a welcome one.

Running to the door, Lucy looked quickly through the peephole before opening three locks and a door chain.

Clark Kent was on the other side of the door, looking as handsome as he had the first time she'd heard him play. He'd never been anything but kind to her, but she'd always hoped to find some sort of spark between them. Getting Lois to agree to hear him had been her way of getting him to notice her. She'd had fantasies about him being grateful, sweeping her up in her arms, and making sweet music with her.

The whole plan had obviously backfired. She'd seen the way Lois looked at him; that he returned her looks when she wasn't looking made the whole affair screamingly obvious. Obviously, he wasn't going to be looking at Lucy that way any time soon.

"What's going on?" he asked, the moment the door swung open.

"That crazy social worker tried to break in just a minute ago. You had to have seen her, coming up the stairs."

Clark shook his head, and for a moment, he looked almost guilty. "I'm going to have to find him a place somewhere else."

Josh whimpered again. Lucy turned to him and stared; he looked even more frightened than he had before. Glancing at Clark, she could see that he was concerned as well. He was staring at his son, as though he could see right into his head.

A moment later, his head snapped around. Lucy had left the door opened behind him, and through it stepped a man she vaguely recognized; a man from Lois's office.

"You can't watch him twenty-four hours a day. Sooner or later, they'll get him, and when they do, they'll never, ever give him back."

Lucy didn't like the malicious tone in the man's voice. Clark didn't seem to like it either; he turned stiffly to face the stranger. "What are you doing here?"

Lucy turned to Josh, who couldn't seem to take her eyes from the man. "Honey, why don't we go look at some of the toys I've got in the bedroom?" Luckily, her last boyfriend had been as much boy as friend, and had left behind toys that a five-year-old could appreciate. Lucy gently pushed Josh ahead of her, though he kept his head turned and focused on the man who was now engaged in a staring contest with Clark Kent.

***

Ash grinned at Clark, nodding in the direction of Lucy's retreating form. "I never realized Lois had such an … enticing sister, or I would have come visiting long ago."

"I won't ask you again. Why are you here?"

The tone in Kent's voice was insolent and angry. It wouldn't take long to change that.

"I wonder if Lois's sister would be so happy to take the kid if she knew he wasn't human."

A quick glance at Kent's face showed that he'd scored a direct hit. The man would never be a poker player; his face had turned pale, and his mouth had drawn up into a tense line.

"I don't know what you're talking about," Kent said, after an almost unnoticeable hesitation.

Ash pulled the videotape he'd compiled from the deep pocket of his trenchcoat. He'd already had the first part taped; footage of the boy back in North Carolina testifying that Clark had abused Josh in a host of ways, pictures of Josh doctored to look as though he'd been beaten, falsified medical reports dating two years before. He'd simply added the footage from the videotape onto the end.

"The first part should be more than enough to convince you it would be advisable to deal with me, but if it isn't… well, the last part of the tape is a real doozy."

Without Pedro's help, he'd been forced to rely on less skilled forgers. With Pedro's mob ties, he could have actually slipped the forged paperwork into the medical records at the hospitals in question. Without them, he simply had to hope that the threat was more than enough to gain Clark's compliance.

Kent's face went expressionless. "If you know as much about me as you say you do, you'd know that it wouldn't be a good idea to threaten me like this."

Ash sneered. "What are you going to do, kill me with your kid in the next room? Just watch the tape and give me a call."

"What are you going to want from me?" Kent asked cautiously.

Grinning, Ash handed him a business card. "Everything."

He turned quickly, before Kent could respond and headed for the door. Looking over his shoulder, he said "I wouldn't think about running either. Given the public interest in the flying man, all it would take is a copy of that tape sent to a couple of TV stations, and there wouldn't be a place in the world to fly… er… flee to."

With that, he was gone.

***

Lucy's apartment was oddly dark, and Lois felt an uncharacteristic twinge of apprehension. Lucy never went to bed before two in the morning, and she usually kept the lights on and the music blaring. All Lois could hear now was the sound of silence.

She knocked quietly, then reached for her keys. Lucy always pulled her chain when she had a gentleman caller, and so Lois had no worries about barging in on anything embarrassing. She opened the door cautiously.

The apartment was shrouded in gloom, lit only by the screen of Lucy's modest television. She could make out a large figure slumped on the couch, and it took her a moment to realize it was Clark.

Clark had no reason still to be in Lucy's apartment, especially when there was no sign of Lucy.

Closing and locking the door behind her, Lois stepped closer. The picture on the screen was amateurish but recognizable; Clark's landlady's son. Lois couldn't remember his name. The volume was so low that she couldn't make out what the boy was saying, but after the boy spoke for a moment, the screen blurred into reverse, only to start again.

"Where's Lucy?" Lois asked quietly.

"She's got Josh in her bedroom. They both fell asleep." Clark didn't look at her; his face seemed dull and devoid of any expression at all.

The boy continued to talk on the screen, and Clark continued to stare.

"What are you watching?"

"A tape your associate gave me." Clark's voice was still controlled, though she heard the first undertones of anger. "Would you like to watch?"

Anything Ash gave Clark was undoubtedly nothing Lois wanted to see. Unfortunately, Lois had the feeling that she needed to. Whatever was on the tape had disturbed Clark to the point of obsession.

She nodded, settling gently onto the sofa beside him. He made no move to make a place for her; in fact, he made no move at all, except to thumb the remote control yet again.

The volume increased to being almost audible, and the screen came into focus.

"Your name is Lamar Adams and your mother is Maisy?" The cameraperson's voice was muffled, but Lois recognized it as being Ash's.

The boy nodded.

"Your mother has a tenant named Clark Kent, with a son named Josh?"

Again the boy nodded. "He came in two years ago. If my mother had known what kind of man he was, I'm sure she wouldn't have rented to him."

"What kind of man is Clark Kent?" Ash's voice was sly.

The boy looked defiant and angry, but he began to speak, slowly at first, and then in a rush, laying out an ugly, evil picture. The story Lamar told was convincing and horrific. If Lois hadn't known Ash was involved, if she hadn't already communicated mind to mind with Josh, she'd have found herself wondering.

Even worse were the still pictures that followed, pictures of Josh battered and bruised, followed by medical reports from various hospitals.

Pilar was always thorough in her investigations, and she would certainly have found out about any allegations of child abuse. The sort of injuries shown in the pictures weren't the sort that could be concealed. Enough people had seen Clark with Josh that at least some of them would have reported him, or at least told one of Pilar's people when they asked about it.

"None of this is definitive," Lois said, struggling to sound calm and professional. "I can disprove all of this, given time."

Of course, time is exactly what they wouldn't have. The moment any of the social workers saw a fraction of the tape, they'd take Josh. At best, it'd be months before Clark got custody again. At worst, it might be years. The possibility that Clark might never regain custody of Josh had to be weighing heavily on his mind.

"If that's the worse they have to offer, I can probably…" Lois stopped when she saw the curt shake of Clark's head.

He fast-forwarded the tape. Lois felt her stomach drop as she saw the scenes of the two of them together earlier in the day. Her discomfort at seeing their personal lives spread out on tape, even if it was just a kiss, faded as she watched what came next.

The scene of Clark flying at the end of the tape was a shock. The knowledge that Ash now knew Clark's secret was even worse.

Clark looked at her finally, and his expression was bleak. "He hasn't told me what he wants yet, but I doubt it'll be good, and he's already warned me that there's no place to run."

***

Appearing strong was part of Lois's job description. Always seeming as though she knew what she was doing was an integral part of the trust that she developed with her clients. Clark was more than a client, however, and all she wanted to do was hug him.

"If I ran, do you think he'd really follow through on his threat?" Clark didn't look at her. Staring at the floor, he carefully set the remote control aside, and the television screen filled with static.

Lois sighed. As much as she wanted to give him a comforting lie, she couldn't. "He'd do it. Ash is an opportunist with a vicious streak. Undoubtedly he could make a great deal of money selling the story to a news organization, and the chance to hurt you while being paid would be irresistible to him."

Grimacing, Clark shook his head. "So I don't have any choice but to do what he tells me?"

"It won't come to that," Lois said. "If we can find the evidence that he's faked up and destroy it, he won't have a leg to stand on."

"You don't think he'd have given it to someone in case something happened to him?" Clark asked.

"He won't have given it to anyone else," Lois said. "Ash wouldn't trust his own mother with something like that. At best, he'd have put it in a safe deposit box hoping that it'd be opened as part of his estate."

Clark rose to his feet. "Lamar will change his tune the moment I speak to his mother, so that won't be a problem as long as we get rid of the videotapes."

"I've got a file on Ash," Lois said, reaching out to touch Clark on the arm. "When I first started having trouble with him, Pilar did me a favor. It's got a list of places that he likes to frequent."

Clark glanced at her, as though wondering just how many people she had investigated, then shrugged. Walking to the television, he pulled the videotape from the VCR, then turned back to Lois.

"We won't have long," Lois continued. "Ash will be making demands soon, and if you start giving in to them you'll never be able to stop."

Lucy stepped out of the bedroom, looking rumpled. "Hey, is everything all right?"

"Could you watch Josh tonight?" Lois asked quietly. Lucy stared at her for a moment, then nodded. Lucy had always been sensitive to unconscious cues, and could undoubtedly see how serious they both were.

"What if the social worker comes back?" Lucy's voice was worried. "If she comes back with police, I'm not sure what I'll do."

Lois reached into her pocket and pulled out a set of keys. Peeling one off the ring, she handed it to her sister. "Get a hotel room. Don't open the door for anyone but the two of us. I'll pay you back."

"You're giving me the keys to your jeep?" Lucy's voice was disbelieving, and Lois simply scowled at her.

Lois hadn't trusted Lucy with a vehicle since she'd wrecked her car at age 16. Somehow, however, Lois's jeep didn't seem as important now. Finally nodding, Lois said, "Use the shoulder belt on Josh in the back seat, and whatever you do, don't wreck it."

Looking alarmed, Clark nonetheless followed Lois as she pulled him along behind her.

***

The familiar black shape of the Corvette slid into place beside him, and with a quick look around, Ash slipped inside. Moving quickly, the driver moved out into the traffic, moving expertly to evade anyone who might be following.

"Do you have the materials I asked for?" Ash carefully avoided looking at Pedro, knowing that the younger man was sensitive about the severe acne scars that had left his face a pockmarked ruin.

"You used an outside contractor." Pedro's voice was flat and angry.

Ash shook his head. "You were stalling and I didn't have the time to waste waiting for you."

The young Hispanic man shook his head. "Stupid, that's what you were. You should have waited."

"The last time I looked, I was paying the bills." Ash turned to stare Pedro directly in the face. "I made you the man you are today."

Without looking at Ash, Pedro made an abrupt left turn. "The Family made me what I am today. You just set up the introductions."

"Isn't it the same thing?" Ash said. Irritated, he continued, "It doesn't matter. Did you get everything taken care of or not?"

Pedro didn't answer. For the first time, Ash realized that they were leaving the main part of the city and heading for the industrial district.

"Everything will be taken care of soon enough."

The words were simple, but the stiffness in Pedro's body and face told Ash all he needed to know. He didn't consider the younger man a friend, but Pedro didn't know that. The younger man had a certain sense of loyalty, one that was obviously being strained at the moment.

Ash stiffened for a moment. He hadn't expected betrayal from Pedro; he'd grown overconfident and lax.

"You don't have to do this," Ash said quietly, his heart beating in his chest like a jackhammer. "You could say that I missed the meeting, that you never saw me."

Pedro glanced over at him and shook his head. "They'll have people that will have seen us together. They're expecting us soon."

"Who ordered it?" Ash asked quickly. He had contacts in the family; if a middle manager had ordered him killed, he might be able to go over their heads.

"They don't tell us that." Pedro shook his head again. "Rumor has it that the boss is pretty angry, though."

If Brannagan himself had ordered Ash dead, he didn't have a chance.

"Why'd they send you?"

Pedro scowled. "They figured you'd get into the car without a fuss."

It was undoubtedly also a test of Pedro's loyalty. If he'd turn on a friend for the family, he'd have his chance to move up in the ranks. If he wouldn't, he'd end up in the bay alongside Ash.

Ash grimaced. In retrospect, calling the mob had been a mistake. Lois Lane had undoubtedly been all too happy to tell them who had been tormenting her. He hadn't thought that old man Brannagan's affection for her ran deep enough to give her a chance to explain herself.

He knew enough about their operations to hurt them badly, if he was willing to testify for the police. He'd never been afraid to get his hands dirty the way Lois had been. Testifying would undoubtedly mean incriminating himself and being disbarred.

Of course, there were other options. Ash began to grin. Making sure that his seatbelt was secured, he said, "You know we're being followed, don't you?"

Pedro glanced in the mirror as Ash lunged for the wheel.

Like many overconfident young men, he wasn't wearing his own seatbelt, which made all the difference when the car careened into a concrete wall at forty miles an hour.

***

"I still don't understand how you knew the combination to his burglar alarm," Lois said, whispering as they moved through the shadowed depths of Ash's sterile, impersonal apartment.

"I could see his fingerprints on the keys," Clark said impatiently, scanning the room as quickly as he could with his special vision. "I couldn't type in codes faster than the keyboard would accept, but it was only a five-digit code, so it wasn't all that hard to fix."

Before she could respond with another question, Clark froze the world into immobility, gathering the incriminating items into small piles faster than the human eye could see. To Lois, it must have seemed as though two piles of materials appeared before her in the blink of an eye.

Slowing, he heard Lois speak. "If it weren't for me, you'd have come in without gloves and without checking the security camera in the hallway. What…"

Copies of all the evidence that had been on the tape, the faked documents, the tape and other items, Clark had gathered into one pile. In another pile were bank records, financial documents and other records of Ash's misdeeds.

He'd replaced the videotape with his own copy, which had the first two minutes of the interview left, while the rest was recorded over with old Honeymooners episodes. The papers had been replaced with lookalikes that wouldn't stand more than a cursory glance. He hadn't expected the other evidence, and would have to hope that Ash didn't notice it missing until morning.

Throwing the two sets of evidence in two separate canvas bags, Clark said, "I've already got what we need. He took out a safe deposit box earlier today, so I suspect that he's got copies stashed where he thinks we won't find them."

"Where they'd be found in the event of his death, or at least when the pay period expired." Lois nodded. "That'd be his way of paying you back if you turned out to be more vicious than he thought."

"He probably keeps the key on him," Clark said. "It doesn't matter. I worked in a bank for almost four years, and I know there's no way we'd be able to get in to open it legitimately."

Lois cocked her head. "You know of an illegitimate way?"

Clark grinned ruefully. "Banking bored me to tears. I spent a lot of slow summer afternoons coming up with off-the-wall plans to do a lot of things."

Lois nodded. "I do that sometimes when I'm having lunch with my mother."

Gesturing at the door, Clark said, "Once he finds out what's missing here, he'll head for the other evidence quickly. I've got evidence that he's been bilking his clients out of a great deal of money, as well as embezzling from the firm."

"The partners aren't going to like that very much." Lois shook her head. "I'm not surprised about the clients, but taking money from the partners was stupid."

Pushing her ahead of him, Clark said, "I suspect that there's not much that he wouldn't risk."

***

The door to the Corvette shook for a moment before banging open. Ash Benedict emerged, his forehead bleeding, an angry look on his face.

He turned, sniffing the air suspiciously. A growing puddle beneath the front of the car convinced him that a fuel line had ruptured during the crash.

Glancing inside the car, he hesitated, as though considering something, then he shrugged. Reaching into a pocket, he stepped back and struck a match.

Luckily, Pedro was already unconscious when the flames reached him.

***

Watching the flames flicker in the darkness, the watcher flipped open his cell phone and angrily hit a button.

"We're going to have to move quickly." In his opinion they'd already waited too long.

Listening to the voice on the other end, he nodded. "It will be my pleasure."

Quickly, he made the necessary phone calls. It would take time to set everything in motion, but once the jaws snapped shut, Ash Benedict wouldn't stand a chance.

***

"You don't want your wife as a signatory?"

Glancing at Lois, Clark shook his head. "She'll have the rights to it when I die. She won't need it before that."

Nodding, the man said, "That's all we need, then. Follow me."

The bank records in Ash's apartment hadn't had the box number, but it had been easy to look through the sign-in cards with his x-ray vision while signing in for his own box.

They stepped through a vault door into a room containing nothing but floor-to-ceiling rows of safe deposit box facings. Taking the keys from the manager, Clark looked around quickly, realizing that Ash Benedict's box was on the opposite wall from his own.

Unfortunately, while Clark's box was at chest level, Ash's was on the floor.

Clark had a momentary fantasy about tunneling up from below and taking the box that way, but he knew better. The First National Bank of Metropolis was sensitive to tunneling attempts, and used seismographs to check for them. He wasn't sure what sort of readings he might leave, but he was sure it wouldn't mesh well with the type of hero Lois was looking to create.

Pretending to stumble, Clark handed the keys to the bank manager. "I've got to tie my shoes."

Before the man could look, Clark crouched down, hunched over, and looked carefully behind him.

The boxes were generally heat resistant, but no system was perfect. Clark could have easily blasted the box completely out of existence had he wanted to, turning the steel of its body into a metallic vapor in the pace of an instant with the hellfire he could call from his eyes.

That, of course, would have exposed everything. What was needed here was something far more subtle. Focusing carefully on the twin locks allowing entrance to the box, he sheared through the internal locking mechanisms and quickly burned his way inside.

Without shearing through the metal facing, or at least turning it red from the heat, he couldn't burn most of the items inside the box, even though he could see them with his x-ray vision.

He could, however, raise the internal temperature of the box until the papers inside caught fire. Benedict had chosen a large box, with more than enough oxygen to let things burn for a bit.

A small puff of smoke emerged from the twin holes of the lock just as the Bank Manager spoke. "Are you all right, sir?"

Clark pretended to finish tying his shoes, then quickly stood and coughed. "I am feeling a little light-headed. We'd better get this done with."

He got his box quickly and followed the manager out of the room with a quick glance behind him. The smoke from the lock holes was almost imperceptible, and it was already slowing as the air inside the box ran out. The papers and videotape inside, however were burned almost past recognition.

Ash was going to be incoherent with rage when he found out, and somehow, Clark found a certain grim satisfaction in that.

For a moment, he believed that they'd get away with everything; destroying evidence, highlighting Ash's crimes. Without a leg to stand on, Ash would have to worry about himself instead of Clark. Lois didn't think it would work, of course, saying that Ash was too petty and vicious to let it go, but Clark couldn't see any other way to handle things.

He froze as a hand clapped onto his shoulder, turning to face a cold- eyed stranger in a trench coat.

***

Meeting Kent in an abandoned parking lot had been a stroke of genius. It had taken Ash longer than he wanted to think about to return home last night, and he'd barely had time to check the videotape and grab his important papers before leaving for a low-rent hotel room in the bad part of the city.

He'd barely had an hour's worth of sleep; the place made his flesh crawl. Brannagan would pay for that; everyone would pay for the things they'd done to him. A lifetime's worth of petty resentments would be taken care of, one after another, by a man with abilities so freakish the world didn't know what to make of him.

The tinted windows of his own cherry-red Mercedes would make it harder for a sharpshooter to target him. He'd be able to give his orders to Kent, then leave quickly, making his escape before anyone could find him. Once Kent had done everything he was told, the mob would be in a state of confusion as rival factions vied for power. The contract on Ash Benedict would seem unimportant in the bloodbath that followed, and with any luck, it'd never be renewed.

If it was renewed, he'd simply have Kent knock top leaders off until the mob finally got the message; Ash Benedict was not a man to mess with.

Kent's gray van was an eyesore as it lumbered into the lot. Ash pulled close enough that Kent couldn't open the door, and then opened his window. Kent did the same.

"You've seen the tape?" Ash asked quietly.

Kent nodded grimly, as well he might. A man in his position didn't have much to smile about. Soon, he'd have even less.

"What do you want from me?"

"In the future, many things. At the moment, though, I have a singular problem."

Kent stared at him stonily, and Ash continued without waiting for a response. "I'm having trouble with the nightclub owner, Brannagan. Take care of it."

Shaking his head, Kent said, "I never had much influence on him, and Lois tells me that I'm barred from any of his clubs. If you need someone to talk to him for you, maybe you could use…"

"It's gone beyond talking," Ash said quietly. "I want him taken care of permanently."

"You want me to relocate him somewhere?" Kent's expression was particularly vacuous, and Ash wondered again why he was always dealing with the stupidity of musicians.

"I want him dead," Ash hissed angrily. "Make it look like an accident or don't, I don't care. Just do it!"

Kent froze, then said, "You want me to murder Mr. Brannagan? Why?"

"That's none of your concern," Ash said. If Kent knew about the contract on his life, he might be tempted to stall and dawdle until Ash was taken care of. "All that matters is that I have the means to make your life a living hell or worse."

"I don't kill, Mr. Benedict." Kent's voice was quiet, but surprisingly steely. "Whatever the personal consequences might be."

"You aren't the only one who will be paying the consequences for this. What about your kid? How much do you think he's going to like being a lab monkey in a cage somewhere?"

Before Ash could say anything else, Kent had somehow lunged through his window and grabbed Ash by the throat. Ash gasped, unable to do anything but gasp for air.

"Leave Josh out of this," Kent's face was completely still. "You should be glad I'm not a killer, Mr. Benedict. If I were you, I wouldn't push it, though. People never know what they are capable of until their children are threatened."

With that, Kent released him.

Ash felt his face go red with rage. "You'll regret this, Kent, you and that bitch lawyer of yours."

Shaking his head, Kent said, "I really don't think I will."

With a screeching of tires, two dark, low, government type sedans pulled in front of and behind him. Before Ash could press on his accelerator, men in black suits seemed to come out of nowhere and surrounded the car.

One man in the lead wore a trench coat, and he was the one shouting orders.

"Switch the vehicle off, Mr. Benedict."

For a moment Ash contemplated ramming his car into the sedan in front of him. Cleverly, however, they hadn't left him room to do much more than bump it. While they couldn't see him because of the tinted glass, there were enough of them to fill the car with bullets. He knew that federal agents wouldn't worry much about hitting Kent either; in his opinion they just covered up any accidents, just as he would have.

Reluctantly, he switched the ignition off.

"This isn't over!" he snarled at Kent.

A moment later, his passenger door burst open and he was being dragged from the car.

***

"He's sure to tell everybody he can what he knows," Lois said. "At least some people will believe him."

Clark sat grim faced in the driver's seat. Switching the small radio transmitter in his lap off, he turned to her and said, "What else could I do? I couldn't just kill him, and anything less would end up pretty much the same way."

Lois shrugged helplessly. "There had to have been something better than this. He's a good lawyer. He'll turn state's evidence against the mob, and be walking the streets in a matter of months."

"No, he won't," Clark said. "He'll be in the witness protection program, afraid to make any waves for fear of being shot at."

"That wouldn't keep him from launching rumors via Internet or anonymous mail droppings."

Turning to her, Clark said, "I know." He sighed. "You wanted to make me into someone the world could look up to, and I'm not sure I'm worthy of that. But my mother raised me to do what's right, and she taught me that it isn't always easy."

"I still say we should have planted the drugs on him," Lois said.

Clark looked away from her. "I destroyed the drugs as soon as I could after finding them."

"But why?" Lois asked.

"It was the right thing to do." Clark stiffened as the cars began to pull away from his van, including Ash's Mercedes.

The agent in the trenchcoat stepped up to Clark's window and said, "I'd like to thank you for your help, Mr. Kent. We couldn't have done all of this without you."

Clark handed the small transmitter to the Agent and said, "So you think he's going to turn State's evidence and not get punished at all?"

"I doubt that very much, Mr. Kent. I suspect that Ash Benedict will get everything that's coming to him." The Agent's face was curiously grim.

***

Two men sat in the back seat with him, with another up front, and all stared impassively through their dark sunglasses. They were dressed well, almost too well for federal agents, and that gave Ash an idea.

"You know, I've got money hidden where no one would ever find it." Ash spoke quietly, pitching his voice so that only the men in the back seat could hear him. It would be harder to bribe two men than one, but it could be done. All he'd need was for a certain tape to vanish or to become de-magnetized and the case against him would fall apart. The first step, of course, was to find a vulnerable agent.

None of the men spoke or changed their expressions in any way. Unnerved, Ash spoke again, this time loudly enough for everyone in the car to hear him. "I know a great deal about mob activities in Metropolis. Maybe we can make a deal, turn State's evidence?"

For a moment he thought he saw a muscle twitch in one man's jaw, but no other response was evident.

Finding someone willing to take care of the tape might be a problem if the Feds were really after him. Of course, even if he couldn't find anyone, he was wealthy enough to make bail, and he had plenty of money to fly to Brazil and live out a life of sipping Pina Coladas on the beach.

After, of course, he'd mailed a copy of the videotape to every news station in town. He'd told Kent he'd pay for what he'd done, and he would. The thought of Kent and his son going under the knife in a lab somewhere was pleasurable.

Ash relaxed. He'd land on his feet the way he always did. He'd been getting tired of the whole music game anyway. It had really been little more than a pretext that allowed him the chance to embezzle money from the partners without anyone knowing. In recent years, Blaze hadn't made nearly enough money for his tastes.

Retirement was sounding better and better by the minute. He wouldn't have to bow and scrape constantly to people who were his intellectual inferiors. In Brazil, he'd be the rich man and he'd be the boss. His money would probably go farther there, too, and he'd be able to demand things he'd never even consider demanding in America.

"I want to see a lawyer as soon as we get to the station," he said confidently. With luck, he wouldn't be in jail longer than half an hour.

Ash closed his eyes, imagining sun-drenched beaches and Brazilian beauties. He'd have to figure some way to dig at Lois Lane without revealing his new location, but he had little doubt that he could think of something. She'd been a thorn in his side for far too long to be allowed to go free, even if the loss of Kent as a money-maker would be a minor dig.

He spent the next several minutes going over plans and stratagems in his head. Once he was out on bail, he'd have to be careful. The mob WAS still after him, but once he made his way out of the country they'd never find him. He'd hire someone in Brazil to deal with Brannagan; telling them he was a simple club owner would be a snap, and with all likelihood, the mob would deal with the assassin in their own way.

The sedan began to slow. Opening his eyes, he wondered why they hadn't reached a police station yet. It took only a single glance to realize that something was wrong.

They were even deeper into the industrial district than they'd been before, surrounded by the clanging, banging, huffing engines of progress. Instead of a police station, they were pulling into the cavernous mouth of a warehouse, and before Ash could say anything, the warehouse door slammed shut behind them, leaving them in darkness.

Before he could protest, one of the men grabbed him and pulled him out of the car.

A circle of light appeared above them, and Ash blinked, unable to make out the nebulous figures in the darkness outside the circle. He could make out the hulking shapes of packing crates in the distance, and a few shapes that might have been human, but little else.

When Joe Brannagan stepped into the circle of light, Ash's stomach dropped into his shoes.

"Contrary to what some may believe, we aren't stupid. We monitor the people close to us, and we've been watching you."

Though he was feeling a sudden urge to run wildly into the darkness, Ash stood still. "These aren't federal agents at all," he said quietly. "You planned this all from the beginning."

"You'd be surprised how easy it is to forge federal identification these days. Pedro Zamorra was especially good at it, before you killed him." Brannagan's voice was cold.

Ash felt nauseous. They didn't have any proof, of course, but unlike the legal system, they didn't need any. He didn't have much of a chance; if he were to survive at all, he'd have to talk fast.

"I know things of value," he said quickly. "I know who the flying man is! Surely that would be worth something to you!"

Brannagan said nothing, simply staring at him with cold, dead eyes.

"I've got a great deal of money," he continued desperately, "And I have contacts that-"

"You don't have anything worthwhile to offer us," Brannagan said, his voice as final as a death knell. "Being part of the Family, even as minor a part as you were, is a matter of trust. You threatened to turn on us, and then you did."

"I never turned on the family!" Ash said quickly. "I was just… " Ash stopped, interrupted by the sound of a loudspeaker. Echoing throughout the warehouse was Ash's own voice.

"I want him dead," the recorded voice hissed. "Make it look like an accident or don't, I don't care. Just do it!"

Ash raised his hands and said, "It was self defense! Just business."

Brannagan nodded and men grabbed Ash by each arm.

"The Family is all about business. We don't engage in petty vendettas. We don't ask for an eye for an eye, either." Grinning humorlessly, Brannagan said, "No, we ask for two eyes, a liver and a spleen."

Ash began to scream as Brannagan stepped back into the darkness.

His voice echoed back to the men holding Ash. "Be sure to clean up and turn the lights out when you are done."

***

The man in gray watched them impassively, silent for a moment that seemed to last forever. Finally, reluctantly, he began to speak.

"I'm reasonably satisfied that you've improved conditions enough to provide a reasonable standard of care for Joshua." His expression sour, the man continued, "When I saw the outside of the house, I thought differently, but everything else seems to be in order."

"I bought the place as a fixer-upper," Clark said carefully. "I haven't had time to take care of the outside of the house yet."

In truth, he'd had the advantage of superspeed in cleaning and repairing the interior. Before he'd started the place had been a wreck, practically ready to fall down around his ears. The room had been sound, and the walls, and that had been about it. He'd have to work on the exterior at regular speed, which would eat up time.

The house was spotlessly clean, furnished in an eclectic yet pleasing admixture of styles. He'd had to have his mother and Lana's furniture removed from storage, but with Lois's skilled advice, he had managed to get everything set up in time for the interview. Each piece of furniture carried its own set of memories, from his mother's battered piano to the couch he and Lana had shared in their first home together.

That Clark was willing to even look at them was a sign of progress, at least according to Dr. Friskin. Amazingly, Josh seemed to remember some of the pieces, spending hours running his fingers along the smooth lines of the piano or the couch. The pictures on the wall had especially fascinated Josh, and he'd spent hours sometimes looking at half-remembered faces, trying to remember happier times.

Happier times were coming again for Josh; Clark intended to see to that.

"I understand that you've been busy, Mr. Kent, but I'd imagine that your neighbors would appreciate having a house whose exterior didn't bring their own property values down." The man's voice was mildly disapproving. "Still, your progress in less than three months has been impressive."

Clark nodded slowly. For the last three months, he'd been constantly busy. Playing gigs at night at bigger and better venues than he'd been used to had been only the start. He'd been playing free gigs at radio stations and large record stores during the day, as well as giving interviews, convincing recording directors to carry his music, looking for a house, attending psychiatrists' sessions with Josh and doing everything he possibly could to publicize his music. While the label had its own promotions budget, money spent on promoting his CD would come out of his profits, so the more he did on his own the better.

He'd spent the remaining time creating an identity for himself using the costume. Some wag at the Metropolis Star had named him "Samaritan", probably because of his constant assertion that he was there to help. Lois didn't like the name, but she really wasn't in a position to give him a new one.

So far, no one had made the connection between the man on the music posters and the superhero in tights, but it weighed heavily on the back of Clark's mind. The fact that Ash Benedict had disappeared without a trace didn't make things any easier. Clark assumed that he'd made a deal and vanished into the witness protection program.

"The fact that my lawyer is willing to allow me to speak to you without her being present is proof of that," Clark said dryly.

"You never needed a lawyer to begin with; we could have reached an agreement quite well without her." The man stared Clark in the eye. "Bringing a lawyer into the matter so early in the investigation made you look suspiciously guilty."

Clark shrugged. Without Lois, he had little doubt that he'd be either on the run, or trapped in a morass of legal proceedings trying to get his son back from the foster care system. "I'm sure your partner would have preferred that I not have any representation."

The man stiffened. "Mr. Kent, I'm not sure what strings you pulled to have my partner removed from this case, but I can tell you that I don't approve of influence peddling."

"From what I understand, your partner has had problems in the past with trampling people's civil rights," Clark murmured. "Maybe your superiors are finally coming to realize what a public relations nightmare that might be."

In truth, Lois had discovered that her father had a friend in the Department of Human Services, and she'd swallowed her pride and asked him for a favor. Strings were pulled, moving the woman to less sensitive cases and the man had proven much more amenable to reason.

"The Department has ignored bad publicity in the past. Our primary concern has always been the welfare of the children, Mr. Kent. You can't be too zealous about something like that."

Clark knew better than to argue with the man. Instead, he said simply, "Is there anything else you need?"

The man in gray shook his head. "You've chosen a good area with a good school, Mr. Kent. I think you'll be surprised at how much Joshua will blossom now that he has some stability in his life. Allow him to develop friends and go to school, and he'll be happier than you've ever seen him."

Privately, Clark worried that Josh's muteness and strange abilities wouldn't ever allow him to form normal relationships with children his own age. Despite the progress they'd made with Dr. Friskin, Josh still seemed overwhelmed sometimes by the strong emotions of others. How he'd deal with classrooms filled with volatile emotions Clark wasn't sure. He'd have to proceed cautiously.

"I'm sure he will," Clark said, carefully concealing his own doubts. Appearing happy and confident was important in these situations; Lois had impressed that idea on him often enough.

The man in gray looked once more around the room. "You're certain that the financial aspects of all this will hold up?"

"I'm told that I should be able to pay this place off and still have money left for a tidy nest egg," Clark said. "That doesn't include my income from renting the farm or money from playing at various venues."

It didn't hurt that he'd bought the place for a song. The repairs alone would have cost anyone else tens of thousands of dollars, and few would have been willing to put the time or money into the place. Doing all the work himself had saved Clark a great deal of money, yet he'd still had materials to pay for.

In truth, the advance money was almost gone. While his songs had been playing on the radio for months, hopefully building up demand, they'd only been selling in the stores for a week. Clark had been reluctant to check and see how sales were doing. Lois had hired a teenager to sell advance copies of his CD outside the various clubs he'd been playing in, but Clark hadn't even bothered seeing how those sales went.

The man in gray stood and said, "It's been good working with you, Mr. Kent. I'll be back to check on your progress in about three months. If you continue to make progress, we won't have to see each other many more times at all."

Clark shook the man's hand and led him to the front door. "Contact Ms. Lane and she'll arrange any further interviews. If you need to make a spot examination, come by, and if I'm home, we'll take a look around."

The exterior of the house was a stark contrast to the interior. Unlike the brownstones in the newer suburbs of Metropolis, this was set in an older neighborhood, one which had once been its own independent municipality before being absorbed into Metropolis's growing borders. The narrow street sat between rows of quaint Victorian homes, with iron fences, real front yards and oak trees leaving multicolored leaves scattered on the ground.

The new Kent home sat at the end of the street, along a cul-de-sac along with two other homes. While the other homes on the street had green lawns that were regularly raked clean of leaves, Clark's lawn was piled high with the remains of years of neglect. The lawn was brown and the paint was cracked and faded.

The house itself was an ornate Queen Anne monstrosity, with a widow's walk on the roof, round window in the attic and every other impractical bit of ornamentation that had been the convention of the time. The house itself was a hundred years old, and Clark had fallen in love with it the moment he'd seen it.

He'd paint and replace broken boards, repair dangling ironwork, nail on a few missing shingles and do a great deal of lawn work soon enough, and in the meantime, the interior was warm and comforting.

"Be careful with that front step," Clark said helpfully as the man in gray stepped irritably toward the wrought-iron gate leading to his car on the curb.

The man ignored him, and a few moments later was in his car. Clark closed the door, but continued to watch the man through a window as he jotted down notes for his file. After five minutes, he started his car and left.

Glancing upstairs through the ceiling, he could see that Josh was still hard at work with his crayons. He'd been spending a great deal of time with Lois lately, and he seemed determined to learn how to read. At the moment he was assiduously copying letters and words, perhaps copying what he'd seen Lois doing.

Closing the door carefully and locking it, he headed quickly for the kitchen to set up his surprise for Lois. She was coming by later in the afternoon with the results from his first week of sales, and whether the news was good or bad, he wanted to share it over a home-cooked meal.

***

Seeing the body had been worse than she would have expected; even bloated and waxy, it had still been recognizable as the man she once knew. She'd worried about what Ash Benedict might do or say, and many times, she'd wished he might just disappear, but what she'd seen of the body…

She'd almost lost her lunch.

The sense of relief she felt made her feel guilty. A man was dead and for her to take any pleasure in that was wrong. Still, worrying that Clark might be exposed at any time had been a constant, nagging fear for the past three months, and that was now gone. Clark and Josh were safe, and that was what mattered most to her.

The chart results seemed to pale by comparison, though they were good. Clark's first CD wouldn't make him terribly rich, but it'd meet expectations, and it'd lead to a second, more successful album. He'd own his own house and have a nice nest egg and within a few years he might be very wealthy indeed.

Still, Lois forced herself to be calm. Spending time with Josh had shown her how important that was. Josh was annoyingly sensitive to the feelings of others, and he was easily upset. She'd learned to control her feelings in the same way as Clark undoubtedly had, not merely from the outside, but from within as well.

If she couldn't control herself, she'd be better off not visiting either of them at all. A phone call would suffice, though she knew that Clark would be disappointed. Undoubtedly he was preparing some sort of celebratory dinner. He was reassuringly predictable that way.

Closing her eyes, Lois sighed and switched off the ignition. She was under control as always. That she wasn't able to be completely free with Clark was probably a good thing. Her romances in the past had been disasters, but this one was progressing slowly enough to have real potential.

It frightened her sometimes, just how important Clark and Josh had become to her. Previously, only Lucy had been that important, and Lucy did everything she could to maintain her independence. Work hadn't seemed nearly as important since they'd come into her life, and while she prided herself on the fact that she wasn't cheating her other clients, she was still slipping.

She wouldn't have gone crawling to her father for anyone else, not even Lucy. Somehow it hadn't been as bad as she'd thought, however, and Clark was even pushing her to renew her relationship with Sam Lane.

If anyone would think spending time with a parent was important, it would be Clark Kent. For his sake, she'd gone to dinner twice with her father, and she'd been surprised to discover that many of the old resentments had faded. Unlike her mother, her father was a congenial old man, and he was wise enough not to rouse old arguments. Talking with him had been good, and she was grateful to Clark for the experience.

Gathering herself, Lois opened the door and stepped out of the car. The house was just as much of an eyesore as it had always been, and Lois hoped the social worker wouldn't take that amiss. If he was fanatic about it, he could make it an issue, but the man had been eminently reasonable since his partner had been reassigned.

She walked to the gate, stepping carefully past the loose rock that tended to twist ankles, and walked to the door. Ringing the doorbell, she waited.

It took almost ten seconds for Clark to reach the door, and Lois wondered what he'd been doing. Usually he didn't bother to conceal his speed, and he was always at the door immediately.

"Where's Josh?" she asked quietly.

Glancing behind him, Clark said, "He's playing in the back yard."

Nodding, Lois stepped into the small foyer. "I had to identify Ash Benedict's body today."

"He's dead?" Clark asked. He led her quickly to the couch in the living room.

"They were dragging Hobbs Bay for the body of a suicide and they picked up his body."

Clark didn't speak for a long moment. "How did he die?"

Lois shuddered. "You don't want to know." She leaned against him, and said, "I can't help but feel a little relieved."

Expressionlessly, Clark nodded. "Are you all right?"

Clark was warm, and the shelter of his arm was comforting. Lois closed her eyes and said, "I will be."

He wrapped his arms around her, and Lois marveled that she hadn't craved this sort of human contact all along. It was something that she'd been missing her whole life, and it was only now that she had it that she was aware of the void that had existed.

From the moment that Lois had realized that her parents were so involved in their own problems that they couldn't be there for her or her sister, she'd taken responsibility for Lucy. She'd been a second mother to her, and she'd created a public face to show the world. She'd had to pretend to be competent, knowledgeable and brave without ever showing a hint of weakness. That face had served her well as a lawyer and it was an easy persona to fall into.

As Clark's lawyer, she'd had to show that face, but increasingly, Clark didn't want her as a lawyer. He wanted to know Lois the woman, and he didn't think less of her for showing a moment of weakness. With Clark, she didn't have to play the mother. He was the first person she'd ever known who was able to see her as she really was.

Without saying a word, Clark made her feel warm, protected and loved. With a single touch he was able to reaffirm the growing bond between them, to make her feel things she hadn't felt before.

Every relationship Lois had ever been in had been a federal disaster. She'd always been too focused on work, too distant, too intent on maintaining that protective distance between her and the men she was involved with.

Clark somehow cut through all that. He didn't want anything from her but her, and he let her know it. He admired her, and cared for her, and at times she thought she saw glimpses of something more in his eyes, something he wasn't willing to admit while Josh was still around.

Lois sighed, and finally pulled away from Clark. "I'm not really here for this, you know."

"For what? A nice shoulder to lie on?" Clark looked at her and smiled slightly. "I wish you'd come over more often for things like this."

"You had to pick a house in the suburbs," Lois replied. "You couldn't find someplace in the city?"

"Have you seen the prices on property in the city?" Clark asked quickly. "No yards, neighbors who avoid you, high crime rates, and land that costs an arm and a leg… why would anyone want to live in the city?"

"A five-minute commute to work, a beautiful skyline, the excitement of city life… why wouldn't anyone want to live there?"

Clark grinned at her. "If you start humming the Green Acres theme song, I'm going to kick you out."

"This isn't exactly country living," Lois said, looking around the room. "I see that you got everything up in time for the interview."

Clark nodded. "Josh seems to recognize some of the stuff. I think it's been good for him. I think knowing you has been good for both of us."

"Knowing the best lawyer in the business isn't so bad," Lois said. "Especially in light of what I've found out."

"Oh?" Clark asked, his face again expressionless.

"In the first week, you sold 14,000 copies, which put you at one hundred and ten on the billboard charts. You played strongest in the areas where we've been campaigning, but I think results like these ought to really open things up for us."

"It's hardly gold-record territory," Clark said mildly. "Once they start really promoting things, profits won't be nearly as good."

The classic conundrum faced by the recording artist was that promotional costs came out of their profits, as did any advance money. The more successful an album, the more money the label put into promotion, which reduced profits even more.

"Given the mechanical royalties, you'll be fine even if they spend every point you've got, and this label is pretty good about leaving at least some profits for the artist. The contract was specific about what they'd be able to spend, too."

Because Clark wrote his own songs, he received money for songwriting. That money wasn't touchable by the label and was the surest source of income for a struggling artist like Clark.

"Your career is just starting," Lois said. "I'll give you some advice about how to successfully invest the money, if you need it, and hopefully it won't be long until you are set for life."

Working was much more pleasant when you didn't have to do it, Lois suspected. At the very least, Clark would be able to spend time with Josh without worrying about his next meal.

Thoughts about food made Lois aware of the scents in the air. "I don't smell chocolate mousse, do I?"

"Your addiction is a poorly concealed secret," Clark said, grinning. "I thought I'd go all out to celebrate."

"That's only a rumor," Lois said, "My real addiction is to greens." At Clark's dubious look, Lois continued, "Mostly twenties and hundreds. I AM a lawyer." She winked at him.

"We aren't serving dead presidents," Clark said dryly, "but I am making a traditional Mongolian stir-fry."

"One that you learned to cook from people in Mongolia, right?" Lois asked.

Clark grinned. "Actually, I learned it from a fry cook in New Jersey. It's good, though. I've come up with a low-salt version that doesn't lose any of the taste."

Lois suspected that Clark didn't worry about what he ate at all. She'd seen enough in the past months to realize that Clark ate like an eight- year-old when he wasn't around Josh. He'd been making an effort to cook healthier foods when he was around her; unlike Josh, Lois wasn't going to inherit the ability to ignore cholesterol in a few years.

"It's nice to spend time with a man who can cook," Lois said, grinning. "Now if I could get you barefoot and pregnant, I'd be a lucky woman."

"I'm not quite cut out to be that domesticated," Clark said. Glancing in the direction of the kitchen, he said, "Although I do have to go check on the mousse."

With that he pulled away completely and stood up. Looking down at her, Clark said, "I'm glad you're here, Lois."

With that, he turned and headed for the kitchen. Lois hesitated a moment before rising from the couch. Clark had made many changes since she'd last been in the house, changing everything seemingly overnight. Slowly, she made her way around the room before finally reaching the old piano under the window leading outside.

She blinked in the sunlight shining in from outside. The backyard, such as it was, was a tangle of weeds, drying grass, multicolored leaves and broken statuary. Movement in the underbrush caught her eye, and after a moment, she realized that she was seeing Josh.

He was silent, moving carefully with a look of intense concentration on his face. It took Lois a moment more to realize that he was moving up on a petite little girl dressed like a tomboy. She tensed as the girl gave a shriek when Josh tapped her on the shoulder, but relaxed as the girl pulled away from Josh, laughing and running under a hole in the fence.

Josh chased her, grinning, moving faster than she'd ever seen him, and after a moment slipping under the hole himself and out of sight.

Lois heard Clark moving back into the room. Turning, she said, "I see that Josh is making friends."

Clark laughed ruefully. "I was afraid that he wouldn't be able to make any. Apparently the neighbors are friendlier than I expected."

"He seems happy," Lois said, glancing back through the window into the empty yard.

Moving to wrap his arms around her, Clark said, "He's not the only one."

With that, he kissed her. The world dwindled around her, and Lois forgot everything but Clark and the sensations he was generating within her.

Josh wasn't paying attention this time, and time didn't seem to have any meaning as Lois found herself melting into Clark. When Clark finally pulled away, Lois found herself blinking up at him. Life with Clark would never be boring, and kissing him was better than chocolate, which for Lois was saying a great deal.

Clark cleared his throat, and looked outside at the darkening sky. "I'd better call Josh in and get the stir-fry started."

Lois nodded, trying to regain her own equilibrium.

Glancing outside, Clark didn't say a word. Despite that, Josh appeared shortly thereafter, his face flushed pink. When he saw Lois, he rushed to her and gave her a hug,

Hugging a child was completely different than hugging Clark, but it also filled a void within Lois that she hadn't known had existed. Lois hugged Josh back.

Clark disappeared back into the kitchen, and Josh looked up at her for a moment before shyly pulling away. He hesitated, then ran for the stairs, moving quickly.

He was back moments later holding a sheet of paper. He'd drawn three stick figures next to a box-like shape of a house. All were standing close together beneath the circular shape of a sun. The smallest figure was standing between the two others, its stick hands held in theirs.

Lois felt a rush of warmth and affection, and it took her a moment to realize that it was coming from Josh. The occasions Josh had used his abilities on her were few and far between, and seemingly growing rarer with time. The love and affection she felt radiating from him was simple and uncomplicated, an unconditional expression of his love for the woman who'd come into his small family and changed it.

Craving love had always been Lois's weakness. From the time she'd realized that her parents didn't have time for her she'd had an aching void just waiting to be filled. She'd opened her heart again and again to men, only to experience crushing disappointment time after time. Eventually she'd learned to shut that part of herself away, covering it with a cool calm exterior, trying to fill the void with work. She'd failed.

Josh and his father could see right past her exterior into her inner heart, and Josh, at least, did his utmost to fill that void directly. Clark and his son had empty spots in their own souls, but Lois could sense that those were finally healing.

Crouching, Lois hugged Josh tightly. "Thank you," she said fervently. "I like this very much."

Rising slowly, she looked around. "Your father is busy with dinner. Would you like to sit at the piano with me and see if it's still in tune?"

Josh nodded slowly, and Lois felt a rush of pleasure coming from him. The sensation was accompanied by a mental image of Josh as a small child sitting with the shadowy figure of a woman.

Lois nodded and pulled the bench out from the piano, quickly taking her seat. For the first time, she was glad of the hours her mother had made her spend at piano lessons when she was a small child. Lessons had been a fad among her small circle of friends at the time, and Lois had hated them. The lessons had served her well later, however, in that she'd learned to read music at an early age, which had helped her in her career.

She winced at the first few notes. It had been years since she'd played at all, and she was rustier than she'd realized. Glancing at Josh, she noticed that he was doing his best to look impressed, but was failing miserably.

"Not everyone can spend years practicing on an instrument," Lois said. "Some of us actually have to work for a living."

Josh grinned silently at her, but his expression froze as Lois's fingers finally slid into a familiar tune. It was an old gospel song about love and family and forever. Lois started to sing, glad to note that her voice at least hadn't grown rusty. The song had always been a favorite of Lucy's, and she'd played it often when they were both younger.

She sang softly, hoping to cover her mistakes on the piano with her voice, but by the end of the first verse she was playing with more confidence, with hardly any missed notes.

At the beginning of the second verse, she heard the nearly inaudible sound of an unfamiliar voice, high-pitched, yet rasping, as though it hadn't been used for a while. Without stopping, she glanced over at Josh. He was staring at the floor, but he was definitely singing.

She continued to play, and they continued to sing, their voices joining together in perfect harmony. Josh had inherited his father's ear for music, Lois thought distractedly as they sang together in a duet.

Moving directly from one song to another, she played a song that she thought Josh might be familiar with and they continued to sing. Their voices complemented each other as they sang in duet, contralto and soprano mixing in harmony.

As the last notes of music finally died, Lois noticed Clark standing behind them for the first time. It surprised her that he hadn't joined in.

Josh looked up at his father and didn't say a word. He hesitated for a moment before scrambling off the bench and heading upstairs.

"He used to sing with my mother sometimes like that," Clark said quietly. "It was their own special thing to do together."

"So he's talking now?" Lois asked hopefully.

Clark shook his head. "I doubt he'll want to right away, but now that he's done it once…"

It would only be a matter of time until he did it again. He'd have the normal childhood Clark had always hoped he'd have, though his developing abilities as a teenager would undoubtedly keep him from having a normal life afterwards.

"You really have changed everything," Clark said, embracing her. "You've given me a family again."

Glancing at the picture Josh had drawn, Lois realized that they really were forming a family of a sort, and for the first time in her life, she wasn't an outsider looking in. She was an integral part of something greater than herself, and that wasn't inconsequential.

"I'm just happy to be here," she said quietly.

***

Dinner was fine as always, but that night, Lois and Clark found their own sort of duet together, moving in a rhythm as old as time.

THE END