Misery

By Yvonne Connell <yvonne@yconnell.fsnet.co.uk or Yvonne@lcfanfic.com>

Rated: PG-13

Submitted: Nov 2002

Summary: In this alternative beginnings story, Clark's parents make a disastrous, though understandable, mistake which has unfortunate consequences on his childhood and early adulthood. External forces also have a hand in his future, but in the end, he overcomes adversity to rediscover his true destiny.

***

Chapter One: The History Lesson

My Dad once told me you should never take stock of your life when you're depressed or ill. He said that's how bad decisions are made. "Wait until the sun comes out," he'd say. Of course, as a kid, I thought that sounded kind of dumb, until I realised he didn't mean it literally.

Dad said a lot of other stuff, mostly when I was a teenager and didn't want to listen, but I've learned over the years that he was right about most things. He's pretty clever, my Dad. Not in a flashy, university-educated sort of a way, but in a quiet, common-sense kind of way.

Anyway, right now, I'm both depressed and ill, so I guess I'm ignoring his advice — sorry, Dad. You see, I've decided to write down a few things about my life and see if I can't get some kind of idea on where I'm going with it. Or not going with it, since that's about how if feels right now.

So where do I start?

Do you want to know where I was born and where I grew up? Would you like to read about my earliest memories — shall I paint you a rosy picture of sunny days and idyllic family life down on the farm? Do you want to know about my school days? Or shall I cut straight to the chase, and tell you why I'm sitting here at home, in the middle of a working day, with a laptop on my knees and feeling like hell?

(Sorry, you're not getting me at my best. I don't usually swear.)

Okay, I've decided. We're going the long way round, because that way, by the time I've finished writing this, there's a chance I might be feeling okay again.

Just be prepared for a lot of blanks.

Here's the first — I don't actually know where I was born. Mom and Dad told me once they thought I was an experiment gone wrong, which was understandable, given where they found me. Not many babies arrive in a spacecraft. Anyway, they were half-right; I'd definitely gone wrong — you'll see just how wrong when I get further into this — but I wasn't an experiment.

I was an alien.

*Am* an alien, actually.

Okay, before you call the men in white coats to come and pick me up, let me tell you my name.

Clark Kent.

See? Now you believe me.

Yes, I'm the guy who hit all the front pages a couple of years ago when that reporter from the Star found out about me. I still don't know how he got hold of my medical records, and I guess I probably have grounds for legal action against him for violating my privacy, but to be honest, I can't see the point. The damage has been done. Maybe if I wasn't sick I'd feel more like doing something, and it does bother me that he's gotten away with it, but I have different priorities right now.

Anyway, I wandered off the topic there, didn't I? I was telling you about my early years.

Mom and Dad found me in a snow-drift, in the middle of winter. I guess I'm lucky I didn't die of hypothermia, but by some miracle, I survived and turned into a bouncing, bubbly, baby boy. That's Mom's description, anyway. Much later, they found the capsule I came to Earth in, a few yards from the spot where they found me — it must have broken open when it landed and I was thrown free. They didn't know then that I'd arrived from another planet; with all the experiments in space flight around that time, they just guessed that I was some kind of guinea-pig the Russians had sent up.

Now, Mom and Dad are very law-abiding people, but they figured that anyone who could send a tiny baby up into space didn't really care much about its welfare, so they never really considered trying to repatriate me back to Russia. No doubt the fact that they desperately wanted another child coloured their decision, too. So they raised me as their own, and because their farm had been snowed in for months before they found me, they managed to convince everyone that I was truly their child.

So there I was, a happy, healthy kid, son of a Kansas farmer.

It was when I hit my seventh birthday that the first symptoms began to appear. I can still remember blowing out the candles on my birthday cake when my eyes went all funny and I thought I could actually see through the cake to the table underneath. Well, I knew that couldn't be true, but something was definitely wrong with my eyes so I just told Mom and Dad they were hurting.

Mom came up close and took a good look, saying I probably just had an loose eyelash caught in them. That was when it happened again and I could see her skull. Her skull! Well, that scared me so much I started crying.

Looking back on things, I think they panicked a bit then. I wasn't usually a cry-baby, you see, so they knew something was seriously wrong. I got the full emergency first-aid treatment, which just scared me even more, and made me cry even harder. However, after several eye-washes and tearful sessions with my Mom telling me to look up, down, left and right while she examined me from about two inches away, my eyes settled down, and I could see properly again, albeit a bit blurrily after all the crying I'd done.

They started playing up again a few days later, though, and my hearing began acting up too. Everything would suddenly sound really loud — painfully loud. I began imagining I could hear things I shouldn't be able to hear, like the sound of a fly crawling across the window ledge, or Mr Irig talking to himself miles away in his barn. I knew that wasn't normal, and I started to get really scared. I even wondered if I was going crazy.

This went on for a few days, and although my parents did their best to keep things normal for me, I could tell that they were worried. You see, what I didn't know then, but know now, is that they'd had a child a few years earlier who had died of a rare neurological disorder when she was very young. I think that made things worse for them. When I started to exhibit strange symptoms similar to Sarah's, they got scared that were going to lose me just like they'd lost her.

So when the muscle spasms began, they got really scared and took me straight to the local doctor. He was a new guy, and I don't remember much about him, except that I didn't like him. He tried to make out I was faking it all so I didn't have to go to school, and he was really nasty to me when Mom and Dad weren't there.

But then one day I accidentally broke a paperweight on his desk. I'd picked it up out of idle curiosity, and he'd spoken sharply to me, telling me to put it down again. I had a muscle spasm, and it just seemed to crumble in my hand as if it were sand. He was completely different after that.

He examined me all over and put me through all kinds of tests. He asked me all kinds of questions, and he asked Mom and Dad questions, too. I overheard some of it; enough to know that he wasn't being very nice to them. He wanted to know where I'd come from — for some reason, he seemed to be saying that I wasn't their child. Well, at that point, I didn't know I was adopted, because Mom and Dad hadn't gotten around to telling me all about the snowdrift and the capsule. So it shook me to hear him say that. I was pretty sure he was wrong, but I couldn't understand why he was lying to my parents and being so horrible to them.

I hated the tests, and I hated him.

He couldn't cure me, either, and the next thing I knew, I was being taken to some kind of special clinic, where they examined me all over again and did the same tests plus lots of new ones. It's all a bit hazy now, but I know they tried all kinds of different medications on me. Nothing really worked. Mostly, they made me feel sleepy and a bit like I was walking through treacle, but that was all.

So I got sicker and sicker, and worst of all, Mom and Dad stopped visiting me. You see, by then, I was a full-time resident at this clinic, and it was a long way from our home in Kansas. They told me later that they fought hard to try and get me moved closer to home, but my doctor said I was too sick and that I needed the specialist care that only the clinic could provide. They were also told that I became very upset after their visits, and that being upset was bad for my health.

Well, of course I got upset — I wanted to go home!

Anyway, what with the cost of travel, and everything the clinic was telling them, they found it impossible to continue visiting me. I don't blame them for that at all; I know they tried as hard as they could, but officialdom had taken charge of me, and they were effectively blocked every time they tried to get close to me.

As I said before, everything was very hazy around that time, because the medication I was on made me very drowsy and lethargic. I guess that was good in a weird kind of a way, because it stopped me thinking too clearly about Mom and Dad, and how lonely I was. In retrospect, I think the clinic were keeping me sedated most of the time, because it was the only way they could control my symptoms, especially the muscle spasms.

Then one day they told me why I was so sick. It just slipped out casually, as if I was supposed to know already. They said I was an alien from another planet, and I was sick because my body just couldn't cope with living on Earth.

I didn't believe them at first — I mean, who would? But then they pointed out that I wasn't being treated by just anyone, but by some very important doctors — did I really think an ordinary farmer's son from Kansas would get that kind of treatment? Well, I was just a kid, of course, and had taken the special treatment for granted; I thought anyone would be given the help they needed to make them better. So it was an eye-opener moment for me. It was the first time I really understood that we're not all born equal into this world.

But did special treatment mean I was an alien?

I thought about it a lot. My nurses started calling me 'their little alien', and one day I overheard one of them being chewed out by a doctor for not wearing her mask when she was drawing blood from me. Apparently they were scared of my alien blood; it might give them all sorts of unknown diseases and infections. I didn't like that much — it made me sound dirty. But overhearing it made me start to believe what they'd told me. And when I thought some more about all the things that were wrong with me, I decided they must be telling the truth — I mean, human kids couldn't see through things, could they? Human kids couldn't crush paperweights with one hand. So I slowly came to the conclusion that they were telling the truth, and I acquired a whole new outlook on life.

I was alone. I was the only one like me in the whole world. I didn't have any parents, except my Mom and Dad, and they weren't around any more. No-one played with me; no-one laughed with me — I was just Clark Kent, the weird little specimen in a human boy's body.

So I got pretty depressed. The tests went on and on, and lots of different men came to see me and poked and prodded their way around my body, and through it all, I just felt lonelier and lonelier. I hated being an alien — I wanted to be like the other kids I'd grown up with. I didn't want to be different, and I really didn't want to be an alien. A dirty, infectious alien.

The weird thing was that sometimes, I really didn't feel sick at all — sometimes, I felt really strong and healthy. But the clinic said that was just remission; anyone with a long-term illness had short periods of time when they felt better. It didn't mean I was recovering.

I guess they were right, because whenever they held back on my medication, the symptoms would get worse. I broke things a lot, and my eyes would go so funny I'd get dizzy. My hearing was probably the worst — I'd be constantly flinching because things would suddenly go very loud, like someone had just turned up the volume dial to maximum. So I didn't really like it when they lowered the dosage, but they said they had to sometimes so that they could see if I was getting any better, and also so that they could run tests they couldn't do when I was okay.

By the way, I'm sorry this is such a dismal story, but that's how it was. Of course, that guy from the newspaper never wrote about all this stuff; he wasn't interested in dull, boring tests and a sad kid from Smallville, Kansas. So all you got to read about was the real, genuine alien living and breathing in Metropolis, hidden away in his penthouse apartment.

Penthouse!

Not on the money I earn. Don't get me wrong — I love my apartment, especially since Mom paid me a visit and helped fix it up with good curtains and stuff like that. But it's an ordinary place, not a fancy penthouse.

Anyway, where was I?

Oh, yes, I was giving you the miserable bit. I guess I owe you the happy bit now.

One day, a new doctor came to visit me. He was nicer than the other doctors, and best of all, he didn't run any tests on me. He said a boy of my age ought to be at home with his parents, playing with his friends at school, and getting into mischief.

I think I smiled for the first time in around a year.

The catch, he told me, was that I needed to get better before I went home. Well, I knew that of course, but the way he said it made me feel like it was a real possibility. He said he had a new, very experimental drug he wanted to treat me with, and was I willing to give it a try.

Was I willing? He was giving me a choice?

I said yes.

The first time he gave it to me was a disaster. I was unconscious for two days, he told me later. All I remember is a lot of pain and nausea when I woke up, and then loads of very unpleasant procedures. I'll spare you the detail; even I'm not feeling that maudlin.

But when I was finally well enough to get up, I discovered that the symptoms were gone, *and* I wasn't drowsy or moving through treacle any more. I felt great. I could see normally, hear normally, and I didn't break things all the time. The drug wore off after a bit and I started getting sick again, so Dr Tempus — that's his name, by the way — asked me if I was willing to try again, and I agreed. This time he used a lower dose, and things weren't quite so grim.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, we went through a lot of trial and error together, him and me, but eventually, we got the dosage about right, and I was just about as good as new. It was time to go home.

***

Chapter Two: A New Beginning

I'll never forget that first hug.

I could hardly wait for Dr Tempus to stop the car when we rounded the corner and the farm came into view. As soon as I could, I was out the door and running towards Mom and Dad. Mom caught me first, wrapped her arms all around me and held me so tight I thought she was going to squeeze all the air out of me. I didn't mind, and I didn't care that it wasn't cool to be hugged by your Mom; I just wanted her to keep me close like that for ever and ever.

Then Dad put his hand on my shoulder, said a gruff, "Welcome home, son," and I was getting a huge hug from him too. Dad's an even better hugger than Mom — he just kind of envelopes you with his whole body, and you know everything's going to be all right now that he's your Dad again.

You see, for a while I was scared that they wouldn't be my Mom and Dad any more. If I was an alien, then they weren't my real parents — just like that doctor in Smallville had said. They could be aliens, too, but I refused to believe that! I mean, aliens wouldn't set up home on a farm in Smallville, would they? Not when they've got the whole world to explore.

I'd love to travel the world.

Anyway, like I said, I was scared I'd lose them. When they stopped visiting me at the clinic, I was convinced they'd abandoned me, even though they had tried to explain why they weren't going to be able to visit me. After all, I was just a small kid without his Mom and Dad, and that was all I could think of for days on end at the clinic. And even when I knew I was going home, I was scared — maybe they wouldn't want me back now they knew I was an alien; an alien with a long-term illness. I wasn't cured, you see — Dr Tempus had already warned me that I was going to need to stay on the kryptomide for the rest of my life. Regular injections, just like a diabetic.

But those first hugs told me everything I needed to know. Mom and Dad wanted me home, and they loved me.

Of course, life is never quite that straightforward. My parents were very grateful to Dr Tempus for bringing me home, and for finding a medication to suppress my symptoms, but they were also worried. Money was tight, and they didn't know how they were going to afford to pay for my treatment. Oh, they could scrimp and save, and they could both get part-time jobs to supplement their income from the farm, but I was going to need long-term support. What would happen to me when they weren't around?

Well, that was when Dr Tempus dropped his bombshell. He said that he'd pay for my care. He'd pay for a nurse to come visit me once a week, give me my injection, and a physical exam to make sure I wasn't developing any new symptoms or complications — and if I needed any further medical treatment, he'd pay for that, too.

Mom said you could have knocked her down with a feather. After all the struggles they'd had with the clinic, here was a man who not only had made me better, and brought me home himself, but was offering to pay my medical bills for the rest of my life! It was a dream come true.

They were suspicious and uneasy, of course. They wanted to know what his motive was, and were worried that he would expect something in return. They'd heard of other unusual children who had been exploited as freaks for mass entertainment. So, as an alien, was I to be turned into a circus act, or sucked into some kind of giant publicity machine?

Why, of course not, was his reply. He wasn't interested in fame and fortune; he already had quite enough money, and fame was such an overrated, tiresome thing — the famous never had any privacy, did they? No, his reward would be in watching me grow up into a normal young man, free from the tyranny of my alien physiology. I could lead a normal life, and no-one need ever know that I wasn't human.

I think they thought his choice of words was a little off; Mom said he almost managed to make being an alien sound like an illness in itself. I guess in my case it was, but surely that was just because I wasn't living on my own planet, wherever that was. Anyway, he always spoke a little strangely — still does, actually — so they decided that maybe he'd just expressed himself badly.

However, it still all sounded too good to be true, and Mom and Dad took a lot of convincing that he was a genuine, squeaky-clean philanthropist. I think seeing how well he and I had hit it off together might have helped them decide in the end. Like I said, he was a little alien himself — oh, I don't mean he was a complete wacko, but some of his mannerisms were a little odd, and he didn't seem that familiar with our way of life, even though he had an American accent. I never did get around to asking him where he came from. Anyway, because he was a bit weird, I kind of identified with him, I guess.

And so my future was secured. A trust fund was set up for me, from which the nurse was paid — still is, actually, and now and again, Dr Tempus himself would visit me to see how I was getting on.

It was a new beginning for me. I started back at school, made new friends, caught up with some old ones, and generally began to lead the normal, ordinary life Dr Tempus had promised for me.

Unfortunately, I was a year behind the other kids my age, which was tough at first because at that age a year makes a big difference. The kids in my class seemed young and babyish — and it probably didn't help that I'd had to grow up pretty fast when I was away from Mom and Dad. But I got over that; one advantage was that I was usually top, or near the top, of the class, and so I ended up becoming a kind of class-leader. Not in an arrogant way, you understand. It was just that I often found myself sticking up for certain kids — the ones who got picked on because they were different in some way.

I hate seeing people victimised just because they don't conform to everyone else's idea of normality. I guess that's because I'm conscious of my own weirdness, so sticking up for other kids like me was my way of fighting back — showing the world that different doesn't equal inferior.

It was only at sports that I had to be a little careful, because my illness meant that I'd get dizzy and out of breath if I ran around too much, especially if it was the day after I'd had my injection. But that wasn't so bad — I made up for my lack of strength with a pretty accurate eye for putting balls in nets, whether they were basketballs or baseballs, and that earned me points with the other kids. The weird thing was that I always seemed to have more energy when I was playing outdoor sports — sunny days really invigorated me and helped me keep going for longer. Maybe I have that thing — you know; SAD? It means Seasonal Affective Disorder, where the changing seasons affect how you feel. Maybe on my home planet, it's always sunny.

I wish I knew where it was — my planet, I mean. I wish I knew who my real parents were, too, and why I'm not with them. Did they send me away, or was it all just a big mistake that I ended up here, and they're still looking for me? Should I be sending up some kind of interplanetary distress beacon so they can find me? And I wish I knew what they looked like — did they have two arms, two legs, and a head just like me? Or maybe I didn't even have parents — maybe I was hatched in a test-tube. Basically, I'm twenty-five, and I still don't know where I came from.

I don't even know if I am twenty-five. That's how long I've been on this planet, but for all I know, I could be a hundred and two — who knows?

Sometimes I stare for ages at the stars in the sky, trying to guess which one is mine. When I was a kid, I had one all picked out, and whenever it was a starry night, I'd search for it and try to imagine my parents living there. I'd make up stories about them — mundane things, like my Mom fixing dinner while Dad was working in his laboratory, or both of them sitting in front of their version of TV and laughing together. I don't know why, but I always pictured my Dad as a scientist — weird, really, since my Earth Dad is a farmer.

So am I boring you yet? The guy from the Star didn't write about any of this stuff, of course, so maybe no-one's interested in an alien's real feelings — the longing to meet the parents he never knew, and the sadness he feels whenever he thinks about the people on a planet he never even lived on. Weird, huh? But hey — I'm an alien, so weird is what I do best.

According to the Star.

Anyway, that's pretty much it — Clark Kent: The Early Years in a nutshell. I grew up, I took my medicine, Dr Tempus stayed in touch, Mom and Dad were great; life was great (well, except for the occasional identity crisis, but I'm trying to be up-beat here). So let's move on to Clark Kent: The Middle Years.

***

Chapter Three: The Dating Game

Did I tell you about Lana? She was my girlfriend for a while, until we split. We'd been friends for years, on and off, depending on whether we had classes together and whether she was travelling to school on the bus with me, or getting a ride from her folks. In other words, we weren't exactly inseparable, but we seemed to like each other. So when it came to senior high, when it was obligatory to have a girlfriend/boyfriend or there was something seriously wrong with you, she became mine — girlfriend, I mean.

I think I was pretty good boyfriend material for Lana. I looked okay — I mean, I wasn't especially good-looking or anything, but I wasn't geeky, I wasn't spotty, and I didn't wear glasses (she had a thing about guys in glasses, for some reason). Oddly, considering I had this long-term illness, I'd actually beefed up pretty well, so I wasn't thin and sickly-looking either. I was good at my classes, and while I wasn't exactly a sports hero, I did okay.

Basically, I was Mr Slightly-above-average, and that suited Lana just fine. I was predictable, dependable, and I wasn't about to be snatched away by any of her girlfriends — I wasn't hot property like some of the other guys.

We had fun for a while, playing the teenage couple game. We went to the movies together, had lunch together at school, travelled to and from school together, and spent a lot of time at each other's houses — all the usual stuff. I even sent her crazy love-poems which made her laugh — she had a really nice, bubbly laugh, and I was always teasing her so that I could hear it. She looked really cute when she was laughing, too. And when we went to the prom together, I couldn't believe how beautiful she looked in her dress, with her long hair all piled up in a really elegant… — well, I don't know the technical term, but it looked great, anyway.

It wasn't love, of course. Oh, we kissed and petted like you're supposed to, and I won't deny I really enjoyed all that, but I never felt like I just had to have her in my life, for the rest of my life. I cared about her, and I liked having her around, but that was about it. I think she felt the same — well, actually, I know she felt the same, because she dumped me.

We were at my house, fooling around in my room on a rainy Saturday afternoon. Officially, we were helping each other study, which, in a way, I guess we were — we just weren't studying books, if you know what I mean. Mom interrupted things by knocking on the door and saying there was someone here to see me. When I asked who it was, she said it was Dr Tempus.

This was bad news, because I hadn't told Lana about my illness. Oh, she knew I wasn't as good at sports as some of the other guys, but she had no idea that I was seriously ill, and she definitely didn't know I was an alien. Only Mom and Dad knew that. Why hadn't I told her? Pride, I guess. And embarrassment — I mean, who wants to tell their girlfriend that they need weekly injections just to keep them normal?

But a visit from Dr Tempus was not to be ignored. He was paying for my health, so the very least I could do was be civil and welcoming towards him whenever he turned up; it wasn't as though he visited that often. That's mostly my Mom's line, by the way, but I know she's right.

So there we were, in the living room — Lana and me, Mom and Dad, Dr Tempus, and Nurse Baxter. Yes, even my nurse was there, a day earlier than usual. I'd tried to make Lana leave, but Dr Tempus wouldn't hear of it; he was delighted to meet my friend, and wanted to know all about her and what she thought of me. Besides, he wasn't going to stay long, because he could see that we two love-birds (yes, he really used that phrase) wanted to be alone together.

So we had this embarrassing conversation, where Dr Tempus kept asking me how I was, and generally saying more than I wanted him to about my illness, and I kept trying to shut him up, and meanwhile, Lana was beginning to look more and more uneasy. I already knew she didn't like being around sick people — I told you she didn't even like guys in glasses, didn't I? So for her to find out that her boyfriend had a long-term, incurable illness was seriously bad news. Our days together were numbered; I could see that already.

Mom was on my side, of course, and kept shifting the conversation away to safer topics, but Dr Tempus wasn't interested in idle chit-chat; never had been. I ended up furious with him for spoiling things with Lana. She left straight after he did, and I was pretty sure she'd never be back. I ranted at Mom and Dad about Dr Tempus, not caring that Nurse Baxter was still there to hear it all. They tried to calm me down, but I wasn't interested in calming down, and finished by storming off to my room.

Five minutes later, in walked Nurse Baxter with her medical bag. For the first time in my life, my patience snapped — I'd had enough of injections and medical exams, and when she picked up my wrist to check my pulse, I snatched it away from her and told her exactly what I thought of the whole business. She left the room, and next thing I knew, Dad was there giving me a stern lecture about politeness and common courtesy.

It really felt like everyone was against me.

Then I noticed Nurse Baxter loading up a needle with something. I asked her what it was, because it wasn't the usual very pale green of the kryptomide, it was very slightly pink. Something to help me calm down, she told me. I told her right back that I didn't need to calm down, and that earned me another severe reprimand from Dad. If Nurse Baxter thought I needed medication, then I should take it like the mature young adult he thought I was, not play silly games like some teenage kid — or words to that effect; parental-type words.

So I let her stick me with the pink stuff, and I guess it did help. I stopped being mad at everyone, and later that day, Mom came in with Earl Grey tea and scones, and we had a long, long talk about Lana, and girlfriends in general.

Mom's good at that. She told me some stuff about her and Dad which surprised the heck out of me — you never really think of your parents as having those sorts of feelings, do you? I ended up learning a lot that day, I think, and grew even closer to Mom and Dad than before.

Lana and I didn't get any closer, of course. We drifted apart, or rather, she drifted while I pursued half- heartedly, until it was obvious that she didn't want to be near me any more. I went through a bad bout of depression around then, because it seemed to me I'd missed my last chance for a normal relationship with a girl. I was headed for a lonely life without a wife or a family of my own.

And to cap it all, my health took a nose-dive just after that, so any chance I would have had to prove I wasn't the nasty, sickly guy Lana had seen that day was pretty much gone.

***

Chapter Four: Misery Take Two

The kryptomide stopped working as well as it used to. A couple of days before my next injection, I'd start getting sick again — the funny vision, mostly, where my depth of focus would waver in and out so much I'd get dizzy, and then scary periods when my brain would be telling me I could see inside things, or even through them. Hearing would become its usual problem, and I'd have to be very careful when I was holding fragile objects, like mugs and glasses. At times it got so bad that I'd retreat to my room with all the curtains closed and my head under the pillow, just to block out all the noise and frightening sensations.

After a few weeks of this, Dr Tempus came to see me. He recommended that I be admitted back into the Trask Clinic for a course of intravenous kryptomide. The idea, he explained, was to knock the symptoms right back with aggressive treatment; I'd be pretty rough for a while, but when I recovered I'd be clear again for a good long while.

Now, the last place on earth (or any other planet) I wanted to go was back to that clinic; I had this idea that once I went there, I'd probably never come back out again. Plus, they were horrible at that clinic. Even though I was older now, and better able to cope on my own, I still dreaded submitting myself to their cold, impersonal treatment. So I lobbied for treatment at home, or preferably, no treatment at all. I was all for the optimistic approach: leave it alone, and it'll go away.

Dad reminded me of the toothache I'd left alone, and how I now had a crown where the tooth used to be. Thanks, Dad. And Dr Tempus said that I'd need very careful monitoring, so home just wasn't the right place for that kind of treatment. I, on the other hand, was beginning to wonder whether the cure wasn't actually worse than the illness; I knew how wretched I was going to feel, having been through all that when I first started on the drug. But Mom asked which was worse — a few weeks feeling ill, or the rest of my life feeling ill?

So I went. I won't bore you with the details. Basically, I had 24 hours of sheer misery, hooked up to an IV which hurt, machines which beeped constantly, and a blood- pressure cuff which automatically inflated, squashed my arm, and checked my BP every single hour. That was followed by a couple of days in so much pain I couldn't think straight, and then about a week with so little strength I couldn't even sit up without help.

All this to be able to see and hear properly, and not be so clumsy as to break everything I laid my hands on. It didn't really seem worth it at the time, but Mom's words came back to me, and I told myself that this was only a few weeks out of my life, and then I'd be back to normal again very soon.

It seemed to last for ever, actually.

But at least I escaped.

Well, sort of.

I was as weak as a kitten when I came out. This time, when the car drew up outside the farm, there was no bursting out of the door and running into Mom and Dad's welcoming hugs. No, this time, Mom and Dad had to come to me. This time, there weren't hugs and kisses, there were practicalities, like how to get me out of the car, up the two steps to the door, and inside the house.

Sound pathetic? It was — I was.

Mom and Dad had to do everything for me those first few days — I couldn't walk more than a couple of paces before my knees would buckle, so Dad had to take me to the bathroom, help me get dressed, and generally look after me like an over-grown baby. I'd lost weight, and I also had the appetite of an anorexic mouse, because the kryptomide had made me very nauseous. Not that I was ever actually sick, thank God, but I spent a lot of time thinking I was going to be.

My parents were pretty good at keeping cheerful whenever I was around, but I still overheard the occasional hushed conversation in worried tones which told me how upset they really were.

But I was determined that I wasn't going to be beaten by this thing. I refused to stay in bed, and I continued with my school work as best I could without actually attending classes. It was getting near graduation, you see, and nothing, except maybe death, was going to stop me from graduating high school. I had plans; or at least, aspirations. I didn't want to live the life of an invalid — I wanted to have a career, with the kind of job that made a difference to people's lives. I hadn't any idea what that job might be, but I knew I'd need a good education to get me started.

Nurse Baxter didn't help much on that front. Don't get me wrong — I liked her a lot, and she'd certainly seen me through a lot of ups and downs over the years, but this was one time when I could have done with less of a heavily protective attitude from her. You see, Dr Tempus had arranged for her to visit every other day for a while, until I was back on my feet, and every time she came, she told me I should rest more and study less. She especially didn't approve when I sat out on the veranda to study; she said that I could easily catch a chill because my resistance to germs was so low. A chill, she said, would be dangerous in my weakened state of health. I could never get her to understand how much better I felt when I was outside sitting in the sunshine; that I could almost feel my body soaking up power from the sun's rays. Her answer to that was that I'd obviously been reading too much sci- fi, and if I wanted to get better, I'd listen to a qualified professional like her instead of believing everything I read in trashy magazines. And didn't I think that my health was more important than a few books?

A few books!

She was talking about my livelihood.

Mom and Dad, on the other hand, were just great. They encouraged me to study, and they even managed to persuade a few of my teachers to come out to the farm after school and tutor me. It was tiring at times, but I was slowly beginning to get my strength back so it became easier as the weeks went by.

So despite Nurse Baxter's best endeavours, I finished my studies, got the necessary grades, and finally graduated from high school. I even managed to make it to the ceremony and totter on stage to accept my scroll.

Hey, I just realised I called this chapter Misery and I actually ended on a high note. I guess I've managed to have some good times along with the bad after all.

***

Chapter Five: Independence

The long summer began. All I wanted to do was rest and relax after all the excitement of graduation, so I took to sitting outside in the sunshine, reading books and listening to music. That was when I first began to write.

I wrote short stories at first, about anything and everything that came into my head. Some of them, especially the early ones, were pretty awful, but one or two weren't so bad. I let Mom read one; the only one I wasn't embarrassed to show her, and she said I should send it to the Smallville Gazette, our local newspaper. Well, being a Mom, she always had a lot of confidence in my work, so I thought this was just her parental pride getting the better of her again. I didn't bother to send anything. I couldn't imagine the Gazette wanting to publish the ramblings of an immature teenager.

Unbeknownst to me, Mom took matters into her own hands — that's typical of her, by the way. The first I knew that she'd sent my story in was when I got the letter from the paper thanking me for the story, and enclosing a cheque in payment. Not only that, but they wanted another story for the Sunday edition in two weeks' time.

I couldn't believe it! Someone had actually paid me for a story I'd written just to while away the long summer days — me, the sickly no-hoper from nowhere!

Well, I wrote the next story, and another one after that — and the rest, as they say, is history. By the time I went to college, I had a regular weekly spot in the Sunday edition, and by the time I left college, it had been picked up by the Kansas Messenger and a couple of other medium- sized papers, and I was half-way through my first full- length novel.

Who would have thought that stories about a small farming community in rural Kansas would be so popular? I guess I make the characters pretty piquant, but they're all based on real people I've known. In fact, folks in Smallville generally have a good laugh at their own expense when they read my stories — although I've also ruffled a few feathers inadvertently once or twice.

Anyway, nowadays I have a couple of best-sellers to my name, and I finance my long-term writing projects with a series of columns in the local and national press. I moved to Metropolis a couple of years ago, but I take regular trips back home to see my folks and all my friends, and to catch up with the latest gossip.

Of course, because of my illness, none of this was as easy as it sounds. It's just as well I'm a pretty fast learner, otherwise I'd have never have got through college, what with all the time I had to take off for kryptomide treatments and other stuff. Not to mention the fact that Nurse Baxter followed me to college and was a constant companion — not so great when you're trying to lead a normal college social life. I didn't keep any girlfriends for long.

Living in Metropolis isn't so easy, either. I'm pretty much on my own, so if I'm sick, I just have to cope as best I can. You're probably wondering why I didn't stay in Smallville with my parents — at least they could help when I have an attack. Well, I guess college gave me a taste for independence of a kind, and while I love Smallville dearly, I discovered when I moved back there after college that I felt stifled. Everything was very safe and predictable in Smallville, and I wanted more than that. I wanted to go out and meet new people and see new places; live a little dangerously after all the years I'd spent being cosseted as a semi-invalid at home. Mom and Dad were against the move at first, as you can imagine, but they also understood that I needed some independence, so they came around in the end — and as usual, once they'd made up their minds, they were wonderfully supportive.

So here I am. I moved into this new apartment a year ago, Mom and Dad have visited twice to help me fix it up, and Nurse Baxter has finally retired, to be replaced by Tilley. Actually, her full name is Attila the Hun, but I call her Tilley for short. She's a lot more aggressive than Nurse Baxter (who didn't put up with any nonsense but at least had a heart) and I could swear she's more man than woman. I don't know where Dr Tempus finds these women, but sometimes I wonder if he's secretly breeding a new race of androgynous human beings in his spare time.

So why am I depressed today? Aside from the obvious, I sound pretty successful, don't I?

Well, the main reason is that I'm sitting here staring at Dr Tempus's shiny new present to me.

The wheelchair.

***

Chapter Six: Depression

You see, I'm getting worse. It takes higher doses of kryptomide to keep my symptoms in check these days, and Dr Tempus says it's only a matter of time before I'll be too weak after treatment to get around without mechanical assistance. He said I may as well get used to working the controls now, while I'm relatively healthy, so that when I really do need to use a wheelchair, it's second nature.

Well, that's a great theory, but he's not the one sitting staring at his own living death.

I hate it. I want to pick it up and throw it out the window. I'm just not that sick — I don't need a wheelchair, and don't ever intend to need one. I mean, when I'm not having an attack, and I'm not recovering from a treatment, I'm really healthy. I feel fine — I eat well, I'm strong, I can run upstairs three at a time, and my senses are completely normal. Why would I need a wheelchair?

But Dr Tempus says I'll need one, so here it is. The beginning of the end. I'd almost prefer to go back to the Trask clinic, hook myself up to a kryptomide drip, and slip slowly into oblivion, than be stuck in that thing for the rest of my life. Almost.

Tilley tried to make me sit in it when she was here earlier, but I refused. I said the wheels would mark the wooden floor where it was parked if I sat in it, and I'd need to get some rugs laid first. She bullied me for a while about it, but I didn't budge. I'll have to think up another excuse for next time.

So the wheelchair is one reason I'm depressed today, but I'm not finished yet. Oh, no, you're going to get all my misery vented on you today, my gentle reader. I've got two more reasons for you.

The first is probably going to sound ungrateful, considering I'm reasonably successful in my chosen career.

You see, that's the problem right there. I didn't actually choose this career; it chose me. Okay, so I encouraged it by writing more stories and getting them published, but it's not actually what I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to make a difference; do some good in the world, and I'm pretty sure that writing novels and short stories about rural life in Kansas just doesn't cut it. I guess people get some enjoyment from reading my books, otherwise they wouldn't keep buying them, but that's not enough. I want to help people directly, not just by giving them a few hour's escapism away from their daily problems. I do help out at a homeless shelter a couple of days a week, but even that doesn't seem like enough.

So what do I do? I can't hold down a regular job because of my illness, yet there are jobs out there that I think I could do well in. For example, with my talent for writing, I think I'd make a pretty good reporter. I know it sounds na‹ve and idealistic, but I really do think you can make a difference to people's lives if you're the right kind of reporter — the kind that investigates injustices and brings them to the attention of everyone. Not the kind of reporter that guy from the Star was, of course — all he wanted was a superficial, juicy scandal to earn him brownie points with his editor.

Yes, I know that writing novels is a very different skill to writing for a newspaper, but I could learn. I've read a few journalism textbooks, and I'm sure that with a little practice I'd be able to adapt to the appropriate style. I can write pretty fast, too, which I guess is important if you're working to tight deadlines. Plus, if that idiot from the Star can do it, surely so can I?

Which brings me to my third reason for feeling depressed today. Don't ask me why, but I just agreed to let another reporter interview me. She phoned me just after Tilley left so caught me with my guard down. She said the Daily Planet was running a short Where Are They Now? series, and that they'd like to do a follow-up piece on me. I refused outright, of course, but she was very persistent.

She said that it wouldn't be like the story in the Star, but would go behind the flashy headlines and tell the true story of what it was like to be alone in the world — the only one of your kind on the whole planet. Well, that caught my interest, because she'd gone straight into my soul with that issue; no-one else seems to understand just how lonely it feels to have no idea where or who your biological parents are, or what sort of culture you come from. I still didn't trust her, though, and told her so. I said I didn't want my private life cracked open for every single Daily Planet reader to laugh about over their morning coffee — I'd already been through that once, and I wasn't about to let someone else do it to me again.

She asked me if I was happy with everything the Star had printed — was it accurate, for example? Well, of course it wasn't. He got just about everything wrong, including even my Mom's name; he called her Marta the whole way through. So this Planet reporter said this was my chance to set the record straight; she said I could have final veto over the article, and anything I didn't like, she'd remove. I said jokily could I have that in writing, and to my surprise, she said yes, no problem.

She was very persuasive, but I think the thing which finally made me give in was when she said dismissively that the Star article was a very poor piece of journalism and was only fit for lining trash cans. That made me laugh, even if I thought privately that it was a little unprofessional of her to malign the opposition so blatantly. I guess I liked her for that.

So I said yes. Tomorrow morning, Ms Lois Lane of the Daily Planet will be arriving on my doorstep ready to delve into my innermost secrets.

Now do you see why I'm depressed? Once she writes her article, the circus will start up again. I'll get constant phone-calls, reporters will come banging on my door, Mom and Dad will get hounded to death, and knowing my luck, there'll even be a demonstration outside my apartment block saying 'aliens go home'.

I'm thinking of cancelling. I could phone her right now and tell her the appointment's off. No interview, no story, no nothing.

But first I think I'll throw a blanket over that wheelchair so I don't have to sit here staring at it any more.

***

Chapter Seven: I'm Back

Yeah, yesterday I thought I was just writing a few pages as a way of taking my mind off how lousy I felt, but I have some more to say today, so here I am again.

Ms Lane just left and I think I'm in love.

Okay, I'm just kidding, but the interview went a lot better than I thought it would. It didn't even seem like an interview after the first few minutes; more like a pleasant chat over coffee. I suspect Ms Lane is very good at her job.

Mind you, I got the distinct impression she'd rather have been somewhere else. I realised that when we were talking about writing and my plans for the future. Taking a bit of a risk, I said jokingly that what I'd really like would be to exchange writing novels for *her* job, except I'd want to be the kind of reporter who investigates crime and corruption and such like. She gave me a withering look and said that actually, that was what she normally did; this was just an assignment that her editor had given her because he said it would be good for her.

"Not that I'm not really interested in your story!" she added hastily, obviously realising her faux pas too late.

That made me smile. I mean, I was under no illusions about how important I was; she was just there to grab a few column inches for her paper, so it didn't bother me that she had just made me sound like the least interesting thing on the planet. It amused me, though, that it bothered her.

I raised an eyebrow. "But a good juicy corruption story down at City Hall would be a better use of your talents."

"Yes. No! I mean, yes, it would, but this is good too. Really." She flicked over a page of her spiral notebook, although I was pretty sure she hadn't written much yet. "Let's get back to your childhood. The Star article said you didn't tell the Kents that you were an alien; they had to figure it out themselves." She looked at me directly. "I'm guessing, of course, but that sounds like an unlikely story to me. Want to tell me what really happened?"

Her frank use of that word — 'alien' — made me flinch a bit. The guy from the Star had used it liberally, and I hadn't like it at all. I mean, *I* know what I am, but I'm not overkeen on other people reminding me constantly that I don't belong here. That said, Ms Lane didn't look or sound like a bigot, so I let it pass.

I shook my head. "That guy…well, I guess he was half- right — but the real truth is, I didn't know myself until the people at the Trask clinic told me."

She scribbled on her notepad and then looked up. "Trask clinic?"

"Yeah, that's where I was sent for a while when I was a kid. They're some kind of specialist clinic over in Colorado."

"'Some kind of'?" she repeated. "Don't you know?"

I frowned, having never really thought much about what they actually got up to when they weren't pumping kryptomide into me. "Well, I think they specialise in treating people with unusual or rare disorders," I said.

"I've never heard of them. Are they government-run or private?"

Again, I hadn't really got a clue. "I've only been there twice…I'm not sure why, but I think they're run by the government. Why do you ask?"

She shrugged. "I guess if it was me, I'd want to know exactly who was treating me and how they were funded." She smiled ruefully. "Occupational hazard. Anyway, so they were the ones who told you who you really were?"

"Yes." She learned fast; she'd avoided the dreaded 'a' word that time, which meant she must have noticed my unease last time around. I was beginning to warm to Ms Lane. However, I wasn't very comfortable talking about those nightmarish days at the Trask clinic, so I left it at that and hoped she'd move on to another topic.

But she didn't. Instead, she looked at me directly with a gentleness in her eyes I hadn't noticed before, and said softly, "That hurt, didn't it?"

"I…" She confused me with her concern; I hadn't been expecting that.

I took refuge in a shrug and a weak smile. "I got over it. It's not like it wasn't true."

"But how old were you?"

"Seven. Old enough."

She was shaking her head, though. "Why didn't they tell your parents first and get them to tell you?"

I shrugged again. "I don't think they were used to dealing with little boys. Anyway, my parents were back home on the farm."

"They weren't with you?" she asked incredulously.

"They couldn't afford to be," I said quickly, to squash any ideas she might be forming about Mom and Dad and what kind of parents they were.

"I just meant I was surprised the clinic didn't make arrangements for at least your mother to stay with you. I guess this all happened before they had mother and child units at hospitals."

"Yes."

"So what happened after that? How long were you there for?"

So despite myself, I told her all about Dr Tempus and the kryptomide — not in too much detail, you understand, because I didn't want her thinking I was a complete invalid. I don't really like talking to complete strangers about my illness either.

"He sounds like an amazing person, this Dr Tempus," she remarked.

"Oh, he is!" I replied. "Without him, I'd hate to think what would have happened to me. In fact, he made all this possible." I gestured at the apartment around us and my modest pile of books over on the desk.

"And you say he still pays for all your care?"

"Yes, and before you start reading anything into that, it's all above board. He puts money into a trust fund and everything gets paid out of there. I hardly ever see him, except when he finds time to drop by."

"How often is that?"

"Oh, about twice a year, if that."

"He must be a very busy guy."

"Yeah." Building all those androgynous human beings, I thought sardonically, then immediately told myself off for thinking so meanly about my benefactor. Granted, he was a bit strange, but I'd never got the impression he was into anything sinister.

On the other hand, Ms Lane was making me uncomfortable with her questions about him. On the surface they were innocent enough, but there was something in her tone of voice which made me think she had some reservations that she wasn't voicing. I guess to an outsider Dr Tempus' philanthropy might seem suspicious, but I'd been under his care for long enough to know he didn't have an ulterior motive. Ms Lane simply didn't understand him.

"Is this okay, by the way?" I startled; she'd interrupted my wandering thoughts. "I'm not tiring you out with all these questions?"

"I'm fine," I said. To be honest, I didn't like her asking that particular question; I mean, I'm not an invalid. Not yet, at any rate.

I must have sounded a bit tetchy. "Sorry," she said. "I just thought…"

I saw her eyes stray towards the wheelchair and immediately felt a twist of annoyance. Damn Dr Tempus and his misguided generosity.

"Do I look tired?" I asked, now definitely sounding tetchy and not really caring that I did.

"No, you look fine — I'm sorry if I shouldn't have asked. Look, I think I've got everything I need, anyway. I'll write the story up and then bring it back for you to check — okay?" she said, standing up and stuffing her notebook into her purse.

I'd driven her away.

Feeling guilty and oddly disappointed that she was leaving already, I stood up with her. "That would be fine. When should I expect you?"

"Same time tomorrow, if that's convenient?"

I nodded. "I'll be here."

She held out her hand. "Thank you for talking to me — it's going to be a good story, I'm sure."

I took her hand; she had a firm, assured grip. "Because you're writing it?" I said with a smile.

She looked as if she liked that. "Because I'm writing it," she agreed with a faint upturn of her mouth. "And because it's about you."

I raised my eyebrows. "Why, thank you."

She rolled her eyes. "I can't believe I just said that. Quick, let me out before I say something even more cheesy."

We laughed, then I noticed we were still holding hands. Embarrassed, I let her small hand slip from mine and instead found myself staring into her dark brown eyes. Suddenly we weren't laughing any more. I don't know precisely what happened at that moment, but *something* happened.

Then the moment passed and she was turning to leave. "I'll see you tomorrow," she said, and was gone.

***

Chapter Eight — Research

I've been thinking about what she said about the Trask clinic.

She's right. I should know more about them than I do, considering I've put my life in their hands more than once. I mean, I know Dr Tempus has connections there, but I don't know if he works for them, or if they work for him. I don't know for certain that they're government-run, and if they're not, who pays their wages? What happens if whoever owns them goes bust? And what if I needed to contact them in an emergency? I guess Tilley knows how to contact them, but what if she wasn't around? I'd have to go to a regular hospital, and they wouldn't have the right drugs to treat me.

So I've decided to undertake a little investigative work.

Something tells me that Tilley wouldn't be very forthcoming if I rang her up and asked her to give me their address and telephone number, and anyway, I'm only supposed to phone her in an emergency. I'll have to be a little more devious. If they're a government facility, then someone in the government must know about them, right? Maybe even Information will have heard of them.

Two hours later…

Okay, maybe they're not a government facility after all. No-one has heard of them at any of the health organisations I rang. Information hasn't got any entries under Trask which sound remotely medical either, so I guess they must be unlisted — which is odd for a clinic. How do their patients, or relatives of their patients, contact them?

Further research is required…

Three hours later…

I don't think I'm very good at this. I've just come back from the library, where I drew a complete blank. They're not in any of the company listings you'd expect to find them in, which means that either I was wrong, and they are a government organisation after all, or they're too small to be included in the publications I was looking at.

So now the problem is that the information I need to look at isn't all in the same place. I'm sure it would be a lot easier if I could access the Internet and conduct some research there, but I don't have that luxury. They say that in a few years' time, everyone will have the Internet at home, but that's no good to me right now. Maybe if I worked for a company, I'd be able to use it — I bet the Daily Planet has access, for example.

I wonder…

I was thinking of phoning her anyway. I was going to suggest I went down there tomorrow morning to read her article, instead of making her come here again — kind of as an apology for being a bit rude to her today.

All right, if I'm being completely honest with you, I've always wanted to visit a newspaper and see how they work, so this would be the ideal excuse. But I do want to be nice to her. She had a cute face and I think I like her.

Which reminds me — I haven't told you what she looks like, have I? Well, she has straight, shortish brown hair and brown eyes, she's very slim, and she's just about average height for a woman. Her face — well, I'd say she has very fine, classic features, except that makes her sound like a Greek goddess, and there's a lot more character in her face than that. She's strong, for a start, but she's also delicate and maybe even a tiny bit vulnerable. Pretty isn't the right word for her, because pretty is for girls, and she's definitely more woman than girl. Beautiful doesn't seem quite right either, but she's certainly very nice to look at. Oh, and I'd guess she's around the same age as me, but I could be wrong on that one — I'm not very good at judging women's ages.

Who am I kidding, though? She's a bright, attractive young woman with years and years of life in front of her, and I'm a sick alien looking at spending the rest of his life in a wheelchair. Women don't exactly find that a turn on.

Still, a guy's got to try. If I don't keep trying, I may as well be dead.

And maybe while I'm there I could persuade her to let me borrow one of their screens for a while.

***

Chapter Nine — The Daily Planet

Well, that was interesting. I've got lots to tell you, so where do I start?

I guess the first thing you need to know is that it's the day after my interview with Ms Lane and I just got back from the Daily Planet.

Wow!

Forgive me for being so childishly enthusiastic, but I really, really loved it. The place was buzzing with activity — the phones ring constantly, people come and go all the time, and the reporting staff don't seem to think twice about shouting to each other halfway the newsroom. It's organised chaos. Sometimes they were yelling about stories, but a lot of the time it was banter — loads of in- jokes which went straight over my head, but I got some of the references. I have to say, they're a pretty well- informed, intelligent bunch of people. There was a fantastic atmosphere, too. I got this real sense of urgency; of people chasing after breaking news, of journalists always alert for the latest developments on the stories they were following.

You know, sometimes I'm nervous going to new places, because if I have an attack, it can be pretty grim if I don't know my way around. At the Daily Planet, though, I didn't feel nervous at all. I felt like I belonged there.

I even got to meet the editor, Perry White. He's not a bit like I imagined him. I mean, his editorials are always intelligent, incisive, and kind of pithy, so somehow I'd formed this mental image of a tall, thin guy with glasses who was probably a little reserved. I hadn't really expected the huge, larger-than-life man I met, who barks at his staff one moment and then is charmingly avuncular the next, and uses the same laconic Southern drawl to address everyone he meets.

In fact, I heard him before I saw him. "Lois, where the heck's my story on hospital closures?!"

Ms Lane leaned over her desk and yelled back, "Nearly done, Chief!"

She started to apologise to me for the interruption, and then he yelled, "Nearly done's not good enough. I need-"

And then he stopped, because he'd reached her desk and discovered me sitting opposite her. I don't know why, but I stood up automatically. He's a big man; slightly portly with well-worn features and thinning hair. If you glanced at him in a crowd, you'd probably categorise him as an affable but unremarkable family man, but when you're up close, you see the intelligence in his eyes and the hint of steel behind them.

"Oh, I'm sorry," he said to Ms Lane in a quieter voice. "I didn't know you had company."

"This is Clark Kent, Chief," she said. "He's here to check over that feature article you assigned me to."

He thrust a hand towards me, and we exchanged a hearty handshake. "Pleased to meet you, son," he said warmly. "I hope you like what we write about you more than that hogwash they printed in the Star."

"I'm sure I will, Mr White," I replied. "Ms Lane asked some very good questions yesterday."

He raised his eyebrows. "Now that worries me — if you thought they were good questions, then they were probably the wrong ones to ask."

"I…" I was sure there was a diplomatic answer to that, but I was darned if I could think of it right then.

He gave a gravely laugh and patted my shoulder. "Don't worry, son, I'm only funnin' with you." He looked at Ms Lane. "I look forward to reading the answers to these good questions, Lois." He paused, and then added pointedly, "Soon."

Ms Lane crossed her arms over her chest. "Chief, I can do ten things all at the same time. Eleven is pushing it."

"Now, Lois — you know I wouldn't ask you if I didn't think you could do it." He turned to me and grinned. "She works best when she's under pressure. Nice meeting you."

"And you, Mr White." I really meant it, too. You couldn't help liking him, even if he was pretty overpowering.

I sat down again. "You seem to have a pretty good working relationship with your boss," I commented.

Her lips twitched. "Don't be fooled by his 'Uncle Perry' act. He's as tough as they come."

So she thought I couldn't see past his friendly, jokey exterior, did she? It seemed to me that she was the one who wasn't reading people very well. I nodded. "That's what I meant — you're a good match for each other."

Score one point for Kent: she looked taken aback for a moment. She covered her surprise well, though, coming back almost immediately with, "So you think I'm tough, do you? I'm not sure that's a compliment."

I shrugged, keeping my face straight. "Wasn't meant to be."

"Wasn't meant…?" She pointed an accusing finger at me. "You, Mr Kent-"

"Call me Clark," I interrupted, feeling suddenly reckless.

"I'm sorry?"

"Call me Clark. 'Mr Kent' is too formal."

This was getting to be fun. I actually had the upper hand in this conversation, and I was enjoying it. It wasn't often I got to take part in a verbal sparring match these days with someone around my own age.

She was shaking her head at me, though. "I don't think so. If I call you Clark, then you'll have to call me Lois, and you don't know me well enough for that. We'll stick to surnames, Mr Kent."

Darn. Score one point for her. "Okay, *Ms Lane*," I said, emphasising her name with a touch of impish irony. "So when are you going to show me that story you got me down here for?" I asked with a grin.

She swivelled her screen around for me. "Here. Use this to scroll," she said, demonstrating with her mouse.

I read the article. I'd expected a fairly dry, factual piece, relating my history and then talking about the present and maybe touching on my aspirations for the future, but she'd done much more than that. Actually, I was embarrassed by the time I finished reading.

"Well?" she asked. "What do you think?"

What I really thought was that she'd made me sound like a much better person than I actually am. What I said, though, was, "You misspelled 'philanthropist'. It doesn't have a 'y'."

Foot in mouth time. Don't ask me why I said that, instead of what I meant to say, but that's what came out.

She gave me a look. "That's it? That's all you've got to say? Was it that bad?"

"No, it was…it's very good."

"But?"

"No, really. I'm sorry — I wasn't expecting it to be so…so complimentary." I laughed awkwardly. "You've embarrassed me. I don't know what to say."

"I just wrote down what you told me."

"I didn't say I was…" I scanned the article for the exact phrase. "'…the most human person you've ever had the pleasure to meet'."

She shrugged. "It's a feature article, so I'm allowed to express an opinion."

"So you meant it?"

"Well, I wanted to challenge a few assumptions, and that phrase was the most efficient way of doing that."

"So you didn't mean it?"

"I told you, I was just stating the facts as I perceived them."

I plunked both my elbows on her desk and stared straight at her. "You're not going to admit whether you meant it or not, are you?" I said with a grin.

"No. So do you have any other comments to make, or are you just going to sit there and correct my spelling?"

I frowned. "Well, there is one thing — I don't think Dr Tempus will want to see his name in print. He's never wanted any publicity for what he does, so I think he'd prefer to maintain his anonymity. Perhaps you could just call him that — an anonymous benefactor."

She nodded. "Okay, I can do that. Anything else? What about the Trask Clinic — would you prefer me to leave them out of this too? Personally, I don't see why they would mind, but you know better than I do."

That was tricky. I'd always had the impression that they were a pretty discreet organisation, and after my failed research, it was obviously that they didn't go out of their way to advertise themselves. On that evidence, it would probably be prudent to keep them out of the story. On the other hand, they'd never told me not to mention them to other people, and to be honest, I didn't much like them, so I was very tempted to leave their name in the article just to get my own back at them a little.

Call me spiteful, but that was how I felt.

"Leave them in," I said. "They deserve the publicity."

She raised her eyebrows. "Now, what does that mean? They deserve the publicity because they do a good job, or they deserve the publicity because they do a bad job?"

I met her eyes. "You decide."

That thing happened again — like when we were standing at my door the previous day and I remembered to let her hand go. Time stopped and the noise of the newsroom faded away momentarily, so that there was just me and her and the air in between us. In that moment, I saw in her eyes that she understood instantly how I really felt about the Trask Clinic.

She nodded. "I'll leave them in. By the way, I hope you don't mind, but I did a little digging into their background."

"You did?" You could have knocked me over with a feather. So much for me asking her if I could borrow the Planet's facilities for my own research — it sounded like she'd already done it for me. Mind you, once I got over my initial surprise, I wasn't entirely happy that she'd started delving into my private life like that without asking me first. "You didn't tell me," I observed.

"I'm telling you now." She pulled out a notebook from under a pile of papers. "They're hard to trace, your Trask people-"

"I wish you'd asked me first," I said bluntly.

She paused, then dropped the notebook carelessly on to her desk. "Okay, I understand that you're not pleased that I did this without consulting you first, but I don't understand why you're not curious about your own treatment facility."

"I didn't say I wasn't curious. I just said I wished you'd asked for my permission first."

She looked exasperated. "Mr Kent, I don't have to ask your permission to investigate a medical facility just because you happen to be one of their patients."

"Maybe so, but how far were you intending to take this? Would you have asked to see my medical files if you'd thought they'd give them to you, for instance?"

"Hospitals don't turn over medical files to journalists," she replied impatiently.

"That's not the point. How far were you prepared to go delving into my private life without telling me? That's the point."

"Mr Kent." She drew in a deep breath. "If you don't mind me saying so, I think you're overreacting. It's perfectly understandable, after what the Star did to you, but I can assure you, I don't work like that — the Daily Planet doesn't work like that. We treat people like human beings, not cartoon cut-outs."

"I don't think I'm overreacting. You have no idea what it's like when the press come into your life and start turning it upside down. Do you realise, for example, that I had to change my phone number after the Star had finished with me? It was the only way I could stop the abusive phone calls — and I still get the occasional poison pen letter even now."

To her credit, she looked shocked. "People write to you? What do they say?"

"It's not important. The point is, I'm already taking a big risk by letting you write this article. You've given me some control by letting me come here today and check it over, but I see that control slipping away when you start behaving like this. I do think you've got good intentions, but all I ask is that you check with me first before chipping away even more at my privacy. I think that's reasonable, don't you?"

She looked like she was about to object, and then thought the better of it. "All right, Mr Kent. I'm sorry I overstepped the limits you're comfortable with, and I'll try not to let it happen again."

Her expression made it apparent that she didn't believe she'd actually done anything wrong, which irritated me, but I also got the sense that she understood my point of view, so I decided I'd have to settle for that for now. I pointed at the notepad she'd discarded. "So what did you find out?"

"Are you sure you want to know?" she asked sardonically.

"Look, I'm trying to be nice here. Help me out, will you?"

She sighed and picked up the pad. "There's not much to tell. They're not in any of the standard publications, and I haven't even been able to find out whether they're a government facility or not."

Well, that made me feel a whole lot better. If Ms Lane, a professional investigative reporter, couldn't find out anything about them, then maybe I wasn't quite so useless as I thought I'd been.

"What about the Internet? You do have that here, don't you?"

"Yes, we do, but this sort of information is a bit patchy on the Internet — maybe it'll be better in a few years' time, when more organisations get around to making their records available, but right now, I couldn't find a thing."

"So what do we do next?"

"We?"

I shrugged. "Well, I decided you were right — I should know more than just the name of clinic which treats me."

She stared at me incredulously. "Then what was all the fuss…?" She shook her head slowly. "I guess you're going to say there was a principal at stake."

"Exactly. So what do we do?"

"*We* do nothing. With your permission…?" She paused for emphasis, and I nodded. "I'll hand it over to Jimmy to deep background."

"Who's Jimmy?"

"Relax, Mr Kent. Jimmy's our researcher-cum-officer-gofer. He's only a kid, but he's very good at digging out this type of information. And before you ask, you can trust him completely."

Great. Now she thought I was completely paranoid, when I'd just asked who he was out of curiosity, nothing more.

"That sounds fine."

"Do you want me to add Dr Tempus to Jimmy's list?"

I frowned. "Why would I want you to do that?"

"Well, what do you really know about him?"

"I know enough to know he's completely trustworthy and a very generous person to boot," I retorted, annoyed that she was trying to place him in the same category as the Trask clinic. He might have some sort of association with them, but he was nothing like as austere and chillingly uncaring as they were.

She held up her hands. "Okay, okay. We'll leave the good doctor out of this."

"Dr Tempus saved my life, Ms Lane," I said quietly, wanting her to understand that this man really was one of the good guys. "It's that simple."

"Okay, Mr Kent," she said placatingly. "I'm sorry I suggested he was anything but a well-intentioned, guileless philanthropist. Heaven knows, we don't see many of those these days, but I guess they still exist."

"They do, and Dr Tempus is definitely one of them."

"All right. I'll file him under good guy."

"Good. That's where he belongs," I said emphatically.

***

Chapter Ten — Famous For Five Minutes

How I wish it was only five minutes of fame! The article came out today, and so far I've had four people ringing my doorbell and one barely-literate letter shoved under the door. At least I knew the Planet was publishing today, so I took the phone off the hook as soon as I got up, having warned Mom and Dad first.

I guess I'm getting to be a pro at this publicity game.

Mind you, it's pretty quiet compared with last time. I suppose the article is old news, in a way, and there's nothing sensational in it, so it's not provoking such a strong reaction as the first time around. And perhaps Daily Planet readers are also a more civilised bunch of people than Star readers.

Anyway, like I said, I phoned Mom and Dad earlier. I'd faxed them a copy of the article, and I was keen to find out what they thought of it.

"I think she likes you, Clark," was Mom's opening remark. "Is she pretty?"

"Mom!" I exclaimed. "I hardly know her. Besides, she's a professional."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"It means she's just doing her job to the best of her ability," said Dad calmly on the extension.

"Looks to me like she's doing more than that," said Mom.

"It's not all complimentary," I pointed out. "She says I'm stubborn and defensive about half-way down the second column."

"Yes, but she also says why. You're excused on compassionate grounds." Mom laughed. "Honey, you may as well accept it — you've got a fan."

I snorted. "You wouldn't think that if you'd seen us together at the Planet. We argued and disagreed all morning."

"Then she definitely likes you," said Mom. "Otherwise she'd have been polite to you."

Mom was incorrigible. I knew she'd like nothing more in the world than for me to find someone I could love and be loved by, and she wasn't above giving me the occasional shove in what she thought was the right direction in order to achieve her goal. It was all good-natured, of course, but now and then I wished she'd cool it just a little. At the back of my mind was the suspicion that because of my illness she tries harder than she might otherwise. I'm sure she and Dad are anxious that I have someone to care for me when they're gone.

I don't want that. I don't want to marry someone just so they can become my carer. I also don't someone to marry me because they want to look after me — I don't want pity, I want love.

Anyway, back to Mom and Dad. "Okay, she likes me," I said. "What else do you think about the article, apart from that?"

"It's very frank, Clark," said Dad. "People are going to know a lot about you after they've read it."

Typical Dad, worrying about people knowing too much about me. Ever since they found me in that snowdrift, it's been ingrained in him to keep my real origins a secret — Mom and me too, of course, but Dad was always chief keeper of the secret. He still hasn't got used to the fact that the whole world knows about me these days.

"I know, Dad," I replied, "but at least it's accurate. And it's about the real me, not some fictitious character with green skin and pointy ears who lives in a penthouse apartment and who might just be the vanguard of an imminent alien invasion," I finished, trying to keep the bitterness from my voice.

"I think he's done a very brave thing, Jonathan," said Mom. "He could have kept quiet about a lot of these things, but then people wouldn't have been any wiser than they were after the Star article."

"I'm not saying this isn't the right thing to do, Martha," said Dad. "I'm just saying there's a lot of unscrupulous people out there, and he needs to be aware of that."

"I am aware of that Dad — I'm not a kid any more."

"I know you're not, son," he said. "And I know you'll cope with this, just like you've coped so well with everything else — you're a strong young man, Clark. I just want you to keep an eye on your back."

I sighed; it was easier to give in than argue. "I will."

"How are things otherwise, honey?" asked Mom. "How's the new book coming along?"

"Slowly. I've been a little distracted this past week or so. I'm hoping once this thing settles down I'll get some more written."

"Well, don't forget to send me the next chapter whenever you're ready."

Mom's kind of my test reader. She's pretty good at it — she doesn't hold back if she thinks something doesn't work, and she'll make comments that often spark off new ideas in my head.

"I won't."

"And look after yourself."

"Yes, Mom."

"Talk to that reporter again, too."

"Bye, Mom."

"I can tell by your voice that she's pretty," she said, and I could just picture her winking at my Dad and wearing one of those impish smiles of hers.

"Dad, help me out here," I pleaded.

Dad laughed. "I wouldn't dream of interfering."

"Thanks a bunch! Remind me not to interfere next time Mom nags you about your waistline."

He laughed again.

"Love you both," I said.

"And we love you," said Mom.

"Bye."

I'd nearly replaced the receiver when I heard Mom's distant voice shout, "Buy her some flowers!"

You had to laugh.

***

Chapter Eleven — Phone Calls

Well, it's been a week, and guess what? The Star rang me up and offered me a huge sum of money in return for the serialisation of my life story. It seems Ms Lane's article whetted their appetite, and now they think the world deserves to know the full, unabridged version. I am, after all, a very special person and totally unique.

I think you can guess what I said.

Otherwise, it's been a pretty quiet week, all things considered. Since I put my phone back on, I've had a few more nuisance calls, and some awful cable TV company wanting to feature me on their freak show, but that's about it.

Except for one thing.

Ms Lane phoned me yesterday and said she wanted to see me. No pleasantries, no introductions; just a blunt "Mr Kent, I need to talk to you."

Well, as you might expect, I was a bit reticent at first — I mean, I like her, but I don't like being ordered about. But then she said, "It's about the clinic."

So Jimmy had finished his research? I asked eagerly what news she had, but she refused point blank to tell me over the phone. She invited herself over, and half an hour later, she was sitting on my sofa, full of nervous energy and looking just great.

Oops, did I just say that? Well, I guess you already figured out that I find her attractive, so there's no point in hiding it.

Anyway, she definitely had news.

"I had a very strange phone call last night at home," she enthused. "It seems someone doesn't like the article."

"Oh?" I said, a bit alarmed that readers would actually phone her at home. I suppose it's an occupational hazard, but given the type of work she does, surely it must be dangerous for her. "What did they say? Nothing threatening, I hope?"

She grinned. "That depends on your interpretation. It was a man's voice but he didn't identify himself. All he said was, 'stay away from the alien'."

What?!

I stared at her, but she looked amazingly calm, considering what she'd just told me. Well, I suppose she looked fairly excited in a contained sort of way, but she didn't look at all alarmed. Maybe she gets phone calls like that every day.

"Stay away from the alien?" I repeated incredulously.

"Yes, so of course I had to come and see you."

That figured — someone tells her not to do something; she does the exact opposite. I had a feeling Ms Lane did a lot of that.

"But first," she continued, "I chased Jimmy up about the clinic." She leaned forward. "He hadn't found much, which in itself is suspicious, because Jimmy is very good at this type of thing — don't ever tell him I said that, by the way. Anyway, working on your gut feeling that the place is government run, he tapped into some kind of central database of government employees. He did a search on Trask and found a few people with that name, but not as many as you might think. After-"

"But who's to say that anyone called Trask is anything to do with the clinic, whether they work for the government or not?" I interrupted, impressed by Jimmy's ingenuity but completely mystified by his thinking process.

"That's what I thought, but just hear me out, okay?" she said a little impatiently.

I sighed. "Go on."

She gave me a disapproving look, and then continued. "As I was saying," she said, "after ignoring people who were obviously nothing to do with clinics, like postal workers and so on, he ended up with just two Trasks. One of those turned out to be dead — it's amazing how many dead people the government has working for it, apparently — which left one Jason Trask, Head of Operations. Didn't say where he was head of operations, and get this — this guy's personal details are so classified, Jimmy couldn't see anything more than his name." She looked triumphantly at me. "That, to me, absolutely reeks of intelligence agency."

Was she serious? It seemed to me that she'd just gone way off the deep end with that particular leap of logic. And she was watching me expectantly, as if I was supposed to be impressed by all this. I drew in a deep breath.

"And?" I prompted.

I got a look which implied I had all the intelligence of a goldfish. "Isn't it obvious? We could be looking at a major government conspiracy here!"

I gaped at her. "You're kidding, right? You think this Trask guy, who may or may not work for an intelligence agency, might have something to do with my clinic — just because he shares the same name and your Jimmy can't find out where he works?"

She pulled a face. "Okay, it's a bit thin, but I haven't finished yet. Whenever I get a whiff of intelligence agency, I check it out with a guy I know. He's ex-military intelligence, but he knows something about other government-sponsored covert operations as well. I drew a blank with the Trask clinic, but when I mentioned Jason Trask, he said I should I should watch my step if I'm thinking of going anywhere near the loosest cannon the NIA has ever employed."

She gave me that triumphant look again. I shook my head. "Ms Lane, I can see that you'd just love this to turn into a big conspiracy story instead of a boring old human interest piece, but it's not going to happen. What would the government want with me?"

"Do you seriously need me to answer that?" she exclaimed incredulously.

For a moment I was tempted to force her to explain. She'd hit a raw spot and my immediate reaction was to lash out in return. Oh, I was well aware that there were plenty of reasons why the government might be interested in me, the amazing living alien. But there was little point in taking out my bitterness on her, and I caught myself just in time.

"No," I said quietly.

To her credit, she looked embarrassed. "I'm sorry," she said. "That wasn't a very kind thing to say."

I shrugged. "It's true. I'm an alien; the only one on the planet, as far as anyone knows, so of course the government could be interested in me. But I see no evidence of that here — all you've managed to dig up is an operative in the NIA with the same surname as the clinic which occasionally treats me."

She nodded. "Okay, but do you mind if I take this further? I'd like to see if I can link him to the clinic."

"If you like," I said.

She obviously thought she was on to something, and as I've already admitted, I like her. It wasn't her fault other people couldn't see past the freak alien. I could have done without her pointing that particular fact out to me, but it wasn't like I didn't already know. Also, she had a passion for her work I'd not seen before, especially in a reporter. She wasn't jaded or heavily cynical; maybe that would develop with age, but right now she was enthusiastic without being embarrassingly na‹ve — and that enthusiasm was catching.

I was also mindful of her anonymous phone call, which gave some credence to her theory that she'd stumbled over something which people wanted her to stay out of. Who would want a reporter to 'stay away from the alien'?

She smiled. "Thanks. I'm sure there's a connection there; I just have to dig deep enough."

"Well, don't do anything dangerous," I said. "I wouldn't want you getting hurt on my account."

She gave me a haughty look; this had obviously been entirely the wrong thing to say. "Mr Kent, just because I'm a woman doesn't mean I can't take care of myself," she said stiffly.

"I never said that!"

"No, but that's what you were thinking."

"Ms Lane, I can assure you, I couldn't care less if you were a man or a woman," I retorted.

"Oh, really?"

"Yes! Well, no. I mean, I do care, because…because, well, who wouldn't? You're very…" I waved my hands in her general direction. "You know — very…"

"Very what? Fat? Thin? Tall? Short?" she demanded.

Just shoot yourself now, Kent, I told myself. You've dug yourself a deep hole, and you're just going to dig an even deeper hole if you attempt a cover-up operation now. You've insulted her, and now you're about to tell her the last thing she probably wants to hear.

"Nice," I said, finally settling on the only safe word I could think of. "You're very nice."

So much for my writer's vocabulary, I thought ruefully.

"Nice? You think I'm nice?" She pronounced the word as if it was an insult.

"Yes," I said, trying to show what I really meant with my hands without getting too specific or insulting. "Nice."

She stood up. "That's a tough description to live up to, but I'll do my best," she remarked sardonically. "And don't worry, I won't get into anything I can't handle."

Probably not a good idea to ask her to expand on that, I decided. I showed her to the door.

Fix it, Kent. Don't let her leave thinking you're a complete idiot.

"Thank you for caring," I blurted as she stepped into the corridor.

She turned around, and those big brown eyes of hers looked surprised. "I'm just doing my job."

"I know. But thank you anyway."

I offered my hand to her, ready to feel even more stupid if she refused, or worse still, gave me one of those awful, cursory handshakes which mean the person opposite you would rather be miles away, preferably in the next state, with someone far more interesting and attractive than you.

After a brief hesitation, she clasped my hand firmly and gave a confident, warm handshake.

I was so pleased, I got this sudden wild urge to lean across and kiss her. Crazy, I know, but it would have been so easy. Just bend down, press my lips to hers, and show her how I really felt about her.

Luckily, I didn't. And anyway, what feelings did I really have? Just a vague idea that she looked nice and had an attractive personality. That was all. We'd only met a few times.

She smiled. "I'll be in touch when I've got news."

"Okay."

And she was gone.

But maybe I should have bought her those flowers after all.

***

Chapter Twelve — Progress

I guess by now you're wondering why I didn't just phone my parents and ask them for the address and telephone number of the clinic. I mean, when I first went there as a kid, they would have insisted on a contact phone number, right? And they wrote to me while I was there; even visited me a couple of times, so they should know where it is, shouldn't they?

Wrong.

They did have a phone number, but when I tried it recently, it was dead. When I called Information to get the phone number to match the address Mom and Dad had, I was told there was no such address. I asked them to describe how they got there, and then phoned the post office in the nearest town — you see, the clinic was way out in the country somewhere. The post office said there was no such place, or if there was, they never delivered mail there.

So either the clinic has moved since I was last there, or someone's hiding something.

I decided enough was enough, and that it was time to ask Tilley herself. She'd probably give me the brush-off, but at least I'd have tried.

Besides, I was feeling pretty stupid for not having asked the kinds of questions Ms Lane had asked as soon as she'd walked through my door. It was as if I'd been going through life wearing blinkers, and Ms Lane had suddenly breezed in and whipped them off. There I was, staring myopically into the bright sunshine, trying to figure out what on earth had been going on for most of my life.

Dr Tempus would have sorted things out, of course. He'd have been able to explain about the clinic, and why I couldn't trace them; no doubt there was an innocent explanation to all of this which just hadn't occurred to me.

Unfortunately, Dr Tempus wasn't an easy man to get hold of. In fact, I'd never even bothered trying in the past, because he always seemed to turn up when he was needed anyway — not to mention the times he turned up when I'd have preferred him not to, like the Lana incident. Oh, we got along fine when he was here — as I've said before, I kind of felt I had something in common with the guy — but one visit from Dr Tempus was good value for money. You didn't feel like you wanted another one for a good long time.

And I guess if you'd asked me before this week, I'd have assumed I could phone the clinic if I really wanted to contact him. Did I mention feeling incredibly stupid?

So it was Tilley or nothing — which is how I ended up sitting in that darned wheelchair.

It was a few days after Ms Lane had tried to convince me that the NAI had something to do with my clinic. Tilley had finished her examination and was over at my desk, packing up her medical bag. I was sitting on the sofa, buttoning up my shirt, and reflecting as usual that Tilley really didn't suit white at all.

Her nurse's uniform stretched awkwardly over her manly bulk, and its colour just seemed to emphasise all the places where it strained to fit. There was a belt around her middle, but she didn't really have a waist, so the belt just made her look even more shapeless. She had a bosom, but you'd have been forgiven for thinking it was just over- developed pectoral muscle. White tights were definitely a mistake, too — you could see her hairy legs through them. Hadn't she heard of women's razors? I wondered idly what she'd look like in something a bit more flowing, maybe in navy, and with her hair down instead of scraped together into the tight bun she habitually wore.

Probably still like a man.

"Have you used the wheelchair yet?" she asked.

The evil instrument of torture? "No," I replied with a touch of sullenness.

"Clark, Dr Tempus has spent a lot of money on that — it's a top-of-the-range model, you know. The least you can do is learn how to use it," she admonished.

"It can't be that difficult," I said. "I'll learn if I need it."

"*When* you need it," she corrected. "And when you do need it, you certainly won't be in a fit state to learn how to operate complicated electronic controls."

She strode up the stairs to where it was parked and pulled the blanket off it. "I want you to get in right now," she barked, positioning herself behind it with her hands on the handles.

I eyed it balefully. "It probably needs charging up or something."

"Nonsense! Get in, Clark. I won't ask you a third time," she said in a warning voice.

I wondered sourly what she was intending to do if I refused again. Given her size, she probably stood a fair chance of pushing me into it, but she'd never get me up the stairs in the first place. I'm pretty strong for a sick man.

And this was ridiculous, anyway. She was treating me like a five-year old kid, and I was thinking like one.

Which was when I had the idea.

Sighing heavily, I stood up reluctantly, trudged theatrically up the stairs and lowered myself gingerly into the chair. Even though I had an ulterior motive, I still experienced a cold shudder of fear at that moment. This was my worst nightmare come true.

Tilley's hand grabbed my shoulder and pulled me back. "Sit properly," she commanded.

I settled back further, feeling the chair mould itself around me; welcoming me into its dread embrace.

"And put your feet on the footrest, for heaven's sake!" she added. "Come on, Clark — this is the easy bit."

I did as I was told, hating that final loss of contact with the floor. Without that, I felt as if I'd relinquished all control to the chair and whoever was steering it. Okay, so that was supposed to be me, but I still felt helpless. This probably all sounds totally irrational, but that's how it seemed at the time.

"At last!" she said. "Now, I'm just going to push you along a few paces so you get the feel of it."

"Okay," I replied, gripping the armrests tensely.

And so I took my first brief voyage aboard the Good Ship Wheelchair. There were better ways of spending a Tuesday morning, but it wasn't so bad.

We arrived back where we started. "There," she said, fussing with the chair until it was parked exactly where it had been before. "That wasn't so bad, now was it?"

"No." I took a deep breath and tried to make my next words sound sincere. "Thanks, Tilley. I really had this stupid fear of getting into this thing, but you've helped me overcome that."

"So you'll practice using the controls?"

"Yes." I clambered out of the hated contraption, glad to be back on my own two feet. "I'll be ready to wow you next week with my amazing skill and dexterity on four wheels. Dr Tempus's money won't go to waste."

She picked up the blanket and started arranging it over the chair again. "I should think not!" she retorted.

I eyed her very carefully as I went on. "By the way, talking of Dr Tempus, have you ever met Jason Trask — personally, I mean?"

She froze for a second, and then smoothed out the blanket and straightened up to face me with a puzzled frown on her face. "Who?"

Now, call me cynical, but if she really hadn't recognise the name, I don't think she would have frozen like that. I felt a small thrill of triumph, and pressed onwards.

"You know — Jason Trask; Head of Operations at the Trask Clinic. I wondered if you'd ever met him. I hear he's quite a maverick," I added with a knowing grin. At least, I hoped that's what it was; I'm pretty new at this game.

She shook her head quickly. "I have no idea what you're talking about, Clark. I've never met anyone called Jason Trask."

I shrugged. "Maybe he's too senior. I just thought, as you work for Dr Tempus, and he works at the clinic…maybe he'd have introduced himself to you or something."

"There's no-one of that name at the clinic," she insisted emphatically. "I don't know where you dreamt him up, but I've never heard of him." Then she frowned again. "Are you feeling all right? You're asking some strange questions." She reached up and laid her hand on my forehead. "Maybe I should take another look at you."

I ducked away from her. "I'm fine, Tilley. I was just curious — forget I mentioned him."

She continued to frown at me. "If I were you, I'd stop wasting time asking about people who don't exist and concentrate on learning how to control your wheelchair."

That thing again! Honestly, she was like a stuck record sometimes. "Yeah…I don't suppose you've got an address for the clinic? My parents had one from years ago, but it looks like they've moved since then."

"Clark, why on earth do you want an address?" she exclaimed impatiently. "What are you going to write to them about?"

"I just thought…in an emergency…"

"You call me. Then I arrange for you to be admitted if it's necessary."

"What if you're not around?"

That was my trump card — I couldn't see how she'd be able to argue her way out of that one. I thought I'd caught her out, too, because she definitely hesitated for a second. Then she started buttoning up her coat, saying,

"You phone Nurse Baxter."

"But she's retired!"

"She still has the means to contact the clinic in an emergency."

"I don't see why you can't just give me the number," I said in frustration.

"Because you don't need it," she replied.

I felt like screaming by this point, but instead I took a deep breath, counted to ten, and tried again. "Is the phone number classified, or something?"

"Don't be silly," she snapped, and crossed to the door. "I don't understand why you're suddenly so interested in contacting the clinic, anyway. You've never shown any interest in it before today."

Time to try the sympathy angle again. "It's just…using the wheelchair for the first time…knowing that one of these days I could be too ill to walk…I could fall…" I drew in a shuddering breath, which wasn't too difficult to fake since I was starting to frighten myself. "I got scared, Tilley," I said. "Panicked a little, I guess." I gave her a beseeching look. "Couldn't you just give me the phone number? It would really set my mind at rest."

I'd never realised until that day just how duplicitous I could be, if I put my mind to it. I'd always thought I was a pretty straight-up guy. It seemed Ms Lane was slowly corrupting me.

Mind you, I was already starting to feel guilty about trying to trick Tilley, and was on the verge of telling her not to worry, when she sighed heavily and reached into her purse for a piece of paper and a pen. "If it worries you that much," she muttered, scribbling a number down. "Here."

I glanced down at the number immediately, but didn't recognise the area code. "Thanks, Tilley," I said. "You don't know how much this means to me."

"Just don't go phoning them every time you've got a tooth ache," she said. "Now, I really must go."

She opened the door and left.

I rushed down to the phone and dialled.

"Switchboard," said a flat, unemotional female voice.

"Is that the Trask Clinic?" I asked.

The line went dead.

I dialled again. "Can I speak to Jason Trask, please," I said after the woman answered.

"Please state the extension number you require," said the woman.

"Does Jason Trask work there?" I asked.

"Please state the extension number you require," she said again.

"Five nine seven," I said, thinking I may as well go for a lucky guess.

"That is not a valid extension number."

The line went dead a second time.

Darn. So much for Tilley giving me an emergency number — I'd be dead before this lot did anything for me. I considered play-acting a little; phoning as myself and saying I was on the verge of collapse but couldn't contact my nurse. But I didn't want to give myself away yet, so I decided to reserve that tactic as a last resort if nothing else worked.

Next stop was Information, but they wanted something more specific than a phone number and a possible state before they could give me an address.

It was all very frustrating. I was sure the phone number was correct; the circumspect way that woman had answered the phone was one clue, and the fact that the phone had gone dead as soon as I'd asked for the clinic by name was another.

I flopped down on the sofa, thinking hard. I'd started out with the idea that the clinic weren't very nice people, but were basically legitimate and as publicly accountable as any other substantial US institution. Then Ms Lane had asked some awkward questions, and I'd realised I didn't actually know very much about the clinic and didn't even have a contact number if I needed them in an emergency.

Now I seemed to be chasing after an organisation which was secretive, unhelpful and possibly not even registered anywhere. Ms Lane had produced this shadowy character called Jason Trask, and when I'd tested his name on Tilley, she'd definitely recognised it. So just who had been treating me all these years?

Yet when I'd been under their care, they'd seemed real enough. They'd been professional and efficient, and while I'd hated all the tests, I'd eventually realised that they'd been a necessary evil — otherwise, how else would the doctors there have known how to treat me?

Looking back, I supposed one thing which was odd was that I'd never seen any of the other patients at the clinic. I'd assumed there were others; the place was obviously big enough to cater for several more. Yet, apart from one time, I'd never seen another soul.

I closed my eyes, remembering the boy I'd glimpsed through an open door. He'd been older than me; maybe around ten or eleven. His wheelchair had been one of those big, padded ones with a headrest, and there'd been a strap across his chest — to hold him upright, I'd assumed. He'd turned his face towards me, and gaunt, sunken eyes had stared out at me from dark sockets. His forehead had been dotted with electrodes, and I'd experienced a sharp stab of fear, because I, too, had sat with wires attached to my head — but I didn't yet need to be strapped into a wheelchair, and I didn't look as if I hadn't slept for a month.

A male voice from within the room had said, "You're not concentrating hard enough. Try again."

A brief flash of pain had crossed the boy's features, and then the door had slammed shut, blocking my view. The nurse with me had tugged my hand to move me on down the corridor, but not before I heard a muffled voice say, "Concentrate, dammit!"

I asked the nurse who the boy was, but she told me not to be nosy. I didn't ask again, and I never saw him after that. I had my own set of troubles to cope with, and soon I stopped thinking about him altogether.

A sound outside in the street brought be back to the present day with a start. I opened my eyes and hauled myself off the sofa to fetch a glass of water. I'd forgotten most of the incident with the sickly-looking boy until today, and in light of all the new things I'd been learning recently about the clinic, it all seemed very sinister.

In the kitchen, I gulped down the water, glad of the familiar shock of cold liquid running down my throat. I had a horrible sense of the world turning and shifting around me; that nothing was what it seemed any more.

***

Chapter Thirteen — Unlucky For Some

I asked her out.

On a date.

Yep, Clark Kent, the guy with the wheelchair and little green men for parents, asked Lois Lane, the woman with bags of personality and a cute face, out on a date.

I figured I may as well. Living with a chronic condition gives you a certain outlook on life — kind of a 'seize the day' attitude, because tomorrow you might be too sick to ever see her again.

Besides, I needed to see her. I wanted to share what I'd learned about the clinic, and find out if she'd got any further with Jason Trask. So why not combine business with pleasure?

And you know what?

She said yes!

I couldn't believe it. I nearly dropped the phone, I was so surprised. I mean, I'd made sure it was easy for her to say yes, by making it sound more like a meeting with a movie tacked onto the end rather than an actual date, but I never expected my tactics to actually work.

I just hope it's not because she feels sorry for me.

After she'd agreed, she said grudgingly, "I guess this means you'll have to call me Lois."

I grinned. "I guess it does. And you'll have to call me Clark."

"Just don't go getting any ideas that this changes our relationship. *I* am still a professional reporter, and *you* are a member of the newspaper-buying public. Got that?"

Only Lois Lane could make being a member of the public sound like the lowest of the low. "I think so," I said. "What you mean is I pay your salary."

There was a pause. "You think you scored a point there, don't you? Well, you're wrong, you know. The paper gets most of its revenue from its advertisers," she said with a note of triumph in her voice.

"Yeah, but they wouldn't advertise unless people like me bought the paper in the first place." One to me, I reckoned.

There was another pause. "You think you're so smart, don't you? I'm not sure I want to spend all evening with such a smart guy," she said.

She didn't really sound like she meant that, but I decided not to push my luck too far. I didn't want us to fall out before we'd even got to first base. "I promise I'll be on my best behaviour. I'll come over to the Planet around six?" I said.

"Okay — the conference room should be empty around then."

So I turned up on the dot, surprised to find almost as many people still at their desks as had been there the other morning. I remarked on it to Lois, who shrugged.

"The news doesn't stop just because it's the end of the working day."

Well, I knew that, of course. I suppose I just had a pre- conceived idea of office life, having never worked in one myself.

Anyway, we took a couple of cups of coffee into the room Lois called the conference room — basically a rectangular room with a big table in the centre, chairs arranged around the table, and a TV plus video in one corner.

"Is this where you have editorial meetings?" I asked, taking a seat and looking around curiously.

"Yes, and interviews, reviews, shouting sessions…you name it, it happens in here. So what have you got for me?"

I told her about Tilley and the clinic's phone number; also about Tilley's reaction to Jason Trask.

"I told you he was connected with the clinic!" she said. "And remember I told you about that ex-intelligence contact I know?"

I nodded. "He said Trask was a loose cannon."

"Well, I found out some more. Apparently when my guy knew him, Trask had a reputation for using pretty unorthodox methods to get the results he wanted, and had a habit of getting his own way even if his superiors didn't approve of what he was doing."

"I'm surprised he didn't get thrown out," I remarked. "The military don't like people who don't follow the rulebook."

"My guy thinks he has friends in high places," Lois said, the disgust clear in her voice. "Anyway, get this — Trask was also apparently obsessed with the paranormal. He thought it was a huge untapped resource, and that the intelligence services should invest more money in harnessing that power. Don't ask me what kind of power he thought he could tap into," she added dryly.

"The paranormal?" I said. "We have people being paid by the government who want to spend our tax dollars on ghosts?"

Lois shrugged. "Doesn't surprise me one bit."

The thing was, it all made a grim kind of sense. It was only a short step from the paranormal to extra terrestrials, which is where I obviously came in. And if Trask had wanted to conduct research, and he didn't much care how he did it or whether his superiors minded that he was spending government money on his obsession, then it was faintly possible that he could have set up some kind of lab behind their backs.

What was Lois getting me into?

Staring at her, I had a sudden flash back to that gaunt, sick-looking boy at the clinic, and the rough voice ordering him to concentrate. Concentrate on what?

I'd seen movies; horror movies, mostly, where people were kidnapped by sinister organisations and forced to use telepathy to move objects and people, usually with evil intent. Surely that sort of thing didn't happen in real life?

Yet the voice I'd heard ordering the boy to concentrate had been harsh. He clearly hadn't wanted to do whatever was expected of him, and he'd looked miserable and lifeless.

Had he been the subject of an experiment?

That sense of shifting sands, of the familiar becoming unfamiliar was back again. I looked down at the cup in my hand and took a sip of coffee.

"Maybe I shouldn't be so surprised either," I murmured.

"What do you mean?"

But this was crazy. This was real life, not some movie director's idea of a good plotline. People just didn't get spirited away to some government hideaway, or made to develop telepathic abilities and forced to use them against their will. People weren't telepathic, period.

I shrugged. "Nothing." I took another sip of coffee.

"No, I think you know something," she said. "What is it?"

I shook my head. "Really, it's nothing."

"Come on, Clark; don't go all coy on me. If you know something, just tell me." She smiled. "Trust me, I'm a reporter."

"I'm not being coy." Just letting common sense reassert itself. I sighed. "I just think if I tell you this, you'll put a certain interpretation on it, and it might not be the right one."

"Well, you don't know that for certain until you try me." She cocked her head on one side. "How about you tell me, and then you can tell me what you think it means? I'll keep quiet."

Well, that sounded reasonable, although I knew she'd still end up reaching her own conclusions. I sighed; that was why I'd come here, I supposed — to get her opinion about all this. She was used to connecting disparate pieces of information together to form a bigger picture, and I wanted her to help me figure it all out.

So I nodded. "Okay." I took a deep breath. "I remembered something the other day about the clinic."

By the time I'd finished telling her about the boy, she was staring intensely at me. I could see from her eyes that she had reached the conclusion I'd expected her to reach.

"You don't know who he was?" she asked.

"No. I wish now that I'd tried harder to find out more about him-"

"But you were only a kid, right?"

"Yes, but still…"

"What about the voice? Did you ever put a face to it?"

I thought, sifting through all the doctors and technicians I remembered from my two visits to the clinic. "No, I don't think I ever met him."

"Still, you know what this means, don't you?"

I stood up restlessly. "It could mean any number of things," I said, walking over to the TV to fiddle with the knobs.

"Such as?"

"Such as maybe he'd had some kind of brain trauma, and they were helping him regain his cognitive processes."

Lois snorted. "'Concentrate, dammit' doesn't sound like helping, it sounds like haranguing."

I prodded one of the buttons on the set. "You don't know that. Perhaps he had behavioural problems and needed a firm hand. These things are easily misinterpreted out of context."

"True, but then why didn't the nurse who was with you just tell you that? Why did she refuse to tell you anything about him?"

"I was only seven. Maybe she thought I was too young to understand."

"Maybe." She shrugged. "Everything you say is plausible, but you know and I know that there's another explanation."

I turned to face her. "I thought we agreed you weren't going to interpret this for me."

"I'm not. But you're not being honest with yourself if you don't consider all the possibilities."

I pulled out a chair at the other end of the table and sat down. "That's easy for you to say, but this is my life we're talking about here. As much as I hated everything they did to me, the fact is I probably wouldn't be sitting here talking to you if it wasn't for the treatment the Trask clinic gave me."

She frowned. "Okay, I can't argue with you there. But don't you think they way they operate is strange, if they're supposed to be completely legitimate? They took a small boy away from his parents and didn't even let him see them. You said yourself they were cold and impersonal — not exactly ideal carers for a young child. And have you ever wondered what else they did to you while you were under their care?"

I laughed weakly. "What — you're suggesting they brainwashed me or something?"

"Who knows? Maybe they tried."

"No," I said emphatically. "I refuse to believe that. Dr Tempus wouldn't let them."

"Oh, yes, the good Dr Tempus. I forgot about him."

I looked at her sharply.

"Sorry," she said. "It's just that you seem to think he can do no wrong. I have a problem with that concept."

"He's not perfect," I said, frustrated by her negative attitude towards him. "No-one's perfect. He's just a basically good guy, okay?"

She held her hands up. "Okay. I'll try to remember that. Let's get back to the boy. Are you going to admit what's on your mind about him or do I have to say it for you?"

"No, you don't have to say it for me, because it's a crazy fantasy." I pushed my chair back and stood up. "Look, shouldn't we be going? The movie starts in an hour and we haven't eaten yet."

"Clark, you can't run away from this," she said.

"There's nothing to run away from," I retorted. "Come on, I'll show you my favourite pizza place."

The fact was, I was scared. Terrified, even. I don't think she'd really understood me when I said this was my life we were discussing. She was asking me to accept that the clinic which had been a routine, if distant, part of my life for nearly 20 years was not the place of healing and medical expertise I and my parents had believed it was. She wanted me to accept that it had been an evil place intent on exploiting me and people like me. She wanted me to believe that the boy I'd seen all those years ago had been the subject of a cruel experiment, not a sick child in desperate need of expert treatment.

How could I accept that? How could I accept that I'd been exploited for nearly 20 years?

And as I'd told her, the fact was, the clinic had made me well again. I simply couldn't reconcile Lois's hints and assumptions about the clinic with the bald facts as I knew them.

Dinner was a subdued affair. There was an atmosphere between us which hadn't been there before. All the other times I'd been with Lois, our conversation had flowed freely; we'd laughed, exchanged crazy banter, and had some darn good discussions. This time, we were polite.

I almost suggested we skip the movie. As it was, I half- expected her to find an excuse not to go, but she didn't. In the end, I suspect we went because neither of us wanted to let the other down. Or maybe neither of us wanted to back down first.

Afterwards, we made our way out of the movie house without exchanging a word other than where the exit was. Outside, I led her down the street a few paces to get away from the crowds and then turned to say goodbye.

"Thank you for coming tonight," I said.

"Thanks for asking me," she replied. "I enjoyed it."

I nodded. "Good. Maybe we can do it again sometime?" That is, if you want to spend a stilted evening eating pizza with a sick alien…

"Sure!" she said with false brightness. "I'd like that."

Yeah, just about as much as she'd like to have her appendix out without anaesthetic.

She looked down the street and pointed. "I go this way."

The opposite direction to me. How fitting. I did a quick weighing up of pros and cons — should I lie and say I was going the same way?

No point; no sense in flogging a dead horse.

"Well, then I guess we say goodbye here," I said.

"Yes."

"Goodnight, Lois."

"Night, Clark."

We smiled emptily at each other, then turned and went our separate ways.

I dug my hands in my pockets and trudged down the street to my bus stop. What a way to end an evening. I was walking away from a woman I really liked, having hardly said a word to her all night. Dinner had been a waste; I'd hardly noticed my pizza while I was eating it. I could have been chewing cardboard for all the difference it would have made. I'd enjoyed the movie, but as soon as it had finished, reality had kicked back in and I'd remembered the rift between us. Why couldn't I have bent just a little; let her talk about the clinic like I knew she really wanted to?

"Clark!"

I swung around to find her jogging towards me. Wondering what she'd forgotten, I closed the distance between us until she was standing in front of me, slightly out of breath.

"I forgot to ask," she said, panting. "Is it okay if I carry on with the investigation?"

I frowned. "I'm not sure…"

"Clark, you can't back away now! Not when we're getting so close."

Well, here it was — the conversation I'd refused to let her have before. Yet even though half of me was glad we were talking at last, the other half of me — the speaking half of me, apparently — still felt bruised and recalcitrant. "Close to what?" asked my argumentative half. "Close to Jason Trask? As far as I can see, you've only got a few rumours from a guy who hardly knew him."

"That's why we need to dig deeper — to convert the rumours into facts. Look, I know this is hard for you-"

"No, you don't," I said, a little more forcefully than I had intended. "You don't understand at all." At her hurt expression, I relented a bit. "I'm not blaming you for that, it's just a fact — you can't possibly understand what it's like for me."

She pursed her lips. "You're right — I can't ever know what it's like. But are you going to go through all your life doing that? Shutting people out because they don't understand? Life must get terribly lonely for you up there in your martyr's prison."

"I'm not a martyr-"

"You sure act like one. How about stepping down from your prison and letting someone help you — letting someone actually care about you?"

She cared about me?

"Because…" I floundered on the rocks of indecision.

"Because what, Clark?" She grasped my upper arms and looked me straight in the eye. "Look — I know you've got your own suspicions about the clinic. Why else would you have tested your nurse with Jason Trask's name, or tricked her into giving you their phone number?"

"Yes, but-"

"No buts, Clark."

Her intensity was very compelling, and I found myself almost ready to agree to just about anything, she was so persuasive.

Yet all my instincts were screaming at me not to dig deeper; that I wasn't supposed to investigate further into the clinic. They had never encouraged openness, and I'd lived my whole life keeping secrets; Dr Tempus had always encouraged confidentiality and had strongly shunned publicity. Basically, my life was settled, if difficult. Lois wanted to tear it apart.

But *I'd* forced Tilley to give me that phone number, hadn't I?

"Come on, Clark," she urged. "Don't give in now — I know you're not a quitter."

Those dark brown eyes staring up at me held a lot of strength for one so slender and graceful. They burned fiercely, telling me I was being a fool for hesitating; for refusing to see what was right in front of me. They also told me I was a fool for keeping her at a distance when all I wanted was to hold her in my arms. Whatever she might believe about the Trask clinic, I knew I didn't want to lose her.

If only I wasn't so scared…

Suddenly, before I even knew what I was doing, I was wrapping my arms around her and hugging her tightly, resting my head on her shoulder and breathing in her sweetly-perfumed hair. I sensed her frozen shock immediately, and a voice in my head was busily telling me what an idiot I'd been and that I should let her go, when her arms came up around my back and she was holding me just as tightly as I was holding her.

Oh, how I'd missed this closeness; embracing a soft, warm, feminine form in my arms. I hadn't held anyone like this since Lana and I had split up, and until this moment, I hadn't realised just how much I missed it. Mom and Dad gave me hugs, of course, and even old Nurse Baxter used to hold me when I was little, but that was different.

I felt like I'd finally made contact with the rest of humanity.

I came to my senses, of course, and let go after a few moments. "I-I'm sorry," I stammered. "You must think I'm a complete wacko."

"No…no, it's okay," she said, but she definitely looked stunned and not at all certain of who she'd landed herself with.

And if she was stunned, I was totally horrified with myself. What on earth had gotten into me? It was like another person had stepped into my body and made me wrap my arms around her. Someone with a lot more nerve than I had.

"It was crazy of me — I don't know what got into me." I said. "I don't usually go around hugging people in the street."

She raised an eyebrow. "Boy, am I glad to hear that," she said.

"No, really. I'm sorry — it won't happen again, I promise."

She shook her head. "It's okay, Clark," she said with a lot more calm than I was feeling. "You obviously needed it. Are you all right now?"

I groaned inwardly — now she was humouring me. Quite sensibly, I supposed, she was treating the deranged patient with kid gloves in case he did something even wackier.

"I'm fine," I said. "Look, you'll probably never want to see me again after this, but just for the record, I think you're right. I should go on with the investigation, and if there's anything you can do to help me, I'd really appreciate it. You don't have to meet me again; we can do everything by phone." I dared to look straight at her. "Is that okay with you?"

She shook her head, and my heart sank. "Clark…"

"That's okay," I said quickly. "I understand-"

"No, you don't," she said. "Of course I want to see you again."

Huh? "You do?"

"Yes. It's not often I get gratuitously hugged in the middle of the street by a good-looking guy."

"You…you didn't mind?"

"Well, you took me a bit by surprise, but no, I didn't mind. I might even have enjoyed it," she said with a coy smile.

"Might have?"

"Yeah, there was only one problem," she said seriously, and she closed the short distance between us, pressed her body against mine, tipped her face up and walked her fingers slowly up my chest.

I gulped. "What was that?" She was so close, I could smell her hair shampoo again. Coconut, I thought. Definitely coconut.

"I couldn't understand why you didn't…" Her fingers walked across my shoulder, while I just stood there helplessly and stared into her deep brown eyes. They'd lost their fire, but not their intensity or their ability to capture and hold me with their power.

"Didn't…?" I whispered.

She was right there; right there in front of me, just inches away, her face looking up at me so seriously, yet so softly. Her eyes were inviting me, telling me it was okay-

Suddenly a car swept by and honked its horn at us. I caught a glimpse of a young lad grinning broadly and making a very graphic and suggestive gesture through the windscreen at me. I looked back at Lois, and we both knew without saying a word that the spell had been broken.

I smiled ruefully. "I guess we should be heading home."

"Yeah, it's getting late. We'll meet up again soon?" she asked.

I nodded. "I'd like that very much, Lois. And I meant what I said about the investigation. There's not much I can do without your input though, and I guess you must have other work you need to do too…"

She shrugged. "Well, I'll give Jimmy the phone number for the clinic and see what he can do with it. And I'd like to sit down with you and go through absolutely everything you can remember about the clinic. Even insignificant things could give us important clues. But you're right; I do have some other stuff I need to work on. How about I phone you in a couple of days?"

"Sounds good to me."

She smiled. "Night, Clark."

"Night, Lois."

As I walked back to my bus stop, my mind finally decided to process something she'd said earlier: 'It's not every day I get gratuitously hugged by a good-looking guy.'

Lois thought I was good-looking!

***

Chapter Fourteen — Parents

I could hear the concern in their voices when I told them. Dad, in particular, didn't think it was a good idea to start upsetting the status quo. So what if the clinic was a little secretive? Up until the Star article, that had suited us just fine.

Mom was worried that I was putting myself under too much strain by investigating the clinic. She didn't actually say that, of course, but she kept asking if I was all right and how had my last check-up with Tilley gone.

But they were both surprised when I told them the address and phone number they'd had for the clinic were useless. They rationalised it immediately, naturally, suggesting the clinic had simply moved. Even when I told them about the unhelpful reply I'd received when I'd phoned Tilley's number, they said maybe Tilley had written down the number wrong.

Even Lois, who previously had been Mom's next match-making project, was discussed with a tinge of concern.

"Is she going to write an article about this?" asked Dad. "Because that might not be so good for you, son."

"Why not?" I asked a little tetchily. "It's about time the clinic came out of the shadows, if you ask me."

"But Clark, sweetie, don't forget they hold your medical records," said Mom. "You wouldn't want those to become public knowledge, now would you?"

"Mom, Lois is not going to print my private records in the Daily Planet. She's not that kind of reporter."

"Are you sure, son?" said Dad. "She seems to be pushing pretty hard-"

"Yes!" I snapped hotly. "I'm sure."

There was silence at the other end of the line; a very loud silence. I could hear all their hurt and concern crammed into it.

Mom broke it first. "Clark, we can tell that you really like her," she said quietly, "And we're happy for you, truly we are. We just want you to remember that she has a job to do, just like any other reporter."

I sighed. I love Mom and Dad, but sometimes I really think that they're over-protective. I may be sick, but I can look after myself.

But there was no point in fighting with them — I didn't want to fight with the only family I'd got.

"Okay," I said resignedly. "I'm sorry I snapped."

"That's okay, honey. You're probably just tired. How's the book?"

I hadn't written a word for ages, and her question pricked my conscience. "Slow," I replied evasively.

"Well, don't forget to send me whatever you've got."

"I won't."

I wasn't fooling her, of course. Mom knew I hadn't written anything, which was precisely why she was asking about it.

"Take care, son," said Dad.

"I will. Love you both," I said.

"Bye, Clark," said Mom.

I replaced the receiver with a sigh. They meant well; I knew that, and I was really grateful that I had such caring parents. They didn't really interfere in my private life, either, and I appreciated that, too. It was just that now and then this over-anxious, over-protective streak would show itself, and I'd want to scream in frustration.

I knew why, of course. It all stemmed from Sarah's death — if you remember, I mentioned right at the start of this long ramble that she died as a baby. Mom wasn't able to have any more kids after Sarah, so when I came along, literally out of the blue, and started getting sick, they were terrified they were going to lose me the same way they'd lost Sarah. They've never entirely gotten over that feeling.

I don't think they ever will, unless by some miracle I get well again.

Which brings me to Lois. As I sit here writing this, I keep wondering if she realises just what she's letting herself in for if she starts a relationship with me? She's only ever seen me at my best — I haven't had an attack for ages. Has she thought about what it could be like when I'm sick? I'm not a pretty sight when I'm sick, and I'm definitely not a nice person.

Of course, I could be jumping the gun here. Maybe she was just flirting with me the other night. Having a bit of fun, with nothing serious meant by any of it.

Yes, that was probably right.

***

Chapter Fifteen — Disaster

Well, I spoke too soon, didn't I?

I had a really bad attack yesterday, and much to my embarrassment and chagrin, Lois was there when it happened.

She'd come over to talk about the clinic, and I'd been working pretty hard, trying to remember every last detail about the building and the people — even the smell of the place, how it was decorated, what the staff wore, and any insignia I could recall on equipment or uniforms.

It always starts with my eyes. One minute, I was answering one of her questions, and the next, I was looking at the skull behind her face. I tried to ignore it at first, because sometimes I can keep it under control if it's fairly mild. But it's difficult to behave normally when the person you're talking to keeps fading in and out and all you can see is her bone structure and a few blobby bits which are where her internal organs are.

"Are you all right?" she asked me.

Not an unreasonable question, since I'd closed my eyes while she was talking to me, and no doubt I was a bit paler than the guy she'd started this conversation with.

"Sorry, but I'm not feeling very well. We'll have to finish this some other time," I said, knowing I was being abrupt but anxious for her to leave before things got any worse. I could tell already that this was going to be a bad one, and I didn't want her around to see it.

"Is there anything I can do?" she asked.

I eased back in my seat and rested my head on the cushions. "No, but thanks for offering." I felt stupid, talking to her with my eyes shut, but it was easier and safer that way. "Can you let yourself out?"

"Of course."

From behind my closed eyes, I sensed her get up and hover uncertainly around me.

"I'll be fine," I insisted, desperate to make her go away.

It was a lie, of course. I knew I was going to be extremely ill very soon, but that was all the more reason to get rid of her quickly.

I heard her move away, but then my hearing started doing its usual crazy thing, and I just had to assume after a couple of minutes that she'd left the apartment. I opened my eyes cautiously to find the phone; I needed Tilley, and I needed her fast.

Luckily, I could see well enough to reach out for the receiver, but then my focus went abruptly haywire again and I misjudged the distance to the phone, knocking it with a clatter to the floor.

Great.

I closed my eyes again to try and clear them, getting ready to have another go with the phone in a moment or two, but then I heard someone pick it up from the floor and place in back on the table.

"Tell me the number you need to dial."

My heart sank. Lois hadn't left after all, and she must have heard or seen me clumsily fumbling for the phone. Mortified, I said, "I thought you'd gone."

"I forgot my purse," she replied. "Who is it you need to phone?"

I opened my eyes, but the room was full of weird semi- opaque shapes so I quickly shut them again. I really didn't want her around. I didn't want her to see me when I was sick and helpless, and I really, really didn't want her around when I was dealing with the side-effects of the kryptomide Tilley would soon be dosing me up with.

"It's okay — I'll manage," I said, squinting with half- opened eyes and reaching out in the general direction of the phone. "You must need to get back to your paper."

My hand hit the receiver, but then she pulled it away from me. "Clark, you can hardly see to pick up the phone, let alone dial the numbers. Just tell me who you need to phone, and I'll get them for you. Is it Tilley, your nurse?"

She sounded like she wasn't expecting 'no' for an answer. I considered arguing again, but in the end it seemed easier to give in. Maybe she'd go once I'd let her make the call for me.

"Yes," I replied.

"What's her number?"

I gave her the number and listened to her dial. Then I made the mistake of listening for the ringing tone and straining to hear Tilley answer — and my hearing went crazy again. The volume of sound always makes my head hurt, and this was just as bad as usual. I wanted to put my hands on my ears to try and deaden the noise, but I couldn't do that in front of Lois, so I just sat, suffered, and hoped Lois would say something sensible in the meantime to Tilley.

After a few minutes, the noise abated and I heard Lois's voice drift back to me. "…hear me?"

It seemed hearing was temporarily restored to normality. "Sorry?" I asked.

"Tilley says she'll be here in twenty minutes."

Great — the battle-axe was on her way, and now it really was time to get rid of Lois. "Thanks. You should go now."

"You don't look like you should be left alone," she replied doubtfully.

"I'll be fine," I insisted.

"Maybe; maybe not." She paused. "Anyway, I think I should stay at least until your nurse gets here. Is there anything I can get for you in the meantime?"

She was using that no-nonsense voice again; the one that brooked no argument. "No, but thanks for asking. Won't your paper be wondering where you are?"

"I have a few hours before copy deadline."

I was losing the argument, and it was wearing me out. "Lois, I have done this before," I said wearily. "It's not the first time I've had to cope with an attack on my own."

"Just because you can doesn't mean you have to," she retorted crisply. "Besides, have you forgotten what I said the other night about letting someone care about you?"

"No, but…" I sagged against the sofa cushions, tired of arguing. Why couldn't she just take the hint and leave?

I couldn't do this. I couldn't be sick *and* have an argument with Lois. If she wanted to stay, then fine — she'd see me at my very worst, and that would be an end to any relationship we could have together. Maybe it would even be better this way — a quick finish before things got too serious.

After a couple of minutes, I felt her put something on the sofa near me.

"Here," she said. "You may as well be comfortable."

I opened my eyes, and saw amidst the shifting shapes that she'd put one of the pillows from my bed on top of one arm of the sofa. That was kind of her, I thought. "Thanks," I said, and laid down, sinking my pounding head into the soft pillow and stretching out full-length on the sofa.

"Can I get you anything?" she asked after a minute.

"No, really, I'll be fine," I said.

And actually, as long as I kept my eyes closed and my hearing was behaving itself, I wasn't too bad. I heard her sit down again, and we fell into silence.

***

Eventually, the doorbell rang, and I knew Tilley had arrived. I heard Lois answer the door, but then when I tried to listen in to their conversation, my hearing went ballistic again and I couldn't make out a word.

I felt a hand on my shoulder and opened an eye cautiously. The hazy form of Tilley was bending over me, talking so loudly that the sounds were distorting and I couldn't distinguish the words. I mean, she wasn't actually shouting, but that's what it seems like when I'm having an attack. When I didn't respond, she tugged at my wrist in a clear request for me to move, but I really didn't feel like shifting from my comfortable place on the sofa. I closed my eyes again. She could treat me right here.

Someone touched my shoulder again, and this time when I opened my eyes again, it was Lois. Close up, I could make out parts of her face and it struck me that she really had a cute-shaped nose. It was petite like the rest of her and didn't have any odd bumps or bulges like some noses.

I decided to focus on the cute nose, and strangely, her voice began to come back into a normal-sounding range.

"…thinks you'd be more comfortable in bed. Do you think you could make it?"

I bet Tilley didn't phrase it quite like that — 'more comfortable in bed'. Anyway, now that Lois was asking me to move instead of Tilley, I felt bad about refusing. And I'd do anything for that cute nose. "Okay."

I sat up slowly, and felt her hand clasp mine. I snatched my hand away hastily before I could hurt her. She didn't realise her mistake, of course.

"Don't let him hold you directly," barked Tilley brusquely. "It's dangerous when he's having an attack."

Because I could crush her hand, just like I crushed that glass paperweight all those years ago. I wasn't safe when I was sick.

"Do it like this," Tilley said, and I felt her hand grasp my wrist and tug me to my feet. I stood up and let her lead me to the bed, wondering all the time what Lois must be thinking of me. I must have looked a pathetic sight, having to be led around my own apartment. Anyway, I stretched out on the bed, and waited for Tilley to make her next move.

"Roll up your sleeve," she commanded. "You haven't been taking your medication, have you?" she scolded.

Oh, that. Yes, Dr Tempus started me on kryptomide tablets a couple of months ago, as a way of giving me more frequent, but less concentrated, doses. You see, I've developed an intolerance to the stuff after all these years on the same medication. The injections were giving me severe nausea, headaches like you wouldn't believe, chills, sweats…you get the picture.

But the tablets weren't much better. "They make me feel sick," I said. "And lethargic."

"And this is better?" she said sarcastically.

"I thought I was doing okay. I thought maybe I was getting acclimatised at last."

"Clark, you know that's not going to happen. Your body is simply too alien; too abnormal to ever function properly. You come off your meds, you get sick. And then you get sicker, and then you die — it's that simple," she said in her usual blunt way. Charm was never Tilley's strong point. "Make a fist."

Her strong, manly hand grasped my elbow.

"Aren't you going to examine him first?" asked Lois suddenly.

I'd forgotten she was still around. God, how embarrassing.

"Why? You heard him yourself — he hasn't been taking his meds. He needs kryptomide, not a medical examination."

I felt the cold swab of alcohol on my skin.

"But maybe this isn't what you think it is," Lois insisted. "Or maybe he's not well enough to tolerate medication — it sounds like it's pretty strong stuff."

"Look, Clark has been my patient for over a year — I think I know what I'm doing, young lady. If you want to make yourself useful, fetch him a glass of water. He'll probably want it later."

Talk about a severe lack of charm. I stretched out my free hand.

"Lois?"

The side of the bed dipped. I knew I could trust her not to make the same mistake twice; she merely clasped my hand gently in both of hers.

"Is it going to hurt a lot?" she asked.

I shrugged. "I'm used to it. I'll be fine in a few hours. Why don't you go back to the Planet? Tilley will look after me."

"I'd prefer to stay."

"I'm not going to be much use for a while."

"I'd still prefer to stay."

Her insistence was both frustrating and touching. Frustrating, because I was still clinging onto the forlorn hope that if she left right now, she wouldn't be totally put off by my illness. If she saw me after the kryptomide, she'd never come back. I mean, look where it got me with Lana when she found out how sick I was.

But it felt good to hear her say she wanted to stay with me; it felt good to have her near me.

"Oh, for heaven's sake, Clark — let her stay," said Tilley from my other side. "I haven't got all day to wait here while you two argue."

She swabbed my arm again. "Now hold still."

I closed my eyes and Lois held my hand tighter. I focused on that as the needle went in and the usual burning sensation began to creep up my arm.

Tilley pressed a cotton-wool wad on the injection site and taped it down. "All done," she said crisply.

I lay still for a moment, waiting for the worst of the pain in my arm to recede. Soon, things would start to get a whole lot worse, but for a few seconds, all I'd have would be a sore arm.

And at least I could open my eyes and look up at a concerned-looking Lois, instead of seeing a skeleton in a sea of semi-transparent objects.

"Bad?" she asked softly.

"It's okay," I said, giving her my best shot at a confidence-building smile.

She reached out and brushed away hair from my forehead. "I'd no idea," she said quietly, and my heart sank. She'd be off soon, scared away by the horrible sight of a sick man on his sick bed, dying a slow, living death. Who wanted a useless and disgusting guy like me?

"Thanks for staying with me, Lois. I guess you'll have to get back to your paper now," I said, offering her a graceful exit.

To my surprise, she looked disappointed. "I guess."

Tilley released my wrist where she'd been taking my pulse. "Turn your head," she commanded, and shoved in an ear thermometer.

I watched her read the numbers. "So will I live?" I quipped. Yes, I know it wasn't really funny, but you have to try.

She gave me a silent forbidding look and leant over me, unbuttoning my shirt.

"I can do it," I muttered, batting her hands away. She didn't need to make me look quite so helpless in front of Lois. I fumbled slowly with the buttons, clumsy because the injection arm was stiff. Tilley brushed impatiently past my hands with her stethoscope, and planted the cold instrument unceremoniously on my chest, causing me to suck in a shocked breath.

She roamed around for a bit in the usual seemingly random pattern.

Eventually, she pulled the instrument away from her ears with a curt "Good," and started packing her things away. "Have you eaten much today?"

"Enough."

"Make sure you-"

"Keep drinking plenty. Yes, I know."

"And take your meds. I'm not going to keep doing this, Clark. It's a waste of my time, and it's disrespectful to Dr Tempus. You're an alien, you have an incurable medical condition, and you need to take the kryptomide to stay alive. Don't forget that."

"Yeah, yeah."

She went quiet, and when I looked over at her, she was drawing up liquid into another syringe.

"What's that?" I asked warily, although I had a good idea.

"Sedative. Your pulse is a little high." I caught her pointed glance at Lois and was immediately annoyed by her implication that Lois was somehow responsible.

"I don't need a sedative." As long as Lois was around, I wanted to be awake. After this, she probably wouldn't come back again, so I wanted to make the most of these last few minutes with her.

"Clark, I'm your nurse and I'm telling you that you need a sedative. Come on, don't be such a baby." She looked down at me expectantly, holding the syringe upright in one hand.

"No." I didn't have the energy for a more vigorous argument, so I closed my eyes instead and crossed my arms over my chest so she couldn't inject me.

"I don't understand what's gotten into you today," she said sharply.

I sighed. "I'm sorry, Tilley. I know you're only trying to do your best for me, but I'm tired of all the pills and injections. I need a break."

"Clark, there is no 'break'. These pills and injections are what keep you alive."

"Maybe he could manage without a sedative just this once," said Lois. "I'll make sure he rests quietly."

There was a pregnant pause from Tilley, and then she harrumphed. "I can see I'm not required here any more."

She picked her bag up and headed for the door.

"Excuse me!" exclaimed Lois. "Is that it?"

"I'm sorry?" replied Tilley.

"You're just going to leave him like that?"

"Yes. Do you have a problem with that, young lady?"

"Look at him! He's still sick. Aren't you at least going to stay with him until he's over the worst? What if he has a relapse?"

"It's not in my contract to provide primary nursing care."

"But you're a nurse! I think," Lois added under her breath, making me wince at the sarcastic tone in her voice.

"He's been given treatment, he's stable, and all his vitals are well within the norms for his current status. There's nothing more for me to do. Now if you'll excuse me, I have another patient to attend."

Now, at this point, I kind of lost track of their conversation, because the nausea kicked in and started to get seriously bad. All I could think about was whether I was actually going to be sick or not, and whether I should remain where I was and hope it would pass, or whether I should make a dash for the bathroom before it was too late. I was hot, and my heart was beginning to thump loudly in my chest as the sick sensation got progressively worse and worse.

I came to a decision and started making for the bathroom.

Ended up in a clumsy heap on the floor instead.

"Clark! What are you doing?"

It was Lois, kneeling beside me on the floor with a hand on my shoulder.

"Sorry," I mumbled woozily, trying my best to regain a little dignity by pushing myself upright. "Didn't want to make a mess."

"What do you mean?"

"Feel sick," I blurted out, wishing like hell that this wasn't happening; absolutely hating the fact that I was alien and had to live with an incurable illness. And why did it have to be Lois? Why did she, of all people, have to see me like this?

"Oh." I could hear the distaste in her voice. "Um…hold on," she said quickly, and I sensed her scramble to her feet and dash into the kitchen.

A second later, she was back, thrusting a bowl into my hands. "Here," she said.

Ten out of ten, Lois. I hunched over the bowl, waiting. And waiting. A bead of sweat trickled down the side of my face, then across my cheek to drop onto the carpet.

I waited.

The urge to retch was very strong, but not strong enough, it seemed. After sitting there for interminable minutes, Lois rubbing my back now and then, the nausea receded gradually, and instead, reaction began to set in and I started to feel cold rather than too hot. I put the bowl on the floor.

"Okay?" she asked quietly, her hand still resting on my back.

I nodded.

"Why don't we get you back into bed?"

I nodded again, and let her help me stand shakily and totter back to the bed. I laid back on the pillows, feeling totally wretched.

"Are you cold?" she asked.

I guess I'd started shivering. "A little."

She picked up one of my hands in both of hers. "You're freezing," she murmured, rubbing my hand vigorously between her two warm ones. "I can't believe she left you like this."

"There's n-nothing for her to do, really, and I'll be f- fine in a few hours."

"Well, I think it's outrageous, and I don't think she has any right to call herself a nurse. What if you fell over and knocked yourself unconscious?"

"Then I g-guess I'd b-be an ex-alien."

"That's another thing — does she always talk to you like that?"

"Like what?"

"Calling you an alien all the time?"

"Well, it's what I am." I closed my eyes. I wasn't used to having company when I was sick, and the conversation was starting to tire me out.

Then she was down at my feet, pulling my shoes off.

"What are you doing now?" I asked wearily.

"Getting you ready for bed," she answered, and my socks came off too.

"Lois, I'm already in bed."

"You're on the bed, and you need to be in the bed. Come on, help me out here," she said, and starting tugging at the bedclothes underneath me.

I couldn't stand it any longer. "Lois, please stop fussing," I said, more sharply than I intended, and she went very still.

"I'm sorry, I thought I was helping," she said in a low voice. "Do you want me to leave?"

I hadn't meant to hurt her. "No, I just…I'm sorry. I'm not used to company when I'm like this."

"Sorry to have been a nuisance," she replied tartly, dropping the edge of the comforter she'd been trying to pull out from under me.

"Lois…" I didn't feel up to dealing with bruised egos, but she sounded hurt, and I didn't want that. "You're not a nuisance. Please stay."

"No, I'll go if you don't want me around," she said. "We can't have you starting to believe someone actually cares about you, can we?" With that, she turned on her heel.

"Lois!" I pushed myself up on one elbow to find her already shouldering on her coat across in the living room. "I'm sorry I snapped at you. Please don't go."

She bent to snatch her purse off the floor. "I hope you feel better soon, Clark."

"Please." My arm was starting to shake with the effort of holding me up, but I couldn't let her leave like this. "Please — I want you to stay." There. I'd said the scary words. My arm gave way and I flopped back down onto the bed.

"You don't have to say that just to make me feel better."

"No, really. I…like having you around." I would have expanded on that, but I was suddenly hit by a searing spasm of pain. I wasn't prepared for it; she'd distracted me with her talking so that I didn't have a chance to control it. I cried out in agony and curled up reflexively, the pain blotting out any chance of further argument with her. At the back of my mind, I thought dimly that she'd probably take the chance to leave.

Please don't leave me…

"Is…is there anything I can do?" Her voice surprised me because it was suddenly very close.

"No," I gasped. "It'll pass…in a minute…" I rode the pain out, every second an eternity. I wanted to reassure; tell her I wasn't as bad as I looked, but the pain was too intense.

It eased eventually, but as usual it left me exhausted and even weaker than before.

I rolled onto my back. "Sorry about that," I murmured, feeling horribly wiped out and embarrassed by my show of weakness. Grown men didn't cry out loud in pain.

"Don't be," she replied softly, perching on the side of the bed. "Is it always like this?"

"Yes." I would have left it at that, but she looked like she needed some reassurance — and so did I, so I added, "But once I'm over the worst, I should be clear for at least a couple of weeks, if not longer."

She raised an eyebrow in consternation. "Only a couple of weeks?"

"Believe me, it's worth it."

"Why don't you take the tablets? Are they really that bad?"

I nodded. "I'd feel sick and achy all the time, instead of just for a few hours. I tried them for a couple of days and felt wretched the whole time. At least this way I get a couple of weeks feeling normal."

I closed my eyes, sensing the onset of another attack. This time, I felt her take my hand between both of hers and stroke gently. That gave me something to focus on through the pain, and I think it helped.

When the attack was over, I looked up at her. "Thank you."

She shrugged. "Made me feel better, even if it didn't do you any good."

"No, it helped — gave me something to focus on."

"Good." She stood up, and my heart sank. She was leaving after all. Who could blame her?

I didn't even have the strength to lift my head and watch her go, so I just let my eyelids close and waited for the sound of the door shutting.

Except it never came.

Instead, a thick blanket was laid over me. "You were shivering," she said when I opened my eyes in surprise. She was right, and already, I could feel the extra warmth beginning to dampen down the shakes. I pulled the blanket gratefully up around my shoulders.

She must have found my spare bedding next door. And she'd taken off her coat again.

She was staying!

"Lois-"

"Do you want any more pillows? And can I get you something to drink? Your nurse said you should keep drinking even if you can't manage to eat."

I shook my head. "Not right now. Just…be here."

"Okay," she replied, sinking down onto the side of the bed. "I can do that."

I fumbled a hand out from under the blanket and she immediately clasped it in both of hers. "We'll get through this together, okay?" she said.

"Okay. Thank-"

"Shhhh," she said soothingly. "Just rest while you can. You can thank me later."

***

Chapter Sixteen — Misery Take Three

I can't believe I gave in like that and let her stay. I cringe every time I think of her sitting beside me on the floor while I clutched onto that sick-bowl like it was the most precious thing in the world. Worse still, I fell asleep after the worst of the kryptomide side-effects had worn off, and when I woke up again, she'd gone.

Oh, she left a note saying she'd call later, but that was yesterday afternoon and now it's lunchtime and I haven't heard from her.

I'm sorry, but this is going to be a short and pretty depressed entry. I still feel kind of lousy from Tilley's kryptomide and all I can think about is how stupid I was to let her stay. It was the easy way out — the coward's way out.

Why did I ever let myself think that things could be any different with Lois than they were with Lana? An attractive woman like Lois probably had lots of men chasing after her, so now that she'd seen the real me, I couldn't blame her for wanting to end things before they got serious — there'd be someone else far healthier and more attractive along soon.

Not that I think she's promiscuous, you understand. I get the impression Lois wouldn't go through lots of boyfriends, and I have a strong hunch she wouldn't sleep around either.

But there's so much I still don't know about her, and I'd really been looking forward to getting to know her better.

I suppose there's still the Trask clinic investigation. There's no reason she won't want to continue with that, so at least I'll still get to see her. I'm just not sure how I'll cope with that, knowing our budding relationship is at an end.

***

Chapter Seventeen — No News Is Good News?

Sorry about that last chapter. I often get depressed when I'm not feeling well.

She did phone eventually. That evening, in fact. She said she was really sorry she hadn't called earlier, but that she'd been on an all-night stake-out after she left me and then she'd had to go straight to work the next day to write up her story. One thing had led to another, and she just hadn't managed to grab a spare few minutes all day.

Good story, huh? I might even have believed her, except she also said she'd be busy for the next few days so I wasn't to worry if I didn't hear from her for a while.

"Doing anything interesting?" I asked. I mean, I already knew I was getting the brush-off, but the masochist in me wanted to get the full picture.

She laughed derisively. "Not remotely. My parents have decided to hold one of their getting back together sessions, and this time Lucy and I have been dragged into the charade. Lucy's my sister, by the way."

It sounded like her parents were divorced, in that case. It also sounded like Lois's was not a very happy family, judging by the sour tone to her voice.

"Getting back together? So they're divorced?" I asked tentatively.

"Yes, and I wish they'd just make up their minds to stay that way. But no — every now and then one of them decides they want to play happy families again, and somehow persuades the other to tag along. It never works."

"I'm sorry," I said. "It doesn't sound like much fun for you or your sister."

"Believe me, I'd much rather spend the weekend with you, but Lucy let herself get dragged into this thing and she wants me there for moral support. So I'm sorry, Clark — I won't be able to see you or work on the investigation for a couple of days."

"That's okay," I said. "I understand."

I meant that. She obviously wasn't making this up, unless she was an incredibly good actress. I was disappointed, but also relieved that I didn't appear to be getting totally dumped. After all, she'd said she'd rather spend the weekend with me — okay, that was in comparison to spending it with her dysfunctional family, which wasn't much of a compliment, but it was better than nothing.

"How are you, anyway?" she asked.

"Oh, I'm fine. Back to normal again."

"Good."

We exchanged farewells, and that was that.

Of course, things didn't turn out quite as rosy as I'd thought they would. The weekend came and went, she didn't call on Monday, and when I called her at work, they said she was out — both times.

So here we are at Wednesday, and there's still no sign of Lois. Why is it I get the impression I'm way down the pecking order in her list of priorities?

***

Chapter Eighteen — Lois

I see I didn't write much last time or the time before that. Well, this will probably turn into a longer chapter, because Lois came back into my life with a vengeance today.

It's Thursday, and this morning Lois turned up on my doorstep. Don't ask me why she never calls first to make sure I'm in; she just seems to assume I'll always be here. I guess she's right — I do spend almost all my time at home, but I wish she didn't think of me as quite such a predictable, boring person. It's like she takes me for granted.

What with feeling ignored and unappreciated, I wasn't at my most warm and welcoming when I opened the door and found her standing there.

"Hi," I said.

"Hi. Can I come in? — I need to talk to you."

And what Lois wants, Lois gets.

"Sure, why not," I said, stepping aside to let her pass.

I followed her down into the living room, where she stood hovering by one of the sofas, looking vaguely nervous.

"Have a seat," I told her, and she immediately perched on the edge of the seat and placed her purse carefully on the floor next to her feet.

"You're looking well," she said, gazing up at me.

"Thanks — I feel pretty good. You want coffee?" I added.

She shook her head. "No, thanks. But don't let me stop you…"

"No, I've just had some. So how was your weekend with your parents?" I thought I should show an interest since she'd told me about it, and I did actually genuinely care, despite everything.

Her mouth twisted briefly. "Let's just say the status quo is restored. Mom hates Dad, and Dad hates Mom."

"How long have they been separated?"

"Oh, I don't know — years. I prefer not to count them."

And she apparently preferred not to talk about it at all, judging by the shuttered look she gave me. Well, I tried to be nice.

"So, what is it you need to talk to me about?" I asked instead.

Not that I didn't know. She'd come here to make a clean break; I was going to get a polite and well-meaning speech listing all the reasons why she couldn't see me again, and I'd nod manfully and tell her it was quite all right, I didn't mind being dumped at all. These things happen.

She waved at one of the chairs. "Why don't you sit down first?"

I supposed I was towering over her a bit. I retreated to a chair and lowered myself into it. "Okay, I'm sitting. Now what?"

She'd pulled her elasticated watch-strap off and was fiddling nervously with it. "I had this all planned in my head," she said, "but it's probably all going to come out wrong now that I'm actually here."

Okay, this was it; the dumping speech.

She drew in a deep breath. "You may have noticed I've been kind of avoiding you," she said, looking at me for confirmation.

I nodded. "Go on," I replied tersely.

"I'm sorry about that. Really sorry." Her gaze went down to her watch-strap and stayed there. "It's not because I don't like you, or because I don't want to be with you. I think you're a nice guy, Clark, I really do. But that day, when you were sick… I got scared. Panicked a bit, I guess."

Just like Lana. Exactly like Lana.

I'd known it was coming, but it was still incredibly tough to take a second time around. I gripped the arm of the chair and tried to will away the intense feelings of hurt and rejection, aware that she was talking again, but not taking in a word. I should never have allowed myself to get this close. I couldn't afford the luxury of pretending I could ever have a normal relationship with a woman. I should have remembered that and kept my distance.

I stood up. "It's okay, Lois, you don't have to say any more. It probably wouldn't have worked out anyway. If there's nothing more, then I guess you'll be wanting to get back to work."

I couldn't bear to look at her, so I jogged up the stairs and opened the door for her. "Thanks for coming by to tell me face to face," I added, staring at the wall opposite.

I sensed her stand slowly and walk up the stairs. "Don't you at least want to hear what I've got to say to you?" she said.

"I've heard enough."

"But I've hardly said anything!"

I glanced quickly at her. "Lois, please. Don't make this harder for both of us than it already is."

She came and stood right in front of me; the last thing I wanted. I didn't want to feel her presence, smell her perfume, see the beauty in those intelligent eyes, and know I couldn't have any of it.

"You're hiding behind that prison wall again," she murmured accusingly. "Why won't you let me in?"

"I let you in and you abandoned me. Please…just go."

"Don't you ever give anyone a second chance?" she asked.

I backed away from her. I couldn't stand her nearness any longer. "I can't afford to."

"Scared in case you experience some scary emotions like love or hate?" She closed the distance between us again. "You can't control everything, you know."

"I can control this. Please go."

She stared up at me for a long moment, while I stared stonily past her head at the wall. Didn't she get the message? Why was she still here?

She turned and walked to the doorway. "I'm sorry, Clark."

"So am I," I replied, and closed the door behind her.

Except she pushed hard against it just before it shut, taking me by surprise and almost shoving it into my face. "No, dammit! I came here to tell you something and I'm darn well going to make you listen."

I'd reeled backwards to avoid the swinging door, and by the time I'd recovered, she'd stormed back into the apartment.

"Do you have any idea how much it took for me to come here? I've spent hours figuring out how to say this to you, including eating my way through a whole pack of double- fudge crunch bars and sitting through a half-hour lecture from my kid sister on the subject. My kid sister! Do you realise how humiliating that is? And how many calories a whole pack of double-fudge crunch bars is worth? And then you have the absolute gall to throw me out without listening to a word — you didn't even let me say the bit about how stupid I've been. I don't admit that to just anyone, you know!"

She was like a mini-tornado. I've never seen anyone so full of pumped-up energy. She stomped down my stairs and stood in the middle of my living room with her hands on her hips, glaring ferociously at me.

Knocked off-balance, I found myself following her, as if it was my duty to stand and listen to her yelling at me.

Then I remembered just who was in the wrong here.

"You're the one who's been ignoring me!" I exclaimed. "How come I'm the one being yelled at here? I should be yelling at you for leaving me wondering what on earth was going on! You leave me while I'm still asleep, and then all I get is a quick phone call two days later to say sorry, Clark, I'm going away for a few days. Then when you come back I still can't get in touch with you. What was I supposed to think? That you didn't care or that you simply didn't want to see me again?"

"Of course I want to see you again! Didn't I make that clear before?"

"You have a funny way of showing it!"

She grimaced at that. "I know. That's why I came here to talk to you — to explain."

I crossed my arms. "Well, go ahead. Explain."

"I…look, can't we sit down? This might take some time."

"Whatever." I dumped myself on the nearest seat and waited for her to do the same.

"Okay." She took a deep breath. "Okay. As I said before, I really like you, Clark. I think maybe that's why I've been keeping my distance these past few days-"

I started to object to the craziness of her logic, but she held up a hand to override me. "I know that doesn't make a lot of sense, but please let me try to explain. You were really sick, Clark; scarily, frighteningly sick, and it hurt — hurt a lot — to see you in so much pain. I didn't expect that — I thought I could cope with you being ill; I figured it came with the territory. That was why I stayed with you that day, because I wanted to be with you through the bad as well as the good. I wanted to help."

"You did help," I said quietly. "You made the pain easier to bear just by being there."

"But I couldn't make it go away, Clark," she protested sadly. "I just had to sit there and watch you suffer, and that was all I could think of afterwards. How I'd have to sit beside you, month after month, and not be able to do anything to help. I didn't think I was strong enough to go through that, so I started avoiding the whole thing. I wasn't actually trying to avoid you, I just made sure I was busy with something else all the time so I didn't have to think about it."

I recognised that process; I'd been guilty of the same kind of behaviour myself more than once.

"Go on," I said.

She shrugged. "I realised I was being selfish. I was thinking about me and not about you. Lucy pointed that out — she said that all the time I was telling her about you I was really talking about myself."

"You told your sister about me?" I said in surprise.

"Of course! That's what sisters do — exchange stories about their…about their friends. Anyway, maybe seeing Mom and Dad together helped put things in perspective, too — half their problem is that they don't see things from the other person's point of view."

I nodded. "A lot of the world's problems could be solved the same way."

She smiled faintly. "Well, I'm not trying to negotiate world peace here, just save a friendship. So, do you understand? It's because I care about you that I couldn't bear to see you hurting so badly. Not because I don't want to be with you, and not because your illness revolts me, or anything like that."

It was good to hear her say that, because I was sure that Lana left me because she was disgusted by me. Well, fairly sure. But however Lois explained it, the outcome was still the same. She couldn't stand to be with me because of my illness.

"I understand," I said. "But where does that leave us? I'm stuck with this thing, Lois. It's not going to go away."

"I know that. But I'm hoping you'll give me a second chance — a chance to show you that I won't run away again. In fact, you won't be able to get rid of me," she added with a small smile.

I sighed. I wanted to believe her, as she clearly believed herself. By her own admission, this had been a tough thing for her to do; to come over here and talk about the kinds of things people usually want to avoid confronting. I wasn't even sure I'd have been brave enough to do the same thing if I'd been in her situation.

But she was asking a lot. I couldn't go through this again, that was for sure.

"Just like last week, you mean?" I said. "I tried pretty hard to get rid of you when I was ill, but you stuck around anyway."

"Yeah, just like that, except I'll be back the next day, and the day after that, checking up on you and making sure you're looking after yourself."

I smiled. "I've already got a mother and a nurse."

"Well, you've got me, too, now. Okay?"

I inhaled deeply. "Okay. But Lois, I can't go through this again. It was tough enough this time…I don't think I'd cope too well if it happened again."

"It won't. No more running away, I promise." She started fiddling with that darned strap again. "There's just one thing…"

"What?" I asked warily.

"I know you'll probably think I'm interfering and don't know what I'm talking about, but… Seeing you so ill after the kryptomide injection…you mentioned the tablets you're supposed to take instead… Clark, are they really that bad? I can't imagine anything worse than what I saw you go through last week." She looked up at me anxiously.

She was right, I did think she was interfering in something she knew nothing about. I mean, I've lived with this illness for years, so who was the expert here?

I replied, trying not to show how irritated I felt, "They're worse. Trust me, they're worse."

She frowned. "But how? I don't understand."

"Because instead of feeling sick for a few hours after an injection, I feel sick all the time. Because instead of the acute pain I get after an injection, I feel achy and sluggish all the time. Because instead of just sleeping off the effects of an injection, I can't think straight any of the time I'm on the tablets. That's how."

"Maybe you just need to adjust the dosage," she said, leaning forward. "Have you discussed that with Tilley?"

"No, and I'm not going to."

"Why not? If you got the dosage right, you might never have to have another injection."

"I had enough playing around with dosages when I first went on the kryptomide injections. I'd rather not go through that again, thank you very much."

She crossed her arms emphatically. "Did anyone tell you you're incredibly stubborn?" she said. "I can't see any other reason why you're so reluctant to try something different."

I shook my head. "You don't under-"

"-understand," she echoed sarcastically. "Yes, I'm only a dumb reporter who doesn't know anything. So tell me, Clark. Make me understand."

I choked back a humourless laugh. "It's not that easy."

"Well, just start, and we'll see where we end up, okay?" she said. "Look, I told you I'm not going to run away, but if I'm going to do that, I need something in return. I need to understand you, Clark."

I closed my eyes for a moment. This was exhausting. Ever since Lois Lane had entered my life, I seemed to have been through more emotional highs and lows than in the whole rest of my life. The highs were great, but the lows — the arguments and the soul-searching — were incredibly draining. She expected me to admit things to her I'd hardly admitted to myself.

I felt a very light touch on my knee and opened my eyes to find her leaning anxiously towards me. "Are you all right?"

Automatically, I was annoyed; annoyed that my illness made her assume I was sick just because I'd closed my eyes. But looking at her guileless expression of concern, it occurred to me that the last time I'd shut my eyes while talking to her had, in fact, been when I was very ill.

So I just nodded. "Yeah, I'm fine. So you want to know why I don't take the tablets?"

"That's right," she said, settling back in her seat.

I hunched forward, resting my elbows on my knees and staring at the carpet. I'd never told anyone this; not even Mom and Dad. Nobody but me knew how scared I got sometimes…and it was hard enough saying it now without having to look at her while I told her my private fears; the fear that sometimes kept me awake at night, or made me drag on sweats in the small hours of the morning and run like a demon through Centennial Park.

But she was waiting for my answer. "Because it's another nail in the coffin," I told her eventually. "My coffin."

"I don't understand, Clark," she said very softly.

"Taking pills every day for the rest of my life…it's like I'm giving in. It says I'm never going to beat this thing, I'm just going to get worse and worse, until…well, you know." I paused to swallow hard, hoping she hadn't noticed the difficulty I was having in getting the words out. "Anyway," I continued, "it's bad enough having that darned wheelchair in my apartment, lurking up there like some kind bad of omen of things to come, without having to pop pills every day as well."

"But you've had weekly injections since you were kid, haven't you?" she said. "You must have known you'd need those for the rest of your life."

I snorted. "You'd think so, wouldn't you? Yes, logically I knew that was true, but I guess I've always had this little bit of me that thought maybe the next injection would always be the last. Stupid, I suppose."

"No, not stupid," she said. The sofa dipped to my left and I realised she'd moved to sit beside me. "It just means you're a fighter, Clark. You don't give in."

"I guess." I turned my head to look at her, still hunched forward with my elbows on my knees. "I can't give in, Lois. There's got to be more to life than this."

She reached out and took my hand in hers. "You're right — there is."

I straightened up, still gazing at her. She didn't say anything for a moment; we just sat and looked at each other, and I felt that same pull towards her I experienced every time she was close to me. There was just something in her eyes; something in her face that caught me, held me, and washed away all the fear and loneliness.

Then her free hand came up, curled around the back of my neck and pulled me slowly down towards her. I went willingly, drawn to her sensuous beauty like a firefly to a bright light. "There's this," she murmured as the gap between us closed and her soft, warm lips sank onto mine.

We melted into the most tender, loving kiss I've ever experienced. She let go of my hand and slid her arm across my back, and I slipped one arm around her slight waist and the other over her shoulders. It felt so incredibly right, like I'd been waiting for this moment all my life. I drew her closer, and soon we were pressed up tightly against each other while we kissed slowly and gently.

We told each other things in that kiss we'd never tell each other any other way. I felt her tenderness and sensitivity; her sensuality and desire; her genuine affection and kindness; even her sense of relief that we'd finally stopped inching around each other so very carefully.

I showed her my love.

We broke away as slowly as we'd come together, both reluctant to break the spell we'd created. I leant back in her arms to gaze at the face of the woman I knew I was falling head-over-heels in love with. Such a beautiful, expressive face.

"Lois…" My voice was strangely husky and I couldn't seem to get past just saying her name. "Lois…"

"Shhh…" She pulled me back into a hug, and I buried my face in her hair, inhaling the sweet, clean smell of her shampoo just as I had done almost a week ago. Still coconut; definitely still coconut.

How had she known?

How had she known what I needed better than I did myself? How did she know that this was exactly the right moment for us to stop talking and simply show each other how we felt about each other?

I'd never felt like this before — Lana and I had fooled around, of course, but even though our kissing had been pretty indulgent, it had been empty and sterile compared with how I was feeling right now.

I kissed the side of Lois's head, then had to keep going, kissing her hair, her ear, her eyes, her cheek, her chin, then at last her mouth, capturing her full, open lips and crushing them with my own. She was just as crazy, snatching kisses all over my face whenever she could and then making the most delightful murmuring sound when our lips finally met.

We got a bit carried away with each other. Our bodies were pressed so tightly together I could feel the fast beating of her heart and the twin mounds of her breasts pushing against my chest. Our kiss was fierce and intense and quickly running out of control.

It was probably just as well when Lois broke away, panting heavily.

"Wow… Does…does this mean you've forgiven me?" she gasped.

I stared at her for a moment, too stunned by the ferocity of our kiss to make sense of what she was saying. Then I burst out laughing. "Oh, Lois, only you could say something like that after such an amazing kiss."

She grinned. "Just wanted to be sure of where I stood."

"This is where you stand," I said, and dragged her back into my arms for a long, slow kiss.

***

Chapter Nineteen — Anxiety

Well, that was a week ago, and it's been a pretty great week. Lois and I (oh, how I like writing that!) have had two official dates. At the weekend, I took her to a really nice Italian restaurant I know, where they serve the most wonderful profiteroles with loads and loads of thick chocolate sauce. I had a hunch she'd like it, after she'd mentioned eating all those double-fudge crunch bars, and I was right. She loved it. And I loved watching her love it.

A couple of days later she came around here and I cooked her an Indian meal. I think I impressed her; she said it was just like 'real' Indian food from a takeout, only better. Well, it should be, of course — I only use genuine Indian ingredients and I grind and mix my own spices. You can afford to spend a lot of time cooking when you're at home most of the day.

But if the food was good, the company was even better. She's great fun once you get to know her better. She's got a brilliant sense of humour; very sharp and intelligent, and of course she's great when you get her onto current affairs. She's got a lot of strong opinions, but fortunately quite a few of hers coincide with my own. We don't agree about everything, but I think that would be pretty boring if we did. What would we argue about?

After the meal, we sat down together on my sofa and talked for ages. I feel like we've already known each other for years — there's this amazing, easy-going familiarity between us that I've never experienced with anyone else. For instance, it wasn't until I had to get up to fetch us coffee that I realised that we'd been sitting with our arms twined around each other — it's just something we'd done subconsciously without any hint of awkwardness.

Lois admitted, too, that she was surprised at how easily she'd fallen for me.

"This isn't normal for me, you know," she said. "I hope you realise the special treatment you're getting."

"And there was I thinking this is how you treat all the men in your life," I replied.

She gave me a dig in the ribs. "Behave," she admonished. "No, I don't know what it is about you, Clark Kent, but you're definitely a very disruptive influence."

"What exactly do I disrupt?" I asked with some interest.

"Everything. There I was, all set to make work a priority and leave the relationship thing alone until I'd got my career sorted, and then you came along and messed all that up."

"I came along?" I said, raising my eyebrows. "I seem to remember you found me, not the other way around."

"A mere technicality," she said dismissively. "Nope, you disrupted me — I wasn't expecting you to be so good- looking, for a start. That was unfair."

I grinned, delighted and trying not to feel too smug. "Sorry about that," I said.

"But there's plenty of good-looking men around, so that wasn't fatal. The fatal part was when you started arguing with me. That was really unfair."

"It was?"

"Yeah. I'm a pushover for men who argue back. Especially men who tell me I'm *nice* and argue back," she said, digging me in the ribs again on the word 'nice'.

I winced, remembering my awful, tongue-tied moment the other day. "I could have chosen a better word," I agreed.

"Yes — some writer you are!" she said with a smile. "But seriously, the part of you I really fell for was your attitude to life. You're stuck with this awful illness, Clark, but you don't take yourself too seriously-"

"Oh, I can be pretty miserable when I want to be," I said.

"Maybe, but no more than anyone else. And you care about people — I can tell that from your books, and the fact that you're well-informed about the things that really matter even though you don't really leave this place that much."

I shrugged. "So I watch TV and read a lot."

"Will you stop being so self-deprecating?" she exclaimed. "That's one trait I'm not so taken with. You need more self-confidence."

"I'm working on it," I said defensively.

"Yeah, well work harder. Anyway, that's why you're a disruptive influence."

"Well, I plan to disrupt you for a long, long time, Lois Lane," I replied, kissing her cheek.

She turned to me with a smile. "Disrupt away, Clark Kent," she said, then leaned over and planted her lips firmly against mine.

We disrupted each other for quite a few minutes after that.

***

But now I'm a little on edge. You see, I feel great; really healthy and strong, and that means I'm probably due for another attack.

I haven't said anything to Lois, and I'm just hoping she won't notice that I'm staying close to home for the next few days. There's nothing worse than being ill in a public place.

I know what you're thinking. Why don't I confide in her? She said she wants to be with me when I'm sick, so shouldn't I give her the chance to do just that?

No.

The thing is, I still hate for people to see me when I'm sick. It's embarrassing. I'd rather just get through it privately and then carry on as if nothing's happened. I don't want a fuss.

So I'll just stay in for a few days. Hey, what the heck — I can even practice using the darned wheelchair, can't I?

***

Chapter Twenty — The Best Laid Plans…

Okay, so that was my plan for the next few days, but it turned out Lois had her own agenda. She'd figured out I was due for another attack, so I didn't get to hide alone at home. She kept phoning me and dropping around unannounced.

Of course, she pretended she was keeping me posted on the clinic investigation, but there really wasn't a lot of progress with that. Jimmy was trying to use the phone number Tilley had given me for the clinic to get an address, but so far he'd been unsuccessful. Otherwise, Lois had put out a few 'feelers' on Jason Trask into the intelligence community, but nothing had come back.

So she quickly ran out of new things to tell me, and eventually, I got tired of the charade and had it out with her. Not nastily, you understand — I just said I knew what she was up to, and it was really thoughtful of her, but it was just making me more nervous.

"I really appreciate that you care," I said, "but every time you come around, I feel like you're watching me and waiting for me to grow an extra head or something," I finished ruefully.

She laughed. "You never told me you could do that!"

"Very funny, Lois," I retorted. "But do you understand what I mean?"

"I guess so. You probably feel the same as those women who look like the baby's due to drop any second," she said with a wink.

"Lois, I am not pregnant. That is one thing I definitely cannot do."

She ran her eyes up and down me with a wry smile playing over her lips. "Nope, I'd say you're not built to carry babies. Make them, maybe, but not carry them."

I swear her gaze lingered a while below my belt when she said that. Feeling kind of pleased about that, I stretched out a hand and yanked her playfully into my arms. "Are you suggesting something improper, Ms Lane?"

She gave me a coy look. "I might be, Mr Kent. On the other hand, maybe I'm not that kind of a girl."

I laughed. "Oh, I think you could be if you wanted to be." I bent down and kissed her lightly on her lips. "Mmmm…make that definitely."

"Yeah, maybe I am," she murmured and returned my kiss with a longer, sexier one of her own.

I was just beginning to get seriously carried away when she broke off, bringing me back to earth with a thump. "But since you brought up the subject of your non-pregnancy, there's something I want to talk to you about."

"Oh?" I asked. "How is it I know I'm not going to like this?" I said warily.

She pulled a face. "Just hear me out, okay?"

I sighed. "Go on."

"Well, we both know that you're going to have an attack sometime soon, and that means you're going to feel pretty lousy for a couple of days. I just wondered…I know you hate them and you don't want to take them all the time-"

"No." I broke away from her and turned to walk down the stairs into the living room. "Absolutely not."

"Clark!" She grabbed my arm. "Just listen to me. Maybe it's not what you think."

"I can't, Lois. You know that," I said, still with my back to her. I thought she understood. I thought I'd explained all this to her ages ago.

"All I'm suggesting is you try taking them for the next few days. It might reduce the effect of an attack — maybe even stave it off altogether. What's your usual dosage?"

"Three a day," I muttered.

"Okay, so maybe you try taking just one a day. That way you won't feel so rotten, and it might just help when you get sick again."

I snorted. "Or it might make no difference at all."

"True! But what will you lose by trying? A few days feeling a little under the weather, at most. Isn't it worth that?"

So here we were again. Another fight. Why did she always want to change things? I'd been perfectly happy until she'd come along and started upsetting everything. I had it all under control; I had my good periods when I was feeling fine and got all my writing done, and then I had my bad periods when I was sick — but at least I knew for roughly how long it would last, and then I'd be back on my feet again. If Lois had her way, all of that would be disrupted.

Except my conscience was nagging at me as I stood there with my back to her. Hadn't I started writing this journal because I was completely miserable with my life and wanted to make things better?

She came around in front of me and grasped my upper arms. "Give it a chance, Clark," she urged quietly. "Just one chance, and if it doesn't work, then you can tell me how stupid I was and we'll forget it."

I looked down at her. "One chance, huh? And just when did you think I should start?"

"Right now. Where do you keep them? I'll get them for you."

"Wait, Lois!" She looked like she was about to start hunting the apartment for them right there and then.

She was pushing me too fast.

It's stupid, but I really hate those tablets. It's not so much the way they make me feel physically, although that's not a lot of fun — it's a mental thing. They make me feel like an invalid. And I know I already explained this, but I'm trying to make you understand how difficult a step Lois was asking me to take.

"Give me a minute," I muttered.

And maybe she did understand after all. Instead of nagging me some more, she wrapped her arms around me and laid her head on my chest. "Okay."

So I stood quietly with her for a couple of seconds, turning over the pros and cons in my head, fooling myself that I was conducting a reasoned argument with myself, when really, I was just buying breathing space.

"All right," I said finally. "I'll get them."

I jogged down the stairs and crossed to my bedroom, where I'd stuffed them at the back of one of the drawers. When I turned, she was standing holding a glass of water out to me.

I grimaced. "You're determined not to let me back down, aren't you?"

She shrugged. "Just trying to be helpful," she said wryly.

I popped one of the pale green tablets from the blister pack, held it up between finger and thumb for her to see, placed it in my mouth, took the glass of water and washed it down. "Satisfied?"

She nodded. "Well done. What happens now?"

I shrugged. "Nothing much. What did you expect?"

Thinking back, I think I was a bit terse with her. The thing was, I knew I was going to start feeling the effects within the next half-hour or so, but I also knew it would be a gradual thing. I'd probably start to feel a little queasy, perhaps, or my legs and arms would get achy. Lois, on the other hand, seemed to be expecting some kind of dramatic transformation, and that kind of irritated me.

"I thought maybe you'd need to lie down for a while or something," she said with a shrug.

"It doesn't happen like that," I muttered, brushing past her to find a seat in the living room.

"Oh." She glanced at my wall clock. It was early evening — she'd come around after finishing work at the Planet. "I guess I should go — unless you want me to stay?"

I shook my head. "I'll be fine."

She hovered uncertainly for a moment, then seemed to make up her mind about something and came over to kiss my forehead. "Thank you for giving this a try, Clark. I know it's not easy for you." She straightened up and crossed to the stairs. "Call me, okay? Soon?"

I nodded. "Sure."

I waited until she'd closed the front door, and then hauled myself off the sofa and started getting ready for bed. I'd already decided that the best way to deal with this was to sleep it off, even though it was very early to be going to bed.

It took me a while to fall asleep, and I woke up a couple of times during the night feeling like someone was stirring the contents of my stomach around with a large wooden spoon, but otherwise, it beat sitting around all day feeling the same way or worse.

Anyway, I guess you're wondering if I took any more pills after that first one. Well, you're right to wonder. I probably wouldn't have if Lois hadn't phoned the following morning to ask how I was. I told her not too bad; just a little headachy and more tired than usual — which was actually the truth. It seemed the sleeping-it-off tactic had worked fairly well. But then of course she had to ask me if I'd taken today's dose yet, to which I replied no, not yet.

"But you will — right?" she said.

I sighed. "Yes, mother."

"Okay. Got to rush — Mr White's on the warpath. I'll see you tomorrow night?"

We'd already agreed she'd come around for a takeout pizza and a video. "Sure. Just don't bring ET."

She laughed. "I thought you said you liked it!"

"Lois, I was kidding."

"Okay, I'll bring Alien instead."

"Hey!" I protested, but she'd already put the phone down.

So I took the wretched tablet and spent the morning lying on the sofa watching daytime TV. And the next morning. And the morning after that.

Now it's afternoon on the third day, and I've managed to drag myself up to the computer to write all this up, but I have to say, I'm not feeling much like company. Lois is due here in a couple of hours, and I just hope I can stay awake long enough. I mean, it's not as bad as it was when I was taking three of these things a day, but I still feel pretty tired and achy. It's just as well I don't have any writing deadlines coming up for the next couple of days, otherwise this would have been a disaster.

I just hope it's all worth it.

***

Chapter Twenty-One — Catch-Up

I guess I should fill you in on Mom and Dad's view of all this — after all, this journal is as much about them as it is about me. I wouldn't be here at all if they hadn't found me and raised me as their own, and I'm certain I'd have had a much tougher life without their unconditional love and support.

Well, if you remember, they weren't exactly in favour of the clinic investigation when I first told them about it. They thought I should leave well alone. They were also a little suspicious of Lois's motives, because she's a journalist and historically I haven't been very well treated by journalists.

I also got a worried phone call shortly after Tilley attended my last attack. I can't believe that woman did this, but apparently she called them and told them that I wasn't taking my medication and would they please talk to me about it. I'm twenty-five, for heaven's sake! I can look after myself; I don't need my parents nagging me to take my medicine like I'm still a little boy.

But nag they did. Very tentatively, naturally, because they usually do their best not to interfere with my life. It was only the fact that Tilley had felt the need to tell them at all which had really worried them and made them break their own rules and call me about it.

I explained why I wasn't taking the tablets, and we batted the issue backwards and forwards a bit, then finished the phone call with me still determined not to take the wretched tablets and Mom and Dad no doubt still wishing I'd see sense and feeling worried that their son wasn't looking after himself properly.

I'm really mad at Tilley for doing that to them. They're not getting any younger, and they don't need some busybody nurse burdening them with a whole load of unnecessary worries.

Anyway, I guess one good thing about Lois's experiment with me and the tablets is that I've been able to tell Mom and Dad I'm back on them. That made them happy, and of course when they found out that Lois had been responsible you could almost feel the waves of approval come rushing down the phone line.

So Lois is back on Mom's matchmaking list again.

Wonder if I should tell Lois?

***

Chapter Twenty-Two — Improvements?

"Lois? It's Clark."

There was the slightest of pauses, and then she said, "I'll be right there."

She knew. I thought I'd managed to sound pretty normal, but apparently not. She could tell something was wrong.

Which it was. This was day four of the tablet experiment and I was in the early stages of an attack. Taking the reduced medication hadn't prevented me from getting sick after all, although so far it did seem to have lessened the symptoms a little.

And don't ask me why I phoned her — I don't know myself. Maybe because I could?

"No, it's okay," I said. "It's not too bad."

"I'll be there," she replied firmly. "Have you called Tilley? Do you want me to call her?"

"Not yet. Thought we should give this experiment of yours a chance first."

"Okay. Is your door open — can I let myself in, or do I need to ask your building super to let me in?"

I'm sick, not dead… "I can let you in."

"All right, if you're sure. I'll be there just as soon as I can."

I replaced the receiver and relaxed back against the sofa cushions. If I took deep, steady breaths and emptied my mind of pretty much everything except a few poems I knew by heart, then I found I could keep the auditory disturbances under control. The visual thing was a little harder, but again, I was finding that the more I could relax, the better it got.

Lois's arrival messed things up, however. She rang the bell and that sent my nerves jangling and my eyes and ears into overdrive. I tried to take some time out to regain my peace before answering the door, but she obviously misinterpreted my delay and thought I hadn't heard the bell, so rang it again.

I gave up trying to relax, fumbled my way to the door and let her in.

I let her guide me back to the sofa with a hand on my back. Then I sat back and closed my eyes. "Give me a couple of minutes," I said, my own voice sounding distorted against the mess of noise. "Don't say anything."

I did my deep breathing and poetry-reciting again. In a few minutes, I'd managed to get back to the trance-like state I'd achieved before she'd arrived. Sound levels were restored to normal levels and I was sure my vision would be OK as well.

I opened my eyes and found her sitting opposite regarding me with a worried expression. I gave her a quick smile. "It's okay," I said, deliberately keeping my voice quiet. "I've found if I relax and stay quiet I can control it some."

She looked surprised. "That's great, Clark," she said, copying my low voice. "That's really great."

"Yeah." I smiled again and closed my eyes.

After a little while I felt a tap on my knee. When I looked, she was offering me a mug of coffee. "Thanks."

Everything was going great. I really thought I was making progress.

Then a car misfired out in the street. I jumped, and hot coffee splashed all over my legs as my hand crushed the earthenware mug into dust. At the same time, all the sounds of the city invaded my head simultaneously.

The effect was so frighteningly, painfully loud that I clapped my hands over my ears, hunching forward in the seat. "Get Tilley," I gritted, not sure if I'd shouted or whispered, since I couldn't hear my own voice any more.

Yes, I was giving in.

The experiment was over and I was back on familiar, if unwelcome, ground. I won't bore you with what happened next, or what Tilley said when she arrived. Suffice to say, I spent the next few hours flat on my back in bed.

Lois stayed with me. I didn't try to get rid of her, either.

And this time when I woke up, she was still there.

I didn't realise it at first, because she'd been perched on the side of my bed playing with my hair when I'd last seen her, and when I woke up, she wasn't there any more. It was only when I pushed myself up in bed that I saw her. She was sitting at my desk at the window, silhouetted against the light streaming in from outside.

She was using my computer, concentrating intently on the screen. As I watched her silently, her hands would suddenly leap to the keyboard and rattle off a few lines, pausing only momentarily between bursts of furious typing. Then her right hand would reach blindly for the mouse and she'd begin reading again. She was fascinating to watch, and I'd have gladly spent hours just gazing at her. She had a vibrancy which gave all her movements incredible life and energy.

And she was easy to watch. The sunlight shone through her hair where it hung in a loose curl below her chin, highlighting every fine strand. It also outlined the edge of her features, glancing off them as if she were alive with light from within.

"Beautiful," I whispered in awe.

Her head turned towards me and I glimpsed the curve of her lips as she smiled across at me. "You're awake."

I don't think she'd heard my awe-struck whisper; or if she had, she didn't give any indication that she had. She stood up and came towards me. "How are you feeling?" she asked, sitting on the bed and resting one hand on my knee.

"Much better," I replied. I indicated my desk. "Were you working on a story?"

"Yes." She grimaced. "As much as I like being with you, I do need to keep working."

I felt a twist of guilt. "I'm sorry — you must be really behind with all the time you've been spending with me-"

"Don't worry about it, Clark," she said, patting my leg through the bedclothes. "It's okay so far."

"I don't want you to sacrifice your career on my account."

She shook her head. "Don't worry, I won't! I'm not about to throw away everything I've worked for all these years." She grinned. "There's a Pulitzer out there with my name on it, and I aim to claim it before I'm forty."

I raised an eyebrow. "Forty, eh? Not thirty?"

She shrugged. "I'll be too busy picking up Kerths for the next few years."

I laughed. "Lois, you're amazing. You planning on running for President as well? You might just fit that in before your fiftieth."

"Nah. I'd have to behave if I ran for President, and I don't plan on behaving myself for a very long time indeed," she said with a wink. She stretched over and felt my forehead with the back of her fingers. "Feels like your temperature's back to normal. Do you think you could eat something? It's nearly seven and you can't have had anything since breakfast."

I shook my head; my stomach still felt pretty queasy. "But you must be starving. Unless you've already eaten?"

"No. How about I order in? Maybe by the time it arrives you'll feel like eating."

So I agreed to that. While we waited for it to arrive, Lois went back to finish her work and I got up gingerly to take a shower. By the time I came out, she was leaning back in her chair and stretching. "Finished?" I asked, walking up behind her and placing my hands on her shoulders.

"Yeah," she said wearily, flexing her back stiffly. I kneaded her shoulders a bit and got an appreciative murmur in reply, so I went a little further, massaging away the aches and pains as best I could. "Mmm…that's nice," she said.

"How about this?" I asked, and bent over her right shoulder to kiss her.

"That's not bad either," she said, and I felt her smile on my lips.

"Come on," I said, clasping her upper arms and encouraging her to stand. "Come and sit somewhere more comfortable."

This wasn't just for her; I needed to sit down too after being up and on my feet for slightly longer than I was comfortable with. It was just a happy coincidence that we ended up on the sofa with Lois sitting in my lap, you understand. "Thank you for being here," I murmured into her hair.

"I'm glad I could help," she replied, and then I smothered anything else she might have been planning to say with a kiss. I tried to be subtle, to go slow and take my time showing her how much I loved her, but it was difficult when she was so close and when she responded so willingly and passionately. She was beautiful. Not in a beauty-queen kind of way, but in her own, unique way — beautiful and smart and funny and totally gorgeous.

She broke away first. "Boy — for a sick man, you sure do kiss well."

I smiled. "Why, thank you. You're not so bad yourself."

We kissed some more; lots more, actually, until I began to realise that kissing and holding the woman you loved on your lap while clad in only a towelling dressing gown was not necessarily a good idea.

Things were in danger of getting seriously embarrassing when, thankfully, the food arrived. Lois slid off my lap to fetch it, showing no sign at all that she'd noticed my discomfort. Which either meant she really hadn't noticed, or she was embarrassed too.

Anyway, I made sure for safety's sake that we were sitting opposite each other when we settled down to eat, me nibbling cautiously while Lois tucked in enthusiastically.

"So, tell me about yourself," I said, determined for us not to talk about me and my problems all evening. "You know loads about me, but I hardly know anything about you."

"That's not true," she said around a mouthful of pizza. "You know where I work, you know what I do, and you know I have a sister called Lucy."

"Well, tell me some more about Lucy. Are you close?"

She shrugged. "Depends what you mean by close. We don't call each other every day, if that's what you mean. We meet for lunch once in a while."

She told me that Lucy was a couple of years younger than her and was currently working as a receptionist at one of those executive-style gyms. I asked if she was married, and Lois laughed.

"Lucy is still sampling the talents which the young men of Metropolis have on offer," she said dryly. "I think she took the job at the gym to increase her sampling rate."

"And is it working?" I asked.

"Let's just say I have difficulty remembering the name of her current boyfriend," she replied. "Don't get me wrong — she's my sister and I love her. I just wish she'd stay with one guy long enough to be able to tell me his surname without having to look it up in her diary first."

I smiled. I wasn't sure how serious she was about that. Maybe it was just that Lois had had far fewer boyfriends than her sister, so that what I was hearing was a touch of sibling rivalry.

"What about you?" I asked. "Have you had many boyfriends?"

She raised her eyebrows. "That's a bit personal, isn't it? And how do I answer a question like that? If I say I've had lots, you'll think I lack commitment, and if I say I've only had one or two, you'll think I scare them away. Or if I say a few, you'll wonder how many a few is. Is it three, or four, or five — and are we counting single dates which didn't work out? You see, this is a big question you're asking."

I grinned. "First: I'm sitting here with nothing on except my dressing gown, and we just spent the best part of ten minutes kissing and cuddling, so I figure we're way past worrying if questions are too personal. Second: it's a simple question, Lois. Answer it any way you like."

"But it's not a simple question if I can answer it any way I like," she objected.

I sighed. "Would it help if I told you how many girlfriends I've had first?"

"No! That wouldn't help at all. What if you've had lots fewer girlfriends than I've had boyfriends? Or the opposite? We could end up discovering we've got completely different ideas about what's a reasonable number," she said.

I sagged back in my chair. "That's what this whole conversation is all about — getting to know each other better! We're not going to do that if you turn every question I ask into a major negotiating point."

"Oh. Sorry." To her credit, she looked a little sheepish. "It's just we *are* getting into pretty personal stuff, and I guess I'm a little nervous about that."

You know, it never occurred to me that she might be as nervous as me. She seemed so self-confident I couldn't imagine her getting at all antsy over a little thing like this. Yet it certainly explained her prevarication.

I smiled. "So am I, Lois — in fact, I'm probably nervous enough for both of us. But I really want to get to know you better, and that's a whole lot more important to me than a few nerves."

And it dawned on me then that she can't have had very many boyfriends, or this conversation wouldn't be so difficult for her. I mean, my question was surely a fairly standard one for people in a relationship to ask.

So even if she hadn't answered the question, I was learning a lot about her. And it all just made me even more fond of her.

"Okay," she said. "Well, there was a guy in high school — that was when I was in my quarterback dating phase. You probably dated a cheerleader around the same time."

I shrugged noncommittally. Lana wasn't a cheerleader — she was just my next door neighbour — I didn't rate a cheerleader's attention.

Lois continued. "Anyway, Joe was a nice guy, but we weren't really much more than good friends. I think he runs some kind of sports business these days. Then there was Paul."

She paused, and while she was pausing, I dumped my slice of largely-uneaten pizza back in the box and took a sip of coffee. The after-effects of the kryptomide were beginning to catch up with me again, just when this conversation was starting to go somewhere at last. I took a couple of deep breaths and tried to ignore the light-headedness which was threatening to make a major come-back.

Her face took on a wistful expression. "Paul was my first big crush — he was a Senior, an Editor, and I seriously wanted to impress him."

"But?" I prompted.

"But my best friend had other ideas. I got this great inside story and was all ready to write it up and impress him, but she stole it from me and wrote it under her own name. Paul was duly impressed — in her story and in other ways, if you get my drift, and the rest is history."

I winced in sympathy. "Ouch."

She shrugged. "We'd always been friendly rivals, but from that point on, we became unfriendly rivals. I've never forgiven her for what she did." She sighed. "But I guess he doesn't really count as an ex-boyfriend. I never got that far. Then…well, since then…"

To my surprise, she flushed and avoided my gaze. "What?" I asked curiously.

"Well, after that…I've had other priorities…work…"

"You mean there hasn't been…not since college?" I asked, trying hard not to sound too surprised.

She flushed even redder. "Oh, there have been guys…dates, even. Just no-one really special."

"But you're attractive, funny, clever…I don't understand…?"

She smiled a little. "Thank you. I'm not sure what went wrong — maybe I was too busy building a career. I mean, right now there's a guy at work — Claude — who's always hanging around my desk, but he's just not my type. Too smooth."

Did I have a rival? "Has he asked you out?" I asked, trying for a casual interest but probably failing dismally.

She snorted. "He's always asking me out! Why he doesn't try Cat, who'd go out with anything in pants, is beyond me."

So I did have a rival. "You say he's not your type?"

"Definitely not." She smiled. "Don't worry, Clark — I'm never going to go out with him. He's just a lonely, sad guy looking for some company in a foreign land."

"So you feel sorry for him?" I wrapped my arms around myself; annoyingly, that light-headed feeling wasn't going away and now I was getting the shakes to boot.

"Clark, I said not to worry!" She nibbled a corner of pizza. "Anyway, enough of my love-life — what about yours?"

"Mine?" I said warily.

"Yes, you must have had girls falling at your feet at high- school. Come on, give me the low-down," she said, waving the pizza at me.

"Uh…well, there was Lana, I guess," I said.

"Lana? Who was…Clark, are you feeling all right?"

I straightened up quickly. "Sure."

She frowned at me. "You don't look all right."

"I'm fine," I said, although the truth was I was beginning to feel seriously lousy. Despite that, I didn't want our conversation to finish just yet — not when we were finally having the kind of talk I'd wanted to get into for ages. "What do you want to know about Lana?"

She came off her chair and leant over me with a hand on my shoulder, studying me more closely. I smiled up at her. "You look even more beautiful close up."

"And you look like you should be in bed." She clasped my upper arm with her other hand. "Clark, you're shaking like a leaf."

Busted. And frustrated that my illness had gotten in the way yet again. I didn't want it to be like this, with Lois acting as my surrogate nursemaid. I didn't want her feeling sorry for me; I wanted us to be equals. I didn't want her seeing me weak and powerless.

Reluctantly, I let her persuade me back to bed. "So what's your conclusion about our little experiment?" she asked once I was settled. "I know we had to call Tilley in the end, but before that you really seemed to have it under control. Do you think the tablets helped with that?"

"I don't know, Lois. They didn't stop me having the attack in the first place," I pointed out.

"Yes, but we half-expected that. You were on a much lower dose, don't forget. But what I think is that the tablets helped reduce the severity of the attack just enough so you could start controlling it." She perched on the edge of the bed. "We could work on that, Clark. Maybe next time you could last out even longer — maybe one day you won't need a kryptomide injection at all."

I rolled my head slowly from side to side on the pillow. "It's not going to happen, Lois. There's no miracle cure here."

"What happened to not giving in? What happened to wanting more out of life than being sick all the time?"

I looked away, avoiding her insistent gaze. She was at it again — she couldn't cope with seeing me in pain, so she was trying to make it go away by searching for a miracle. But if there were any miracles to be had, I figured I would have found them by now.

Her hand slipped under my cheek and turned my face toward her again. "You're feeling a bit low because you're sick — I understand that," she said softly. "All I ask is that you give what I'm saying some serious thought. Will you do that?"

"Sure."

She gave me a stern look. "You wouldn't be humouring me, now would you?"

"No. I promise I'll think about it. Scout's honour."

She smiled. "Okay. I'll leave and let you get some rest," she said, standing up. "And don't think you're getting away without telling me about this Lana person," she added crisply. "We'll resume that conversation when you're feeling better."

I smiled ruefully. "I may never feel well enough for that particular conversation."

"Oh, yes, you will!" she retorted. She leaned forward and kissed me, and if I'd been feeling less lousy, I would have grabbed her recklessly so that she tumbled on top of me and we'd have rolled around the bed, joyously kissing each other and laughing…well, you get the idea. As it was, I managed just a brief kiss in return.

"Night, Lois."

"Night, Clark."

The apartment felt very lonely when she'd gone.

***

Chapter Twenty-Three — On The Up

Well, since that day life's been pretty good. I mean, I still have my ups and downs, but the difference now is that I've got Lois to share them with. I learnt that day that I could trust her completely; that she wasn't going to walk away like Lana had done; that she was going to be there for me whether I was sick or well. That meant a lot to me.

I've been ill a couple more times since that day. No big deal, you might say, but you'd be wrong. You see, I let Lois talk me into using the kryptomide tablets again for a couple of days before each attack, and they really do seem to be working. Each time I've managed to last a little longer before I've needed to call Tilley — which is just as well, because she was on the verge of refusing to give me an injection the last time. She said she'd had enough of my abusing Dr Tempus's generosity by not following the treatment plan he'd prescribed for me.

Anyway, like I say, I really seem to be getting better at controlling my symptoms. Lois helps a lot, of course. She helps me relax and doesn't let me panic if it looks like things are about to run out of control again. We've even started setting targets. The latest one was three hours before we call Tilley, and I made that with ten minutes to spare. Next time I'm going to try for four hours.

Of course, the end result is always the same at the moment — a kryptomide injection and hours spent in bed feeling sick and feverish — so I'm not sure whether I'm just postponing the inevitable or really making progress towards a time when I can do without the injections. Lois is optimistic, though, and for now I'm letting myself be carried along by her.

It's just so wonderful to have someone to turn to. She's becoming my best friend as well as my girlfriend. It's not all one-way, either. She shares her insecurities with me as well — I know, for example, that she feels she has to perform twice as well as the male reporters in the newsroom just to prove to everyone that she can make it as a top reporter. I keep telling her she's wrong, because the times I've met Mr White, I really haven't got the impression he's even the tiniest bit sexist.

***

Chapter Twenty-Four — Wherefore The Clinic?

I bet you're wondering what's happened with the investigation into the Trask clinic. Well, so was I, and so was Lois until a few hours ago.

I'm really excited — I'm about to go with Lois to meet with a source. Just like in the movies.

Sorry — I should explain. It's been a week since that evening with Lois when she put me to bed, and we've both been just kind of getting on with life. I'll tell you in a minute about the end of that conversation we were having about ex-boyfriends, but first I've got to tell you about the source. Did I say I was excited?

I've only got a few minutes to write this before Lois arrives, so I'll have to be quick. Let's see, where do I start?

Okay, it's pretty straightforward, actually. Lois got this phone call from a guy this morning. He wouldn't say who he was, but he told her he'd heard that she was investigating Jason Trask and did she want to know the real story? I think you can guess her reply. He said he'd meet her tonight, as long as she brought me with her.

I know what you're thinking.

Yes, it sounds very dodgy, and not a little dangerous. But I want to do this; I really do. Lois phoned me and asked if I wanted to go through with it — she also said it was dangerous, and that she couldn't guarantee my safety, but she'd leave the final decision to me.

Took me about two seconds to say yes. I'm tired of playing safe all the time. This is a major breakthrough, and if this guy really knows something about the clinic, then I want to find out what that is. So wish me luck!

Oh, and I'll tell you about the boyfriend conversation later. I'm too excited to talk about that right now.

***

Chapter Twenty-Five — The Ugly Truth

Well, it's around 3am and I'm exhausted. I also can't sleep, and I know I won't be able to until I've got this down on paper. Actually, I'd phone Mom and Dad and tell them if it wasn't so late, except this isn't the kind of news you give your parents in the middle of the night. So you, my faceless reader, will get to hear this first.

I'm totally blown away by what we learnt tonight. I've spoken before about shifting perspectives and the hint of a more sinister world behind the one I thought I knew. Well, how right I was! I'm sitting here wearing a thick sweater over a heavy flannel shirt and I still keep shaking every time I think about it.

So I guess I should tell you what happened.

We met the guy in a dirty, seedy little bar near the docks. It was the kind that has a bar down one side and a few booths with plastic-topped tables down the other side. We arrived first, and sat in the middle of three booths, just as the guy had instructed Lois on the phone. We'd both dressed in dark, casual clothes, but I still felt like everyone was staring at us — neither of us fit the typical profile of the clientele standing along the bar. The place smelt of stale smoke and even staler beer, and the only source of entertainment was a badly adjusted TV behind the bar showing a wrestling match.

The first we knew our guy had arrived was when the juke box suddenly sprang to life, playing loud rock music. We both jumped.

"Don't you like Led Zeppelin?"

He slid along the bench seat opposite us with a powerful economy of movement and settled with his forearms resting flat on the table. He had dark, deep-set eyes, hooded with heavy, thick, black eyebrows. In the dim light of the bar, his dark skin looked almost black, while the flecks of grey in his hair and trim beard caught what little illumination there was and emphasised the pepper and salt effect. He wore a dark raincoat with the collar turned up and just enough open at the front to glimpse a neatly knotted black tie and a crisp white shirt.

But it was those hooded eyes which caught your gaze and held it coldly and steadily.

I felt Lois shrug beside me. "They're okay, but personally I prefer Fifth Angel," she replied coolly.

You had to admire her style. Personally, I'd never even heard of Fifth Angel.

The hooded man raised an eyebrow. "You know your rock bands." His voice was smooth and unaccented.

"I make it my business to know lots of things," said Lois. "What about you — what do you know?"

"I know that you're getting nowhere with your investigation into Jason Trask," he said flatly.

"Oh? And why might you think that?"

"Because no-one gets very far when they investigate Jason Trask. He covers his tracks too well."

"So what makes you different?" I asked, ignoring Lois's heel pressing down insistently on my foot. Evidently she thought I was there to be seen and not heard, but I had other ideas.

The hooded eyes turned slowly towards me and appeared to examine every inch of my face before replying. "I used to work for him."

"Where?" I asked.

"At the Trask clinic."

My heart started thudding in my chest. "I never saw you there," I blurted out, and was rewarded with another warning press of Lois's heel. I guess she was right; it was an unwise admission — we were here to get information and not give it out. But my spell at the clinic was public knowledge, so I didn't think I'd given too much away.

"I left before you arrived," said Hooded Eyes.

"Convenient," remarked Lois dryly.

His gaze went back to her. "You may choose to believe me or not — that, of course, is your prerogative. I am here to simply impart information."

Lois shrugged. "Impart away."

"Jason Trask is both a stupid and a brilliant man. Stupid, because he believes everything a few scientists who are pursuing their own agenda tell him, and brilliant, because he turns those beliefs into reality." Hooded Eyes said all this totally without emotion, as if every word was immutable fact. He continued, "For example, he was told that humans have vast, as yet undiscovered powers which could be of great benefit to the military, and he single- mindedly set about tapping into those powers and harnessing them." His eyes swivelled back to me. "He very nearly succeeded."

"How did he do this?" asked Lois.

His gaze never left me as he answered. "He assembled a stunning array of the foremost scientists available in the field and gave them unprecedented access to the best laboratory facilities money can buy. Then he gave them a steady supply of live test subjects."

At this point, I began to feel like none of this was real. It couldn't possibly be real. Back in the real world, I was probably at home watching TV, not sitting in a seedy bar listening to my own worst nightmare.

"Where from?" I heard Lois ask.

Hooded Eyes shrugged. "Hospitals, lunatic asylums, homes for the elderly — there are a lot of unwanted people out there. Also special needs children. He was particularly interested in those, because he thought that children had easier access to the special powers — they hadn't learned how to suppress them like adults do."

"Is that where I came in?" I asked, finding my voice again at last. "Was I a special needs child?"

"I told you — I'd left by the time you arrived. But you're probably correct."

"But all they did was make me well again. They didn't perform experiments on me," I protested.

His eyes bored into mine, holding my gaze for a long, long time before he replied. "How do you know?"

"Because…"

The room was closing in on me. The thudding in my chest grew faster and louder, and it was getting hard to breath. His words kept echoing back to me from down a long tunnel. "How do you know?" "How do you know?"

How did I know?

Suddenly I had to get out. "Excuse me," I muttered, blundered my way out of the booth and strode rapidly to the exit, the rest of the bar a vague blur of faces and noise either side of me. I shoved through the door and stood panting in the cool night air, his words still running through my head.

I'd been used. I'd been part of a hideous experiment, conducted in secret. The clinic, which I'd thought had my best interests at heart, had been nothing more than a front for inhuman, ruthless experiments carried out on unsuspecting patients who probably thought they were receiving a miracle cure for their ills. I felt dizzy thinking of the cruel deceit and careless use of innocent human life.

And where did that leave Dr Tempus? I'd first met him at the clinic, so he must have known what they were really up to. Yet he'd been nothing but a force for good in my life. He'd introduced me to kryptomide, the only drug which could control my illness. He'd helped me get away from the clinic, set me up for life with a nurse and a free treatment regime, and had only sent me back to the clinic once when nothing else seemed to be working. He'd never interfered with my life, never given me anything but the drugs I needed to maintain a normal existence on this planet.

It made no sense to think of him as the villain in this scenario. No, that was the Trask clinic.

"Clark!"

I felt her hand on my back and turned to find her standing in front of me with a concerned frown on her face.

"Are you all right?" she asked.

I nodded automatically, the need to reassure always second nature. Then I changed my mind and shook my head. "No," I said roughly. "I'm not all right. In fact, I feel sick."

"Sick, as in…?" she asked worriedly.

I shook my head again. "No, not like that. Sick here." I indicated my heart.

"Do you want me to take you home?"

"No." I drew in a deep breath, and indicated the door with my head. "Is he still there?"

"Yes. I think he's got more to tell us, if you can stomach it."

"Okay. Lois…"

She paused with her hand on the door. "What?"

Mutely, I gathered her into my arms and hugged her close. I needed her so much in that one moment that it almost hurt. I held her as tight as I dared, desperate to feel her warmth leech into my cold, cold heart.

When I released her there was moisture in her eyes. "I-I'm sorry," I stammered, appalled that I'd hurt her in my desperation to hold her.

"No," she said, wiping her eyes with her fingertips. "No, I'm sorry, Clark. I didn't want this for you; I only wanted a few simple answers to straightforward questions."

I swallowed. "Then let's get them," I said, and pushed the doors open again.

We slid back into the booth, where Hooded Eyes was still sitting, watching us impassively as we settled in. I felt Lois reach for my hand under the table, and I squeezed back gratefully, glad of her firm reassurance before this impersonal bearer of life-changing facts.

"Why are you telling us all this?" demanded Lois.

"Because Trask is dangerous and needs to be stopped."

"Surely you could do that yourself — you seem like a resourceful enough guy."

"There are certain…conflicts of interest. It's better if the instrument of his destruction comes from external sources. You will expose him and make his work untenable."

"What if we decide not to run the story?"

He shrugged. "Then I have lost nothing."

"What else can you tell us about the clinic? Where is it, for example?" I asked.

He reached inside his raincoat, and Lois's whole body suddenly tensed beside me. He noticed her tension and paused. "Relax. If I was going to shoot you, I wouldn't do it here."

I gulped. I'd wanted excitement, but not this much excitement!

Lois just nodded curtly. "Go on."

He drew out a business card between finger and thumb, laid it on the table and pushed it across to us. I glanced down and saw that it was blank.

"You'll find the address on there," he said.

Lois snatched it up, read it quickly and handed it to me. An address in Colorado was printed on it — no name or telephone number. I pocketed the card.

"It's still operational?" I asked.

"Oh, yes. But I wouldn't advise you to pay them a visit unannounced. Their security is really quite good."

"Then why give us the address?" asked Lois.

He gave an infinitesimal shrug. "People don't always want to follow my advice."

I got a crazy image then of me and Lois, dressed all in black, sneaking through empty corridors and anonymous grey doors as if we did that kind of thing every day of the week. Even crazier was the fact that it didn't actually scare me that much. Maybe I'm a spy in an alternate universe.

"Can you tell us anything else?" I enquired.

"I think I've already told you enough," he answered. He looked at Lois. "Don't disappoint me, Ms Lane."

With that, he slid off the seat and stood up with the same economy of movement as before.

"Wait!" said Lois. "Why did you insist that I bring Mr Kent along?"

His cold eyes turned impassively to me. "It's not every day you get to see an alien in the flesh."

I flinched as if he'd slapped my face. Usually, I could see these things coming and could prepare myself, but this guy had blind-sided me. He'd seemed like one of the good guys, despite his cold manner.

"It's very good," he continued, still looking at me. "You'd never know."

Lois reared out of her seat and lunged at him, but I beat her to it. Something had snapped inside me. Whether it was finding out about the clinic, I don't know, but I was consumed with rage that he could be so clinical and detached in his rudeness. I faced him, just inches away from his body. "How dare you," I fumed through clenched teeth. "How dare you come here and tell me these things you know are going to change my life forever and then treat me as something lower than a laboratory rat."

He didn't blink; didn't show any kind of emotion whatsoever. "Get a grip, Mr Kent," he said. "I was merely making an observation."

"Merely…?" I choked back an incredulous laugh. "You're no better than them, you know that?"

He shrugged. "I never said I was."

I stared at his impassive face, his neatly shaped beard and well-cut hair; his good-quality raincoat and whiter-than- white cotton shirt. The respectable face of bigotry.

I shoved him roughly with my hands and he stumbled backwards slightly. "Get away from me!" I spat.

He stood his ground. I raised my hands to shove him again.

"Clark!"

I stopped. She was right — he wasn't worth it. He gave a brief nod in Lois's direction, then turned on his heel and walked out of the bar. I watched him every step of the way, feeling more hatred for him than anyone else in my entire life.

I was still staring at the swinging door when I felt Lois's hand on my shoulder. "You okay?" she asked.

I nodded. "Come on, let's go home."

We went back to her place because it was closer. It was the first time I'd seen her apartment, but I couldn't tell you a thing about it. I was too angry and upset to notice. I think there were some hard couches and a fish tank somewhere, but that's about all I remember.

Lois made me coffee and we sat and talked for ages. Lois kept pointing out that none of what the guy had said was corroborated; Mr White wouldn't let her print anything until she had at least one other witness or she'd seen direct evidence herself to support the guy's story. I think she was trying to make things easier for me; trying to soften the blow by suggesting none of what I'd heard tonight was necessarily true.

But I knew deep down that it was. I'd always disliked the clinic people; always thought they had a strange way of behaving considering their business was to make people well. So in my heart, I knew that the story this man had told me tonight rang true. It fitted so well with my own experiences there. I thought again about that miserable, gaunt boy staring out at me from his wheelchair, and the harsh voice yelling at him to concentrate. If they had uprooted him from his home, and had been trying to make him develop or enhance those so-called special powers, then everything I'd seen and heard slotted neatly into place.

No-one had yelled at me like that, though. They'd been cold and unsympathetic, but not brutal — maybe I'd just been lucky. I kept running through every moment of my time at the clinic, reinterpreting it all in light of my new knowledge. All those tests… I thought they'd been trying to find out what was wrong with me, but now I wondered how many of those tests had actually been experiments.

And what about the times when I'd been unconscious? What hideous experiments could they have performed on me when I wasn't even awake?

"Clark, try not to jump to any conclusions," Lois told me. "I know it looks bad, but believe me, I've been spun some amazingly tall stories in my time. This guy could have some sort of personal vendetta against Jason Trask — he could be making all this up in the hopes we print the story and destroy Trask's career."

I nodded. "Maybe. Or maybe both are true." I took a sip of coffee, but my hand was shaking so much that my teeth actually rattled against the cup and the liquid threatened to spill out. A distant, detached part of me looked on and marvelled that I could really be that shaken up; that it wasn't something which just happened in novels. I used my other hand to steady the cup and took a gulp.

"Oh, Clark," murmured Lois softly. She took the cup from me and laid it on the coffee table, then drew me into her arms. I buried my face in her shoulder and tried to let my mind go blank just for a few moments. God, how I needed her.

"What do I tell my parents?" I whispered to her. "They sent me there in good faith. They didn't know I was being used for experiments. What do I tell them, Lois?"

"Tell them the truth," she replied steadily. "If they're anything like you, they won't settle for anything less."

"But this will hurt them so much," I said, almost choking on the words.

"I know. But it's hurting you, too, Clark, and they'll want to help you through that. You'll need to help each other."

She was right, of course, but I really couldn't face putting them through the anguish I was going through myself. I decided then that I wouldn't tell them until I knew for sure that it was all true.

I fell quiet for a while, simply letting Lois hold me and trying to find some focus in all the craziness.

Another decision slowly took shape as I sat there. "I need to find out what they did to me," I said.

I felt her nod. "Of course you do. We'll start tomorrow." Then she pushed away from me and looked up into my eyes. "Clark, do you want to stay here tonight? I mean, this has been a terrible shock for you, and it's late…I'm not suggesting we do anything, just…well, you could have my bed and I could take the couch…?"

I glanced down at the hard, unwelcoming seat we were occupying. Her offer was tempting, but there was no way I could let her sleep on this awful furniture. I could take the floor, I supposed, but was that really a better alternative to going home to my own bed?

Still, my apartment was going to feel very lonely after tonight.

I smiled at her. "That's very kind of you," I said, "But I couldn't let you sleep on these! They're not even big enough to stretch out on."

She shrugged. "I'd be okay."

But I wasn't so sure I'd be okay. The more attracted I became to Lois, the more…well, the more physical things were becoming, if you get my drift. It was bad enough lying in bed at home thinking about her. Lying on her floor just yards away from her bedroom would be torture — and what if we bumped into each other on the way to the bathroom or something and she saw the effect she was having on me. Huge embarrassment all round.

Mind you, would that be so bad? We were both consenting adults — would it be so bad if we ended up sleeping together?

Except that was kind of jumping the gun a bit — I didn't know if she felt the same as I did about her. And until I knew that, then yes, it would be hugely embarrassing if she saw me in a certain state.

And sex is a big can of worms for a guy who knows he's not human, by the way. You have no idea how much thought I've put into the subject. And don't laugh. This is serious.

So reluctantly, I shook my head. "I'll go home. I'd love to stay, but I really don't think I'd sleep very well knowing you're out here on one of these things."

"Well, if you're sure," she said. "I'll call you tomorrow and we can get to work on corroborating all this, okay?"

"Okay."

So here I am, sitting at my computer in a darkened, lonely apartment. I'm cold and tired, I feel sick and I can't stop shaking. Kryptomide treatment is a breeze compared with this.

But I can't write any more. I'm out of energy, will-power, interest — call it what you like.

Good night.

***

Chapter Twenty-Six — Confrontation

I woke up this morning knowing exactly what I needed to do. I knew roughly where she lived, I had her phone number, and it only took one call to Information to get her full address.

I was outside Tilley's front door and leaning on the doorbell by eight o'clock. It took a while, but eventually there she was, a pasty, early-morning face above a shapeless towelling dressing gown and pink fluffy slippers.

"I want you to tell me everything you know about the Trask clinic," I said as soon as she opened the door. I was determined she wasn't going to deflect me — I was going to keep asking questions until she gave me a straight answer.

Tilley stared at me. "How did you get this address?"

"I called Information — it wasn't so hard," I said impatiently. "Tell me, Tilley, just when were you going to tell me the clinic is just a front for Jason Trask's warped human experiments?"

She tugged her dressing gown more tightly around herself. "Whatever are you talking about, Clark?" she exclaimed. "And just what do you think you're doing interrogating me outside my own front door at this ungodly hour?"

I barrelled onwards. "I met a man last night who told me all about the clinic — how it takes people from hospitals and old folks' homes and conducts experiments on them. What can you tell me about that, Tilley?"

"I don't know what you're talking about," she scoffed. "The clinic is a specialist facility for the treatment of patients with rare and incurable conditions. They don't perform experiments on people."

"Oh, no?" I retorted. "I saw the evidence with my own eyes when I was there — I just didn't realise it until last night."

She shook her head. "Clark, you're babbling. I suggest you go home, lie on your bed until you've calmed down, and forget all this nonsense. If you like, I can give you a sedative to help you relax, but otherwise, I'll see you on my regular visit tomorrow."

To me, desperately trying to get her to admit the truth about the clinic, she seemed incredibly condescending and annoyingly calm. It was worse than extracting blood from a stone; no matter what I said, she ignored it or threw it back at me without an answer.

I was so frustrated, I think I raised my voice quite a lot at this point. "Why won't you answer any of my questions, Tilley?" I demanded. "Have the clinic told you to keep you mouth shut?"

"Don't be silly," she barked. "And keep your voice down," she added, her eyes scanning past me quickly, presumably to check none of her neighbours were listening.

Taking a deep breath, I tried again in a quieter voice. "Why is it that when I called that phone number you gave me for the clinic they wouldn't help me unless I gave them the correct extension number? Not much of an emergency back-up number, is it?"

For the first time, she looked puzzled. "They did what?"

I felt like taking her by her shoulders and shaking her, but instead, I just clenched my fists by my sides and forced myself to answer calmly. "They wouldn't put me through to anyone unless I gave them an extension number! But you knew that already, Tilley."

"No, I didn't." She frowned at me. "You must have called the wrong number."

"It was the number you gave me," I retorted hotly.

She shook her head. "I've called that number myself on lots of occasions. I don't have to give them an extension number; usually I'm chasing your blood test results so I ask for the haematology lab."

"Prove it," I said immediately.

"I'm sorry?" she snapped.

"Prove it. Phone them now while I'm here and let me hear them answer."

"Don't be ridiculous."

"It won't take you five minutes."

"No. I will not stand here and let you bully me, Clark." She began to close the door.

"Please, Tilley!"

"Goodbye, Clark."

In desperation, I shoved my foot against the door to stop it shutting. "Please! I promise I'll leave as soon as you've made the call."

"No," she said from the other side of the door. "And if you don't let me close this door right now I'm calling the police."

That brought me to my senses with a shock. Suddenly I was horrified with myself; with what I was doing. She was right — I had been bullying her, and I'd now pushed her so far that she felt the need to defend herself against me. Me, Clark Kent, who abhorred violence in every way.

"I'm sorry," I said quickly, filled with remorse for terrorising a harmless woman on her own doorstep. I removed my foot, let her close the door, and began to make my way down the street, trying to come to terms with the fact that I'd just behaved in the most abominable way to her. The truth was I didn't actually know whether she was on the side of the good guys or the bad guys, yet I'd treated her as if she was as guilty as the clinic people.

"Clark!" Her mannish voice followed me down the street.

I swivelled around. She was standing in her doorway, hugging herself.

"Come inside," she said, indicating the house behind her with her head.

Bemused, and more than a little wary, I walked back slowly and followed her into her tiny house. In the cramped, narrow hall, she crossed to a small glass-topped table containing a phone and a vase of dried flowers.

"I'll put it on speaker phone so you can hear," she said.

Now feeling very guilty and awkward, I stood and watched while she dialled the clinic. She was careful to let me see the numbers so I could verify she was using the same number she'd given me. By this point I was starting to wonder what on earth was going on. Tilley was clearly completely confident that she would receive a normal response from the clinic, otherwise she wouldn't have invited me in. I was positive I'd dialled the correct number when I'd tried, so what was the explanation? As I stood there, I found myself hoping fervently that she'd get the same response I'd received.

"Trask clinic. How may we help you?"

I couldn't believe it. Tilley had a brief conversation with them, identifying herself and then asking when the results of my last blood test would be available. They were courteous and efficient, and obviously recognised her and were accustomed to dealing with her. She finished the call, then turned back to me with an 'I told you so' expression on her face.

"Satisfied?" she said.

"I don't understand it," I said, confused and bewildered. "I was sure I'd dialled the right number. I tried about four or five times."

"Well, you obviously dialled incorrectly," she said briskly. "Now, will you please go home and forget this nonsense about human experimentation. I'll see you tomorrow for your regular check-up."

For the briefest of moments, I considered asking her to let me phone them myself. But I'd watched her dial the numbers, I'd heard them answer, so what could I prove by dialling the number myself? In a daze, I followed her to the door and let her show me out. "Thank you for asking me back," I said.

"I can't have my patients distrusting me. But please don't come here again, Clark. I prefer to keep my private life private."

She closed the door and I stepped out into the street, feeling utterly confused, stupid and embarrassed.

Had I really misdialled each time? Was I that incompetent — was my illness starting to affect my hand-eye co- ordination? After all, it certainly did when I was in the midst of an attack — my vision became so distorted I was constantly misjudging distances and knocking things over.

But it wasn't as if I hadn't used the phone to call other people, either before or after I'd tried the clinic number. And I hadn't noticed any other similar problems with my co- ordination, so it didn't seem as if I was developing some kind of degenerative condition.

So how could Tilley receive an entirely different answer to me, when we dialled the same phone number?

First, I needed to prove that it was actually happening, before I tried to answer the question. As soon as I got home, I grabbed the phone and dialled, painstakingly taking my time with each number to be sure I wasn't making any mistakes. I listened to the ringing tone for a few seconds, and then:

"Switchboard. Please state the number of the extension you require."

I slammed the phone down, breathing heavily. I think I'd been clinging unconsciously onto the hope that I really had been dialling the wrong number all those other times, but now I wondered if I was going crazy. Willing myself to stay calm, I crossed to my desk and found the scrap of paper Tilley had written the original number on. I stared at it until the numbers danced in front of my eyes, but no matter how long I stared, they still matched the number I'd just dialled.

I took the paper over to the phone and dialled again, reading each number out loud to myself as I worked.

"Switchboard. Please state the number of the extension you require."

"Why won't you admit this is the Trask Clinic?!" I shouted down the phone in frustration.

The line went dead.

"What is going on?!!!" I yelled at the receiver.

The phone fed me static.

I dumped the receiver back in its cradle and buried my face in my hands, trying to figure out a clear path through the craziness. One thing was clear — either I was completely and utterly out of my head, or there was something extremely suspicious going on here. I just needed to figure out which it was.

Five minutes later I was headed for the Planet.

***

Chapter Twenty-Seven — Jimmy Lends A Hand

The Planet receptionist replaced his phone and smiled apologetically at me. "They're all in a meeting right now, but if you'd like to take a seat over there, someone will come down to fetch you when they're finished."

"When will that be?" I asked, pinning the visitor's pass he'd just handed me onto my sweatshirt.

"Could be half an hour or longer." At my pained look, he shrugged. "It's the daily editorial meeting," he said, as if that explained everything.

I didn't want to wait in the lobby for that length of time with only a vague promise that someone might fetch me if they happened to remember I was still here. I thought quickly. "What about Jimmy? Jimmy…" I snapped my fingers, trying to remember his surname. "Olsen. Jimmy Olsen. Is he free?"

"Probably, but you do know he's not editorial staff?" said the receptionist.

"Yes, but he's helping Ms Lane on this story. I need to talk to him as well as Ms Lane," I said, telling myself that this was not a complete untruth.

Clearly, the receptionist wasn't accustomed to visitors requesting a meeting with Jimmy, judging by his sceptical expression — but he picked up the phone again and dialled.

"Clark Kent is here to see you," he said.

I heard a rather surprised squawk from the phone.

"Yes, you," he said.

He listened briefly, then replaced the receiver. "He'll meet you at the elevators."

I nodded. "Thanks."

When I stepped out of the elevators, Jimmy was standing there in his jeans and grey t-shirt, looking puzzled but curious.

"Hi," he said, thrusting his hand out to me. "You wanted to see me?"

I shook his hand. "Well, actually, I wanted to talk with Lois, but I understand she's in a meeting."

His face fell immediately, making me feel a bit guilty for having used him just to get in. "Yeah," he said. "But you could be in for a long wait — it's the daily editorial meeting."

"So I heard. Do they always go on for a long time?"

He shrugged. "Depends. Today Lois is arguing with Eduardo about who gets to cover the third-world gun-running scandal, so they could be in there all morning."

"Oh, the thing about the Congo?" I asked, remembering a report I'd heard on TV about some businessman in Metropolis who'd been accused of illegal arms deals with the Congolese government.

Jimmy nodded. "That's the one. Lois thinks Perry should send someone — her — out to the Congo to investigate."

"Sounds dangerous." I didn't much like the sound of Lois heading out to chase gun-runners in a place as reputedly lawless as the Congolese jungle. And where would it leave my investigation?

Jimmy grinned. "That's why she wants to go. Anyway, are you sure you want to wait for her? I could ask her to call you instead."

"No, I'll wait. And, actually, Jimmy, there is something I need to discuss with you — if you've got time?" I'd just realised that Jimmy was probably the best person to help me out with my present problem.

"Sure," he said lightly. "What is it?"

"I need your advice on phones and phone systems."

He raised his eyebrows, then ushered me in front of him. "Then you've come to the right place. Step into my office," he said with an exaggerated bow.

I smiled, immediately warming to his easy-going humour. We took the ramp down into the newsroom, and he led me to a desk in one corner. I pulled out my scrap of paper and spread it out in front of him. "First, do me a favour and try dialling that number. Tell me what answer you get."

He dialled, listened, frowned, and jabbed a button to put the phone on hold. "They want an extension number."

I practically whooped with delight. "Great! That's absolutely great!"

He looked at me warily. "Huh?"

I laughed. "You can put the phone down," I said, and waited until he'd done that. "Let me explain."

He let out a low whistle when I finished telling him what had happened so far with the number. "Man, that's weird. You're sure you were dialling the same number as her?"

I nodded. "Yes. What do you think is going on?"

"Okay, there's a few ways this could work," he said. His relaxed, laid-back manner had disappeared, and was replaced by highly-focused intelligence and obvious enthusiasm for his subject. I found that impressive for someone as young as he; I don't think he's much more than 18 years old. Clearly, Jimmy was at his best when he was working on his home territory of technology and research. "Maybe the numbers on her phone keypad have been changed, so that when it looks like she's dialling a three, for example, she's actually dialling a five."

"She'd have to know that was the case, of course," I pointed out. "Otherwise she'd never be able to dial the correct number, except for the clinic's."

"That's right. Okay — method number two. The clinic could be using voice-recognition software to identify their callers, so if the voice-print matches someone they know, then they answer normally, and if it doesn't match, they give the standard 'can I have the extension number' response. Method number three is pretty much the same, except they're identifying the phone number of the person who's calling them, and giving the appropriate response." He shrugged. "Both are possible with the technology that's around today."

"If you had to put money on it, which method do you think it's most likely they're using?" I asked.

He hesitated. "Well, the keypad thing is the easiest to rig, but only you can tell me whether you think she knows what's going on. Otherwise, I'd put my money on the phone number identification method, because the other one relies on the caller speaking first as soon as the other end picks up, and you said the clinic were the first to speak."

I nodded. "Okay. To be honest, Jimmy, I have no idea if she's in on it or not. She seemed genuinely surprised when I told her I'd had a different response to the one she gets, but I don't know how good an actor she is." I sighed. "I used to take everyone at face value, but these days, I don't know who I can trust anymore. Present company excepted, of course."

"Thanks." He looked awkward suddenly, as if he had something on his mind but wasn't sure whether to voice it or not. "She's your nurse, right?" he said eventually.

"Yes. I know — you'd think I should be able to trust her, of all people," I agreed glumly.

"No, it wasn't that. It's just…I hope you don't mind me saying this, but you don't look like you need a nurse. I mean, you look…healthy. Very healthy." He held up his hands. "None of my business, I know-"

"It's okay," I interrupted as good humouredly as I could manage. He'd been very helpful, so I supposed the least I could do was to deal with this calmly and openly. "I guess you read Lois's article?"

He nodded.

"So you know what's wrong with me."

"Yes." He grimaced. "Bummer, I guess, having your private life made public like that."

"You could say," I agreed.

There was a commotion around the conference room as staff spilled out of the meeting. I saw Lois heading for her desk, followed by a tall, blonde-haired guy with a stubbly beard and a very contemporary-style suit.

"Thanks, Jimmy," I said quickly, happy to have been spared further conversation about my illness, and stood up to cross over to Lois's desk.

"This makes you free to have dinner with me, yes?" the blonde guy was saying to her in a thick French accent. "I doubt if there is a restaurant cooking food from the Congo in Metropolis, but I do know where there is a very good French bistro."

The accent gave him away immediately; this was Claude, my potential rival. I eyed him more closely, and decided Lois was right — he was too smooth. I didn't like his designer stubble either.

Lois spotted me hovering behind Claude. "Hi, Clark. I wasn't expecting to see you until this evening. Is our date still on?"

I nearly said 'what date?', but caught on just in time. "Sure, Lois — I'm looking forward to it. I just came here to discuss something about that story with you."

She settled behind her desk. "Take a seat," she said, waving at her visitor's chair on the opposite side. She looked at Claude. "You were saying?"

He shrugged. "I'll talk to you later. Nice to meet you, Clark," he said, offering his hand to me.

I gripped it firmly and met his gaze steadily. "And you, Claude."

He nodded briefly and strode away to the other side of the newsroom. I settled back into my chair. "So that's Claude," I said.

"Yeah," said Lois heavily. "Thanks for playing along. He's a major pain in the butt, if you'll pardon my bluntness."

"No problem," I said. "He does seem a little insistent."

"I'm getting tired of saying no." She sighed. "Anyway, what did you want to see me about? I haven't had time to do much about the clinic stuff yet, I'm afraid."

I nodded. "Yes, I heard you were competing for a trip to Africa."

She pulled a face. "Losing a trip to Africa, you mean. Mr White says there's no budget — and he's assigning the story to Eduardo, to boot. The biggest breaking story this year, and it goes to Eduardo of all people!"

I looked at her indignant expression, and decided that it was prudent not to ask why Eduardo was a poor choice. For all I knew, Eduardo was sitting two desks away, so encouraging Lois to vent on his shortcomings was not going to do her or him any favours. Sympathy was probably safer.

"I'm sorry you didn't get the story, Lois," I said.

"So am I! But at least it leaves me free to concentrate on your story, I guess," she replied.

I was tempted to point out that she could try to sound a bit more enthusiastic about the prospect, but it seemed unnecessarily petty, so again, I let it slide. "Yes," I replied, "and I'm really pleased I've got you on it, Lois. I would never have gotten this far without you."

She shrugged. "We haven't really made that much progress. All we have is one guy's story — and we don't even know his name, let alone who he works for."

She was right, of course, but we both knew his story had the ring of truth about it. We just needed corroboration. "Well, maybe this will help," I said.

I told her about my visit to Tilley and Jimmy's theories about rigged phone systems. Her eyebrows had climbed all the way into her hairline by the time I'd finished.

"I bet she knows," was her first reaction.

I grimaced. "I'm not so sure. Tilley's a tough old boot, but deep down I think she's got a good heart."

Lois gave me a look which clearly implied she thought I'd taken leave of my senses. "Clark, she was going to leave you alone to throw up all over the living room carpet!" she exclaimed. "How can you say she's got a good heart?"

I glanced around us quickly in embarrassment — it was bad enough that everyone in the place knew about my illness; they didn't need to know the gory details as well. "A little louder, Lois. I don't think everyone heard you."

She reached out and touched my hand lightly. "Sorry," she said more quietly. "But you know what I mean. I don't know why she thinks she can call herself a nurse."

"Okay, but at least she let me in today and dialled the clinic for me," I pointed out.

"Of course she did! She wanted you to believe her." She shook her head slowly, clearly exasperated with me. "You're too nice, Clark. You've got to stop thinking everyone's a saint and start getting more suspicious."

"Oh, come on, Lois!" I said. "I'm not that wet behind the ears, you know."

"I know you're not," she said. "You obviously didn't trust me as far as you could throw me the first time we met. But even people you've known for a long time can turn out to be hiding secrets you weren't aware of."

I shrugged. "Maybe. But the thing is, whether Tilley is in on this or not, I'm just amazed they've gone to such elaborate lengths to keep themselves secret."

She grunted. "I'm not. I told you ages ago that this looked like a major government conspiracy, but you wouldn't believe me. Maybe now you do."

She had a point. But I still had trouble accepting that I could be in the middle of something like that. I mean, I knew my life to date hadn't exactly been conventional, but from my point of view it was completely normal. Whereas living in the midst of some big conspiracy like the one Lois was suggesting definitely wasn't normal.

"It's difficult, Lois," I replied. "I don't see myself as the cloak and dagger type."

She leaned forward across the desk, her eyes suddenly glinting with a mischievous light. "Well, now here's your chance to do just that. What are you doing this weekend?"

I shrugged. "Nothing special."

She smiled conspiratorially. "How do you feel about a weekend away?" she murmured. "I hear Colorado is nice this time of year."

"The clinic?" I stared at her. "You want us to go out there this weekend?"

"Think of it as your chance to find out what it's like to be an investigative reporter. You did say that's what you want to be, didn't you?" She grinned, and her face came alive with humour and enthusiasm. This was Lois in her element, clearly — planning a daring, covert, snooping operation.

It took me about a second to decide. "Will you book the tickets or shall I?" I said with a grin.

***

Chapter Twenty-Eight — A Visit To The Clinic

(I'm typing this up from some hand-written notes I made last night in Colorado, by the way.)

We flew out on the Saturday morning, hired a car from the airport and drove out into the mountains. The clinic's address was in a tiny town miles from anywhere and even when we reached the town, it took us ages to find the clinic. Asking a couple of residents didn't help, because no-one had heard of the Trask Clinic and none of the sparsely-spaced buildings on the road it was supposed to be located on had numbers. We drove up and down several times and still couldn't find it.

Finally, we decided to ask at the last house in town. They also hadn't heard of the Trask clinic, but told us that an exclusive medical facility called the Ingersol Institute was located down a dirt track about three miles away — maybe they'd know where our clinic was.

Well, both Lois and I had the same idea at the same time. This Ingersol Institute was more than likely the Trask clinic.

It was a sleek, low-lying white building surrounded on all sides by shrubbery and trees. There was no obvious main entrance; just a single glass door in the centre of two of the four sides. No-one was about, so we picked a door at random and walked up to it. As I got closer, I started to feel pretty uncomfortable — I mean, if this really was my clinic, then I was about to find out if I really had been used like a laboratory rat all those years ago.

What's more, no-one seemed to be trying to stop us or chase us away. I glanced at Lois.

"Okay?" she asked. I guess some of my nervousness must have shown.

"I thought that guy back in Metropolis said they had good security," I said uneasily. "This is too easy."

"He probably just said that to scare us off," scoffed Lois. "This doesn't surprise me at all."

We reached the door without incident but found it was locked. Lois tried to look inside and I followed suit, but it was reflective glass and you couldn't see a thing. I shrugged and walked around to the second door, Lois following behind.

That one was the same, although at least it had a small, discreet plaque announcing the company name. We then walked all the way around the building, found a set of double doors at the back, and another single door on the remaining side, but all were impenetrable. We wandered back around to where we'd started.

"What now?" said Lois, craning her head to look up the side of the building.

"Well, unless you can fly, I don't see what else we can try," I said. Besides, the rest of the building was sleek, featureless white stone. There weren't even any windows.

"Do you remember the lack of windows?" Lois asked.

I shrugged. "Not really. Maybe I had too much on my mind as a kid to worry about windows."

Lois nodded. "But does any of this seem familiar?"

I gazed around at the trees, the dirt track leading up to the building, and the building itself. "Maybe." I shrugged again. "It was a long time ago."

Lois walked to the door with the plaque and gave it a frustrated shove. To my surprise, it gave way and swung open. She turned and looked back at me with a mixture of triumph and amazement. I jogged across to join her.

"What did you do?" I exclaimed.

"Nothing! I pushed; it opened," she replied. "Okay, let's see who's inside," she said, and stepped into the building.

I grabbed her arm. "Lois! Don't you think this is a little suspicious? First we can't open any of the doors, and then this one opens without us even trying?"

She shrugged. "So? It's an invitation. I think we should accept."

"I think it's a trap."

"Oh, don't be silly! Come on — this is what we came here for, isn't it?"

She pulled away from me, leaving me no choice but to follow her inside. We walked into a small, white-painted reception area with a single white sofa along one wall, a glass coffee table in front of it, and a high reception desk, also in white, behind that. A prim-looking woman in a nurse's uniform stood behind the desk.

"Welcome to the Ingersol Institute," she said. "What can I do for you?"

"I…we…" I looked at Lois for help.

"My colleague and I were hoping to visit an old friend of his. He was admitted here back in the sixties," said Lois confidently.

"Oh, I doubt it," replied the nurse. "We have very few long-term residents here."

"But you do have some?" I asked.

"A handful," she said. "What was your friend's name?"

Darn. I thought frantically for a plausible answer. None came, so I settled for the truth — or something pretty near, anyway. "Uh…well that's just it, you see," I said. "I can't remember his name."

The nurse gave me a sceptical look. "He's an old friend, but you don't know his name?"

"He's suffering from amnesia," said Lois quickly, patting my arm. "That's why we're trying to trace his old friends — to see if they can jog his memory."

I nodded. "That's right. I'm hoping they might recognise me."

The nurse gave me another look. "So how do you expect me to help?"

"Well, maybe if you could take us to see these people, one of them might recognise him," suggested Lois.

"That won't be possible," said the nurse immediately.

"Why not?" I asked.

"It's not our policy," she replied primly.

"Couldn't you make an exception in this case?" asked Lois. "This is our last hope."

I nodded. "We've come all the way from Metropolis," I added.

The nurse shook her head. "I'm sorry. No visitors, except by appointment."

Lois and I exchanged 'what next?' glances, then Lois suggested, "Is there anyone else we can ask?"

She pursed her lips, clearly resenting the implication that she could be overruled. "No."

"Please," I said, letting a little desperation creep into my voice. "I really need to find someone who knows me. I'm not sure how much longer I can go on like this." I looked at the nurse beseechingly.

Lois pretended to comfort me by putting her arm around my shoulder. "Don't worry, partner. I'm sure someone will be able to help you. Just hang on in there."

I nodded quietly, following Lois's lead.

Lois squeezed my arm, then looked up at the nurse. "Isn't there anything you can do for him?"

The nurse hesitated. "I'll see what I can do. Excuse me." She turned and disappeared through a door behind her.

I looked at Lois. "What do you think's going on?" I whispered.

"They're checking us out," she replied quietly. "Look." She pointed surreptitiously up towards one corner of the room. There was a camera aimed straight at us. Nonchalantly, I swivelled around, and discovered there were also cameras behind us.

"I still think it's a trap," I muttered out of the corner of my mouth.

"Who cares?" hissed Lois. "At least we're inside."

"Yeah, but will we get out again?" I hissed back.

"Don't worry, I'll get us out," said Lois. "Nice acting, by the way."

So was hers. We hadn't planned a thing before we came here — Lois had insisted that there was no point until we knew what we were dealing with. In consequence, the amnesia bluff had been a total off-the-cuff invention. All in all, I thought we'd done pretty well — in fact, this whole trip had gone surprisingly well so far.

The nurse came back before I had a chance to tell Lois what I thought of her own acting talents. "I can give you a limited tour of the facility," she said, coming around to our side of the desk. "If you'll follow me?"

Surprised, we followed her through an unmarked door and down a long, impersonal hospital corridor. I gazed around intently, trying to remember if I'd been here before. It was difficult to be certain, because there was nothing remarkable to set it apart from any other hospital corridor I'd walked down. It felt vaguely familiar, but that could have just been because I've been inside hospitals a lot.

I caught Lois watching me and shrugged. I just wasn't sure.

"This is our oldest resident," said the nurse, stopping in front of a door to our left. "I'll be surprised if he recognises you."

"Why?" asked Lois.

The nurse pulled a face. "You'll see." She opened the door and we went in. There was a narrow bed on our right, and straight ahead, with his back to us, was a man in a wheelchair. He seemed to be gazing at the empty wall. The nurse walked up to him and turned the wheelchair around. "This is Billy," she said.

He was strapped into the wheelchair. One strap went around his chest, two straps held his arms in place, and his head was held upright by a strap around his forehead. His face was blank. He stared straight past us, his mouth hanging open. I hunkered down in front of him. "Hi, Billy," I said. "Do you remember me?"

He was probably around my age; maybe a few years older. It was difficult to be sure because he was so thin. His clothes seemed to swamp him and his face was like a skull with skin stretched tightly over it. I felt very guilty about continuing my pretence with this poor, wasted soul, but with the nurse watching me, I didn't see what other option I had.

Billy didn't answer me immediately, and Lois asked, "Can he talk?"

"Not that I've noticed," said the nurse. "If he recognises you, he might make some kind of grunting noise."

"Billy?" I repeated, placing a hand over his. It felt bony and cold. "How are you doing?"

A line of drool slithered down the side of his mouth.

"Here," said Lois.

I twisted around to find her handing a hanky down to me. "Thanks." I wiped his mouth clean. "Can you hear me, Billy? Do you understand what I'm saying?" I asked gently.

Billy continued to stare blankly past me.

I patted his hand. "Thanks for listening, pal." I stood up again. "How long has he been like this?" I asked.

The nurse shrugged. "Ever since I've worked here."

"Does anyone come to visit him?" Lois asked.

She laughed. "Why would they want to visit a vegetable?"

I looked at her sharply. "That's not a very kind thing to say, especially in front of Billy. For all you know, he may understand you."

She shrugged. "I doubt it."

Frankly, the nurse's attitude appalled me, and I began to wonder what sort of treatment Billy was likely to receive if his carers were so callous. He didn't show any obvious signs of abuse, but that didn't mean anything. I also reflected that her attitude was very reminiscent of the harsh treatment I'd received from my doctors and nurses when I was a boy at the Trask clinic.

"The Institute…did it change it's name a while back?" I asked the nurse.

"No, it's always been called the Ingersol Institute," she replied.

"How long have you worked here?" I asked. She looked around fifty, so it was just possible she could have been here twenty years ago. I wanted to know if she'd have been around when I was a patient.

"I don't think that's any of your business, do you?" she said. "Do you want to see any more residents?"

"Yes," I replied, thinking we may as well spend as much time as we could in the place, even the nurse was going to block all our questions. First, though, I bent down in front of Billy again. "Bye, Billy. Take care."

I thought he deserved the common courtesies, whether or not he could understand them. He was still a human being, after all. Lois bobbed down, too, and said goodbye. As she straightened up and I was still hunkered down in front of him, he blinked slowly.

"Billy?" I glanced up at Lois. "He blinked at me," I said. I looked at Billy again. "Are you trying to say you recognise me?"

He didn't move a muscle. I waited a while longer, encouraging him with simple questions, but I couldn't get another response from him. The nurse grew impatient in the end, and we had to leave him. I looked back as we left his room; a poor, lost soul trapped in a wasted body. I couldn't help but wonder if there was an intelligence imprisoned inside — that blink had seemed very deliberate to me. The thought of an active brain stuck within that body, with no-one to communicate with, was horrible.

Even worse, I wondered if he'd always been like that, or if the clinic had done something to him to make him so unresponsive. Was Billy the person I could have become if I'd remained an inmate?

We followed the nurse to two more long-term residents. One was a forty-ish woman who asked every other sentence if I was her Daddy come to take her home, and the other was another man in a wheelchair who started screaming every time I came within five feet of him. Once again, I wondered if they'd always been so disturbed, or if they'd been turned that way by experiments and abuse.

Then, as we walked back to the entrance, I started to feel light-headed. At first, I thought it was just a reaction to seeing and imaging such terrible things, but as we continued down the corridor, the dizziness got worse and I started to ache all over. I ignored it as best I could, but soon, it was so bad I had to put a hand on Lois's shoulder to steady myself. "I'm not feeling too good," I announced reluctantly. "I think I need to sit down."

Spots started dancing in front of my eyes and the pain became really intense. I heard Lois say, "Is there somewhere he can sit?"

There was a pause, during which I prayed I wouldn't simply collapse right there on the floor, and then the nurse replied, "In here."

"This way, partner," said Lois, and I felt her slip her arm around my waist. I followed her lead, stumbling beside her a few steps further down the corridor, and then through a door into a small room similar to Billy's. We found a hard plastic chair and I sat down with relief. The pain had already started to lessen, but I was still dizzy and a little queasy.

"Could he have a glass of water?" asked Lois.

"I'm not supposed to leave you alone," said the nurse uncertainly.

"Oh, for heaven's sake!" exclaimed Lois. "What do you think we'll do while you're gone — steal the bedpans?"

"There's no need to be rude," replied the nurse snippily. "I'm just doing my job."

"Well, does your job as a nurse happen to include helping sick people like my friend here?" Lois asked pointedly. "Or do you just wear that uniform because it looks smart?"

"Lois," I muttered. "Give her a break."

After a moment's silence, the nurse sighed. "Okay, I'll get him some water. Don't leave this room."

After she was gone, Lois knelt beside me. "Is it an attack?" she asked anxiously.

"No," I replied. "I'm not sure what it is. I just got really dizzy all of a sudden."

"And now?"

I nodded. "Better. I think I'll be okay in a few minutes."

"Good." Then she suddenly looked like a light-bulb had switched on inside her head. "Do me a favour and don't be all right for a while, okay?" she murmured.

I frowned at her. "What do you mean?"

She grinned. "You're looking very pale, Clark. I think you need to lie down for at least half an hour."

The penny dropped. "And you'll sit with me while the nurse goes back to her station?"

She nodded.

I smiled weakly at her. "You know, all of a sudden I feel really sick and dizzy. Must be that bang on the head I got a while back."

"The one that caused your amnesia?" she suggested.

"That would be the one."

The nurse came back with a plastic glass of water and I made a play of taking a couple of sips and then letting it slip through my fingers with a sideways lurch and a moan. Lois caught me and set me upright on the chair again. "He needs to lie down," she said to the nurse. "He gets these turns now and then — something to do with the amnesia, his doctor says."

"I'm not sure…" replied the nurse.

"Look, there's no-one using this room, is there? So he can use that bed, can't he?" said Lois, nodding at the small single bed a few feet away.

"It's not made up…"

"I'm sure he won't mind. Come on, partner," said Lois, putting her arm around my waist again. I let her help me up and we staggered over to the narrow bed.

"This is completely out of order," protested the nurse.

"I'm sorry to be such a nuisance," I said feebly after I was lying flat with my eyes closed. "I'll be okay soon."

"Look, why don't you go back to your station and I'll sit with him," suggested Lois. "That way you won't get in trouble for not doing your job."

"But I'm not supposed to leave you," she said weakly.

"Well, it's pretty obvious my friend won't be going anywhere, and all I want to do is make sure he's okay," said Lois. "I'll stay here with him. You can check back on us any time," she added.

"I don't know…"

"No-one needs to know," said Lois. "We'll be out of here before you know it."

I cracked open an eyelid and saw the nurse biting her bottom lip indecisively. All she needed was a little extra persuasion, so I moaned softly for effect and turned restlessly on the bed. Lois came to my side immediately. "It's okay, it's okay," she murmured, taking my hand in hers. "I'm here."

She raised her voice to address the nurse again. "You can see we're not going anywhere," she said.

It did the trick. The nurse agreed to let us stay until I was well enough to get up again, and then she left us with a warning that she'd be back to check up on us. We waited until she was out of earshot, then Lois sprang up from the bed. "Right! If she comes back, I'm looking for the rest room, okay?"

I sat up more slowly, feeling better but still decidedly groggy. "Oh, no, you don't," I protested. "I'm coming too."

"Clark, you're in no shape to go snooping," Lois whispered. "Besides, you have to stay here in case she comes back."

"Let me remind you that this is my clinic we're investigating, not yours," I said, standing up. I swayed a little, but basically I thought I'd be all right.

Lois saw things differently, however. "Okay, I accept that, but you can hardly stand. We haven't got time for this — just lie down and look ill. You're already doing a pretty good job without even trying. I'll be back in a few minutes."

I sat down with a sigh. Maybe she had a point — I didn't feel totally well, and we were running out of time. "All right. See if you can find any medical records or anything with Trask written on it."

I watched her sneak out the door and then lay back on the bed, checking my watch first. I'd give her ten minutes before I started worrying.

***

Nine minutes into my ten minutes, the nurse came back. With a white-coated man in tow.

As I pushed myself up on the bed, he sat down on the edge without hesitation and pushed me back down with a hand in the centre of my chest.

"Head injuries can be unpredictable," he said. "It's best you remain flat."

"Who are you?" I asked, wondering what on earth was going on. Why had they suddenly wheeled this guy out to talk to me?

"One of the doctors on the staff. Nurse here told me you were taken ill and asked me to come and take a look at you." He pulled a small flashlight out of a pocket and leant over me. "Look straight ahead and try not to blink."

I turned my head away from his light and sat up again. "Look, I'm fine. I just felt a little dizzy, that's all."

He pushed me back down again, and short of putting up a fight, I had no choice but to lie down again. "It really is best if you remain there," he said. "Where's your friend?"

"She went to find the bathroom," I replied, praying that Lois would return soon. This was starting to get out of hand.

"I see. Tell me, how did you find us? We're pretty hard to find." He put a restraining hand on my forehead and shone the flashlight into my eyes. "Look straight ahead," he added in a low murmur.

"We asked in the town," I said while he flicked the flashlight across my eyes a few times. "It wasn't difficult."

"And you came all the way from Metropolis. How did you know to come here?"

"As I told your colleague, an old friend of mine was a patient here," I told him.

He held a finger up in front of me. "Follow it with your eyes," he instructed. He moved it slowly from side to side, watching me intently. "Yet you say you're suffering from amnesia," he observed.

"It's patchy. Some things I remember and some I don't." His hand was still holding my head down, and I was starting to feel trapped. He was a big man, and he was leaning right over me. "Look, I really am feeling fine. If you'll just let me up, I'm sure my friend will be back in a moment and we'll be on our way."

"All in good time," he said, putting his fingers against my neck, presumably to check my pulse. "Very few of our patients leave once they come here, and we don't encourage visitors. I'm wondering how you could have found out our address." His eyes bored down into mine.

"And I'm wondering why you're so secretive," I replied.

His gaze hardened. "Our patients and their relatives prefer us to remain highly discreet." Suddenly he clapped his hands together right in front of my face, making me flinch back into the bed in shock. "Nothing wrong with your reflexes, then," he said sardonically, putting a hand either side of my head and looming over me. "What else should we test?"

It was clearly a threat. I looked straight at him. "You tell me — you're the doctor. I think."

"Is everything all right?"

It was Lois. I took advantage of her interruption to push the guy away from me and quickly stood up on the other side of the bed to him. "Yes," I said, moving over to join Lois near the door while keeping an eye on him all the time. "Did you find it?"

"Yes, thanks. Are you ready to go?" she replied.

"Yes."

We made to exit, but found our way blocked by the nurse. I saw her glance over at the doctor, and he must have made some kind of signal, because she moved silently out of our way. I took Lois's arm and together we walked quickly down the corridor.

"Are they following?" she murmured.

"Don't know. Is this the right way?"

"Hope so."

I don't know whether they watched us leave, but we made it to the entrance unchallenged and hurriedly made our way over to the car. Lois took the wheel, and drove us pretty fast back down the dirt track, onto the road and back towards town.

***

"Who was that guy?" asked Lois once we'd both calmed down and were sure no-one was going to follow us on the road.

I told her what he'd been doing, which was basically interrogating me while also trying to intimidate me. "I have to admit, he was succeeding," I added.

"Yeah, he looked pretty strong. Are you okay?"

"I'm fine," I said. "But I don't know why I got so sick in there. For a while there, I felt as bad as I do after one of Tilley's kryptomide injections."

Lois glanced at me. "That's odd. You don't suppose they had some around in there, in a store cupboard or something?"

"I don't know. But that wouldn't make me feel sick — at least, I don't think it would."

Lois shrugged. "Who knows? It would certainly explain a lot."

"It would also mean they have to be the Trask Clinic," I said, nodding. "Nowhere else would keep a supply of the stuff."

"No. I'll tell you something else, too — I found some pretty weird things while I was snooping around. It's unusual to see someone strapped into their wheelchair like Billy was, but I found a whole storeroom full of wheelchairs with restraint straps fitted. I also found a ward full of child-sized cots — all of them empty, thank goodness. Scariest of all, I found a young guy in one room sitting staring at a huge screen with rapidly flashing images on it. It hurt my eyes to look at it for a couple of seconds, but he looked like he'd been there for hours." She glanced at me again. "What do think that was?"

I shrugged. "Brainwashing? Inducing an epileptic fit? Did you notice if he was wired up to anything? — monitoring equipment, for example."

"I don't know — I only caught a glimpse before I shut the door again. But whatever it was, it didn't look like any kind of medical treatment I've ever heard of," she said.

"No…" I pinched the bridge of my nose with finger and thumb, trying to relieve the dull ache which had started up between my eyes. I was getting that feeling of menace again; of a faceless evil hovering in the wings, just out of sight and sound. It brought back those memories of the clinic I remembered; of that boy in a wheelchair and the harsh voice yelling at him to concentrate. Wheelchairs again…

"Lois, stop the car," I said quickly.

She gave me a puzzled look. "What for?"

"Just pull over," I said, undoing my seatbelt.

She drew over to the side of the road and I was up and out almost before the wheels had stopped turning. I stumbled a few steps away from the car and stood staring at the trees, trying to make sense of a world I thought I'd understood until a few short weeks ago.

"Clark, what is it?" I felt her touch my arm. "Do you feel sick again?"

I shook my head. "No, I'm fine." It was the world which had gone crazy. "Do you remember I told you about that boy at the clinic — the one in a wheelchair being shouted at?"

"Yes, you said you saw him once through an open door," she replied.

"| think that was Billy." I leant over with my hands on my thighs and gazed blindly at the stony ground. "God, Lois, what did they do to him? He looked ill when I saw him, but he wasn't a vegetable." I didn't like using the word the nurse had used, but it really was the best way to describe him.

"Are you sure it was him?"

"Yes. I can't prove it, of course, but I just know it's him. What's going on, Lois? I thought these sorts of things only happened in the movies."

"Where do you think they get their ideas from?" she replied sardonically. She put her hand on my back. "This has to be really tough, but you have to try and not let it get to you so badly, Clark. We've still got a long way to go with this investigation."

I choked back a hollow laugh. "Not let it get to me — now that should be easy. Let's see — a few weeks ago, I had an incurable condition for which I was being treated by a team of medical experts I had known for years and knew I could trust. Now I still have an incurable condition but I'm being treated by a bunch of thugs who turn people into vegetables. Why am I worrying?"

"Don't do this, Clark. It doesn't help."

I started at the stones a while longer, reflecting on Billy and the other people we'd met at the clinic. What a waste of life — and all because of one man with some crackpot ideas about psychic abilities and remote sensing. I was no longer in any doubt that we'd just been inside the Trask Clinic's premises, and there was nothing I'd have liked better than to turn the car around right then and tear the place down with my bare hands.

But it wasn't going to happen that way. The place was too well protected — even if we returned tonight, I was sure we'd never be able to break in. And if we returned during the day, they wouldn't open the door to us again. We didn't even have anything we could take to the police. No, the Trask Clinic was all set to continue its sordid experiments for the foreseeable future unless we could stir up trouble for them some other way.

I straightened up. "So now what?"

"Now we find a place to stay the night and then we treat ourselves to a really unhealthy, high-calorie, cholesterol- laden slap-up dinner," she said. "I think we deserve it, don't you?"

I smiled weakly. "Sounds good to me. And tomorrow?"

"Tomorrow we go back home and figure out a way to put these people out of business for ever."

"Sounds even better."

We found a cheap motel near the Interstate and went to the Friendly's next door for dinner. It wasn't exactly haute cuisine, but there was lots of it and it fulfilled all of Lois's criteria. After our meal, we sprawled on the bed in Lois's room and watched two very bad but pleasantly mindless movies.

Later, lying on my back in my own room, I reflected on how well Lois and I had got on together throughout the day. This was the longest we'd spent together, and it had seemed to work pretty well. We made a good team, I thought — we complemented each other. Maybe my dream of becoming an investigative reporter wasn't so far-fetched after all, if I could hold my own in partnership with a reporter from one of the country's finest newspapers. On a personal level, too, we'd been good — we'd slipped easily into a friendly, easy-going relationship. There hadn't even been any awkward moments between us. Not even tonight in Lois's bedroom, when the potential for awkward moments had been pretty high. We'd said goodnight with a simple kiss, and that had been that.

I turned over with a happy sigh. Maybe the world wasn't so bad after all.

***

Chapter Twenty-Nine — Hospital

Unfortunately, I was wrong.

Today is the first day in I'm not sure how long that I've been well enough to sit up at the computer and write this all down. And to be honest, I'm not sure how long I'll be able to hold out, so I'll get right down to business and bring you up to date. I've got loads to tell you.

By the way, I can remember the first part fairly clearly, but after that it gets a bit hazy, so bear with me.

The day after we'd returned from Colorado, Tilley came around for my regular check-up. She came bustling in with her usual brusque manner, our disagreement of the previous day apparently completely forgotten. I have to admit that I was a little surprised when she didn't even acknowledge our confrontation, but then Tilley is lacking in many of the normal social skills you'd expect from someone in the caring profession to possess. So I dismissed her behaviour as being merely vintage Tilley.

However, I was further surprised when she told me to lie flat out on the sofa right after her regular examination. She'd already sat beside me and taken my pulse, listened to my chest, used her flashlight on my eyes, and so on, so what more was there to do?

"Just do it, Clark," she said gruffly. "I don't have time to argue."

I scowled, but it wasn't worth fighting her over something so minor, so I sighed heavily and stretched out. Meanwhile, she went over to the sink, washed her hands and came back rubbing them with some kind of antiseptic wipe.

"Now what?" I asked, eyeing her from my prone position as she advanced on me.

She dumped the wipe in the trashcan, pulled up a dining chair and parked her ample behind on it. Then she pulled up my t-shirt and started probing my abdomen with her large hands. "Any vomiting or stomach cramps lately?" she asked.

"No, never." She pressed in so deeply a couple of times I thought she was trying to poke a hole in me. "Ow," I protested mildly.

"Any lower back pain?"

"No." She left my stomach and reached up to drag the skin under one of my eyes down with her thumb, studying me closely. "What's all this about?" I asked.

"Dizziness?"

"No, I told you — I'm fine." Her hands came back down and probed lower this time; under the waistband of my jeans. "I'd feel even better if you weren't trying to squash my stomach into my back," I added.

"Don't be silly," she reprimanded. She leant back with an uncharacteristic frown on her face. I don't mean she never frowned — far from it — but this time she actually looked bothered about something. She stood up and crossed to her medical bag.

"Can I get up now?" I asked.

"No, stay there." She came back to me and I saw she was holding a syringe filled with amber liquid. "I need to give you this."

I eyed it without enthusiasm. "What is it?"

"Something to make you feel better," she replied tersely.

"But I feel fine," I protested. That was, aside from a sore stomach. And her manner was disturbing me just a little. She obviously thought there was something wrong with me, and whatever it was, it was bad enough that even Tilley, the cold-hearted battle-axe, couldn't quite conceal her concern. I started to sit up, but she pushed me down with a hand on my chest.

"Just relax. This won't take a second." She swabbed my arm with alcohol.

"I want to know what it is first," I said uneasily.

"I told you — something to make you feel better," she said, aiming for my vein.

But I didn't feel ill. And something about the situation was beginning to feel wrong, especially after the incident on her doorstep and our visit to the clinic, so I pulled my arm away from her abruptly. "I don't want it," I said.

She grabbed my arm again. "Don't be silly," she snapped, preparing once more to inject me.

"No." I pulled away from her again.

She leaned back in her chair with a heavy sigh. "Please, Clark. I know you think I'm a dried-up old harridan, but I do care about you really. I…well, you desperately need this medication, and the sooner the better."

Surprised by her words, I flicked my gaze up into her eyes and discovered to my utter shock that they were bright with unshed tears.

My heart leapt into my mouth. "What is it, Tilley?" I whispered. "What's wrong with me?"

I couldn't understand it. I felt fine; in fact, I'd never felt so good. I was sleeping well, I had loads of energy, and I was reasonably happy. Or at least, I had been happy until Tilley started behaving like a normal, decent human being.

"You…" She passed her hand over her face and then surprised me again by giving me a falsely bright smile. Tilley never smiled. Ever. "You're going to be fine," she said. She leant over and brushed my forehead lightly in another totally un-Tilley-like gesture. "But your latest blood test wasn't good — there were strong indicators of imminent and significant system failure." She sighed. "Your white cell count is too high, Clark — way too high. We need to start fixing that as soon as possible, so I need you to let me give you this. Please, Clark."

She was starting to scare me. I still had niggling doubts about whether I should trust her or not, and in retrospect, maybe I should have paid more attention to those doubts — but I was too accustomed to Tilley being my main source of medical expertise and guidance. I was also mindful of the fact that this blood test result had come from the clinic I now knew had an entirely different agenda to the one I had believed in a few days ago — but again, I also knew that I had an illness which seemed to be getting worse and which required treatment. The clinic was my lifeline in that respect.

I just wished I could talk to Dr Tempus. He'd tell me the truth.

"Has Dr Tempus seen the test results?" I asked. "Have you spoken to him about them?"

She nodded. "The clinic spoke with him this morning on the phone. It was he who insisted I start treatment as soon as possible."

The clinic had spoken to him, not Tilley. Did I trust that piece of information? "Maybe I could talk to him first," I suggested.

She laid her hand on my shoulder. "He's coming here tomorrow to speak with you about it. But in the meantime we really need to get you started on this."

"Surely it could wait until after I've spoken to Dr Tempus?" I said. "One more day won't make that much difference."

She sighed heavily. "Clark, it's your life. I guess I can't make you take something you don't want to, although I wish I could make you understand how dangerous your condition is."

She leant back away from me again, and I started to sit up, not entirely sure if I'd made a wise decision, but happy that I'd be able to talk it over with my doctor the following day.

A twinge in my stomach made me pause.

"Clark?"

"It's noth-" A sharper twinge made me suck in my breath rapidly.

"Where does it hurt?" Tilley asked.

A dull ache was slowly spreading across my stomach. I lowered myself gingerly back down onto the cushions. "I'm probably just imagining it," I said, for my own benefit as much as hers.

She pulled up my t-shirt and I flinched in pain when her fingers pressed into my stomach. "Please, Clark," she said, looking straight at me with a serious expression, "you have to let me help you."

I closed my eyes, wondering what on earth was happening to me. Half of me was saying this was an amazing coincidence, and the other half was pointing out that I couldn't deny how my stomach felt. Depressed but resigned to my fate, I didn't resist when I felt her swab my arm with antiseptic; didn't say a thing when I felt the needle go in; didn't even complain when she caught the hairs on my arm with the tape she used to secure the cotton wool over the injection site.

It was only when I tried to ease the tape a little with my other hand that I discovered that I couldn't. My arm suddenly felt like a leaden weight and my body felt incredibly heavy. I lifted my head only to experience a ghastly swimming sensation, and had to let it fall back down to the pillow before I fainted.

"What…what have you given me?" I said around a tongue which felt too big for my mouth.

"I told you — something to make you feel better."

Her voice sounded as if it was coming from down a very long tunnel. "I…I don't feel…better," I whispered, but even my own voice sounded distorted.

"Clark?" I was aware of her large bulk looming over me, but I couldn't raise the strength to respond. I felt her shake my shoulder, but I couldn't respond to that either. "Clark!"

She sounded alarmed. I was alarmed. No; more than alarmed, I was frightened. What was happening to me now? I couldn't move a muscle, and when I tried to talk to her, I could only make a feeble moaning noise. My lips wouldn't form the words and my voice refused to work properly. I tried to reach out to her but nothing worked.

"Clark!" I felt her shake me again.

Then she disappeared, and I was left to a swirling, confusing world in which my body was a dead weight and I was quickly losing the ability to even think straight. Sounds came to me from down a long, echoing tunnel, but I couldn't make sense of them.

She was back again, bending close to my face.

"These men will help you, Clark."

What men?

Terrified, I tried to sit up again to find these men and tell them to leave me alone, but I couldn't move, and now a familiar pain was beginning to seep into my body. I fought against it; fought against my useless body and forced it to sit up. The room lurched crazily in front of me, but I could just about make out some figures in white beginning to advance on me.

I cried out, but I couldn't even hear my own voice any more. Hands were grabbing me; pulling me, but I didn't want to go and I struggled desperately against them, fighting against the dead weights my arms and legs had become, trying hopelessly to make them respond to my will.

Someone help me…

"What are you doing?" I recognised Tilley's agitated voice through the fog. "He needs emergenc…"

I lost the rest of whatever she was saying, and after that everything kept fading, coming back only for brief snatches of sentences.

"…out of…way, lady!…shock…Clark?…hands off…leave him…"

In the whirling confusion, I thought I heard Lois's voice, but that was probably just wishful thinking.

More hands grabbed at me, but I was too weak to struggle any more, and darkness was creeping in at the edges of my vision. Soon, blackness descended.

***

Pretty scary, huh?

After that, all I can remember is disjointed snatches for a while; Lois shouting my name very distantly, a man's face looming over me and saying "his eyes are open", Dad's familiar, steady tones murmuring something indistinct, and finally, Lois talking to me again, gradually getting clearer and clearer until I could at last make out her words.

"…hear me? Clark?"

I decided to open my eyes.

Found myself staring at polystyrene ceiling tiles.

"Clark?"

I turned my head towards her soft voice and found her smiling gently at me. "Hey," she said quietly. "Welcome back."

"Glad to be back," I mumbled. My mouth was all gummy and I had to work it around a bit to get back some moisture before I added, "I think."

She smiled. "How do you feel?"

I thought about it. "Everything aches."

She nodded. "That's the residual kryptomide. They said most of it should work its way out of your system in a few days."

I moved an arm experimentally and was pleased to discover it still seemed to work. A cautious test with both legs yielded a similarly positive result. Okay, so I wasn't totally incapacitated, but I didn't feel like trying anything more adventurous like lifting my head off the pillow — something told me that would be taking things too far.

I worked my mouth around again before saying what was on my mind. "At the risk of sounding really cornball…where are we?"

She chuckled. "You're right — that's the most cornball thing I've heard all day. We're in Metropolis General. The paramedics brought you here after the Trask people tried to kidnap you. Do you remember any of that?"

I thought back, but it was all terribly fuzzy. I vaguely remembered trying to stop Tilley from injecting me with something, and then some white coats, but that was about all.

"Not much," I admitted. "What happened?"

She reached out a hand and brushed my hair off my forehead with cool, soothing fingertips. "It's a long story, and I don't want to tire you out with the full version, but basically the Trask clinic drugged you with a pretty nasty cocktail of kryptomide, sedatives and other things, then tried to kidnap you, but I caught them in the act, called the police and the paramedics, and here you are."

I frowned. "I thought Tilley was there."

"She was the one who drugged you," said Lois, nodding. I must have looked as perturbed and confused as I felt, because she added, "Look, try not to think about it too much now. The main thing is that you're safe and well on the way to recovery. I promise I'll explain everything when you're stronger — okay?"

That sounded like a good plan. My head was already beginning to throb a bit and I didn't want it to get any worse. "Okay," I murmured, letting my eyes close.

I let myself drift for a while, drawing up enough strength for another question.

"Is my Dad here?" I asked after a bit. "I thought I heard him earlier."

"Right here, son," said Dad.

I opened my eyes in surprise. "Dad? Where's Lois?"

He frowned for a second, and then his face cleared. "That was earlier today, Clark. We've all been taking it in turns to sit with you. Your mother's back at the apartment and Lois is at work — she said you only woke up for a few minutes this morning."

Weird how time distorts when you're sick — which led me to another question. "How long have I been here?"

"A couple of days. You've been in and out of consciousness since they brought you here, but today's the first time you've been awake properly." He leaned forward and grasped my forearm through the blankets. "We're glad to have you back with us, son," he said gruffly.

It was beginning to dawn on me that I must have been very sick, and that was pretty scary, since I couldn't remember any of it. I wondered briefly if I was expected to get better again, but Dad was obviously upset and I didn't want to make things worse for him by forcing him to answer that particular question right now. I wasn't sure if I wanted to know the answer anyway.

"I'm glad to be back," I said, and realised that I meant it a lot more than I had previously. I felt a little stronger and my head was clearer.

He nodded mutely and squeezed my arm briefly. "I'm under instructions to tell them if you wake up again," he said, pushing his chair back and standing up. "I won't be long."

A minute later he was back with a grey-haired man in a white coat, who came and perched on the side of my bed.

"I'm Dr Bryson — you've been under my care since you arrived here. I expect you've got lots of questions, but let me try and anticipate some of them for you, and then we'll take it from there, okay?"

I nodded.

"As far as we can make out, you were injected with a mixture of three; possibly four substances. One was kryptomide, which was administered at near-lethal levels. Unfortunately, I've never come across this drug before, so it's been difficult to determine precisely how it acts on you, but at the levels present in your system, it clearly wasn't doing you much good. We also detected a powerful sedative and a strong hallucinogen in the cocktail. There were traces of another substance, which may have been some kind of nerve agent, but that's all I can tell you; the lab is still analysing it. What I can say is that this mix was obviously designed to render you entirely helpless and in considerable pain."

I remembered Tilley's words. "Not something to make me feel better, then."

He laughed. "Definitely not. Anyway, we've managed to wash most of drugs out of your body using a combination of dialysis and counter-active agents, but there are still some traces of the kryptomide present. I understand you've been taking the drug for many years?"

"Yes, it's…" My mouth was horribly gummy, and it was difficult to continue speaking.

Dr Bryson helped me take a few sips of water. "Better?"

"Yes, thanks. As I was saying, kryptomide is basically what keeps me alive."

He raised an eyebrow. "At the correct dose, perhaps. Well, if you've been on it for a long time, it will take some time for your body to get rid of it completely. However, we're confident it will be back down at a level you're comfortable with in a few days. We might pop you back onto dialysis for a few hours tomorrow depending on your progress, but otherwise it's just a case of you getting plenty of rest and building up your strength. Your temperature is higher than I'd like it to be, but I'm expecting that to reduce once your kryptomide levels come down. Drinking plenty will help, too."

"Okay. What's this?" I asked, indicating the IV I'd noticed feeding into my left hand.

"Just a simple saline solution to keep you hydrated. You can lose it once you start drinking properly — but don't try to drink too much too soon. Your stomach won't appreciate a tidal assault after two days of doing not very much." He grinned suddenly. "So no knocking back the celebratory whisky just yet."

I smiled automatically, but that was the one question I really needed an answer to. Tilley's terrifying news that I was in imminent danger of some kind of massive system failure, plus the pain in my stomach just before I'd collapsed was haunting me. Even though the doctor had just told me I was in hospital because of her injection, and not in spite of it, I still needed to hear the truth spelt out to me from an expert I could trust. I swallowed hard. "Is…is it appropriate to celebrate? Am I going to be okay?"

He nodded. "You're going to be just fine. You're basically a very fit young man, so I don't anticipate any long-term effects from this whatsoever — all right?"

The confident way he said it, and his steady expression, gave me a lot of reassurance. "Thanks," I murmured.

"Yes, thank you, doctor," interjected Dad.

"Oh, and you'll have no doubt noticed some extra plumbing down there." Dr Bryson indicated my nether regions with his eyes. "That will probably come out later today. The sooner you're up and about, the better."

"I agree." I certainly had noticed the 'extra plumbing', as he so quaintly called it. It didn't hurt, but I'd be happier when it was gone.

"Any more questions for me?" he asked.

"I don't think so."

"Then let's just take a quick look at you and I'll leave you in peace." He looked over at Dad. "Can you wait outside for a few minutes, Mr Kent?"

"Sure."

Once Dad had left, Dr Bryson examined me and I took Dad's absence as an opportunity to ask again if I was going to be all right — was I as ill as Tilley had made out? He looked puzzled and told me of course not — once I'd recovered from the poisoning I'd be fine. It had been touch and go for a few hours at first, but there was now absolutely no indication that I was about to go into total system failure. I mentioned the pain in my stomach, but he shrugged and suggested it was just cramp brought on by anxiety. There was nothing wrong with me that good nursing and plenty of rest wouldn't cure, he said.

So I let myself be convinced, and felt a heavy weight of anxiety which I hadn't even been aware of lift palpably.

When Dad came back to sit by me, I wasn't up to talking much — I was tired and headachy again, but one fact was sinking in with a vengeance and scaring me witless. I turned to look at him; to see his solid, familiar bulk nearby and look up into his steady eyes.

"They tried to kill me, Dad," I whispered. "The clinic tried to kill me."

I felt him grab my hand and squeeze it fiercely. "I know. But you're safe now, son. We won't let them hurt you any more, okay?"

I closed my eyes, embarrassed by the sudden lump in my throat. "Okay," I replied roughly.

As he'd done so often over the years, Dad had managed with a few simple words to reassure me that no matter what happened, he and Mom would always be there for me. I don't think I'd ever loved him as much as I did just then.

***

I couldn't move. I desperately wanted to move; to run, to hide, to escape the grabbing hands, but however hard I struggled, nothing would respond. Scared…terrified…please go away, please leave me alone…don't take me away…someone help me… I tried to scream but no sound came. Shadowy figures in white coats were talking about me — they didn't like me; they were going to do terrible things to me…but I couldn't move; couldn't escape. My body was a dead weight holding me down…please leave me alone… Tilley loomed over me, aiming a huge needle at my face…she laughed maniacally…I screamed but no sound came…no-one could hear me…no-one was going to save me…the needle descended towards my face…no! No! NO!

Suddenly I was awake; rigidly alert and terrified. The room was dark…the men…where were the white-coated men?

"Shhh…it's all right, Clark," murmured a familiar voice to my left. "You were having a nightmare. You're safe now, sweetie."

I turned my head, and saw her sitting beside my bed, a shadowy outline in the borrowed light seeping into the room from outside. "Mom?" I whispered fearfully, scared that she was part of the nightmare.

I felt her squeeze my hand. "Yes, honey, I'm here. You were having a nightmare, that's all. You're in the hospital — remember?"

Everything came back to me then — waking up, seeing Lois, learning about the attempted kidnap. "Yes," I replied. "I do." I let myself relax a little, but the nightmare was still with me, hovering threateningly in the background. I could remember every detail of the terrifying scene which had been playing in my head.

Mom reached out and brushed my hair away from my forehead. I realised then that I was soaked in sweat, and noticed how horribly hot and clammy the rest of me was under the bedclothes. Come to think of it, even the bedclothes felt damp. I shifted restlessly, feeling weak and drained, as if I was recovering from a gruelling physical workout.

"What time is it?" I asked.

"Around one, I think."

The door opened and bright light streamed momentarily in from the corridor. "What's up?" asked one of the nurses in a soft voice.

"Oh, I'm sorry, Joanne — I called you," said Mom. "I was worried about Clark — he felt so hot, and he was tossing and turning so much… I probably over-reacted, and he's awake now…"

"Well, I'm here now, so let's take a look…how do you feel, Clark?" she asked, laying her hand on my forehead.

"Sticky," I said, using the word which first came to mind. "A bit dizzy, too," I added, as I thought about how I really felt. "I didn't think it was possible to feel dizzy lying down, but apparently it is. And my head feels like someone's trying to drill a hole in it."

She smiled. "Not so good, then." She pulled out her thermometer. "Turn your head for me."

She took my temperature and then picked up my wrist and counted my pulse. I thought there wasn't much point in doing that; I was still shaky after the nightmare and was sure my heart rate was probably faster because of it. My blood pressure was no doubt higher for the same reason, but nevertheless, that was the next thing she measured.

"Okay, I'm going to have a word with the doctor," she said. "I'll be back in a couple of minutes." She looked down at me. "It's nothing to worry about. He might just want to get you back on dialysis earlier than we thought."

Mom leaned forward when she had gone and squeezed my arm. "That could be good, honey. The sooner they get all that stuff out of your system, the sooner you'll feel better."

Yeah, and the sooner I'd have even more tubes stuck in me. More surgical procedures, more pain…at times like this, it seemed never-ending. No matter how well I felt, or for how long, I always ended up back where I started — on my back; weak, sick and helpless.

And this time it was even worse, because this time, someone had made me this way deliberately. Those men…

"Mom, what happened? At my apartment, I mean — did Tilley try to kill me?"

"Oh, no, sweetie! She was trying to get those men from the clinic away from you when Lois arrived."

"But-"

The door opened again and the nurse came back to my bedside. "Okay, the good news is the doctor would still prefer to hold off dialysis until tomorrow, but we're going to put you on hourly obs for the rest of the night just to be safe."

"Okay," I said, knowing that meant I probably wasn't going to get much sleep, but happy I didn't need to have needles and tubes and machines and whatever else they planned to inflict on me.

"The bad news is I want to get you out of these damp bedclothes. Think you can handle getting out of bed for a few minutes while I change the sheets?"

I shrugged. "Guess I won't know until I try."

So ten minutes later I was sitting on a chair to one side of my bed, feeling extremely dizzy and shaky. Mom had helped me change hospital gowns — thankfully managing to maintain my modesty throughout without making it seem like that was what she was doing — and now I was swaddled in the blankets from the bed while the nurse changed the sheets.

"You were telling me about Tilley," I prompted Mom as a way of taking my mind off just how wretched I was feeling.

"Clark, are you sure you want to talk about this now?" said Mom. She was helping the nurse change the bed as she spoke to me. "It's the middle of the night."

"And I know I'm not going to get much sleep for the next six hours or so, so you may as well tell me."

She shrugged. "Well, she's very upset about what happened," she said. "Apparently she had no idea that the injection she gave you was going to make you ill. The Trask people told her it was just a sedative."

"But she made me think it was something to help fix whatever was wrong with me, not just a sedative. She told me I was in danger of going into massive system failure."

"You'll have to talk to her yourself about the detail, honey, but all I know is that when Lois got there, Tilley was trying to pull those men away from you. She said she let them enter in good faith after you collapsed, thinking they'd start emergency resuscitation, but when they started manhandling you clumsily onto their gurney without attempting any kind of medical procedure, she knew something was wrong."

I shook my head. "It doesn't make much sense. Did she know they were from the clinic? And why didn't she just tell me the truth if she thought she was giving me a sedative? It's not as if she hasn't given me sedatives before."

Mom came around the end of the bed to my chair. "Sweetie, this is precisely why I didn't want to discuss this. I don't have all the answers, and now you're just going to fret about it for the rest of the night."

"Well, at least I know she probably wasn't trying to kill me," I said. "That was all the clinic's doing," I added morosely.

She stood in front of me and bent down to rest her hands on my knees. "Try not to think about that, honey," she told me. "You just concentrate on getting well, okay?"

"Yeah," I said.

"Come on, your bed's ready for you. Let's see if we can make this a little easier for you this time."

Once back in bed, I curled up on my side and waited for the intense dizziness and nausea the bed-changing operation had induced to calm down. Any idea that I might spend hours fretting about Tilley and the attempted kidnap seemed totally irrelevant at that point, when I was feeling so lousy.

Mom was right, though. Once the worst was over, all I could think about was the kidnap, the men from the clinic, and Tilley. Everything churned around and around in my head without any answers emerging from the mess. I was so restless that during one of her hourly checks, the nurse offered me something to help me sleep. I didn't take it, though; I decided I had enough drugs washing around my body already. Besides, there was no guarantee it would even work on me.

Anyway, I was glad when morning finally dawned and the hospital began to wake up around me. Curtains were drawn, cleaners came and went, the drugs cart visited on its morning run, and breakfast was served — half a slice of buttered toast and a small cup of tea for me. I sat up in bed to eat it and was pleasantly surprised to discover I only felt mildly light-headed instead of blood-drainingly faint.

Dad arrived to take over from Mom. I'd decided during the long night hours that it was time to put a stop to the constant vigil they were maintaining, so I adopted the most persuasive attitude a guy in my position could get away with and suggested it was time they gave themselves a rest. It took them a while to get the message, but soon I'd got Dad on my side and then it just took a little extra push to make Mom agree as well.

So I spent the rest of the day on my own. Well, not exactly on my own; I had a constant stream of medical people doings things to me — the IV came out, a blood sample was taken, someone else gave me a blood-thinning injection to prevent me forming blood-clots, and around mid-morning Dr Bryson came around and hooked me up to the dialysis machine with the help of a colleague. Oh, and a nurse who looked about the same age as me offered me a bed- bath — which I politely declined. If she'd been fifty with a wedding band and three kids, I might have agreed, but I wasn't having potential girl-friend material interfering with my…well, you know what I mean.

Not that I seriously considered her girl-friend material. In fact, the one person I really wanted to see but couldn't was Lois. Dad had mentioned that she'd had to go to work that day, and considering the amount of time she must have taken off recently to sit with me, I knew that was to be expected.

But I ached to see her. She was the key to finding out what had really happened at my apartment; until I could talk to her, I was still left churning all the unanswered questions around in my head. Twice I nearly asked for a phone to call her, but decided that was selfish of me and I should let her have a free, uninterrupted day at work.

You might think I'd also want to talk to Tilley. Well, theoretically, I did, but practically, I couldn't bring myself to do it. Despite Mom's reassurance that she hadn't been responsible for making me ill, and despite one of the nurses mentioning that she'd actually called to ask after me, I kept bumping up against the fact that she'd been the one to inject me. It was a gut reaction, really — I simply didn't feel strong enough to confront the person who had nearly killed me.

Not until I'd spoken to Lois, at least.

***

My parents arrived after dinner looking much brighter and livelier than they had that morning. They said I looked better, too — apparently I had some colour in my cheeks at last.

I felt better, too. My head was clear and I'd lost the heavy, deep-set ache which had been a constant companion since I'd regained consciousness. There was just the weakness to deal with, but at least I knew that was likely to improve with time.

Evidently, however, Mom and Dad had something on their minds and were anxious to talk it over with me — not that I realised that at the time, of course. The conversation just seemed to suddenly take on a new direction for no apparent reason.

"We're so grateful to Lois for rescuing you that day, honey," began Mom, apropos of nothing in particular.

"Yes," joined in Dad. "We've already told her how glad we are that she was there at just the right time."

'Just the right time.' Was it my imagination, or did Dad sound a little cynical? Surely not. "I know," I said, pushing myself up a bit higher against the pillows. Apart from a brief trip to the bathroom, I'd been lying in bed all day long and I was starting to get fed up with it. Maybe I could get up a bit later and go for a wander around the hospital before settling down for the night. Turning my thoughts back to Lois, I said, "I really hope she comes here after work so I can thank her myself. I wasn't up to much when she was here this morning."

They both nodded. "I'm sure she'd appreciate that," said Mom. "Although we wondered…" she continued hesitantly. "Well, your father wondered, actually…"

"You said it too, Martha," objected Dad.

"Yes, but you were the first one to raise it," said Mom.

"What?" I said, looking from one to the other in puzzlement. "Raise what?"

Mom put her hand over mine. "I'm sorry, sweetie. Your father and I…well, you know that we've been concerned right from the start about this investigation Lois talked you into."

"She didn't talk me into it," I said a little sharply. That wasn't really true, but I didn't like the tone they were starting to adopt towards Lois and I wanted to make it clear that she had my full support.

"Well, whether she did or she didn't," continued Mom. "We just hope you'll let things settle down after this. Let everything get back to normal — the way it was before you…well, before the article. Leave any more investigating to the experts. After all, you've got your health to think of, Clark, and that's more important than chasing after these people."

"Look where it's got you, son," added Dad gruffly. "You were fine until she interviewed you for that article."

"Dad!" I exclaimed, angry and hurt that they seemed to be turning on Lois for no good reason. "And Mom! I can't believe I'm hearing this. You're not trying to blame Lois for what the clinic did to me, are you? That's ridiculous!"

Dad shook his head. "I'm just saying you need to step back and take a long hard look at what's going on here before you do something rash."

"Like what, Dad? Like go back on the kryptomide tablets? Lois persuaded me to do that, and I thought you were pleased," I fumed. "Have you changed your mind? Is there nothing she can do right as far as you're concerned?"

Mom squeezed my hand. "Shhh, sweetie. That's not what we mean at all. Lois seems like a good person, and she obviously cares a lot about you. We just want you to be careful, that's all."

"Careful? I've been careful all my life, and look where that got me — waiting to turn into a basket case in a wheelchair!" I retorted. "At least I've started taking control of my life since I met Lois."

"Clark, don't excite yourself," said Mom placidly.

I nearly hit the ceiling, I was so mad. "How can I avoid getting excited when you're telling me not to trust my girlfriend?!" I exploded.

A soft knock on the door made us all fall silent. The door opened, and to my chagrin there stood Lois leaning hesitantly into the room. She glanced uncertainly at the three of us, while I wondered just how much she'd heard of our conversation.

"Maybe I should come back later," she said after a moment.

"No," I replied immediately, beckoning to her with an outstretched hand. "Come on in."

She came over to my bed. She couldn't get close enough to take my hand because Dad was in the way, and there was a horrible moment when I thought he wasn't going to move for her. But she gave him a steady, no-nonsense look which seemed to be enough to make him shift out of the way. She clasped my hand, and I reached up with my other arm to pull her down to me. She bent to kiss me on the cheek, but I turned my head toward her and kissed her fully on the lips. I felt her smile against me, and I made us linger there for a moment before letting her break away. I just hoped Mom and Dad were taking all this in and realising just how important a place Lois occupied in my heart.

She straightened up and ran her hand over my forehead with a smile. "You're looking better," she said.

I nodded. "I feel a lot better."

"Have they told you when they think you'll be ready to leave?"

I shrugged. "The doctor said maybe a couple of days. I'm hoping I can make it sooner than that."

"You don't want to leave too soon, honey," said Mom. "Give yourself time to heal properly first."

Lois looked across me to Mom. "But you know how much he hates hospitals, Mrs Kent. He'd probably recuperate much faster at home."

Mom's lips pressed together tautly. "Maybe," she said tartly.

I squeezed Lois's hand. "I'm sure you're both right," I said, trying to avoid any more disagreement. "Lois, Mom and Dad were just saying how much they appreciate all you've done for me."

She shrugged. "You were in trouble — I just happened to be at the right place at the right time." She turned to Dad. "But thank you all the same."

Dad cleared his throat. "You're welcome, Lois," he said without looking at her.

I ploughed on. "And I want to add my thanks, Lois. I'd probably be dead if it wasn't for you."

"Oh, don't say that, sweetie!" exclaimed Mom in horror. "I'm sure they wouldn't have gone that far."

"Mom, they injected me with an overdose of kryptomide and enough drugs to knock out an elephant!" I pointed out. "Who knows what else they might have done?"

"Clark's right, Martha," said Dad grimly. "The doctors told me that first night they were afraid he might not make it through to the morning."

Mom went pale. "You never told me," she whispered.

"I tried to, but you were so upset, I couldn't bring myself to make things even worse for you," he said. The conflict he'd suffered at the time was still there in his voice, and I felt a pang of sadness that they'd had to go through all that. He continued, "Then they told me a few hours later that they thought he was going to pull through after all, so then it didn't matter any more."

"You should have told me," Mom said. "We should have shared news like that."

Dad hung his head. "You know I can't bear to see you upset, Martha," he said huskily.

"Oh, Jonathan," she said softly, moving around the end of my bed to stand beside him and slide her arm around his shoulders. "It's not like when Sarah died, you know. We're both older and wiser — or at least, I thought we were."

"Seems like just yesterday to me," murmured Dad.

"Me too, honey, me too," she said, rubbing his back soothingly.

'Who's Sarah?' mouthed Lois to me.

'I'll tell you later,' I mouthed back, and she nodded.

"Clark, I think it's probably time your father and I left and let you get some rest," said Mom. "We'll see you tomorrow morning, okay?"

"Can you bring me some clothes?" At her frown, I added, "Even if I don't get out tomorrow, I'll want to get up and walk around a bit."

"All right." She came up close and leant over to kiss me. "I hope you get a better night's sleep tonight."

"I'm sure I will, Mom."

Dad came up and squeezed my shoulder. "Take care, son. And Lois," he added, turning to her, "I'm sorry if I was rude to you. We both know how much you care about Clark."

Lois nodded. "I do, Mr Kent."

"Call me Jonathan," he said.

"And you can call me Martha," added Mom.

Lois smiled. "Okay. Hope the journey back to Clark's isn't too bad."

"Night, Mom and Dad," I said.

"Night, Clark," they replied in unison.

***

Once Mom and Dad had left, I pushed back my bedclothes and carefully swung my legs down to the floor.

"What are you doing, Clark?" said Lois.

"Going for a walk," I said. "You coming?" I fished around the floor with my feet, looking for my slippers.

"But are you sure you're strong enough?" she asked with a concerned note in her voice.

"No, but I'm going to try anyway," I said. "Can you see my slippers? I thought they were just underneath the bed."

She glanced down. "Here," she said, reaching under the bed and placing them just in front of my feet. "Where are we going?"

"Anywhere that's not this room." I stood up slowly and retrieved my dressing gown from the chair beside the bed. Pulling it on, I continued, "I'm tired of lying down, and I'm sure I'll sleep better tonight if I can stretch my legs a bit first."

That obviously made sense to her. "Okay," she said. "There's a small cafeteria not far from here, so maybe we can head for that?"

I nodded. "Sounds great. Let's go."

She held out a supportive arm towards me. "Do you want me to…?"

"No — just be ready to catch me when I collapse," I said with a wink. At her perturbed look, I relented. "Really, I'll be fine. Come on."

We ambled slowly down the corridor. "So who's Sarah?" asked Lois.

I sighed. "Mom and Dad's first child — she died just before her second birthday. They've never really gotten over that."

"I'm sorry…what did she die of?"

"Some rare neurological disorder. They don't talk about it much, so I don't really know the details. All I know is that she seemed fine when she was born. It was only later that the symptoms started to manifest themselves."

"How awful — to think you've got a healthy baby, and then watch her slowly deteriorate in front of you."

"Yeah. And to make things worse, Mom wasn't able to have any more kids after Sarah, so they were devastated when she died."

Lois glanced at me. "And then you came along."

I nodded. "Poor Mom and Dad — they thought they'd been given a second chance. A healthy baby boy, who literally dropped into their lives, who needed a Mom and a Dad, and no-one had to know that I wasn't theirs. It was a dream come true — except they soon found out I wasn't the answer to all their dreams after all."

"But I'm sure you are, Clark," she said. "It's obvious just how much they love you."

"Oh, I don't doubt that. But look at me, Lois — I don't exactly give them a stress-free life."

She stopped walking and, to my surprise, grabbed my arms. "Don't do that, Clark," she said fiercely. "Don't wallow. No child gives their parents a stress-free life, so you're no different from anyone else."

I blinked at her. "I think you'll find that I am," I replied.

"You know what I mean — don't pretend you don't," she snapped.

Well, of course I knew what she meant. I'd just gone into automatic defence mode and said the first thing that popped into my head. But she probably had a point. I knew they loved me despite my chronic health problems, and I was pretty sure that given the choice between having me, as imperfect as I am, and having no child at all, they would choose the former.

I sighed. "Yeah. Maybe I was wallowing. Are we nearly there?"

"It's just around this corner. Is that okay?" she asked, her face suddenly concerned again.

"I'm fine," I reassured her, although I was relieved when I was at last able to lower myself into one of the chairs at the cafeteria.

Lois fetched us a couple of coffees. "Feeling better?" she said when she returned.

I looked at her warily, fearful that my cover had been blown and that she'd noticed how shaky my legs had become just before I'd sat down. "What do you mean?"

She waved her coffee around to indicate our surroundings. "You know — getting out of your room. Being here." She looked at me straight. "Sitting down."

I grimaced. "Busted. But at least I got here."

"And I have no doubt you'll get back, too," she replied with some amusement. "You have a stubborn streak that gets you a long way — you know that?"

I grinned. "It got me you, so it can't be that bad."

She raised an eyebrow. "I think you'll find that I got you, not the other way around."

I reached out and covered her hand with mine. "Well, whichever way around it was, I'm just glad you're here."

"Me too," she said. We leaned across the table to kiss. Her hand came up around the back of my neck, and then her chair scraped along the floor as she strained to bring us closer together. I wrapped my arm around her shoulders as soon as she was near enough, glad to be able to hold her in my arms again. She pressed her lips hard across mine, her body language urgent and possessive, almost as if she were frightened I might slip away from her if she didn't hold me close enough. I was surprised by the intensity of her kiss; I don't think I'd realised until that moment just how upset she'd been.

Then abruptly she broke off and leant her forehead against mine. "God, Clark," she said quietly, her voice cracking with emotion. "I thought I'd lost you."

"Hey," I murmured huskily, stroking her arm. "I'm here. You don't get rid of me that easily."

"You looked just like a broken puppet doll when they lifted you onto the gurney. All floppy and lifeless," she whispered.

I tipped her face up with a finger under her chin and looked into her too-bright eyes. "Well, I'm not lifeless now," I said, kissing her gently to prove it. "I'm alive, thanks to you. Do you want to talk about what happened?"

She nodded. "But not here. Wait until we're back in your room."

"Okay."

So we sat holding hands and finishing our coffees, not saying much but keeping up a thread of light banter. Back in my room, I sank gratefully onto my bed, pleased I'd made it back under my own steam but suffering a bit as a consequence. I kicked off my slippers, shrugged out of my dressing gown and got Lois to move some of the pillows so I could lie down flat for a couple of minutes.

"Do you really think you'll be well enough to leave tomorrow?" asked Lois after a while.

I cocked an eye open to look at her. "Take it from an expert on being ill — a good night's sleep does wonders."

She smiled. "I guess you know your own body better than I do."

I closed my eyes again. "I'm hoping we might change that situation sometime in the future," I muttered very softly.

Yes, I know what you're thinking. It was a pretty daring remark, for all that we'd had the odd flirty conversation in the past. I don't even know why I said it right then, other than I'm usually a lot more open about how I feel when I'm sick. Something to do with all those doctors and nurses asking you if it still hurts or whatever.

Anyway, as soon as I said it, I could have killed myself for opening my big mouth like that. What was I thinking? Nothing very intelligent, it seemed — she could so easily have taken offence to my suggestion. And then, of course, she didn't reply at all. There was just this deadly silence, during which I suddenly remembered exactly what I was, and all the old insecurities came flooding back. Who'd want to get that intimate with an alien, always supposing she didn't think I'd just insulted her anyway?

Then I felt her lips on mine and the insecurities melted away. "I'd like that," she murmured in a low alto voice I'd never heard her use before. A small shiver went down my spine.

We kissed again, and this time, I felt the tip of her tongue delicately trace its way around my inner lips. It was an intimate caress; sexy, yet restrained, and all the more tantalising as a result. To take it further would have spoilt the moment. I just laid there and let the delicious moments tick slowly by until I ran out of breath and had to break away reluctantly.

My head was swimming again as I fought for breath, but this time it wasn't from weakness or exhaustion, it was desire.

"Wow," I said, opening my eyes. She was millimetres from my face, gazing down with deep, dark pools of intensity.

"I think I love you," she murmured.

My heart surged. "Oh, Lois," I said shakily. "I know I love you."

I tugged her down for another kiss, and this time it was deep and intense and lasted forever.

"Lie beside me," I asked her, making room on the bed. "I want us to be close."

She smiled, then slipped her shoes off and lay on top of the covers in the narrow space I'd made for her. I wrapped my arm around her and she did likewise, and we faced each other on the pillow, our noses almost touching. It felt wonderfully cosy and intimate, and the hospital sounds and clinical smells faded away into the distant background. There was just me and Lois.

"Tell me what happened when you found me," I said softly.

She told me how she'd decided to drop in to finalise our trip to Colorado. There had been a vehicle parked outside my apartment block which had looked similar to an ambulance, but she hadn't really taken much note of that until she'd arrived at my door and found it wide open. She'd rushed inside to find Tilley and two men in white coats crowded around my sofa, obviously having an argument about something. Tilley had pushed one of them aside, and it was then that Lois saw me lying unconscious on the sofa.

"You didn't look right — you looked like someone had just dropped you in an untidy heap. Your face was completely white," she said in a small voice. "I've never seen anyone look so ill."

She sounded so forlorn. I gave her a comforting squeeze. "I heard you, you know," I told her. "I wasn't completely out when you arrived."

"So you heard what happened?" she asked.

I shook my head slightly on the pillow. "No, not really. I was only getting snatches of conversation at that stage. Everything was fading in and out."

She explained that she'd immediately linked the ambulance- like vehicle downstairs with the two white-coated men. At first, she'd thought that they were there to take me to the hospital, and that Tilley was trying to stop them. But then Tilley had implored Lois to help her stop the men from taking me away — that they weren't there to help me at all. They weren't paramedics, she'd said. The men had tried to bluff their way out of the situation, but when Lois saw how roughly and inexpertly they were handling me, she realised Tilley was telling the truth.

"Thank goodness I started those Tae Kwon Do classes," she said wryly. "I never thought I'd be using them so soon, but it really worked! I flattened one of them, and Tilley got the other by shoving their gurney at him. You know, she's pretty game for a lady her age and size."

I smiled. "I once had a theory that she's really a cyborg."

"Clark! That's not very charitable," said Lois. "But I know what you mean," she added with a wry smile. "Anyway, I managed to dial 911 while they were still on the floor, but by the time the police and ambulance arrived, they'd scarpered. We probably should have tried to tie them up or something, but to be honest we were just glad they left us alone."

"So am I," I said. "Lois, you're incredible. I can't imagine how you managed to take on two grown men and beat them-"

"Well, I did have Tilley's help," she pointed out.

"But still — I think you were incredibly brave. I'll never be able to thank you enough for what you did for me. I guess this will have to do for now." I closed the small gap between us and kissed her.

We didn't hear the door opening until it was too late. "Just need to check you out-"

The cheery voice stopped abruptly. We froze, and then I felt myself go bright red. Lois scrambled quickly off the bed, tugging at her clothes to smooth them down.

"Well," said the nurse. "Looks like someone's already been checking you out."

I pushed myself upright, feeling more and more embarrassed by the minute. "It's not what it looks-"

"Do you want me to come back?" she said. "Or have you finished?"

"I…"

"We…" said Lois.

Honestly, I don't think I've ever been so embarrassed. I mean, you're just not supposed to make out in a hospital, are you? People become patients in hospital, and patients don't have sex lives — I think there's a law about it somewhere.

But just when I was hoping the bed would fold in half and suck me down into its non-embarrassing depths, the nurse suddenly burst out laughing. "Your faces…" She laughed again, then sucked in a deep breath to calm herself down. "It's okay, you know. You don't need to be embarrassed. There's not much I haven't seen."

Well, I knew there was one thing she definitely wasn't going to see, if I had anything to do with it. I pulled the bed covers up a bit further.

"I should probably go anyway," said Lois, retrieving her shoes from under the bed. "Clark needs his rest."

"I'll see you tomorrow?" I asked hopefully.

"Yes, as soon as I can get away from work. Just make sure you tell me if you get out early, okay?"

I nodded. "Okay. Night, Lois."

"Night, Clark."

I watched her leave the room, and then looked at the nurse in trepidation. Just how much was I going to suffer for our little indiscretion, I wondered.

"What's this about getting out early?" she asked, picking up my wrist and looking at her watch.

"I'm hoping you'll let me go tomorrow," I explained warily.

"Hmmm," she said, and then fell silent while she concentrated on my pulse.

"What does 'hmmm' mean?" I asked when she finished and started on my blood pressure.

"It means I think you're being a bit optimistic. Taking a stroll to the cafeteria and back isn't the same as looking after yourself full time at home, you know."

"How did you know about the cafeteria?" I said in surprise.

She smiled. "I have spies everywhere."

So there was a very efficient grapevine working amongst the staff. It dawned on me with a sinking feeling that Lois and I had been kissing at the cafeteria, too. I almost groaned out loud — how long would it be before our latest 'activity' was spread around the hospital? Maybe I should offer to sell tickets tomorrow…

I waited until the nurse had finished with my blood pressure and temperature. "So how am I doing, anyway?" A change of subject seemed like a good idea.

She was writing up my chart, and held it up for me to see the graphs. "Pulse and BP back to normal, but you're running a slight temperature."

"Oh." I didn't feel hot. "How do you know what's normal for me, anyway?"

She looked surprised that I'd asked the question. "Your nurse told us, of course."

"Tilley?"

"Yes, she contacted us shortly after you were admitted and gave us your medical history. Haven't you spoken to her?"

"No."

"Well, she was very helpful, apparently — and very concerned about you. I'm surprised she hasn't been in to visit you."

I'm not, I thought sourly.

After the nurse left, I settled down for the night, thinking about Tilley. From what Lois had told me, it seemed that Tilley had genuinely tried to help me when the injection had started to make me ill. But if she didn't want me to get sick, why had she given me the injection in the first place? Was it true that she didn't actually know what she'd been administering? That made sense — she'd told me that day that she'd been acting under the clinic's instructions, so maybe they'd even supplied the drugs. They could have told her I was very sick and in need of fast treatment; her behaviour that day was certainly consistent with that. Then she'd told me that Dr Tempus had given his sanction to the treatment — but that information had come via the clinic, not directly from Tempus himself.

So the clinic were definitely on the side of the bad guys, but it was starting to look as if Tilley was one of the good guys.

As I drifted off to sleep, I recalled my confrontation with her over the clinic's telephone number. Maybe her innocent act that day had been genuine…

***

I don't know what time it was when I woke up. I only know that I came awake suddenly, jerked out of sleep by an unfamiliar noise.

I lay on my side, eyes tightly shut, heart thudding, frantically trying to process and identify the sound I'd heard. It had been brief, so all I had was the echo in my head to replay and analyse.

A click.

It had been the click of a door catch.

My eyes popped open and I saw it — a dark shadow looming beside my bed.

My breath caught and I backed away instinctively under the covers, poised for flight away from the danger.

The shadow moved.

"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to startle you, Clark."

Another shock. My heart didn't stop thudding, but I wasn't ready to flee any more. "Tilley?" I whispered. "What are you doing here?"

"I couldn't stay away any longer," she said softly. "I had to come and see you for myself."

"In the middle of the night?" I said incredulously. "What's wrong with normal visiting hours?"

She moved again and I heard her clothes rustle, breaking the still of the night. "I felt so bad about what happened. I thought it was best if I just kept away, and I did, but tonight…I had to know how you were. I couldn't sleep without knowing."

"But how did you get in?"

"I know some of the staff here — they let me in." She sighed. "Clark, how are you? They said on the phone that you were improving and expected to make a full recovery, but is that true? Have they checked your white cell count, for example? I know hospitals — the staff are overworked and they don't always have time to check everything."

"There's nothing wrong with my blood, Tilley, and there never was — I asked the doctor," I hissed angrily. "That line you gave me about imminent system failure was a lie — a lie designed to make me scared so I'd let you inject me with the kryptomide overdose and whatever else was in that needle."

"I didn't know!" she exclaimed in an urgent whisper. "Clark, you have to believe me — I honestly thought you were sick and needed treatment quickly. Okay, so I was puzzled at first when you seemed to be so well, but sometimes it can happen that way — and the figures the clinic had given me were frightening, they were so high. My own examination didn't prove anything, but I'm no expert in the field. Then when you starting getting pains in your stomach, I decided the clinic had to be right."

I'd forgotten the stomach pains. I frowned, trying to figure out what might have caused them. The doctor had suggested they were brought on by anxiety, but I hadn't experienced anything like it before or afterwards. "I don't know why my stomach hurt," I said, "but it's been fine since then."

She fell quiet for a moment. "Well, I can't explain it either, but please — don't take any chances. Get them to check you out. I'd never forgive myself if you got sick again."

I thought about that for a minute. There was no harm in asking the doctor again, I supposed. I was sure I was all right, but now that Tilley had raised the question, I may as well try and get an answer.

More perturbing than phantom stomach pains, however, was Tilley herself. "Whatever happened to the old Tilley?" I asked. "The one who was always biting my head off for not taking my medication?"

She sighed deeply. "I was only doing it for your own good. I…I'm not very good at showing how I really feel, Clark. Life…my life…well, I've had my ups and downs, let's just say."

It occurred to me that I knew very little about Tilley's personal life. We just never had that kind of conversation. "You're not married, are you, Tilley?" I said.

"No," she replied, shaking her head. "Mr Right just never came along for me."

I asked her about family, but it appeared that she had no- one. I didn't ask about friends, because by that stage, it was becoming pretty clear that she was very lonely. Her patients were probably the closest acquaintances she had, and she'd developed distancing tactics to keep even them at arm's length.

Suddenly I felt very sorry for Tilley. She gave the impression of being a dry old stick, but there was a desperately sad, lonely lady under the hard shell, and somewhere during her lonely life she'd lost the ability to interact normally with the rest of society. Visiting me in the middle of the night was probably the only way she could give sway to her emotions without having to let anyone else see her do it.

"I'm glad you came, Tilley," I found myself saying. "It's good to know you care."

I heard her clothes rustle again and felt her hand squeeze my arm briefly. "Look after yourself, Clark," she murmured gruffly. "Call me when you're out of hospital and we'll set up your treatment schedule again."

"But what's going to happen now that the clinic has closed down? Have you spoken to Dr Tempus at all?" I asked anxiously.

"No. I called his answering service and left a message, but he hasn't returned my call yet. But don't worry — we'll work something out," she said briskly, almost back to her normal brusque self again. "I've got plenty of kryptomide left, and anyway, it's Dr Tempus who supplies me with that, not the clinic."

"Okay," I said, relieved that I wasn't going to be stuck without any medication. Whilst I was yet to recover fully from the overdose, there would undoubtedly come a time when I'd need to go back on the injections and/or the pills. Lois had helped me reduce my reliance on them, but the thought of facing life without any medication whatsoever scared me witless.

She stood up and opened the door, letting light spill in briefly from the corridor. "Night, Clark," she said softly, turning her head towards me.

The light from outside glanced over her face, and I caught a glimpse of moisture on her cheeks. I wondered if she'd been crying all the time she'd been with me. I hadn't noticed it in her voice, but she'd spoken in a hoarse, gruff whisper for most of the time, and that could have masked the effect of her tears. "Night, Tilley," I replied.

I felt I should have said more; perhaps tried to reassure or comfort her, but there was still an awkward barrier between us despite the conversation we'd just had. I guessed there always would be. Tilley preferred it that way.

***

The following day I had an audience with my doctor. Mom and Dad had visited in the morning and brought me some clothes, so I made sure I was dressed and sitting up by the time he arrived. I looked, I hoped, like a patient well on the way to full health and completely capable of going home.

He picked up my chart and perched on the side of my bed while he read silently. After a few moments, he removed his glasses and looked up. "I hear you're hoping we'll discharge you today," he said.

His gaze was very searching, as if he was assessing my condition through every little movement or expression I made. I tried not to squirm and faced him squarely. "Yes," I replied firmly. "I think I'm well enough to go home, don't you?"

"Well, I see your stats are all down to normal — even your temperature dropped overnight. We haven't given you any pain medication since…" his eyes dropped to the chart momentarily, "yesterday afternoon. How's the pain now?" he asked briskly.

"Fine," I replied quickly, and instantly regretted my haste when his eyes narrowed astutely.

"Care to expand on that?" he said.

I shrugged. "It's manageable — compared to how I feel after a kryptomide injection, it's nothing."

He frowned. "You know, if you hadn't told me that stuff is what keeps you alive, I'd have never guessed. It's incredibly toxic when it's inside your body in high concentrations. I'd even guess it could have a detrimental effect when applied externally."

I was surprised. "Really? I know it's poisonous if I ingest too much of it, but I didn't know it could hurt me even when it's not inside me." And I don't know why, but suddenly I remembered all the poking and prodding Tilley had given my stomach just before it had started to hurt. "You know those stomach pains I mentioned?" He nodded. "Could they have been caused by kryptomide?"

He looked thoughtful. "Maybe. Did someone apply it externally?"

"They may have done, inadvertently." I said inadvertently because I was now convinced that Tilley was on my side. It was possible, however, that she could have smeared some on her hands accidentally. And come to think of it, hadn't she used some kind of antiseptic wipe before she examined me? Could that have been soaked in kryptomide solution? The more I thought about the possibility, the more plausible it seemed. Especially if the clinic had supplied the wipes — I'd have to ask her about that.

"Then yes, I'd say it was possible," he said.

"I wonder why my doctor never mentioned all this," I mused.

He leaned forward. "That's another thing — I looked up your Dr Tempus in all the standard places, but I couldn't find him anywhere. Are you sure he's a bone fide physician?"

"I think he's more of a research scientist than a doctor," I replied. "You probably wouldn't find him in a medical doctor's register."

"Well, he shouldn't be treating you unless he's properly registered."

"The clinic handled all the medical stuff," I pointed out. "Actually, I'm not sure where that leaves me now that they're out of action."

"My advice would be to find yourself a properly qualified physician," he said. "Your nurse is qualified, but you need a medical doctor to oversee your treatment."

I nodded. "Okay, I'll think about it. In the meantime, do I get out today?"

He gave me another searching look. "I'll do you a deal. If your stats are still normal by three o'clock this afternoon, you can go home, otherwise I get to keep you until at least tomorrow. Is there someone who could stay with you for a couple of days until you're back on your feet?"

I automatically thought of my parents, and then had an even more attractive thought. Would Lois be willing? It was a lot to ask, but as much as I love my parents, the prospect of two days of Mom's mollycoddling didn't appeal half as much as having Lois stay with me for a day or two. There was also the farm to consider; Dad couldn't afford to leave it alone for much longer.

I resolved to phone Lois as soon as I was alone. "Yes — either my parents or my girlfriend," I replied, crossing my fingers that it would be the latter.

"Okay," he said, nodding his approval. "One last thing — your latest blood test showed that you're completely clear of the kryptomide and the other drugs, but I'd be very cautious about dosing yourself up with more kryptomide for the next couple of weeks or so. Your body will be pretty sensitive to the stuff, so you could induce a pretty nasty reaction if you take too much too soon."

"How much is too much?" I asked anxiously. Two weeks was a long time; longer than I'd usually last without having an attack.

He shook his head. "I can't be precise. I'd say avoid it altogether if you possibly can."

"That might not be possible," I said, wondering how on earth I was supposed to cope with an impossible situation: take kryptomide and I get sick, don't take kryptomide and I still get sick. "If I have an attack, I'll need it."

"Well, do the best you can." He hesitated, then continued. "I wouldn't normally do this, but…" He scribbled on his clipboard and tore a scrap of paper off the bottom. "That's my direct line — call me if you need some objective advice."

I took the scrap from him. "Thanks. I really appreciate this."

"No problem." He stood up. "By all means take some gentle exercise around the ward, but don't overdo it. Remember our deal."

"I will."

***

And so here I am. I'm basically fine — just weak and a little achy. Lois, to my absolutely delight, agreed to baby-sit me for a few days, although I insist she still goes to work for most of the day. She phones me morning and afternoon, and comes home at lunchtime to check I'm still breathing.

Now, though, I'm pretty tired after all this writing, so I'm going to take a break and watch some daytime TV. The weather channel's my favourite — if you ever need to know the average rainfall in June for any US state, I'm your man.

Oh, and I see I haven't said much about what happened to the clinic. Well, that will just have to wait for another day. Peak daytime temperatures in Southern Nebraska await my urgent attention.

***

Chapter Thirty — The Story of the Clinic

In that last chapter, I said the Trask Clinic had been shut down, but the truth is that at the time, that was merely an optimistic assumption on my part. Life is never that straightforward, is it?

While I was lying unconscious in hospital, Mom and Dad were asked if they wanted to press charges against the two men who had tried to kidnap me. They said they would, and so the men were duly charged and held for questioning by the police. The men naturally denied attempted kidnap; they claimed they were merely acting under instructions from their employer, the Trask Clinic. The clinic, they said, had told them to collect the patient residing at my address and deliver him to the clinic's premises.

The police were unable to verify their claim, because none of the phone numbers the men supplied for the clinic worked. Surprise, surprise…

Anyway, things dragged on, and the police eventually had to release the men on bail. I think you can guess what comes next — yes, they jumped bail.

I went down to the police station the day I after I got out of hospital to find the case rapidly grinding to a halt. An overworked police officer half-heartedly took my statement, but without suspects and a trail which had run cold, she obviously didn't think we stood much chance of bringing charges against anyone. I was appalled — I had nearly died, thanks to those two men and the clinic they represented, yet no-one was going to be brought to justice? Lois, who was with me, was furious.

"That's it?!" she demanded angrily. "A man gets attacked in his own home, nearly dies as a result, and all you can say is sorry? Why aren't you out on the streets searching for his attackers? Why can't you do just a little more than try a couple of phone numbers before you give up on the clinic? And haven't you stopped to wonder why those phone numbers don't work? Don't you think that's odd?" She leaned back in her chair. "Or maybe police officers aren't employed to think," she finished caustically.

The policewoman took a deep breath before answering. "Ms Lane, we're doing everything we can. Descriptions have been circulated to all our officers and just as soon as we pick up the perpetrators we'll continue with the investigation. In the meantime, I've tried every avenue I know to trace this clinic of yours, but they've all come up cold. Even the phone numbers you and Mr Kent supplied don't appear to work, so just what do you suggest I do? Place an ad in your newspaper?"

Lois glared at her. "It would probably work just as well as anything else you could think of."

I put a placating hand on Lois's arm before World War Three broke out between the two women. "Officer, I understand that you're very busy, but isn't there anything more you can do? We've explained that my nurse got a different response using the same phone number for the clinic as I did — couldn't you at least visit her and check that out?"

The woman shrugged. "Sure, I can get someone to do that, but my guess is that we'll find that even your nurse can't contact this clinic of yours any more." She gave a tired smile. "Mr Kent, I understand how you feel, I really do. If I'd been attacked and hospitalised as a result, I'd want to put the people that did it behind bars for a very long time. All I can say is that we're doing as much as we can to make that happen, and as soon as we've got any news, you'll be the first to know. The best thing you can do right now is go home and get some rest."

"How can he rest when the people who attacked him are still at large?" demanded Lois. "How does he know they won't try again?"

"I'd suggest that if they're as secretive as you seem to think they are, they're hardly likely to draw attention to themselves by attempting another attack."

Lois leant back in obvious disgust. "I'm sure Mr Kent is touched by your concern for his safety."

"Ms Lane, sniping at me won't help us catch Mr Kent's attackers," said the policewoman sharply. She looked at me. "I think we've run out of useful things to discuss here, Mr Kent. Thank you for coming down today, and I hope you feel better soon."

I stood up slowly. "You'll contact Nurse Tilley?"

She nodded. "Yes. I'll let you know what we find out."

"Okay. Thank you for your help," I said. "Lois?"

Lois gave the officer a hard stare for a moment before rising. "Come on, Clark," she said. "I'll drive you home."

***

Chapter Thirty-One — What now?

I'm not holding out much hope for the police investigation. It's been a week since I got out of hospital, and we haven't heard a thing. If you ask me, any trail they could have followed will be completely cold by now anyway — the clinic will have mounted a big cover-up operation, for example. In fact, for all I know it's shut down or moved somewhere else. Tilley rang me to say she couldn't contact them any more, and that she was in touch with a couple of alternative places which might be able to provide the screening service they used to operate for my blood tests and so on. She'll let me know when she's got something set up.

She didn't say so, but I know she's worried about the situation — I am myself. Tilley can give me first-line medical help, and she's got enough kryptomide supplies to last quite a few months, but if I need anything more advanced than that, there's nowhere I can go. There's Dr Bryson, the doctor who treated me at the hospital, I suppose, but that's about it.

I just wish Dr Tempus would show up. I really need to talk to him about all this, but I don't have any way of contacting him. That's the first thing I'm going to ask him when I see him next — can he give me a phone number or an address? It's crazy that he's been my doctor for so long and I don't know how to get hold of him.

In the meantime, I'm sitting around dreading my next attack. If it happens within the next week or so, I won't be able to take kryptomide to stop it, and that's scaring me witless. What if the noise and the visual disturbances don't stop? Am I to become deaf and blind, and probably in the mad-house because of the constant noise in my head driving me crazy?

But life goes on — I can't stop an attack from happening, and I don't know when it will happen, so there's no point in just waiting. I'm back on my writing again, and I've started meeting Lois for lunch each day.

I pick her up at the Planet and we go to a caf‚ just around the corner. It's just a tiny place, but it's always packed at lunchtime — mostly with other journalists, either from Lois's newspaper, or from a couple of other broadsheets which have offices nearby. I love it. Lois is in her element, too, trading insults and jokes with her colleagues and competitors.

I asked her the other day if she got any stick for being seen with me all the time. It occurred to me, you see, that it might not been viewed as very professional or even very smart to start dating someone you wrote a couple of stories about. They might even think we'd been dating before she wrote the stories, and that probably wouldn't do much for her professional reputation either.

She just shrugged. "I've had a few comments, but I can handle it."

I studied her face, but she was wearing one her patented there's-nothing-wrong-and-I'm surprised-you-even-asked looks. I know Lois, though — that look meant she was hiding more than she was admitting.

"We could always go somewhere quieter for lunch," I suggested. "Callard's isn't much further away."

"Their coffee isn't so good and their bread is usually stale. Why would we want to go there?"

"Lo-is…you know what I'm saying," I replied.

"Yes, and you're over-reacting, Clark. Just because a few cynical journos can't see past their own prejudices, that's no reason for you or I to take any notice of them." She took a bite of sandwich. "Besides", she added around a mouthful of salad, "if we start hiding ourselves away, that will really get the rumour mill going."

"I guess so. It just seems that you're getting a lot of hassle because of our relationship, what with my parents and all."

My parents are still prickly about Lois. They didn't approve of her staying with me after I got out of hospital, and our phone calls since then always get stilted as soon as her name comes up. To give them their credit, they always ask after her, but I'm sure that's only because they know she means a lot to me.

Lois shrugged again. "It's not all hassle — you're a very effective Claude-repellent, for example, and that's worth a lot."

I laughed. "So you go out with me just to keep Claude at arm's length? That's not very flattering, you know."

She smiled. "There are other advantages." She slid her arm across the table and took my hand in hers. "Lots of advantages."

I beamed back at her and popped the last piece of roll into my mouth.

Her thumb started circling slowly around my palm.

I munched automatically on my roll, but the sensation of that slowly-moving thumb on my hand was very distracting. I looked at her face and found her smiling a very different sort of smile to the one she'd been wearing a moment ago. There was a glint of playful excitement in her eyes.

I gulped down the roll. "Lois…" I said hoarsely.

"Yes, Clark?" she replied innocently, while her thumb continued its sly path around my palm. Did she have any idea what that was doing to me? Did she realise that my heart was pounding and that blood was rushing to my head?

"What are you doing?" I asked.

"Stroking you, Clark. That's all right, isn't it?"

I coughed violently. If the double-entendre wasn't obvious from her voice, it was certainly obvious from her sultry expression. "Ah…I guess so."

"Good." She leaned right across the table and kissed me. Not a quick peck, but a long, slow kiss full of suggestion and pretty clear intention. My heart rate doubled again, and I found myself returning her kiss just as deeply, slipping my tongue daringly between her lips. I touched her teeth and ran the tip of my tongue along their surface, and then her mouth opened in a clear invitation and I slid inside.

She murmured softly; a deep, throaty sound which made me surge with desire. She was amazing. It didn't matter that we were in the middle of a busy caf‚; I just wanted to go on kissing her forever.

Well, actually, I wanted to do a lot more than that, but a busy caf‚ in the middle of the day probably wasn't the right place for what I had in mind.

Eventually we parted and Lois subsided back down to her side of the table. She was still smiling that smile. "Still think I'm not getting much out of this relationship?" she said.

"Lois, you are incorrigible," I replied. "And can we please do that somewhere a little more private next time?" I nodded towards the rest of the caf‚. "Unless, that is, you like having an audience."

Lois turned slowly, to discover what I'd just seen out of the corner of my eye — it seemed like everyone in the crowded room was looking at us. Someone murmured, "Way to go, Lois," and then the whole caf‚ erupted with laughing and clapping. Lois did a mock bow to the audience, then turned back to me, her eyes bubbling with laughter.

"How about an encore?"

I just laughed.

***

Chapter Thirty-Two — Doctor Tempus

Well, this morning I finally got what I wanted. Dr Tempus showed up at my apartment.

"Clark, my good fellow! How are you?"

"Dr Tempus, I am so glad-"

He brushed past me and strode into my apartment. "I heard all about the clinic, of course," he said, scanning the room slowly. "I have to tell you, Clark, I was appalled, simply appalled, when I learned what they've been up to all these years. To think I trusted them with your life!"

I stared sceptically at his back, irritated by his arrogant manner. "You didn't know what they were doing?" I asked. "I thought you worked for them."

"Good heavens, no! I was merely a consultant they employed on a contract basis around the time you were first admitted. I had very little to do with them after that." He still seemed to be preoccupied as he spoke, almost as if he was searching the room for something.

"But Tilley sent my tests there," I pointed out, "and you even sent me back there for intensive treatment once."

"And my God, how I wish I hadn't — just imagine what they might have done to you!" He halted in his search and threw his hands up in triumph. "Ah, there it is!"

It was my wheelchair. He strode over to it and flung the blanket off. "It's an excellent model, don't you think? For it's time, anyway — but I suppose it would be too much to hope for a thought-controlled model in a century where people are still communicating with their computers using keyboards," he added with distaste.

You got used to Dr Tempus making strange comments like that after a while. Sometimes I wondered if he wouldn't have been happier living in a different time period. He didn't seem very satisfied with this one.

"It's okay," I said without enthusiasm.

"Let me see you in it," he suggested eagerly. "I'll bet you're already an expert with the controls."

"I'd rather not right now," I replied, moving down to the living room and as far away as possible from the dreaded contraption. "We need to talk about my treatment options. Is there another facility which can take over from the Trask clinic? Tilley needs to send her tests somewhere, and I need to know I've got someplace I can go if I need emergency care."

I felt impatient with him — all I wanted was some simple information and instead he was playing around with the stupid wheelchair.

Dr Tempus raised his eyebrows. "My, my, Clark, you're being very direct all of a sudden. What's come over you?"

"Nothing."

"Oh, come now — I can sense you're annoyed about something," he said, using his patented 'Uncle Tempus' voice.

I shrugged. "I just realised how little I know about you, that's all. I don't even have your phone number, for example."

"But you only had to ask!" He left the wheelchair and bounded down the steps into the living room. "Here," he said, reaching into his inside pocket and producing a plain white business card. "The top number is my office number; the one below is what I believe you call an answering service."

I glanced at the card, read the two numbers and placed it on the coffee table. "Thank you."

He regarded me with a raised eyebrow. "This wouldn't have anything to do with your new girlfriend, would it? I hear you two have been spending a lot of time together lately."

I frowned. "No, it's got nothing to do with Lois. How do you know about her, anyway?"

"Oh, I have my sources," he said casually.

Tilley, no doubt. Although when she would have spoken to him, I wasn't sure, since the last time I'd talked to her, she hadn't been in contact with him.

"Well, tell your sources it's none of their business who I spend my time with," I snapped.

He looked shocked, recoiling almost visibly away from me. I supposed I'd never spoken to him like that before. "Clark! What's the matter with you? This is your old friend Dr Tempus you're talking to, not some prying stranger. I've known you since you were a little boy — I'd even go as far as to say you're almost like a son to me."

"You don't treat me like a son," I said, eyeing him angrily. "You're never around when I need you."

He nodded. "Ah, so that's what this is all about! Why don't you sit down and we'll talk? It looks like we need to clear up a few things."

He smiled and indicated my sofa with his hand. I sat down slowly, watching him do the same. He still looked like good old Dr Tempus, the self-effacing philanthropist who'd been my saviour all those years ago, yet as I studied him now, I thought I caught a glimpse of something less benign — less trustworthy. He looked cool and calculating, despite his broad smile.

But then he suddenly leant forward anxiously and said, "How are your parents, Clark? This must have hit them pretty hard, I imagine."

I shrugged. "They're okay, I guess."

"Your father, in particular — how is he? I know how much you mean to him — after your sister died so young, especially."

"Yeah." I sighed, letting myself unbend a little towards the man. "He was pretty shaken at first, but I think he's okay now. Mom keeps him strong."

Dr Tempus nodded. "Your mother is a formidable woman. Who would think that such strength was bundled up in such a kind, considerate package?" he said admiringly.

"We all love her very much," I agreed. "I don't think we realise how much we depend on her to keep us going."

"Well, tell them both that I'm thinking of them, and if there's anything I can do to help — farm labourers to reduce their workload, for example — I'd be delighted to do so. You know that money is no object, Clark," he added warmly.

"Thank you," I said.

I didn't know what to think. This was the Dr Tempus of old; generous and thoughtful, and totally without gall. He hadn't needed to ask after my parents, but he knew them well enough to know that they'd have been pretty shaken by my close call at the hospital, so he wanted to know they were all right. On the other hand, a little voice in my head suggested he was merely manipulating me; seeming to be concerned about Mom and Dad because he wanted to make me trust him.

But he'd always been interested in more than just my medical condition; that was part of what had made me warm to him in the first place. Why should I start questioning that now?

"So, you obviously think that I've let you down, Clark," said Dr Tempus. "I'm sorry you feel that way."

"I just could have done with being able to contact you these past few days. I've been worried about finding a replacement for the clinic," I said.

"Well, worry no longer. Nurse Tilley will have the details of a new establishment within the next few days," he replied. "I'm just waiting for the administrators to confirm that they can take you."

"Which establishment?" I demanded, determined not to let him get away with vague answers this time.

He frowned. "The Alaskan Institute for Medical Research, I believe it's called. Something like that anyway."

I made a mental note to look it up. "Why so far away? Isn't there anything suitable here in Metropolis?"

He shook his head. "I'm afraid not. There aren't many clinics which have the appropriate facilities."

"And they would be?" I asked curiously, thinking that Metropolis General had seemed well able to cope with my medical needs.

"Quarantining for alien tissue samples," replied Tempus. "We can't be too careful, Clark. Cross-contamination could be very dangerous."

"Oh," I said. So there it was — I was alien and therefore had to be treated differently to everyone else. A small twinge of resentment flickered in the pit of my stomach. I usually managed to forget that I wasn't human, but sometimes there was no escaping from it.

I remembered something else. "Tilley said you told the clinic I needed emergency treatment that day. You were the one who instructed them to drug me."

He shook his head violently. "Clark, I did no such thing! I haven't been in contact with them for weeks — I've been out of the country."

"You could have phoned them from abroad," I pointed out.

"I suppose so, but I didn't. Clark, I don't understand why you don't feel you can trust me any more. We've known each other almost as long as you've known your own father! You trust him, don't you?"

"He doesn't disappear on me like you do," I grumbled.

"That's true, and I regret that, Clark, I really do. But I'm a busy man, son — I have other patients to attend to; major research projects to run. You've always known that, and we've worked well together on that basis." Tempus leant forward suddenly and looked at me directly; almost pleadingly. "Clark, I saved your life!"

He had a point. I was in little doubt that I'd have been dead, or at best a quivering vegetable in a nursing home if he hadn't intervened all those years ago. He hadn't needed to do that. He hadn't needed to fund my treatment, or pay for my nurses, either. He'd shunned any personal gain from what could have been a very lucrative situation, and he'd never asked for anything in return for his generosity.

How could I question his motives after all these years?

"That's true," I said quietly.

"Exactly! I only have your best interests at heart, son. Talking of which," he added warmly, "I'm delighted to hear you've got a girlfriend at last. It's good for you — it shows you're able to lead the normal life I'd hoped you'd be able to enjoy all those years ago when I found you."

I shrugged. "I guess so."

I was beginning to feel stupid for having questioned his integrity. There was still a little voice nagging away inside telling me there were too many unanswered questions, but I simply couldn't deny the basic facts: Tempus had unselfishly saved my life and continued to look after my best interests for over twenty years. One single blip in that record — the clinic — didn't seem so significant when you took everything else into account.

"But you must take good care of yourself, Clark. I'm aware that you can't risk taking your medication for the next few days, but you must get right back on it as soon as you're given the all clear. After all, you'll want to stay fit for your young lady, won't you?" he said heartily.

As I think I mentioned before, his choice of language was very odd at times — sometimes arcane, and sometimes just plain weird. This time, I barely suppressed a grimace — 'young lady' indeed! Lois wouldn't like that at all when I told her about Tempus's visit.

Except…

I wasn't completely convinced I was going to tell Lois about all this. And as I'm writing up this entry, I'm still not sure. Lois doesn't like Tempus. Oh, she's never met him, but that doesn't stop her not liking him — that's how Lois is made. For some reason, the more I tell her what a good guy he is, the more she distrusts him and makes snide comments about him. I don't know what she's got against the guy at all! So I know that if I tell her about my conversation with Tempus, she'll yell at me for agreeing to trust him. I don't want us to have yet another argument, and that one would be a humdinger, so I think I'll keep quiet. For now.

Anyway, back to my conversation with Tempus. I nodded at his last comment, unable to think of a reply that wouldn't sound sarcastic or rude. We agreed that Tilley would contact me in a week's time, at which point I'd let her know if I was able to start taking my medication again. In the meantime, if I fell ill, I was to phone Tilley immediately.

Later, I thought about that. If I phoned Tilley, what could she do? The hospital doctor had told me I couldn't take kryptomide, and that was all Tilley could really offer me. Oh, she could fuss, she could examine me and measure my temperature and so on, but none of that would actually do me any good. If I couldn't take the one thing which would help me, there wasn't any point in contacting her.

I decided I was on my own if the worst happened.

***

Chapter Thirty-Three — Armageddon

Yes, I know it's a dramatic title for a chapter, but what I've got to tell you is dramatic stuff. Life-changing stuff.

Lois and I were having dinner when I felt the first invidious tendrils of an attack weave their way around my senses. The table shimmered before me and glimpses of the carpet below seemed to appear through it. I blinked a couple of times and the table became solid again.

Nevertheless, I knew this was the start of the attack I'd been dreading. Carefully, I laid my spoon down on my plate and sat back from the table a little, breathing as calmly and steadily as I could while my heart thudded in my chest. Somehow, I had to get through this without the benefit of kryptomide, using my own powers of control to prevent the symptoms overwhelming me.

Lois didn't notice for a couple of seconds. She continued chatting while I suffered in silence — I was too occupied with trying to stay calm and in control to let her know what was happening to me.

Eventually, though, she remarked, "Clark, didn't you hear what I said? I-" She broke off abruptly. "Oh, no." I could hear the change in her timbre immediately; she sounded exactly how I felt — anxious and scared.

Her chair scraped backwards and she came to stand behind me, her hand resting lightly on my shoulder. "Do you want to lie down?" she asked quietly.

I shook my head carefully. "Just help me over to the sofa." I stood up slowly and let her guide me.

She sat down with me. "Can I get you anything?"

"An armful of kryptomide would be good," I suggested wryly.

"Clark, don't joke about it," she replied. "I'm worried enough as it is."

"Makes two of us, then."

"Oh, Clark…" She stroked my forearm soothingly. "Sit back and try to relax — you look terribly tense."

She was right; I was tense and very scared. I hadn't lasted through an attack without kryptomide since I was seven years old, and I had no idea what was going to happen to me this time. I rested my head back on the sofa cushions and tried to let the tension out of my body and breathe deeply, knowing that relaxation and control were probably my only chances for survival.

I thought about my decision not to call Tilley if this happened. Desperation and fear made me wonder if I'd been wrong; maybe there was something she could do for me after all. She had sedatives, for example — maybe they would help.

"Call Tilley," I said, hoping I didn't sound too desperate.

"I thought you'd decided not to," replied Lois. "I thought you said she wouldn't be able to help you anyway."

"Maybe she can give me a sedative or something," I explained. "Please — just call her."

I felt Lois pause, as if she wasn't convinced I was making any sense. Then she got up and I heard her make the call. I resisted the temptation to listen in; somehow I knew if I did that, I'd set my hearing off.

After a few moments, Lois said from across the room, "There's no answer, Clark."

No… "Try again."

"That won't…" She sighed. "Okay." I heard her dial again. "Still no reply," she said.

"But she always answers," I said, hearing my own voice rise in panic. "Are you sure you've got the right number?"

"Yes — I checked it twice." She sat down beside me again and I felt her hand on my shoulder. "We're just going to have to do this on our own, Clark. We can do it — I know we can."

Where was Tilley?!

Dr Tempus — I remembered his card. | opened my eyes and rummaged around the papers on the coffee table until I found it. "Call Dr Tempus," I said, handing the card to Lois.

She took the card from me and looked at it in surprise. "I didn't know you had his phone number. When did you get this?"

Too late, I remembered my decision not to tell Lois about Dr Tempus's visit. Kicking myself for being so stupid, I closed my eyes and shrugged. "I don't remember exactly. A while ago."

"But you always said you couldn't phone him direct," she pointed out.

Hearing in her voice the start of the argument I'd wanted to avoid, I just said, "Well, I can now. Just phone him, Lois."

I heard her sigh noisily, but again, she made the call for me. While she waited for a reply, she said, "He was here, wasn't he? He came to visit you."

It was my turn to sigh. "Yes. What of it?"

"Why didn't you tell me?" she asked.

"Because I didn't want this," I replied tetchily.

"What?"

"This. Us — arguing."

"We're not arguing," she said shortly. Then she laughed. "Why am I not surprised?" she said sardonically. "The good Dr Tempus isn't answering."

My last hope… "Try his answering service," I said.

"As if they'll help," she scoffed. Nevertheless, she phoned them and left a message for him to call me urgently.

"So what did he say to you?" she asked, coming back to sit beside me on the sofa. "Did he tell you why his clinic tried to kill you? I'm sure he had a very plausible explanation for that."

I sat silently for a moment before replying, fighting wave after wave of fear and anger. Fear, because I now had to face up to the fact that no-one was going to help me with this attack. I was alone. Anger, because I couldn't believe Lois was picking an argument with me about Dr Tempus when I was sick. Why couldn't she just drop it?

"Lois," I murmured eventually, "I can't do this right now. I'm sick and I'm scared… and I could really, really do with your help to get me through this."

I was ashamed to hear the tremor in my own voice. This was as low as I ever wanted to sink — I'd basically admitted to her that I was completely vulnerable and virtually helpless. Not very desirable qualities for any man, especially the guy who was supposed to be her boyfriend.

But I needed her more than I needed my pride.

"I'm sorry, Clark," she said softly. "I just didn't expect you to hide things from me."

"Lois…" Wouldn't she let it drop?

"We'll talk about it later when you're feeling better, okay? Let's-"

A loud noise outside in the street crashed through my hearing and instantly I could hear every sound in the city simultaneously. Sweat sprang onto my forehead and my heart thudded in my chest, but I knew my only chance of survival was to take control and calm things down again. I ignored all the noise. I wasn't interested. All I wanted to hear was the sound of my own breathing. I found that sound in the melee and concentrated on it, taking deep, deep breaths at the same time.

Gradually, the unwanted noise melted away and I was left with the single sound I wanted to hear. I took a few more deep, noisy breaths until I was sure I'd regained control, then throttled back to a more normal level.

"Well done," came Lois's murmured comment from my left. "You did that really well."

I opened my eyes and looked at her. She was smiling softly at me. "Thanks," I said.

"And if you can do it once, you can do it again," she added.

I gave her a weak smile. "My own private cheerleader."

"You better believe it," she said. She reached up and brushed my hair off my forehead. "You're going to be all right, Clark. I can tell."

I rested my head back on the sofa. "Glad one of us thinks so."

"You can do this," she insisted.

I shook my head. "Only kidding. I'll give it my best shot."

***

It wasn't easy, though. My hearing triggered several more times during the evening, and while I got more adept at switching it off, I also became more tired as the day wore on. Not physically tired, mind you, but mentally tired.

I had my eyes to contend with, too. If I kept them shut, everything was all right. But as I got better at controlling my hearing, I decided I should try to control my vision as well. So the next time I opened my eyes and found myself looking at a jumble of half-transparent images, I didn't blink or close them again to try and clear it, I made myself try and sort out the jumble back into recognisable objects again.

At first, it made me dizzy and a little queasy looking at and through everything at the same time. Then I tried the same technique as I'd tried with my hearing. I picked one object in the room and concentrated on it, imagining it as it should look. Gradually, to my amazement, it took shape until suddenly I was looking at a solid chair again instead of a collection of springs and stuffing.

I eased my gaze onto other objects, and found that they, too, had resumed their normal appearance.

"I did it, Lois," I whispered. I turned slowly to her, trying to keep calm so as not to lose the control I'd just mastered. She was gazing at me with bright eyes. "I can see you," I said.

"Oh, Clark, that's wonderful!" she exclaimed softly. "You're doing really, really well — and do you realise just how long it's been since the attack started?"

I grimaced. "Too long."

Her happy face crumpled a little. "You're tired, aren't you?"

I nodded. "But I'm not sure if I'll be able to sleep or not. I'm worried that if I stop controlling, it'll get worse again."

"I think you should try, though. It's nearly midnight, and sleeping it off could be the best thing for you."

She was right. And though at first I was on edge and unable to relax when I went to bed, I soon found my eyelids drooping. Sleep dragged me under, and I was so exhausted, I didn't wake up once during the night.

***

The next morning, I woke up feeling great. I'd never felt so full of energy — everything seemed easy, from getting up, to helping Lois with the spare bed and making breakfast. Thinking back, I was so full of beans that I was probably unbearably good-natured and happy. I know this, because once or twice I caught her rolling her eyes when she thought I wasn't looking.

But I was thrilled because I'd survived an attack without kryptomide, and that meant I'd probably never need to use the stuff again. No more pain, no more nausea — what wasn't there to be happy about?

Then I broke the toaster.

I was fooling around a little, made an exaggerated grab for the toast and smashed a hole right through the side of the toaster.

I stared at the broken machine in horror. It was like the day I crushed the glass paperweight in my hand all over again. I shouldn't have been able to do it, and the fact that I had meant only one thing.

I wasn't over the attack yet.

Lois recovered before I did. "Did you hurt it?" she asked, reaching out to take my hand in hers.

I snatched it away from her and backed off. "Don't," I warned, fighting down a terrible sense of panic. I'd hugged her this morning. I could have crushed her in my arms.

I backed away some more, stumbling when my shoe caught the leg of a chair behind me. I felt dizzy and disoriented and totally horrified by the dawning realisation that I was a walking time bomb. Blindly, I staggered out of the kitchen and collapsed down onto a chair in the living room.

The room started spinning and all the sounds of the city crashed in on me again. I put my face in my hands, the crushing weight of defeat making me helpless to resist the effects of the attack. What was I going to do?

I could have hurt her.

I could have held her in my arms and hurt her. Maybe even killed her. It kept replaying in my head — I could have killed her. I could have killed her.

I felt her hand touch my shoulder and flinched. I was dangerous to be close to — she should back away.

Then, worse still, I felt her hands lifting my head up. She was too close! I didn't dare push away from her, though, in case I hurt her. I had to let her continue; let her peel my hands away from my face and then hold me with one hand each side of my face. I saw her talking to me, but it was impossible to hear her voice above all the other noises. I watched her mouth, and after studying her for a few moments, slowly worked out that she was saying, "Listen to me, Clark," over and over again.

But I couldn't hear her. I shook my head hopelessly. It was useless.

Her eyes flared and she glared at me, gripping my face more tightly and repeating her mantra.

"Listen to me, Clark."

I tried. I really did. But whatever knack I'd figured out the previous night completely eluded me now. I closed my eyes in defeat. "I can't," I said, without the faintest idea if I'd spoken too loudly or too softly.

I felt her leave me, and experienced a sense of relief that she had moved out of danger — away from me and my unpredictable body. Miserably, I tucked my feet up onto the sofa cushions and curled up on my side. A peek from under my eyelids confirmed that my vision was starting to play up along with everything else. Basically, I was falling apart fast.

I don't know how long I lay there, feeling completely dejected and sorry for myself. Lois was around somewhere, but I was so selfishly miserable that I didn't even spare a thought for what she was doing or where she was. My head pounded with one of the worst headaches I'd had for ages, and through it all, the cacophony of sounds from the outside world screeched, thumped, clattered, yelled and droned unrelentingly through my skull.

But as I lay there, I began to realise that I didn't want this — I wasn't ready to give in and just let myself shrivel up into a pathetic bundle of nerves. I'd fought against illness all my life; I'd never let it defeat me, and I wasn't ready to let it defeat me today.

And there was Lois. I loved her, and I was going to lose her if I didn't start fighting this thing soon.

So I started the same way as I'd started the previous night. I looked for a sound I could centre myself on, and concentrated on that to the exclusion of everything else. Like last night, it was a heartbeat.

And once I'd made up my mind I was going to do it, I found that I was able to tune everything out pretty quickly. I listened to the heartbeat, and all the other noises faded into the background and eventually disappeared altogether.

Here's the weird thing, though. The heartbeat I was listening to wasn't my own, it was Lois's.

Don't ask me how I knew this — I just did. And when I opened my eyes and found that my vision had gone back to normal, I could see — no, hear — her coming towards me across the living room, carrying a tall glass of milk.

"Clark?" She hunkered down in front of me. "Can you hear me?"

I sat up slowly and cautiously. My head still ached, and I felt pretty battered and drained, but otherwise I was all right. "Yes." I sat still for a moment, but whatever had allowed me to hear her heart had stopped. I filed the experience away for later contemplation; I didn't feel ready to share it with Lois at that point.

I indicated the glass. "I didn't know you drank milk."

She shook her head. "I phoned Dr Bryson — you know, your doctor at the hospital? Took them ages to find him, but when I finally got to talk to him, he suggested I give you a few sips of this — it's a crushed kryptomide tablet mixed with milk. He thought a tiny dose might be enough to take the edge of the attack without making you too ill." She studied my face for a moment. "You look like you don't need it, though."

I nodded. "I think I've got it under control again. I'm sorry about earlier," I added, ashamed about my abject failure to put up a decent fight against the attack.

"It's okay, Clark. You had a shock, that's all — you weren't expecting to get ill so soon again after last night."

I shook my head. "No. But also, I don't think I was actually over last night's attack this morning when I woke up." I paused, trying to find the right words to explain things. "It's like I feel right now — it's as if there's this huge power inside me that I'm only just managing to keep in check. This morning, I felt the same, except I didn't realise it. I just thought I was fit again — I felt incredibly alive and full of energy."

"Is that how you feel now?"

"Yes and no," I replied. "I can feel the energy, but I also feel tired — I know that probably doesn't make much sense, but I can't find a better way to describe it. And my head is killing me," I added ruefully.

"Do you want some headache pills for that?"

"No, they don't usually do much good." I sighed. "Lois, you should get to work. It's getting late."

She frowned. "I don't like leaving you like this."

"I'll be fine. Leave the milk on the table and if I get bad again, I can always take a few sips."

"And you'll phone me?"

I nodded. "Yeah."

"Oh, and I almost forgot — Dr Bryson said he'd like to see you up at the hospital at five this evening for a check- up." At my surprised expression, she shrugged. "I think he feels bad that he wasn't able to do more for you this morning, and this is his way of compensating."

"But he's already done more for me than I could reasonably expect. He's not even my regular doctor."

Lois nodded her agreement. "I think you should go, though. Other than Tilley and the elusive Dr Tempus, he's the closest you've got to an expert on your physiology. Maybe he'll be able to shed some light on what's happening to you." She stood up, leant over me and kissed my head. "I'll pick you up at a quarter to five."

I objected to that, telling her she should take a break from me and my tedious illness. She wouldn't listen, though — she was determined to accompany me to the hospital and then chauffeur me home again.

I gave in. But one of these days I hope I can repay her for all that she's done for me.

***

Chapter Thirty-Four — Developments

"Okay, slip your shirt back on and we'll have a chat."

Dr Bryson left me to get dressed while he crossed to the sink to wash his hands. I swung my legs over the edge of the examining couch, sat up, and pulled on my shirt.

"Did you find anything wrong?" I asked, fastening my buttons.

"Not really, " he replied from the sink. "Quite the opposite, in fact. You're-"

A loud beeping noise interrupted whatever he'd been about to say and immediately my hearing went crazy. I froze in the middle of buttoning my shirt, unprepared for the suddenness of the attack.

But I was getting the hang of this game now. I forced myself to relax, did my usual trick of focusing on one sound, and quickly had things back under control again. Then I sat very still, concentrating on maintaining that control while feeling acutely anxious that things could get even worse. It didn't seem to take much to set off an episode.

"Bane of my life, that darned beeper," Dr Bryson was saying. "Sorry about that. Anyway, you want to come over here and we'll talk?"

"I'm…" I closed my eyes as the floor opened up in front of me to reveal the image of a basement area. "I'm not feeling too good," I said thickly.

He came over to the couch immediately. "You're having an attack?"

I nodded stiffly.

"Okay, let's get you lying down." I let him ease me back down on the examining couch, happy for him to take control of the situation. "How bad is it on a scale of one to five?" he asked, picking up my wrist between finger and thumb, presumably to check my pulse.

I thought for a moment. "About a two."

He went quiet for a moment while he concentrated on my pulse. Finally, dropping my wrist and briefly testing my temperature with a hand on my forehead, he said, "So do you feel up to telling me what's happening to you? Nothing elaborate — just a few words will do."

So I tried to explain it — how I seemed to be able to hear every sound in the world simultaneously, and how I could see through things. I also explained this new sense of bubbling-up, barely-contained power I'd had since yesterday.

He used an ear thermometer to take a proper reading of my temperature. "And do you have any idea what sets it off? Or is it just random?"

I thought about that one for a bit before answering. "Often a loud noise triggers my hearing — like your beeper. But sometimes it just seems to start all by itself."

"Obviously you've got your hearing under control at the moment, otherwise we wouldn't be having this conversation. What about your vision?"

I opened my eyes cautiously and found him at the side of the couch, studying me intently. "It went funny a minute ago, but it's okay right now."

"So does that mean the attack is over?"

I shrugged. "I don't know. It might flare up again in a couple of minutes, or then again it might not. That's the problem — it's happening so often that I hardly know when one stops and another one starts any more."

He nodded. "I guess in the past an attack always stopped when you were given kryptomide."

"Yeah."

"Well, that's not an option open to us right now, unfortunately. Even if we had any here, I wouldn't let you take it, as you know." He frowned. "Clark, do you mind if I examine you a little more thoroughly? I'd really like to try and get to the bottom of what's going on with you when you have these attacks."

"Okay. But can you let Lois know first? I don't think she was expecting this to take so long."

"Of course — she's outside, is she? I'll be right back."

I closed my eyes while he was gone, reflecting that of all the places I could choose to get sick, this was probably one of the best. In a way, it was maybe even a good thing. At least this way Dr Bryson got to see me at my worst.

I heard the door open again, and then I felt soft fingers stroking my cheek. I knew even before opening my eyes whose fingers they were. "Hey," she murmured quietly.

"Hey yourself," I replied.

"Dr Bryson told me what happened. How are you doing?"

"Not so bad. He wants to check me over again, though."

She nodded. "I know. He's a good man."

"I might be here a while," I said.

"Don't worry about that. I'll still be here when you're done, and no, I'm not going to go home and let you take a taxi, so don't even bother trying to suggest it. Okay?"

I swallowed hard. "Okay. Thanks, Lois."

She kissed my cheek. "Love you," she whispered.

"Love you too," I whispered back.

***

It was a very thorough examination. In additional to the usual things, he examined my eyes and my ears, and ran several tests on my vision and hearing. Some of the tests made me very uneasy because I thought they were in danger of triggering another episode, but whether it was the fact that he always explained what he was going to do first, or whether I'd just stabilised anyway, the nightmare never happened and I remained attack-free throughout. I was careful not to let him handle me too much, though, because I was still wary of the unpredictable muscle spasms I was prone to during an attack.

At the end of it, he pulled off his glasses with a sigh and regarded me seriously. "Well, Clark, I still can't find anything wrong with you. In fact, I'd say you're the healthiest, fittest man I've examined for a long time. You've completely recovered from the kryptomide poisoning, and if it wasn't for you telling me how you feel, I'd give you a completely clean bill of health."

I sat up carefully, not sure what to make of that. "So you think my illness is psychosomatic? I imagined it all?"

Which was plainly ridiculous. Why would I make all this up; why would I put up with all the horrible side-effects of kryptomide if I wasn't really sick? Besides, I knew I was sick — normal people didn't imagine they could see through doors.

"No, I'm not saying that at all. Obviously something is going on here — we just don't understand what that might be." He crossed to his desk and began rummaging in his Rolodex. "There's a man I know — he's a little eccentric, perhaps, but he's totally sound and a first class clinician as well as an excellent research scientist. I think you'll like him." He copied something down onto a card and brought it over to me. "I've known him since med school."

I read the card. "Dr Bernard Klein…Star Labs." I flicked a glance at Dr Bryson. "Aren't they some kind of government research organisation?" I asked uneasily. I didn't want to repeat my experience with the clinic!

"They're part private, part government-funded. But don't worry — they're nothing like your clinic. They're totally above board, with a string of world-class research projects as long as your arm. Give Bernard a call and set up an appointment with him. I'll let him know you'll be contacting him, but I won't give him your medical history until you're happy you can trust him. Okay?"

"Okay, but…what's this Dr Klein going to do that you or Tilley can't?"

"One of his specialisms is difficult cases like yours. He's very good at getting to the root cause of illnesses no-one else can figure out." Dr Bryson smiled. "Like I say, he's a little eccentric, but don't be put off by his manner."

That was twice he'd played down Dr Klein's eccentricities. Looking down at the card in my hand, I began to wonder just how wacky Dr Bernard Klein of Star Labs really was.

***

Chapter Thirty-Five — Dr Klein

"Did you know that the lesser spotted tree frog from Madagascar turns bright pink when mating?"

"I'm sorry?" I said.

Dr Klein appeared to inhabit a different world to the rest of mankind. For the rest of us, meeting a new patient for the first time would probably entail polite introductions followed by a discussion of the patient's problems. For Dr Klein, it seemed that anybody coming within conversational distance of the man was merely fair game as a sounding board for his latest scientific discovery.

He nodded enthusiastically. "Incredible, isn't it? I couldn't believe it myself — I mean, it's well know that there are several species of mosquito which change colour during copulation, but I've never heard of amphibians exhibiting the same behaviour. Why do you think that is?"

I hesitated. Having a conversation with Dr Klein was like trying to follow a map without a compass. "That you've never heard of it, or that they change colour?"

His eyebrows shot up into his forehead. "You know, that's a very interesting question — why haven't I heard of it? I've read all the leading papers-"

"Dr Klein, fascinating though the mating habits of frogs undoubtedly are, and puzzling though it is that a man of your considerable knowledge and learning doesn't know everything there is to know about the subject, do you think we could start talking about why I'm here?" I said, perhaps a little sarcastically. I mean, the man was starting to drive me crazy!

Immediately, his face fell and he gave me a contrite look. "Oh, I'm so sorry — was I rambling again? I'm told I have a tendency to do that. Come over to the desk and we'll have a proper talk."

And to give him his credit, once he was focused on me, he was impressively astute and intelligent — well informed, too. He'd read all the newspaper articles about me, and was clearly delighted that I'd come to him for help now that the clinic wasn't treating me any more. Also, I could tell straight away that his interest wasn't merely that of a scientist eager to dissect his next frog; for example, he knew all about my writing and had even read one of my books. We even had a brief discussion about it.

After twenty minutes or so with him, I had little hesitation in agreeing to become his patient. I had a twinge of conscience about Dr Tempus; after all, I'd been his patient for many years, and it kind of felt like I was defecting. But the truth was, Dr Tempus still hadn't returned my emergency call, and neither he nor Tilley had been available when I had really needed them.

"Harry will send me your notes," Dr Klein said, meaning Dr Bryson, "and I'll work up some tests for our next session, but in the meantime, tell me — are you here because you want to find out why you're sick, or because you want to be cured?"

I frowned at him, puzzled by the question. "Well, both, I suppose. I'm assuming that if we can figure out what causes the attacks, then we'll stand a chance of figuring out a cure."

"Good! I was hoping you'd say that. Some people don't want to be cured, you see."

"Huh?"

"Beats the heck out of me, too, but it happens. One other thing — can you bring along some of those kryptomide tablets of yours next time? I need to analyse those."

"Sure."

***

Chapter Thirty-Six — Argument Number 493

Well, it's been three days since I first got sick — three extremely nightmarish days — but I'm still here. I'm still alive, and I haven't gone crazy. I've been on edge most of the time, though, and I know I've been snapping at Lois. In fact, I told her to go home.

I don't suppose my timing could have been worse, but after all, our original arrangement had been for her to stay with me for a few days after I came out of the hospital. As it was, she'd been living with me for well over a week, and, as Dr Bryson had said himself, I was now fully recovered from the kryptomide poisoning. There was really no reason for her to stay.

"No reason for me to stay?!" She'd been getting ready to leave for work, but now she dropped her bag unceremoniously on the floor and stared disbelievingly at me. "Did I just hear you right?" she demanded. "Did you just ask me to leave?"

"I didn't mean it like that, Lois," I said wearily from my chair at the kitchen table. "Why is it you always misinterpret everything I say?"

"I do not misinterpret you. I just say what you don't want to say yourself," she retorted. "You want me to leave? Well, fine, I'll leave!"

She grabbed her bag again and stormed up to the door. "I don't understand you, Clark Kent, I really don't! All I do is try to help you, and all you do is push me away!"

I saw her begin to swing the door shut behind her. Anxious as always to avoid any loud noises which might set my hearing off, I called after her, "Don't slam-"

SLAM!

Too late. I winced, and waited for the attack to start. I gripped the chair and took deep breaths and thought calming thoughts — not easy, when you've just had a row with your girlfriend.

Well, it didn't start. This time, I escaped.

Later, she rang me from work. "Are you all right? I didn't set off an attack, did I?"

Thanking my lucky stars that she'd decided to make up, I replied, "No. Not this time." It came out sounding more sullen than I'd intended, but maybe that was to be expected — after all, her carelessness could have made me really ill. A small show of bad temper was justified, I felt.

"Good," she said, and rang off.

Well, so much for her making up. I stood holding the dead receiver, caught up in a blue funk of hurt and depression. Okay, so I hadn't been exactly tactful when I'd suggested she go back home, but I couldn't understand why she was acting so moodily. I'd thought she'd probably be glad to go back home to her own apartment and her own, comfortable bed instead of my foldaway model. I'd thought she was only staying with me because she hadn't the heart to tell me she wanted to leave.

The receiver started to squawk, protesting that I hadn't replaced it on the phone. Wearily, I dumped it down and sat grumpily at the computer, intending to write some more of my novel.

Big mistake. I couldn't think of a single thing to write, and when I read over the last chapter I'd written, it seemed wooden and forced. I shoved the keyboard away in disgust, went over to the sofa and flopped down there instead.

Closing my eyes, I let myself retreat into my favourite fantasy. It was a world where I was free of illness, where I wasn't dependent on nurses and doctors, friends and relatives to look after me. It was also a world where Lois and I didn't argue. In fact, we were married in my fantasy world. We had a house and we both had great jobs, and every night we cuddled up in each other's arms and said how much we loved each other.

Pretty sappy, huh? Especially for a guy.

Well, you're right. After a few minutes spent day- dreaming, I opened my eyes onto the real world and felt more depressed than ever. My fantasy world seemed to be moving further and further away from me. My girlfriend hated me, my parents disapproved of my girlfriend, I was having to fight a serious illness without the benefit of drugs, and both my nurse and my regular doctor had disappeared into thin air.

And I remembered something else. Lois was supposed to be driving me over to Star Labs at lunchtime for some tests. She wouldn't want to do that now.

I stood up and walked over to the window and stared out at the city. I hadn't been out since that first attack — not on my own. Lois had driven me to the hospital, and she'd taken me to meet Dr Klein, but otherwise, I'd stayed at home. I just didn't feel safe knowing that an attack could trigger at a moment's notice. Here in the apartment I was able to control it, and there wasn't much danger to me or other people if I lost control. Out there…

So I had a choice of phoning Lois and asking her to take me, or braving the streets on my own. Neither seemed a very attractive prospect.

On the other hand, maybe there was a compromise answer. The Planet was on the way to Star Labs, so maybe I could head out on my own, and if I needed to, I could always stop at the Planet and ask Lois to take me the rest of the way. It seemed the best solution — it was about time I stopped relying on Lois for everything anyway.

The journey wasn't too bad. It was a sunny day, so I decided to walk as far as the Planet — it wasn't too far, and other than the fear of an attack, I really felt fit and full of energy. I began to enjoy myself, a little like a kid might be if he were let out of school early. I managed to forget my argument with Lois for a while, and concentrated on strolling carefree in the sun.

The streets got busier, of course, as I drew closer to the Planet, and that made me uneasy. I ploughed on, though, and made it almost all the way to the entrance before it happened. A police car zoomed right in front of me, sirens blaring, and my hearing triggered.

For a moment I panicked and totally lost it. I screwed my eyes shut and covered my ears with my hands, bent double in the middle of the street. I've no idea what people thought of me as they walked past me — probably thought I was drunk. Anyway, after a second I pulled myself together and practised my control techniques. A couple of minutes later I was cautiously opening my eyes, ready to continue on my journey.

"Clark!"

I turned around to find Jimmy Olsen regarding me with a concerned frown.

"Are you okay?" he asked. "You looked kinda out of it for a while there."

"Hi, Jimmy, " I replied. "I'm fine, but thanks for asking."

"Are you sure? Maybe you should come inside and sit down for a while," he said, then shook his head with a laugh. "What am I saying? You're here to see Lois anyway, aren't you? Come on — I'll let you in on my pass."

He started towards the Planet, clearly expecting me to follow him. I hesitated. I hadn't planned to go inside. I'd been feeling so good up until the police siren, I'd thought I could make it to Star Labs on my own. And I wasn't sure I wanted to talk to Lois.

"Clark?" Jimmy had turned to look at me worriedly. "You okay, buddy?"

I sighed. "Sure." It seemed Jimmy had made up my mind for me.

She was seated at her desk, studying her computer screen intently. One hand propped up her chin while the other rested on her keyboard. I'd walked all the way from the elevators to right in front of her, and she hadn't raise her eyes once. Half of me wondered if she was deliberately ignoring me, but then the more reasonable half thought she was just buried deep in her work.

Whichever it was, I was annoyed and frustrated by her cold- shoulder treatment. I just couldn't see what I'd done to deserve it. Okay, so I'd been moody lately, but I thought she understood that — I was living on a constant knife-edge at the moment, and until Dr Bryson gave me the all clear to go back on the kryptomide, or Dr Klein came up with some kind of miracle cure, I was bound to be a little antsy. Otherwise, I thought we'd been getting along just fine — better than ever, in fact.

Watching her ignore me, I even started to blame her for my attack outside in the street. After all, if she hadn't decided to walk out on me this morning, I wouldn't have had to struggle through the busy streets on my own.

Still, I needed her help, so I had to talk to her.

"Hi, Lois," I said.

Her head bobbed up, her eyebrows raised in surprise. "What are you doing here?" she demanded.

"And nice to see you, too, Lois," I drawled back sarcastically.

Her eyes flared and she pursed her lips. "How did you get here?"

"I walked."

She looked surprised. "Good for you," she said briefly.

I shrugged, not feeling much like sharing the details with her. "It wasn't so bad."

"It was about time you got yourself out of that apartment," she said bluntly. "You were starting to turn into a full- blown recluse."

Gee, thanks for the sympathy, Lois… "I was sick!"

To my surprise, that just seemed to anger her even more. "Yeah, poor Clark," she said, her voice heavily sardonic. "That's your excuse for everything, isn't it?"

I stared at her. "What's that supposed to mean?"

She shrugged. "Figure it out for yourself," she said crisply. "Meanwhile, if you'll excuse me, I have work to do." Her eyes went down to her screen again and she started typing.

Anger leapt up within me and I crossed my arms stubbornly, steadfastly refusing to be ignored. "Well, excuse me too, but if you're going to behave like that, I think I have the right to know why," I said hotly.

She continued typing.

I planted my hands on her desk, leant down to her level and eyeballed her angrily. "Lois!"

She paused and looked at me disdainfully. "You still here? I thought you were leaving."

I stared at her silently for a second. I was seething; completely furious with her for being so intractable and utterly unreasonable. Her cool expression did nothing for my mood either, but before I said something I'd really regret, I looked away quickly and concentrated my anger for a moment on something else — her waste basket being the nearest thing to hand. It took the full brunt of my angry, burning glare while I tried to pull myself together.

It burst into flames.

I leapt back in shock and heard Lois squeal in fright. The flames were quickly growing in size and strength, and I looked around desperately for a fire extinguisher or anything else which could douse them. There was a coffee mug on the opposite desk, so I grabbed that and emptied it on the fire. Lois did the same with her own mug, but neither had much of a dampening effect on the flames.

She was too close — I ran around her desk and pulled her a few more feet away. "Where are the extinguishers?" I asked quickly.

"I don't…" I could see her thinking rapidly. "By the elevators!"

"See if you can find anything else to put it out with," I said, and ran up the ramp towards the elevators.

Jimmy was already there. "Here!" he said, thrusting the extinguisher into my hands. I rushed back down again. Lois had thrown a jacket on top of the basket, and that had stopped the flames leaping up so high, but I was pretty sure the material would catch fire eventually.

"Stand back!" I told Lois, and aimed a long burst at the basket. It seemed to work, but I repeated it a couple of times just to be certain.

"I think it's out," I said, dumped the extinguisher on the floor and gingerly lifted the now sodden and ruined jacket. Underneath there was a black sludgy mess of burnt paper.

"Man," said Jimmy in wonderment, peering over my shoulder, "that must have been some hot story you were working on, Lois."

"There was just paper in there," replied Lois after glaring at Jimmy. "Just paper."

Just paper… A crazy idea was forming at the back of my mind; one which made no sense whatsoever, if it weren't for a couple of other not-so-crazy thoughts. One was a memory of the clinic, and what that man in the bar had told me they'd been researching while I'd been a patient there. Remote sensing…the paranormal…the ability to affect objects without touching them…

I'd been glaring at the wastepaper basket just before it had burst into flames…

The other thought was that I already knew I was capable of dangerous, destructive acts — I broke things normal men shouldn't be able to break.

So was this another abnormality — yet one more way in which I was different to everyone else?

I dropped the jacket and straightened up, feeling suddenly claustrophobic with Jimmy so close and Lois not much further away. I moved away from them quickly, only to find my way blocked by Perry White and a small clump of onlookers.

"Okay, show's over, people," he was saying. "Get back to work."

He turned and clapped me on the shoulder. "Well done, son. Thanks for saving us all from Lois's inflammatory articles."

"That's okay, Mr White," I said hurriedly, wanting to get away from everyone as quickly as possible. I spotted a quieter area with an empty desk a few feet away. "Excuse me — I'm sorry."

Knowing my behaviour looked odd, but needing the space more urgently than I had time to explain, I made my way over to the desk. Crazy thoughts were spinning around my head, refusing to go away despite my attempts to rationalise them away. Anything could have set off the paper in the basket. Someone could have dropped a cigarette in it when Lois wasn't looking, for example.

Except this was a non-smoking building.

I sat down, noticing absently that my legs weren't exactly steady as I lowered myself into the chair. This was simply crazy. People didn't go around setting fire to things with their eyes. I must be losing my mind.

"Are you all right, son? You didn't get burned, did you?"

Of course, they'd followed me here. The last thing I wanted, but I'd have done the same in their place. I looked up and smiled with more confidence than I felt at the trio of concerned faces. "I'm fine. I just needed to catch my breath."

Mr White looked relieved. "Well, you just take as long as you need, y'hear? Lois, you stay with him until he's feelin' better. Jimmy, you're with me."

He turned, Jimmy following in his wake. I heard Jimmy say, "He didn't look good when I found him outside, Chief. Maybe Lois should take him home."

Perry replied, "That's exactly what I'm hoping she'll do, Jimmy. Those two have a lot to talk about, if I'm not mistaken."

Obviously he'd overheard our earlier conversation, I realised with embarrassment. Having the Editor in Chief of the Daily Planet cognisant of mine and Lois's personal problems was not an ideal situation, especially as I still harboured this secret fantasy whereby I worked as an investigative reporter on his newspaper.

Still, right now that was the least of my problems, and I pushed the thought aside as Lois came closer. "Thanks for putting the fire out," she said.

I shrugged. "Any time."

"I have no idea how it started — have you?"

"No." I wasn't going to tell Lois my crazy idea; not when she already thought I was evil incarnate.

There was an awkward pause. "Do you want me to take you home?" she asked.

I grimaced. "You don't have to just because Mr White thinks you should."

She frowned. "What do you mean?"

I nodded over at Mr White's office. "Just now — what he said to Jimmy."

"I didn't hear him say anything," she said snippily. "I was just trying to be nice. Obviously that's a difficult concept for you to grasp."

So we were back to that again. "So was I, Lois. I was simply saying you don't have to put yourself out for me." I sighed. "But since you asked, would you mind driving me to Star Labs? I have an appointment with Dr Klein."

She nodded. "Yeah, I was supposed to take you, wasn't I? Come on."

We didn't say anything on the short car ride. The silence just grew longer and longer, while I thought of more and more things I wanted to say to her. Things that started with 'why?', and 'sorry', and 'do you still love me?' were high on the list. That last one was the most important, because I still loved her despite this stupid argument we were having. I wanted us to get back to where we'd been not so long ago — those magical moments in the hospital when we'd simply held each other and said how much we loved each other, for instance. Why couldn't we be like that again?

She pulled up outside the Labs and I undid my seatbelt. "Will I see you tonight?" I asked carefully.

She looked at me. "I thought you wanted me out."

"Lois, I don't want you out…" I said wearily, tired of the point-scoring game she seemed to want us to play. "I want us to talk. No shouting, no arguments; just talking. One adult to another."

She shrugged. "We can do that, but it'll be a waste of time unless you take a long, hard look at yourself first."

I shook my head slowly. "I still don't understand what you mean, but I'll try. I'll do anything to stop us arguing, Lois."

"Just ask yourself this, Clark: when did you last ask me how I felt about anything?" she said bitterly. "When did you last care about anyone other than yourself?

I stared at her, completely shocked. "That's not fair, I-"

"Don't say anything now," she said, holding up a hand. "We'll only start shouting at each other again. Just think about it and we'll talk tonight."

Hurt by her implication, I just nodded. "Okay."

"Good luck with the tests," she said.

"Thanks."

***

Chapter Thirty-Seven — Tests

A low hum started and I began to move slowly and inexorably into the maw of the huge machine. I was strapped down to a moving platform, my head held immobile by strong tape running over my forehead and by blocks either side of my face.

A battery chicken had more freedom of moment than I did.

"Just relax, Clark," said Dr Klein's disembodied voice. "This won't take long."

Relax? I was tied down on a table which was feeding me into a huge, ominous-sounding machine, and he wanted me to relax? I was nearing major panic attack status just waiting for this thing to begin taking scans of my brain — who knew what I'd be like once it really got warmed up!

As a way of distracting myself from the evil monster, I turned my thoughts to Lois. Her last words to me still stung. I thought I was a pretty thoughtful and caring guy — I certainly tried to be, yet Lois seemed to think I'd been selfish and insensitive. How had she come to that conclusion? I always took an interest in her work, and I always asked how her day had gone when she came home at night. I'd told her more times than I could remember how much I appreciated what she'd done for me, and I'd defended her to my parents on more than one occasion. What was wrong with any of that?

The machine started swivelling around my head and making an even louder noise. I eyed it warily while trying to figure out what I was supposed to have done wrong. I knew I'd been tetchy the past few days; maybe that was the problem. But if it was the problem, then surely there was a lot of sense in her taking a break and moving back to her own place. She deserved a respite from looking after me all the time.

But my suggestion for her to move out had gone down like a lead balloon. Okay, it hadn't been expressed very tactfully, but I still would have thought she'd have welcomed the idea. Patently, I was wrong.

So scratch the moodiness theory. What else could have upset her?

Maybe, I thought glumly, this machine could scan my brain and tell me what I'd done wrong. I didn't have much of a clue myself.

It whirled and hummed around me interminably, but eventually it decided it had seen enough of me and spat me out again. I emerged back into the bright light and relative freedom of the lab feeling like I'd been through a mangle.

"That wasn't so bad, was it?" said a chipper Dr Klein as he released me from the infernal machine.

"I think I just found out I'm claustrophobic," I told him darkly.

"Really? That's fascinating," he replied. "Why do you think that is? Were you ever locked in your room as a child?"

"No!" Mom and Dad would never do anything like that. "And it's not interesting, it's very unpleasant," I added with feeling. "What now?"

"Now I need some samples from you. If you'll come over here, we'll do the blood first." He nodded to a chair beside his desk.

This part was familiar territory, at least. I sat down and rolled up my sleeve, then looked away, waiting for Dr Klein to do his stuff. I felt the needle prod the inside of my elbow, but then the doctor paused and cleared his throat.

"Sorry — can't seem to get the needle in. Hope I'm not hurting you too much," he said.

"Can't feel a thing," I replied.

I felt him push the needle against me again. "That's odd. Must be a defective needle," he said. "I'll try another."

While he fetched another needle, I examined my elbow curiously, but there was no sign that he'd even punctured the skin. I hoped the rest of his equipment wasn't as poor as his needles.

"Here we go," he said, bending over my arm again.

I waited for the pin-prick of the needle, but all I felt was the same prodding sensation. Even more curious, I looked down at my arm and saw the needle pressing ever so slightly into my skin, but not penetrating it at all.

"What does it mean?" I asked.

Dr Klein looked baffled. Wordlessly, he pressed the needle against his thumb. "Ow!" he exclaimed, and stuck the thumb in his mouth. "That hurt," he mumbled around the injured digit.

"I don't understand," I said. "Why did it work on you and not on me?"

We tried a few more needles, and we even tried different areas of my body, but no matter what, neither he nor I could make any of the needles penetrate my skin. Dr Klein was clearly both fascinated and bemused, while I was completely staggered. It appeared that I'd become totally invulnerable to puncture wounds. He asked me if this had ever happened before, but of course it hadn't.

I began to worry that this toughening of my skin was a sign that my condition was worsening — without the regular kryptomide injections to keep it under control, perhaps I was deteriorating more rapidly than before. Worse still, I realised that I could be in serious trouble now that it wasn't even possible to administer the injections. I mentioned all this to Dr Klein, who looked thoughtful for a few moments, then shook his head.

"Your skin looks perfectly healthy to me. And as for the kryptomide — well, let's not jump to any conclusions, hmmm? Maybe there are other alternatives. Talking of which, you were going to bring me some of your tablets, weren't you?"

"Oh, yes!" I fished a pack out of my pocket and handed them to him. "I'm supposed to take three a day, but lately I'd cut that down to one a day."

"Okay. I'll analyse these after I've taken a look at your body and brain scans," he replied, placing them on his desk. "Now, tell me, have you noticed any other unusual symptoms lately?"

I hesitated, thinking about the fire in Lois's trashcan. My wild and very tentative theory that I could have started the fire with my eyes seemed even crazier when faced with a rational, intelligent scientist in a white coat waiting patiently for an answer to his very reasonable question. If I told him, would he rush me off to a lunatic asylum? Or would I destroy my own credibility with him, so that he wouldn't believe anything else I told him?

"Anything at all?" he prompted. "Even the smallest thing might help me figure you out."

"Well," I said slowly, "It's not exactly a small thing. More of an 'out there' kind of a thing," I added.

He folded his arms and raised an eyebrow. "Try me," he drawled.

So I took a deep breath and explained what had happened. I couldn't look him straight in the eye while I related this wacky idea of mine, but I could sense him shifting restlessly in his chair and I could only imagine his sceptical expression. When I'd finished, I snatched a look at him. He looked like a man trying hard not to let his private thoughts show in his expression — not surprisingly! "I guess I sound pretty crazy," I said nervously.

He shrugged. "Well, it is kind of 'sci-fi', but I guess the only thing to do is to test your theory," he answered pragmatically. He reached down, grabbed his trashcan and placed it in the middle of the room, safely away from anything flammable. Then he fetched the fire extinguisher from near the door. "Better be safe than sorry," he remarked with a slight smile.

I stood up slowly and went over to the trashcan. "This feels silly," I protested, looking over at Klein.

"Just give it a try," he said, waving me back to the trashcan.

I sighed and stared down intently at the trash. Nothing happened. "I guess it was a pretty crazy theory," I said.

"Hmm. You were mad at your girlfriend when it caught fire before, weren't you?" he suggested. "Try remembering how you felt."

I grimaced — that shouldn't be too hard. I looked down again at the trash, and thought about how annoyed I'd been feeling since this morning when she'd stormed out on me, and how I'd felt even angrier at the Planet when she'd stonewalled me. I worked up a pretty good head of steam thinking about all that, and then I remembered how much she'd hurt me by saying I didn't care, and got even madder.

One of the screwed-up pieces of paper caught alight.

"Jeez!" I exclaimed, jumping backwards. I clapped my hands over my eyes, hurriedly.

I heard Dr Klein work the extinguisher over the trashcan, then there was a very pregnant silence.

"Oh, my," he murmured quietly.

'Oh, my' indeed! I was a walking flame-thrower! I'd never be able to open my eyes again — I'd have to wear eye- patches and start learning how to be a blind person. I'd get a white stick and I supposed I'd have to learn Braille and tell the time by feeling the hands on my watch.

And how many times had I come close to burning someone just because I'd lost my temper? Lois was lucky she was still alive!

"This is truly remarkable," Klein said reverentially. "Nothing like this has ever been documented before. How did you do it? Did you feel the heat in your eyes? Does it hurt at all? Do you think you could do it again?"

"NO!"

The was silence, then a subdued Klein said, "I guess this is as much of a shock to you as it is to me."

"That's an understatement!" I exclaimed. "This is terrifying, Dr Klein!"

"But why are you holding your hands over your eyes? Do they hurt?"

"No!" Any more stupid and irrelevant questions from him and I'd have to gag him or something. "I don't want to set anything else on fire — isn't that obvious?" I retorted.

"Not really," he replied evenly. "I don't see why you should — you didn't set the trash on fire until you concentrated pretty hard on it."

"But what if this is out of control, like the rest of my body? Maybe now that it's started, it'll keep on happening," I pointed out in a panic. "That's what happens with my sight and my hearing."

"Okay, maybe you have a point there," he said uncertainly, "but…well, how about this — what did it feel like? Do you think you could tell if it was about to happen?"

"I don't know," I replied tetchily. "I wasn't exactly analysing it at the time."

"Hmm." He went quiet again, and then there was some rustling following by a metallic clunk on the floor. "All right, Clark, it's right in front of you. I'm well out of the way, so you don't have to worry about me."

He wanted me to try again? Was he insane? "No. Absolutely not. No way."

"It's the only way to find out if you can control it," he said. "Or do you want to spend the rest of your life behind a blindfold?"

"If that's what it takes to stop me from hurting people," I replied.

"Just try it. Start by moving your hands away from your eyes," he suggested.

I took a deep breath. He had a point — this was the best chance I had to find out how dangerous I really was. If only it wasn't so scary…

I took another deep breath and took my hands away, keeping my eyes firmly screwed shut.

"Good. Now, keep your eyes shut and get ready to look down and about five feet in front of you."

I did as he instructed. "Okay."

"Now open your eyes."

I took yet another couple of deep breaths and slowly, cautiously, and very nervously opened my eyes. I saw the trashcan, right where Dr Klein had said it would be, refilled with fresh scrap paper.

Paper which didn't immediately catch light.

Well, that didn't prove much, other than it wasn't a constant thing. What I didn't know, though, was if it would trigger on its own.

"Now, see if you can set it alight again, and this time concentrate on how it feels if you're successful."

I did the same as before — thought back to my argument with Lois. But I couldn't get angry this time, and the paper stayed unlit. "It's not working," I said, still looking at the trashcan. "I can't get mad enough."

"I guess that's understandable, under the circumstances. How about you just try to think it on fire?"

Think it on fire. Just how ridiculous a concept was that? Still, if it worked…

I concentrated really hard on the trash, thinking fiery thoughts. The amazing thing was that, gradually, I became more and more focused until it stopped seeming such a ridiculous thing I was trying to accomplish. I really felt as thought I could do this crazy thing. The enormous power I'd sensed within me before kicked in, and I found myself drawing up the energy to a point somewhere deep inside me. When it seemed like the right moment, I thought fire, something clicked behind my eyes, and the trashcan caught alight.

This time I managed not to swear. I probably jumped back a few feet, though, and then Dr Klein stepped in with the extinguisher again while I watched numbly.

"Think I may need a new trashcan after this, " mumbled Klein, peering at the blackened mess.

"What do you think it means?" I asked shakily.

"It means you're an extraordinary person, Clark," he said with a touch of wonder.

***

Well, to cut a long story short, Dr Klein finally managed to convince me that I didn't have to walk around wearing a blindfold for the rest of my life. I had learned how to switch on the fire, and I knew how it felt just before it was about to start, so I felt safe enough to walk around normally with my eyes open. If I thought that it was going to kick in, I'd simply close my eyes.

But he did point out something which set me thinking hard about myself. This ability I'd just discovered, scary though it was, probably would have remained undetected if I hadn't stopped taking kryptomide. The same went for my skin being impervious to Klein's needles.

What did that mean?

***

Chapter Thirty-Eight — Clark Messes Up

Lois came home later than usual that night — apparently there had been a late-breaking story to do with kid who'd been abducted from her school playground, and Perry had kept most of the newsroom working flat out to cover the story from all angles.

Not that I knew anything about that when she arrived. All I knew was I'd decided to try and make things up to her by cooking a special meal, and it had pretty much spoiled by the time she finally arrived. Meanwhile, I'd eaten my share in desultory solitude, disappointed that Lois wasn't eating with me, and thinking that the least she could have done was phone me if she was going to be late. In fact, about half an hour before she arrived, I'd given up on her completely — decided she didn't want to talk to me at all that night. Maybe any night, ever again. Whatever I'd done — and I still hadn't much of a clue just what that was — it was so bad that she'd decided to finish with me.

So, what with all that, and the fact that I was desperate to talk to her about these abnormal and scary abilities I'd just discovered, I wasn't in a very good mood when she finally turned up.

I was sitting slumped in front of the TV when I heard the door open. I waited until she came down into the lounge then turned to find out just how she was going to explain herself.

"Hi," she said. "Sorry I'm late. Perry kept us all working on a big story. Have you eaten?"

"Yes, a while ago," I replied tersely.

"Okay, I'll just grab a sandwich and then we'll talk. All right?" She turned and made for the kitchen.

Just like that. No apology for being late, no reason why she couldn't call me, no nothing. "Fine," I said.

I sat and stewed while she made her sandwich. She came back carrying a plate, dropped down onto the chair opposite me and starting eating. "So, have you thought about what I said?" she asked between bites.

"Yes."

"And?" she prompted around a mouthful of sandwich.

"And what?" I said.

"What answers did you come up with?" she said. "Come on, Clark, you're an intelligent guy. You should have figured something out by now."

"Should I?"

"Yes." She stopped munching and dumped her plate on the table. "And what's eating you, anyway?" she demanded. "You've hardly said a word."

I shrugged. "So? I haven't got anything to say."

Her eyes flared angrily. "Okay, Clark, that's it! I've had it up to here with you. Either you stop acting like a spoilt kid and talk to me or I'm walking out of here right now."

I snorted. "Talk to you? I've been sitting here for hours waiting to talk to you."

"Is that what this is all about?" she retorted. "Are you really that petty? I come home a little late, upsetting your nice, tidy routine and now you're upset?"

That did it — the floodgates opened and I let rip. "There's a little more to it than that! I made an effort, Lois — I thought about what you said; thought about it a lot. I didn't come up with any answers, but I tried to make things up to you by cooking a nice meal for you, and then I sat here and waited for you to come home so we could enjoy a relaxed dinner together and talk this thing through like adults. What do I get in return? You, coming home hours late, without so much as a phone call to say you're delayed — and then when you do arrive, you just breeze in here and ask me to give you the magic answer to a question I hardly understand — without so much as a hint that you actually care anyway!"

She stared at me for a moment, then stood up with her plate. "Good. Now you know how I feel," she snapped, and walked into the kitchen.

I stormed after her. She was at the sink, furiously scrubbing the plate clean. "What's that supposed to mean?" I demanded.

She shook her head vigorously, still scrubbing the plate as if she was trying to lift the glaze off it. "You don't get it, do you? You really don't get it."

"No, I don't!" I cried. "Why don't you just tell me instead of playing these stupid games?"

"Because I had this fantasy that you might figure it out for yourself," she muttered. She threw the pot scrubber into the sink and whirled around. "It's you, Clark. You, you, and yet more you — all I get is you! I've tried to ignore it — I've been sympathetic, supportive, comforting — I've held your hand when you've been sick and listened to you nearly in tears with pain or fear. I've put up with your parents treating me like I'm a juvenile delinquent and my work colleagues laughing at me behind their backs because they think I've totally lost my objectivity — and you know, they're probably right! I've ferried you back and forth to hospital appointments when I should have been working. I've sat up all night with you when I should have been in bed myself."

She dashed the heel of her hand across her eyes, wiping away tears that had started to creep down the side of her face. "I've done it all, Clark. And what do I get in return? Nothing. You keep things from me, you make decisions that affect me without actually consulting me, and you take me for granted. If I'm lucky I get a nice meal and a polite thank you." She pushed past me, heading towards the bedroom, saying, "Well, it's not enough, Clark. I need more than that."

Her tears shook me — I really hadn't realised she'd been so upset. "Lois," I called, going after her.

"Don't," she said in a choked voice. "Just leave me alone."

I stopped. What was I to do? I was pretty hurt myself by some of the things she'd just said — especially that remark about my parents, which I thought was completely unjustified — and I wanted to tell her so. Yet she was crying, and that was even worse. I'd never seen her so upset, and to think that I was the sole cause made me feel awful.

Probably not as awful as she feels, said a little voice inside my head.

I went back into the lounge and sat on the edge of the sofa. I could just imagine her in the bedroom, sitting on the bed and crying quietly to herself. She needed someone to comfort her. I wanted to be that person, but she'd said she didn't want me around.

So I stayed where I was, and thought about the other things she'd said. I took her for granted — well, I didn't think that was true. I knew exactly how lucky I was to have met her. There wasn't another woman like her on the planet as far as I was concerned.

I made decisions for her — I couldn't think of any. We decided most things together.

I kept things from her — okay, I knew this one. This was Dr Tempus's visit that I'd not told her about. Well, she probably had a point there, although I'd only been trying to avoid an argument. Clearly, I'd failed.

I sighed heavily. I could see that we spent a lot of time talking about me and my problems, and not so much about Lois and hers. My illness dominated our lives, I knew that. Sure, we went out on dates together and had a lot of fun in the process, but we always seemed to end up back where we started — talking about me. I guessed that would get pretty tiresome for Lois.

On the other hand, she didn't like talking about herself and her family — whenever I tried to turn the conversation away from me and onto her, she would make some throw-away comment and move onto a new topic. Lately, I'd taken the easy way out and stopped even trying to probe in that direction, since I never seemed to get anywhere. I supposed that meant there was probably a lot of hurt there. Maybe I should try harder to understand that — ignore my own problems and concentrate on hers for a change. It was the least I could do after everything she'd done for me.

I sighed again. I still didn't agree with those accusations she'd thrown at me, but maybe in the end it didn't matter. I wanted to make our relationship work, and it obviously wasn't going to unless one of us started trying to patch things up. That was my responsibility, I decided, since I'd started this latest spat. I'd been sulky and childish when Lois had come home — I'd been the one who had asked for a mature conversation between adults, yet I'd been the one acting like a spoilt kid. Lois had been right about that.

To my surprise, she was stuffing clothes into a hold-all when I crept into the bedroom. "What are you doing?" I exclaimed.

"Moving out — that's what you wanted, isn't it?" she said tearfully, grabbing a t-shirt from a pile on the bed and thrusting it into the hold-all.

That was obviously a sore point — I'd definitely made a huge mistake this morning by suggesting she move back home. I watched her shove a couple more shirts into the bag, realising that I was hating it — seeing her prepare to move out of my apartment. I'd gotten very used to having her around.

"No," I replied, sitting down heavily on the end of the bed. "No, I don't want you to move out, Lois."

"Then why did you tell me to?" she asked angrily through her tears.

"I thought it was what you wanted," I replied, gazing morosely at the floor.

"Did I ever say that?"

"No, but that was the agreement," I pointed out. "You were only supposed to stay with me until I was better."

"And has Dr Bryson given you the all clear to go back on your medication?"

"No, but-"

"So you're not better, are you?"

I frowned at the carpet. She knew very well that 'better' in this context didn't meant that at all. It meant that I was able to cope on my own again after coming out of hospital, and I was definitely okay in that respect. But she seemed to be deliberately putting a different interpretation on it. Almost as if…

"Lois, I'll never be completely cured," I began slowly, twisting around to look at her.

She looked away from me. "I know that." She started shoving a pair of shoes into the bag.

"So what are you saying?"

The shoes wouldn't fit horizontally, so she yanked them out and began trying to force them down each side of the bag. "I'm not saying anything," she said. "I'm just saying you're not better yet."

"And?"

"And I thought I was staying here until you were." She couldn't make the shoes slide down the side of the bag either, so she pulled them out and tossed them carelessly on the floor. "Never liked them anyway," she muttered, now struggling impatiently to fasten the zipper.

I stood up and picked up the shoes. They were navy blue loafers, in a style I could have sworn she adored. And call me a hopeless romantic, but I decided they were a sign. Testing my theory, I suggested softly, "Why don't I keep them here in case you change your mind?"

She shrugged. "Okay."

So far, so good.

"In fact," I added, putting the shoes down on a chair and reaching over to gently pull the bag away from her. "This looks too full to me. Why don't you leave some of these other things behind as well?" I started removing items slowly and deliberately, waiting all the time for her to call a stop but hoping fiercely that she wouldn't.

She watched silently for a few moments.

I paused after I'd emptied out about a third of her clothes. "There — that's better." I showed her the now much-emptier bag, holding my breath in case I'd misread her completely.

She peered over. There was a very long pause; so long that I began to think I'd made another huge mistake with her. But then she spoke, and a huge weight lifted from my shoulders.

"If I'm leaving that shirt, then you may as well have this as well," she said. She reached into the bag and pulled out a skirt. "Nothing else goes with it." She looked inside again. "Actually, this may as well stay too." She pulled out a sweater. "It goes with the shoes."

Relaxing a little now, I reached in and lifted out another skirt. "What about this?"

She nodded. "Yes, that can stay."

I pulled the bag open to let her see inside. "You know, there really isn't much left in here. Maybe you should just leave it all with me."

She leaned over and we both gazed down at the fairly substantial pile of clothes still left inside. "You're right — it's not worth taking." She looked up and our eyes met. "Clark…"

I could see the tears starting afresh. "Come here," I croaked, and she came into my arms, sobbing freely against my chest.

"Oh, Lois," I murmured, stroking her hair. "I never wanted to make you cry."

"Don't…don't you s-see?" she said between sobs. "I like being here. I don't want to leave."

"But I've been so horrible," I protested. "I've been bad tempered and moody."

"Doesn't…doesn't m-matter," she said. "I l-love you."

There was a painful lump in my throat as I replied chokily, "What about all those things you said about me — that I keep things from you and take you for granted?"

"They're still true," she sobbed. "But being told I wasn't wanted here any more was the worst of all."

I closed my eyes, hating myself so much at that moment. I'd succeeded in badly hurting the one person I loved more than anyone in the world, the person who deserved nothing but gratitude and compassion from me. "I've really screwed up, haven't I?" I whispered.

She nodded against my chest.

"I'm sorry, Lois. I'm really, really sorry."

I held her close, wanting to cry with her as she sobbed against me. I'd had no idea she'd been bottling all this up inside, and to hear her now I wanted so much to go back and fix whatever I'd done wrong to make her so sad. I swore I'd never do anything like this to her again. From now on, my illness was going to take a backseat in our relationship. Sure, it wouldn't just magically vanish overnight, but we'd stop fitting our lives around it like it was more important than anything else.

"You know s-something else?" she said as her sobs began to lessen. "This is the first time you've held me since you came out of the hospital."

I froze. She was right — I'd been deliberately avoiding close contact with her ever since I'd found out that the lack of kryptomide was letting my attacks rage out of control. I'd been terrified of hurting her with one of my muscle spasms.

Now that she'd pointed it out to me, I was scared — I wanted to move away to a safe distance from her. But I also wanted to comfort her, and every instinct in my body was screaming at me not to step away while she so obviously needed me. For long moments I was stuck, not knowing which was to turn.

"Clark?" she said in a small voice.

How could I let her go when she sounded so sad? I took a deep breath and made myself relax — I'd simply have to make this work for her sake.

"I-" I stopped myself. I'd been about to give my excuses and blame it on the illness as usual, but she knew all about that — she knew I was scared to touch people when I was sick. I decided she was really saying she wanted me to change; to do things despite my illness. "I'm sorry," I said instead. "I'll do better in future."

***

We talked for a long time once her tears had dried up. Mostly I listened while Lois told me just how hard the last few weeks had been for her. For the first time I heard just how difficult a juggling act she'd been performing between her work and my illness. She told me how hurt she'd been when she found out I hadn't told her about Dr Tempus's visit. I learned what a strain it had been for her to take care of a sick man; how nursing didn't come naturally to her at all and just how deep down inside she'd had to reach to find the strength to carry on at times.

I also learned why these things had been especially tough on her, and when I did, I began to understand why she'd kept her personal life so private. Her mother was an alcoholic; had been for as long as Lois could remember. Lois hadn't grown up in stable family home like mine. In her house, her mother had been unreliable and deceitful, and her father had been either distant and cold, or overbearing and ill-tempered. Lois had spent her childhood clearing up after her mother, looking out for her younger sister and defending herself to a father who always expected her to achieve more than she ever could.

How could I have known Lois for so long, and not found out any of this before? I really learned that night how self- obsessed I'd become. I'd let my own problems blot out just about everything else — and yes, Lois had been right. I had taken her for granted. I'd been superficially grateful, but I hadn't really appreciated what she'd done for me, and just how much she'd sacrificed in the process.

It was after one in the morning when Lois glanced at her watch and exclaimed at how late it was. By that time, we were back in the living room, having sometime earlier moved out of the bedroom to make coffee.

"And I've got a nine o'clock staff meeting tomorrow morning," she moaned.

I grimaced. "Look, why don't you take my bed tonight? The last thing you want to do is wait while we put your bed together."

"Are you sure?"

"Yes. Go on, I'll stay out of your way until you're done."

She stood up, trying unsuccessfully to smother a yawn. "You know, you haven't even told me how your tests with Dr Klein went today."

I shrugged. "It'll keep."

She put her head on one side and regarded me. "Don't clam up on me, Clark. I still want to share that part of your life with you. I just don't it to be the only thing we talk about."

"Yes, but it's late and you're tired. I'll tell you tomorrow."

"Okay, I'll hold you to that." She came over, bent down and kissed me. "Good night, Clark."

I slipped my hand behind her head while I returned her kiss. Somehow, things became unexpectedly intense and I was soon pressing my lips firmly against hers, then standing up and wrapping my arms around her while we kissed and kissed and kissed. Without thinking, I slid my tongue out to taste her lips and found her doing the same; our tongues met and soon I was experiencing the most sensuous sensations I think I've ever felt. I'd played at French kissing before with Lana, but this was most definitely the real thing.

When we finally broke off, we were both panting and I'm sure we were thinking the same thing. But we couldn't…I couldn't. "Lois," I began regretfully.

She put the tips of her fingers against my lips to silence me. "I know. We can't — it's too soon," she murmured.

"I wish…"

She nodded. "So do I. But not yet."

I smiled gratefully. "Are we okay? I mean, I know I can't put everything right overnight, but-"

"We're okay," she interrupted. "Just remember what I told you tonight and we'll be fine."

"You do know I love you?" I said.

"Yes, I do. I love you too." She kissed me briefly. "Night, Clark."

"Night, Lois."

***

Chapter Thirty-Nine — Reflections

Well, I didn't get much sleep last night — spent most of the night lying on my back, staring at the ceiling and turning everything over in my mind. There was so much to think about. Lois and I seemed to be getting pretty serious, and I really felt we'd shifted into an important new stage of our relationship that evening. For the first time since we'd met, I felt like I knew Lois properly. Oh, we'd already shared some pretty intimate moments, and I'd seen many sides to her character — she could be tempestuous, funny, romantic, stubborn and downright unpredictable. Sometimes she could be just about all of those at the same time. But that evening, she'd let me into the most private side of her life, and that had forced me to understand that she had real needs and insecurities which were just as important and difficult to live with as anything I had to deal with.

It made me realise that it was time to stop thinking about us as an exciting, carefree, romantic couple, and start getting real. Did Lois want the same things I wanted? If she did, was I ready to make a long-term commitment, knowing that the future I was stepping into wasn't going to be the idyll I'd dreamt about? As a teenager and a young adult, I'd thought that finding a woman to love and be loved by would be the end of my struggle with life. In fact, it was just the start of an even harder struggle.

Then there was my illness. I wasn't even sure if that was the right term for it any more. Was someone ill if they could do something no other living person on the planet could do? Or were they merely alien? Had the kryptomide been suppressing the worst aspects of my alien origins all these years, and were there even worse horrors in store for me if I couldn't go back on my medication soon?

On the other hand, I was definitely getting better at controlling things. Holding Lois in my arms had been a huge step forward — a very scary step, and not one I was sure I'd be able to repeat in the near future — but nonetheless, I'd done it and nothing awful had happened. That had to be a positive sign. Then, too, the length of time between my attacks was increasing, and when they did happen, I was usually able to get them under control within a few minutes.

So would it be possible for me to come off the kryptomide altogether one of these days? To be set free from the pain and nausea of treatment sessions filled me with almost unbearable hope. I imagined all the things I could do if I wasn't weak and bed-ridden on a regular basis. I could travel. I could go anywhere I wanted and do anything I wanted. I could get a job — maybe even train as a journalist. Heck, maybe one of these days I could partner Lois at the Planet.

Yeah, nice dream!

But it was so tempting — Lois and me, working side by side, writing stories about real people and real issues. Stories that mattered, and made a difference to people's lives.

But meanwhile, I'd have turned into a complete freak because the kryptomide would have stopped suppressing my alien tendencies. And maybe Lois would have run away, scared off by that third head I'd grown or whatever.

I could set things on fire just by looking at them. It was incredible. Unbelievable, if I hadn't been forced to prove it to Dr Klein. How did it work? Did I generate some kind of laser beam with my eyes, and if so, were there other freaky things I could do with my eyes? Just how alien was I?

Which brought me to another issue. Why was I here? I'd landed in a space capsule as a baby, so someone must have put me in there and sent me on my journey. Had they wanted to get rid of me? That was usually why parents abandoned their children. Or because they hoped their child would find a better life than the one they could have given it themselves. Sending me out into space seemed a pretty drastic step in that case, so usually when I dwelt on this issue, I went for the abandoned option. Boy, they really must have really wanted to get rid of me!

So maybe I really was a freak, even in their society.

I sighed. I'd been around this loop many times before, and it didn't get any clearer or any easier. The fact was, I was different from everyone else on this planet, and if I wasn't going to feel totally isolated and alone for the rest of my life, I'd better make the very best of what I'd got. Which was Lois — and my parents.

Mom and Dad. I loved them. Despite the shadow of Sarah's death hanging over us, we were a close family and I couldn't have wished for more loving and caring parents. Lesser mortals might have abandoned me or neglected me when they found out what a sickly and high-maintenance child they had on their hands, but not my parents. They stuck with me through it all, supporting me and making sure I led as normal a life as possible.

If only they trusted Lois. I didn't know how to handle that — they still saw her as the root cause of everything that had happened to me these past few months, and the problem was that they were right. Before Lois, my life had been stable. I'd made a modest living writing my books, I'd had my regular treatment schedule and weekly check-ups, and I hadn't been inside a hospital for years. Since Lois came into my life, I'd had my private life splattered all over the media, been attacked, hospitalised, and lost the services of the clinic — not to mention that Tilley and Dr Tempus also seemed to have dropped out of sight lately. Even my illness had become unstable and unpredictable.

But what Mom and Dad didn't understand was how heavily depressed I'd been before Lois arrived. I'd been steadily declining, both physically and mentally. I'd spent hours staring blankly at my computer screen, hating myself and the life I was forced to lead. In a few more years, I'd have been either suicidal or a complete vegetable.

Somehow I had to explain that to them. Lois was the best thing that could ever have happened to me — it was that simple. And I owed her a huge apology for my selfishness and sulky behaviour.

***

Chapter Forty — The Road to Health

Dr Bryson called me today. Said he had a couple of things to discuss with me, and did I have any time around lunchtime to see him at the hospital. I told him yes, then phoned Lois at work and invited her out for a latish lunch. She agreed.

So for the second day in a row, I was forced to face the outside world on my own. This was the new me, though — I was making the rules, not my illness, and that meant that although I knew I was more likely to suffer an attack outside, I was going anyway.

Dr Bryson greeted me warmly and offered his hand for me to shake. I hesitated for a second, still wary of close personal contact and the inherent danger that I could hurt someone, but then threw caution aside and clasped his hand lightly. He ushered me to a chair and settled himself behind his desk.

"So you're still experiencing problems?" he said. Obviously my hesitation had been noted.

"Yes, but it's getting better. The attacks seem to be less frequent," I replied.

He raised an eyebrow. "That's good. I hear you've made some fairly startling discoveries, too."

"You've been talking to Dr Klein?" I asked, and he nodded.

"I'm fascinated," he said. "Do you have any idea how it works?"

"No idea. I just think 'fire' and it happens. That amazing energy I think I mentioned to you before comes into it somehow — I kind of tap into that, focus it, and out it comes as fire." I shrugged uncomfortably. The whole concept still disturbed me, and I didn't really enjoy discussing it at length.

He shook his head slowly. "Amazing. You really are a special person, Clark. Which brings me to why I asked you here today." He opened a buff file on his desk and scanned it briefly. "It's been just over two weeks since we discharged you, according to this."

I nodded. "Yes, and I'm much better since then. I've got my strength back and there's no lingering aches or pains."

"Yes. Well, from the information I have here, and looking at you now, I think we can safely say you're signed off as fully recovered." He scribbled something on the file and looked up. "You know what that means, of course?"

"I can go back on my medication?"

He nodded. "Yes. In fact, your nurse contacted us asking if you'd been given the all clear yet, so I imagine she'll be in touch soon to reschedule your treatment programme." He leant back in his chair and regarded me over the tops of his glasses. "How do you feel about that?"

I frowned. "About Tilley contacting you or about going back on the kryptomide?" I knew exactly how I felt about Tilley contacting them! Irritated and pretty distrustful. It was like she couldn't wait to get me back under her control.

"About the kryptomide," he answered.

I shrugged. "I don't know. Part of me wants to get back to normal — it's been a nightmare these past few days, trying to live with the constant threat of an attack and knowing there's no way of treating it if it gets out of control."

He nodded sympathetically. "I'm sure. But you say only part of you feels like that?"

"Well, although it's been hell, I do seem to be getting better. I'm coping with the attacks, like I said, and I'm starting to wonder — could I manage without kryptomide? It would be great if I never had to have another injection, especially since the side-effects have been getting worse and worse lately." I shrugged. "You probably think I'm being over-optimistic."

"Not at all,'" he replied. "In fact, I'd encourage you to consider it. Obviously you should discuss this with Bernard over at Star Labs before you make any final decisions, but if you're able to manage your condition without medication, then that has to be a good thing. Personally, I have serious doubts about the drug anyway. It nearly killed you."

"But isn't that true of many drugs if they're taken at the wrong dose?" I asked.

He nodded. "You're right, and that's why you need to talk to Bernard. He'll be able to give you chapter and verse on it once he's finished analysing your test results and the drug itself."

"Okay, I'll give it some thought," I said. "Was there anything else?"

"No." We stood up together and he came around his desk to see me out. "Take care of yourself, Clark. I have the feeling you're about to see some big changes in your life."

I nodded. "So do I, actually."

"And keep in touch, okay?," he said, opening his door. "I'd like to know how you get on."

"I will," I replied. "And thank you again for everything you've done."

***

Of course, there was another fear that I hadn't admitted to Dr Bryson, because it wasn't really a medical problem. I'd thought about it last night, and it didn't seem any less scary in the cold light of day. The fact was, I was becoming more and more alien — more freakish and different — as the days crept by and I hadn't taken any kryptomide. How far was this transformation going to go? And was Lois still going to want me when it was finished? Perhaps continuing with my medication would be the safer choice after all, if the alternative included losing Lois.

***

She wasn't at her desk when I arrived at the Planet a little later. After hovering uncertainly for a couple of minutes, I spotted Jimmy Olsen carrying a pile of photographs across the newsroom and intercepted him.

"Jimmy, do you know where Lois is? I was supposed to meet her here for lunch."

"Uh, I think she's in a meeting with Mr White," he replied. "You want me to tell her you're here?"

I shook my head. "No, I don't want to disturb her if she's working. I'll just wait at her desk, if that's all right?"

"Sure."

It was half an hour before she arrived, and when she did, her surprised and guilty expression said it all. "Oh, Clark! I'm sorry — I totally forgot."

I stood up. "That's okay. Are you ready now?"

But she shook her head. "I can't — I've got too much to do. I'm sorry."

I could see she just wanted to get on with her work, so I smiled and shrugged. "Don't worry about it — I can see you're busy. Do you want me to bring you a sandwich or something?"

"No, it's okay," she said, already settling down behind her desk to start work.

"You should eat something," I insisted. "How about one of those tuna subs you like so much from Joe's Caf‚?"

She looked up at that. "Ooh, Joe's…okay, you tempted me," she said with a grin. "But make sure they don't overfill it and don't let them put in any cucumber. And no pepper. Lots of tomato, of course, but I do not, under any circumstances, want pickle."

I grinned. "Not that you're fussy or anything. Okay, you got it."

So I fetched her lunch then came back home to write this up. Then I thought some more about how much I loved Lois and wanted her to stay with me. Now I'm staring at two small green tablets I just pressed out of a blister pack onto the desk. I've even got the glass of water ready. The tablets look so insignificant, yet they represent so much. If I take them, I go back to the life I had before — the familiar and predictable cycle of illness and slow, painful recovery. If I don't take them, I enter a new life — scary and full of uncertainty, but maybe also pain-free and perhaps even exciting.

***

Chapter Forty-One — Lois Reveals All

Well, I didn't take them, of course. I couldn't make a decision like that without consulting Lois first. That was the way things were going to be from now on — she'd told me I didn't consult her enough, so I was determined to do better for her in future.

But in the meantime, I wanted to give Lois the same love and attention she'd bestowed on me for the past few weeks. She came home late again, but this time I gave her a welcome home hug and kiss instead of sulking on the sofa. I'd planned the hug ages earlier, determined to make myself overcome this fear of hurting her and instead show her how much I loved her. I was still a little nervous as I wrapped my arms around her, but that soon disappeared as I rediscovered the simple pleasure of holding her body close to mine.

"Mmmm," she murmured contentedly against my chest. "What did I do to deserve this?"

I shrugged. "Nothing. Just be yourself, I guess."

"Well, it's very nice. You can welcome me home like this every night if you like." She tipped her head up and kissed me. "And don't think I don't appreciate how much it took for you to do this."

"Actually, it's pretty easy," I replied with a shrug. "Who wouldn't want to hold a gorgeous woman like you in their arms?"

She smiled. "Nurse Tilley?"

I laughed softly. "Okay, you got me there."

We kissed again, and then I led her down to the lounge and made her tell me about the stories she'd been working on throughout the day. We'd talked about her work before, of course, but this time I really listened hard, paying attention to how she felt about things rather than giving vent to my own opinions. I watched her, too — saw the little gestures that meant she was angry about something or suspicious of someone's motives. Talk about work led naturally into a really intense discussion about the public health care system — one of her stories had been about the closing of a supposedly run-down hospital in one of the poorer areas of the city. We didn't argue — just had a healthy exchange of viewpoints.

Then she told me the office gossip over dinner — apparently Claude had been caught with the fashion editor in the dark room late at night, definitely not studying photo negatives. I tried not to look too pleased, but really I was delighted to discover the slimy Claude had turned his attentions away from Lois at last; he'd been far too smooth and self-serving in my opinion. And yes, I freely admit there was a lot of self-interest in knowing he was off the scene, but I still think he wouldn't have been right for Lois even if I hadn't been around.

Anyway, we ended up sprawled beside each other on the sofa, drinking coffee and channel-hopping on the TV. It had been a really good evening, and we didn't talk about me and my illness once.

Until, that is…

"You know," said Lois suddenly, "tonight has been really nice, but don't try too hard, Clark."

I frowned. "I didn't think I was."

"Well…bringing me lunch at the Planet, the welcome-home hug, the dinner, the careful avoidance of all things Clark- related — it's very thoughtful of you, but I don't want you to think you have to do this every day."

"Even if I enjoy doing it?" I asked, kissing the side of her neck, then working my way up to her cheek. She turned her head slowly, letting me move around to her soft, open mouth. We exchanged gentle, lazy kisses for a time, until I felt her smile against my lips.

"Far be it from me to stop you doing the things you like doing," she murmured. "I'm just trying to say relax, I guess. I told you we're okay and I meant it."

"All right," I said, drawing away from her a little, "but there's one thing I need to do first."

"What's that?"

I took her hand. "Apologise. We talked a lot last night, but I never actually said I was sorry for being such a jerk. So, Lois, please accept my apology for being a selfish, bad-tempered idiot for far too long."

She regarded me seriously. "Apology accepted." She kissed me briefly and withdrew again with a determined look in her eyes. "Now, are you going to tell me about yesterday's tests with Dr Klein, or do I have to force it from you?" she asked. "I haven't forgotten your promise, you know."

I sighed, tracing my finger lazily over her bare forearm. "Are you sure you want to talk about that now? I don't want to spoil your evening."

She shook her head. "It'll spoil my evening if you don't tell me. Come on, out with it."

I continued tracing patterns on her skin, taking my time before replying. Touching Lois seemed a much nicer option than letting her know how weird I was becoming. "I'm not sure where to start," I said. "Maybe I should start with today."

That was mostly an avoidance tactic, I guess. It was easier to tell her about my consultation with Dr Bryson than to tell her about the tests with Dr Klein. Anyway, I gave her a quick resume of the meeting and finished with the news that Dr Bryson thought I could safely go back on my medication again.

"That's great, Clark," she said — without much conviction, I thought. I didn't reply immediately, and at my silence, she reached up and touched the side of my face. "Isn't it?" she asked, her expression concerned.

I took her hand in mine and dropped my eyes, avoiding her gaze. "I don't know. I thought I'd be relieved when he told me, but now I'm not so sure." I gave a weak laugh. "Actually, I'm totally confused. I don't know what to do at all."

"Hey," she said softly, squeezing my hand. "What's the problem?"

I sighed. "Lois, are you sure you want to hear this?" I asked. "I really wanted this evening to be all yours, and here we are talking about me again."

"And I told you already — I still want to know what you're going through. I can see that you're upset about something," she added.

She was so right. And there was no-one better than Lois for listening when I was upset. Better than my parents, even, because I knew she wouldn't try to fix everything for me — she'd just listen and prompt when I needed it. So I let go of my resolve not to wallow in my own problems yet again and told her. I described all the tests with Dr Klein, from the horrible body scanning machine to the fire tests with his trash can and the failed attempt to draw blood from me.

"I'm turning into a freak, Lois," I finished miserably.

"No, you're not," she answered immediately. "Don't you see how wonderful this is? What a special, amazing thing it is? How useful it could be? You might never have to buy matches again," she added with a quirky smile.

Typical Lois — she immediately found something positive to say despite my own bleakness. I smiled a little. "There is that, I suppose. But I don't want to be special and amazing. I want to be normal — it's what I've wanted all my life."

"But what is normal, Clark? We're all different from each other." At my rolled eyes, she shrugged. "Okay, it sounds glib, but it's also true. I'm no more normal than you are, or than Dr Bryson or Dr Klein are. We're all individuals."

I sighed. "That's true, but I can't help feeling a hundred times more individual than anyone else. Anyway, you're taking this very well. It's not every woman who finds out her boyfriend can burn the toast without even plugging in the toaster."

"Well, I guess I've always known you were different — special," she amended hurriedly. "I actually think it's pretty cool — I have a boyfriend who can do things no-one else can. I don't know why you don't feel the same, Clark."

"I don't know. Maybe I'm scared," I said, avoiding her eyes again.

"Scared of what?"

"Scared…" I looked at her directly and took a deep breath. "Scared I'll change so much you won't want me any more. You're my anchor, Lois. I'm not sure when it happened, but I don't think I could bear to be without you."

"Oh, Clark…" she whispered. "That's so touching, but it's also scary. I'm not sure I'm ready to be someone's anchor."

"Oh." I dropped my eyes.

So I had my answer. She didn't want to commit. Well, I supposed it was asking too much-

"No, Clark!" she said fiercely, grabbing my hand. "That's not what I meant. It's just a lot of responsibility you're heaping on my shoulders. Pressure, even."

So I was doing it again — saying the wrong thing. Not seeing things from her point of view. "I'm sorry," I said. "But you asked why I was scared."

She nodded. "Okay, I did, that's true." She paused, then began again slowly, as if she was picking her way carefully through a minefield. "Here's what I think — you have to start coming to terms with who you really are, Clark. You want to be normal — whatever that means — but the fact is, you never will be. You were born on a different planet to the rest of us, and that makes you one of a kind. You'll never be the same as the rest of us."

God, that hurt. I mean, I knew it was true, but to hear her state it so baldly really ripped my insides apart. "Lois, this isn't really helping," I warned, my voice cracking.

"Just hear me out, okay?" she said. "It gets better, I promise. Instead of rejecting your heritage, you need to start embracing it. Stop trying to be normal. You need to enjoy being just who you are, Clark — celebrate your differences. The kryptomide — well, I think it was hiding the real you. Every time the real Clark Kent emerged, he got knocked back with one of Tilley's injections. I've watched you for weeks, and I've seen it happen. After an injection you're weak and subdued; you spend a lot of time in bed or just sitting listlessly on the sofa. Then as the injection wears off, you regain your strength and your vitality — it's like you're a different person. You're bright and intelligent, there's life in your eyes again, and your sense of humour comes back. That's the real you, Clark, not the sickly, listless guy on the sofa. Incidentally, I'm also convinced that the pain you go through after treatment is far worse than anything you suffer during an attack. Especially now that you're learning how to control the attacks."

She took a breath before continuing, while I reeled in shock. These were deeply personal insights that she was voicing and they weren't easy to take. She'd put me under a microscope and dissected me, then forced me to examine the results with her. The picture she'd revealed to me was painfully familiar, but I'd never viewed it like this before.

It hurt.

Part of me rebelled against it, too. Of course I see-sawed between sickness and health — that was the nature of my condition and the treatment I had to endure to control it. She wasn't really telling me anything I didn't already know.

But she was also offering hope. She was telling me that if I could accept my differences, I'd be a happier person. That was undoubtedly true, but it was a heck of a lot to ask — I wasn't sure I had the courage to wantonly stand out from the crowd. I looked into her eyes and found a strength of conviction there I wished I could reflect.

"I think you should stop taking the kryptomide, Clark," she concluded firmly. "Find out who you really are — and find a way to like yourself at the same time."

I swallowed hard, struggling to make my voice steady enough to ask hoarsely, "But will you like the new me?"

She smiled. "Of course I will, Clark. That vital, intelligent, funny guy I just described is the man I fell in love with — I'm positive he's the real you." She squeezed my hand again. "This is an adventure we're going to take together. Personally, I can't wait to find out what else you might be able to do."

I thought of the craziest thing imaginable. "Even if I sprout wings and start flying around the room?"

She laughed. "Even that."

I fell silent, thinking some more about what she'd said. It still hurt; no-one had told me so simply and directly that I was different to everyone else and was stuck with it — not since I was a little boy in the clinic and that nurse had told me exactly why I was receiving special treatment. Mom and Dad usually tried to play up my similarities, unless they were fussing about my health. But Lois was right — I was different and I'd spent most of my life trying to deny the fact. No wonder I'd been fighting bouts of deep depression when I started writing this journal.

But stopping medication was a big step…

"What about the attacks?" I said. "I was really ill before Dr Tempus gave me the kryptomide."

"Were you, Clark? You told me how this all started — you thought you could see through things and hear noises you knew you shouldn't be able to hear, right?"

I nodded.

"So what if you really were seeing through things and hearing more than you should? I know it's a little 'out there', but so is setting fire to things with your eyes."

She had a point. But Dr Tempus had always explained that my condition was caused by faulty processes inside my brain. It went into overdrive, overloading me with sounds and images from my imagination and memory. The headaches I often suffered during an attack were caused by the over- activity. Kryptomide blocked the faulty processes and allowed more normal ones to reassert themselves.

I explained all that to Lois, but she just frowned. "So as a small kid you were already imagining skulls and the insides of people's bodies? Are you sure you even knew what that would look like when you were that young?"

I shrugged. "I'd probably seen pictures in books. Encyclopaedias — that kind of thing."

"Okay, but have you ever tested the theory? Found out if what you think you're seeing is what's really there?"

"No, not really. I'm usually trying to make the images go away, not analyse them — and besides, when it's really bad, I get nauseous if I open my eyes."

We were still holding hands loosely, and her thumb starting tracing soothing circles over my palm. "I know," she said softly. "It's not much fun. But why don't you see the images when your eyes are shut if you're only imagining them?"

"I don't know. Because my brain knows when my eyes are open?" I suggested. "Lois, if you're going to suggest we test this theory of yours, then the answer's no. I'm not sure I could even trigger an attack at will, and if I did, I might not be able to stop it again. I can't take that risk."

Her thumb moved slowly over my palm again. "But you've gotten pretty good at controlling them," she said, "and besides, you've still got some tablets around somewhere, haven't you? If it gets out of control, they can be your safety net."

I shook my head. "Lois…I cannot do this."

"But think of what it could mean, Clark," she insisted. "If you really can see through things, then it means that Dr Tempus's theories are all wrong and all you've got is a gift you haven't figured out how to use or control properly — maybe like a baby trying to learn speech without anyone around for him to imitate."

I frowned. "You mean because I'm the only one of my kind on the planet, I haven't had the benefit of parents who can show me what to do?"

"Yes. Come on, Clark — you can do this." She jumped up. "Do you still keep the tablets by your bed?"

I nodded. "Yes, but-"

"No buts."

She was back a minute later with the pack and a glass of water. "Here," she said, placing them on the coffee table. "You can grab them any time you want, okay?"

I leant forward and fingered the pack, noting absently that there were six tablets left — enough to stop the severest of attacks dead in its tracks. I'd probably be very ill for several hours afterwards, but at least I'd be in control.

"You really think this is a good idea?" I asked her.

"Positive," she replied briskly. "Now, don't think about it too much, just go for it. If you worry about it, you'll never do it. Look at that wall," she said, pointing at the dividing wall between the lounge and the bedroom, "and try to see through it. When you think you can, tell me and I'll go behind and hold something up. You try to see what I'm holding, okay?"

I looked at the wall. "This is nuts," I muttered.

"Maybe, but give it a chance," she said.

So I did it. I actually stared at the wall and tried to induce an attack — the thing I would have gone to almost any lengths to avoid just a few short days ago. Keeping the kryptomide tablets firmly in mind, I aimed an imaginary beam at the wall and pictured the beam causing the wall to become translucent. Almost immediately, the wall shimmered and I closed my eyes reflexively with a small groan.

"Stay with it, Clark," urged Lois. "You have to stay with it."

"Could you hand me a couple of tablets and the water?" I asked. "I won't take them yet, I promise."

I heard her press the tablets out of the pack. "Here."

"Thanks." Feeling slightly more in control of the situation, I opened my eyes to find the wall still shimmering sickening in front of me. Fighting the urge to retreat behind the safety of my eyelids again, I gazed steadily at the wobbly mass until I could see through into my bedroom. Of course, I already knew what was in there, so there was no proof yet that I was doing any more than imagining I could see through the wall.

"Okay," I said.

I saw her walk behind the wall, reach over and pick up my bedside lamp. "What am I doing?" she called.

I told her. "But I could have guessed that. Do something more unexpected."

She reached into the pocket of her skirt and pulled out a pen. "What am I holding?"

"A pen."

"What does it say on the side?"

I squinted. "Um…looks like 'The Marmara, Istanbul.' What are you doing with a pen from Istanbul?"

"I guess someone at the Planet must have taken a holiday there last year. Clark, that's amazing! You can see so much!"

I wasn't so sure. "I could have seen the pen when I was at the Planet. Try something else."

I saw her shake her head slowly. "Boy, you really don't want to believe this, do you? Okay, try this."

And before I could reply, she'd pulled her top off.

"Lois!" I couldn't help myself — I stared at her bare neck, the graceful curve of her shoulders, the beautiful swell of her… "Lois, stop!" Her fingers were fingering one strap of her bra, tugging it slowly off her shoulder.

"Don't you even want to take a peek?" she asked, a smile playing around her lips.

"No. I mean, yes, I do, but I can't. Shouldn't. Well, can't, actually, because I'm not sure if this is wishful thinking on my part anyway. Not that I look at you and imagine you without your clothes on!" I added hurriedly.

"Don't you?"

She sounded disappointed. Looked disappointed — she was pouting. I had no idea what the right answer to her question was, either. Which was safer? To admit I'd like to see her without clothes on, or to deny I ever entertained thoughts like that?

Honesty, Clark, honesty…"Maybe sometimes," I said.

She flushed, and I think that was the point at which I had to accept that I wasn't imagining all this — there was no way I could have guessed that would be her reaction. She picked her top up from the bed and pulled it back on over her head. "Now do you believe what I'm telling you?" she said, coming back into the lounge.

I looked at her cautiously, not sure if my vision would accidentally oblige my hormones by undressing her again. Thankfully, it didn't, but I couldn't help remembering what those curves had looked like without clothing. I'd seen the pretty white lace of her bra…

I closed my eyes. "Yes," I murmured. "Very much yes."

I could see through things. I really could see through solid objects; probably even x-ray people if those skulls I'd been so frightened of as a boy were actually real. It was awesome. My eyes were turning out to be multi-purpose — they could make fire, generate x-rays, make objects transparent, as well as work just like normal eyes could.

I wondered how much control I had. Could I, with practice, heat things up rather than set them on fire? Could I turn the heat up so high I could cut through metal like a laser beam? And how far could I see — if I could see through things, did that mean I could see for long distances?

What else could I do? If my eyes were a guide, then I'd probably been wrong about my hearing, too. Maybe I really could hear every single sound in the city simultaneously. What use was that, though — unless I could somehow separate out the sounds, or tune out most of them and just concentrate on one. I suddenly remembered being able to hear Lois's heartbeat a few days ago. My God, maybe I really could hear things from a long way away as well as see them!

Tomorrow I'd have to start practising. I'd have to find somewhere safe so I didn't accidentally set fire to something — maybe out in the country, preferably somewhere without too much wood around. Actually, a beach might be better — a deserted one someplace up the coast.

Lois interrupted my thoughts by settling down beside me on the sofa and I was instantly reminded of her image behind the bedroom wall. She'd undressed right there in front of me, unashamedly showing herself to me. Okay, so it had been to prove a point, and she'd wanted to use shock tactics to get my attention — and that had certainly worked! — but…a new thought occurred to me — she wouldn't have done it unless she'd wanted to. I now felt incredibly aware of her presence beside me; I remembered her body and a warm flush crept through me.

"Are you all right?" she asked. "You've gone awfully quiet."

"I…I'm fine," I stuttered, embarrassed by the direction my thoughts had taken. "It's a lot to take in."

She'd looked so sexy when she'd slid that bra strap off her shoulder. It had been a fantasy come true. And that fantasy was sitting right beside me.

"I'm sure," she murmured soothingly. "Here, why don't I take this." She pulled the glass from my loose fingers. "Unless you need the tablets?" she added hesitantly.

Did she have any idea the effect she was having one me? I shook my head. "No, I'm fine."

"It's just you've hardly opened your eyes. Are you sure you're okay?"

"Yes." I opened my eyes and looked at her. She was perched on the edge of the sofa, turned towards me and eyeing me with a tinge of anxiety. "Really, I'm fine."

But before I could stop myself, I'd snatched a lingering glance at her chest. As soon as I realised what I was doing, I shot my eyes back up to her face. She'd turned pink again, but she hid her embarrassment with a sly smile. "I hope you weren't sneaking a free peek," she said wryly.

"No!" I exclaimed quickly. "Definitely not!"

She laughed. "Don't be so ashamed! I like it that you want to look at me like that."

"Really?" I said, making a fast mental adjustment. I let me eyes drop down to her front again and eyed it a little longer. "I have to admit, it's a pretty good view."

"Hey!" She swiped my knee. "Cheeky."

"You said I could look!"

"Look, not…ogle. I tell you what," she said slyly. "How about we celebrate your newly-discovered abilities?"

"How?"

"Like this." She leant right over me and pressed her lips firmly against mine, kissing me with more passion than she ever had before. My senses reeled. It was like she'd ignited something inside me — I responded immediately and passionately, trading open-mouthed kisses with her as if I couldn't get enough of her.

I let the tablets I was still holding drop somewhere beside me and brought my hand up to rest loosely at her waist. She hadn't tucked her top back in, so that part of me was touching her bare flesh. She felt incredible — warm and soft and so very alive under my hand.

Our mouths caressed each other over and over. What was I doing? Some part of me was screaming at me to stop; that this was dangerous on so many levels — I could still hurt her with my strength — but a more powerful force was driving me on, telling me to ignore the danger and follow my instincts. I shifted my hand up her side and under her top, feeling the heat rise as I travelled upwards until I found the smooth cotton of her bra.

"I knew you'd lose those inhibitions if I gave you the right incentive," Lois said around our kisses.

"Oh, Lois" I murmured. "I never dreamt I could do this."

Not without the benefit of kryptomide, anyway. I felt so alive! And how wrong Dr Tempus had been when he'd said I should go back on my medication so that I'd be 'fit for my young lady.' I couldn't imagine feeling any healthier than I did right then, all without a trace of kryptomide in my body. How wrong he'd been about so many things!

That stray thought threatened to start a train of thoughts I couldn't bear to face, so I pushed it to the back of my mind where it hovered like a dark shadow.

Lois; concentrate on Lois.

The weight of her breast rested against my wrist and I just had to move across and enclose it with my hand. "Oh, God," I said shakily, hardly recognising my own voice any more. She was beautiful. So soft — I squeezed ever so slightly, and she moaned from deep in her throat. Such a sexy sound.

I pressed my lips to hers again and we kissed fervently, my hand still touching her. Her physical response to me was amazingly erotic — I'd never felt so excited!

'Fit for your young lady' — the words came echoing back to me again and I shoved them impatiently away. They had no place here; no right to taint this special moment with Lois.

I kissed her with fresh determination, ignoring the dark thoughts at the edge of my mind. I was on the brink of something wonderful with Lois, and nothing was going to spoil that.

But suddenly it was all too much. I couldn't push the thoughts out of my head any longer. Doubts surfaced; questions I hadn't wanted to answer clamoured for attention — there was a maelstrom of emotions crowding in on me and I felt totally overwhelmed. I broke away from her, breathing heavily and struggling for control.

"What?" said a confused Lois. "Why did you stop?"

"Sorry," I said. "I…" I couldn't trust myself to speak; couldn't really explain what was wrong anyway, so I just repeated myself. "Sorry."

"Clark?" she said quietly. "What's wrong?"

"I think…" I swallowed. "I think I just reached my limit for the day."

"Oh." She sounded disappointed; maybe even hurt. "I thought… What do you mean, your limit? Wasn't I…?"

She thought she was the problem. "No!" I answered quickly. "I mean, you were wonderful, Lois. It's me…all this…seeing through things, finding out I'm not really ill, being told I have to like being alien, Dr Tempus… It's too much," I finished lamely.

"Oh," she said again, looking away from me. She tugged her top down where I'd ruckled it up with my hand. All evidence of our recent passion thus removed, she looked at me with hurt in her eyes. "I'm sorry I said that, then — about you being alien."

"No, you were right to say it," I said. I took a deep breath, trying to find some focus; trying to find the right words instead of all the wrong ones. "Lois, I seem to be saying all the wrong things here. What I'm trying to tell you is that I need time. I want to kiss you and hold you, and show you how much I love you; with all my heart I want to do that, but I just found out something that's going to change my life for ever, and it's…it's overwhelming me, Lois."

I stood up abruptly and strode quickly away from her, because my voice had just cracked and I was afraid I was on the point of losing it completely. I didn't want her to see me like that. Once on my feet, I didn't know what to do with myself, so after a moment's hesitation, I continued on into the kitchen on the pretext of fixing more coffee.

I was filling the jug with water when I felt her come up behind me and wrap her arms around my chest and lay her head on my back. "Hey," she murmured. "You okay?"

I closed my eyes, taking comfort and strength from the warmth of her soft body pressed up against mine. "Yeah," I said, telling myself that if I claimed I was all right, that was almost as good as the real thing. "I'm fine. You want more coffee?"

"No, I've had enough for one night." She smoothed her hands over my chest in a soothing motion. "Do you want to talk about it or shall we just go to bed?"

"Bed, I think." I turned around in her arms and returned her embrace, laying my head on her shoulder. "Thanks for understanding, Lois."

She patted my back. "It's okay, Clark. I guess I forgot how much this means to you. It's your own fault, you know — you're just too darn good at kissing."

I smiled. "Thank you. And I promise I'll be more focused the next time we kiss."

She chuckled. "You better be. Things were just starting to get interesting."

I sighed, remembering how beautiful she'd felt in my hands. "They certainly were."

***

Chapter Forty-Two — I'm An Alien And Proud Of It

Well, that was all a couple of days ago. Since then I've been practising my new abilities whenever I can, and I'm starting to get pretty good with them. I've got the heat thing all figured out, so that I can do anything from a low-grade heat to laser-beam strength. It's pretty exciting — I can even cut through steel, and I have the half-empty cutlery drawer to prove it! Seeing through things was easier than I expected, after all those years of being terrorised by the experience — it seems as soon as I knew it wasn't a bad thing, I had no trouble with the concept, and the nausea that used to accompany it completely vanished. I even discovered an extra feature — I can magnify things as well as see through them. Pretty cool, huh?

My hearing is improving all the time as well, although I can't get the control yet that I have with my sight. It's kind of all or nothing at the moment. At least I don't get those headaches any more, which is a relief. Lois thinks they were just tension headaches anyway, brought on by my own dread of an attack and the fear that I might never recover.

I've started having the weirdest dreams, though. I keep dreaming I'm floating. One night I even dreamt I was flying. Don't even ask me what that means — maybe it means I feel free at last?

Anyway, things have been okay since that night. I won't say it's been easy; I'm still struggling to come to terms with the years I've lost and I get the odd maudlin moment when I remember something I wanted to do but couldn't because of my illness. I get angry, too — angry at life and the unfairness of it all. Wasn't it enough that I had to deal with being different from everyone else — why did I have be misdiagnosed as suffering from an incurable illness as well? But mostly I'm concentrating on the positive stuff, and I'm making a big effort to focus as much on Lois as I do on myself. I don't want this recovery to be all about me — Lois has as big a stake in it as I do and I'm determined not to slide back into my old self-centred habits.

I haven't told Mom and Dad yet. You'd think I would have by now, but I keep putting off the phone call. I know they'll be really happy when I tell them — and I'm looking forward to telling them that it was Lois who helped me discover these amazing abilities — but I also know that the news will devastate them. They'll blame themselves for not realising I was just different, not sick, and I really dread putting them through that pain. They suffered so much when I was little, and before when Sarah died, that it seems unfair that they should have to go through any more misery.

So the plan at the moment is to fly out to Smallville at the weekend with Lois and tell them face to face. It will be easier to break the news that way, and hopefully they'll get to understand Lois a little better at the same time.

I've told Dr Bryson and Dr Klein, and I have an appointment this afternoon at Star Labs to go over Klein's test results with him. Meanwhile I'm working on Lois's latest theory, which is that I'm some kind of Hercules. Actually, it's more than a theory, because I've already discovered I can lift the sofa up with one finger — one finger! Imagine that! I'm about to try the cooker, and then I'm heading down to a gym to see how much I can bench-press.

***

Chapter Forty-Three — The Return of Tempus

"Drop the gun and put your hands up!"

No, I wasn't watching daytime TV again. Those were the words of my brave and reckless girlfriend as she burst in on the scene I'm about to describe to you.

At the time she spoke those words, I was lying semi- conscious on my living room carpet, in more pain than I'd ever suffered in my entire life, while Tilley cowered a few feet away. Looming over both of us was Dr Tempus, wielding a small but lethal-looking gun in one hand and a strange lump of green rock in the other.

How did we get to this terrifying point? Well, read on, and I'll tell you.

I had returned from Star Labs and was preparing dinner for Lois and me when the doorbell rang. I didn't notice it at first, because I was so engrossed in my own thoughts. You see, Dr Klein had told me that he was convinced that kryptomide was actually a poison. From his study of my physiology and his tests on the samples I'd given him, he'd first reached the conclusion that it had no beneficial effects whatsoever, at any concentration. At that point, he'd wondered why Dr Tempus had been treating me with it for so long, so he did some more digging, and discovered that the so-called medicine actually emitted an unusual type of low-level radiation he'd never come across before. Studying the radiation led him to the conclusion that it would cause harm to the cell structures he'd observed from the scans he'd taken of my body.

So he'd urged me not to take any more of the medicine and to treat Dr Tempus's motives with a healthy dose of suspicion. When I told him about my newly-discovered abilities, which had only developed since I'd stopped taking the kryptomide, he became even more convinced that the medicine was harmful and even voiced the suggestion that I report Dr Tempus to the police.

Well, as you can imagine, this was a lot to take in. Of course, I'd already begun to question Dr Tempus's medical knowledge and judgement in using drugs to destroy my 'symptoms' instead of trying to understand them better, but to believe he actually had an ulterior, and perhaps even criminal, intent was a huge adjustment to make in my judgement of his character. Quite apart from the difficulty of coming to terms with the notion that my trusted doctor of some twenty years may not have deserved the respect and gratitude I had always bestowed upon him, there was the frightening prospect that he had been deliberately and methodically destroying my life while I had meekly stood back and allowed him to do so. How could anyone, but especially the philanthropic Dr Tempus, hate me so much? And why?

It was these weighty and chilling thoughts which were occupying my mind when the doorbell rang. By that time, I'd become pretty angry at my doctor and his nurse for inflicting this considerable misery on me, so when the sound of the second ring finally broke into my thoughts, I wasn't in a very friendly frame of mind.

To my surprise, I found the objects of my angry thoughts, both Nurse Tilley and Dr Tempus, standing on the other side of the door.

"I'm sorry, but I don't have anything to say to you two," I said coldly. "Sorry if that sounds rude, but that's the way it is."

Dr Tempus gave me a surprised look and even took a small step backwards as if he was recoiling from my hostile attitude. "Clark, I don't understand!" he exclaimed in apparent consternation. "We're here to help."

I nearly choked. "Help? Do you have any idea what you and Attila the Hun here have done to me? Any whatsoever?"

Dr Tempus exchanged confused looks with Tilley. "At least let us in, Clark," said Tilley. "Then you can explain exactly what you mean."

"I don't see why I have to explain anything to you," I retorted.

Dr Tempus stepped forward and put his hand on my arm. "Clark, we've known each other a very long time," he said calmly and slowly. "If you want me out of your life now, then that's fine, I'll go — but don't you think I deserve to know precisely what I've done wrong? After all these years, Clark," he reiterated.

I pulled my arm away from him. Here he was again, the reasonable, fair-minded Dr Tempus — so far removed from the evil monster I'd built up in my thoughts. How could I doubt him, a little voice was telling me. He was a friend; the kind man who'd rescued me from those horrible nurses at the clinic so many years ago. At best, he'd used his extensive medical and research experience to treat me to the best of his ability; at worst, he'd simply made a terrible mistake.

And Tilley — she'd cried for me in the hospital. How could I believe she wished me any harm?

I sighed and moved to let them through. "Okay, I guess you deserve to know what's happened."

I ushered them to seats in the living room, and then sat down myself.

"Before you get started, Clark," said Dr Tempus, "let me tell you why we're here. Nurse Tilley, if you would be so kind?"

Tilley nodded and bent forward to rummage in her medical bag.

"I'm perfectly healthy, " I told her as she produced her stethoscope and hung it around her neck. "There's no need to examine me — and I'm not taking any more kryptomide, if that's what you were thinking," I warned, seeing her lift out her box of surgical wipes and place it on the table. "I don't need it any more."

Dr Tempus's eyebrows shot up into his hairline. "Really? What gives you that idea?"

Tilley started preparing a syringe, drawing in liquid from a small bottle. "Put it away, Tilley," I said sharply. "You won't need it."

She looked enquiringly at Dr Tempus, who motioned for her to continue. "You may as well finish now you've started, Nurse. Now, Clark, tell us why you don't think you need your medication any longer."

"Because I'm not sick," I said. "All those things I thought were the result of illness turn out to be normal for me. I really can see through things and I really can hear things no ordinary human can hear."

Dr Tempus laughed. "Now, Clark, don't you think that's a little far-fetched? I'm sure you think you can do these things, but as I've explained to you before, that's because your brain is severely over-active and sending dangerously false signals to your body. You need the kryptomide to suppress the abnormal activity and return it to manageable levels. Nurse Tilley will tell you the same thing, won't you, Nurse?"

Tilley nodded in agreement. "And your doctor at the hospital confirmed that you were ready to start treatment again."

"He said I could if I wanted to, but actually he advised me not to," I told her. "He thinks the kryptomide is bad for me."

Dr Tempus shook his head. "And how long has he been treating you for? A week — two or three at most? I've been treating you for twenty years, Clark! Who are you going to trust?"

I shook my head. "I'm not going to argue with you over this. I have proof that I'm right about my abilities, and I also have another doctor who told me just this afternoon that kryptomide does nothing but harm to me. So put the needle away, Tilley. You probably wouldn't be able to inject me, anyway. Turns out my skin is invulnerable along with everything else."

I stood up. "You're lucky I'm not going to report you both for gross medical incompetence. You've probably been poisoning me for years without me realising. It was even suggested to me this afternoon that I report you to the police. Now, I don't know yet whether I'm going to do that or not, but in the meantime, I suggest you leave and let me piece together the remnants of the life I should have been living for the past twenty years."

Dr Tempus got to his feet. "Well, I'm sorry you feel that way, Clark," he said smoothly, reaching inside his coat. "Because it means I have to do this."

I began to feel strange as soon as he started to withdraw his hand. I felt sick and dizzy and small jabs of pain stabbed at my muscles — the feeling was the same, I realised dimly, as the one I'd experienced a few weeks ago when Lois and I had been snooping around the clinic. Whatever had caused that illness was now here in the room with me. The pain and discomfort grew intolerable when I saw what he was pulling out — a strange green-glowing lump of rock. I doubled over in agony, gasping "What are you doing?"

"Why, killing you, of course," he replied carelessly.

Dismayed and terrified, I tried to lunge forward at him, but I was clumsy and weak, and merely succeeded in toppling myself to the floor.

"Clark!" exclaimed Tilley. I pawed helplessly at the carpet, trying to gather together enough strength to push myself upright, but it was useless. Whatever that rock was, it was causing me so much agony that I thought I could well black out completely, let alone find the power to sit up straight. I felt Tilley's fingers on the side of my neck, presumably checking my pulse. "What are you doing to him?!" she yelled at Dr Tempus.

Score one merit point for Tilley, I thought foggily — she seemed to be on my side after all. I forced my eyes open and found Dr Tempus standing over us, pointing a small, compact handgun at me. At the sight of his cold, impassive gaze, and the lethal weapon that he wielded so carelessly, I knew immediately that the past twenty years had been a sham. I couldn't imagine how he'd kept up the pretence for so long, but it was clear to me that I was now seeing the real man. There was steel and determination in his voice — characteristics he'd never exhibited in all the years I'd known him — and that clinched it for me. A person didn't acquire such brutality and violence overnight.

"Get away from him!" he ordered Tilley. "I haven't had much practice with these things, so I may hit more than I intend to. You wouldn't want to get in the way of the bullet, now would you, my dear Nurse Tilley?" he snarled.

He waved the gun threateningly at her, and she scampered away from me. I glared up at him, fighting the near- paralysing pain and nausea to confront him. "You won't get away with this, you know. She's a witness, and someone will raise the alarm as soon as you shoot me."

"Yes, no doubt they will, but you see, details like that don't really trouble me. I'll be long gone before any of Metropolis's finest arrive. Now, let me see — how do these things work again?" There was a metallic click, at which my heart nearly stopped. "There we go — safety catch off; we're ready to fire."

He aimed the gun at me, narrowing his eyes to sight down the barrel. "Where would you like the first bullet, Clark? I can't promise you anything, of course, but I'm willing to give it my best shot if you have any preferences." He laughed dryly. "Get it? Best shot. I do so love these crass puns, don't you?"

I shook my head. "Why? If you're going to kill me, at least tell me why first. I deserve that much, don't I? After all these years, Dr Tempus," I added, deliberately echoing his own words to me.

He raised an eyebrow. "Touche, Clark. But isn't that a little too conventional? The villain, poised to deliver the final coup de grace, pauses to explain his motives to the audience — thus allowing the cavalry to ride over the horizon and save the hero?" He shook his head. "Tut, tut, Clark. Nice try, but it won't happen this time."

"Drop the gun and put your hands up!"

Lois took us all by surprise. I hadn't noticed her entrance at all, and when she rushed forward and thrust something against Tempus's back, it was clear that he hadn't seen or heard her either.

"Hurry up!" barked Lois to Tempus. "I know how to use this thing!"

Tempus, to my dismay, didn't seem very perturbed by Lois's brave words. He rolled his eyes. "Lois Lane," he said with distaste. "Why is there always a Lois Lane?"

"How do you know my name?" demanded Lois. "And what do you mean — always a Lois Lane?"

He laughed. "Private joke — you wouldn't understand. Tell me, are you as galactically stupid as all the others, or do you think you could recognise your boyfriend if he wore glasses?"

"Shut up and put the gun down!" she ordered.

He shrugged his shoulders. "Call me stupid, but I hardly think a junior reporter fresh home from work is likely to be carrying a handgun on the off-chance that she finds a man preparing to shoot her boyfriend in his own apartment."

"How do you know?" I gasped from the floor. It was becoming hard to breathe and I was coughing a lot, but I was ready to try anything if we could trick Tempus into surrendering. "She's been taking lessons."

Not strictly true, but I hadn't actually said she'd been taking handgun lessons.

"That would be a first. Lois Lanes study Tae Kwon Do in my experience," replied Tempus. "No, I think I'll take my chances."

He re-aimed his gun at me and I threw all my remaining strength into one last attempt to knock him over. As I moved, I heard Tilley scream, "No!" and then the three of us were scrambling desperately on the carpet. Tilley had rushed at Tempus's gun-hand and landed mostly on top of him, while I'd managed to grab his feet as he went down. I don't know where Lois was; I was too winded and dazed to notice. I just lay lifelessly on top of Tempus's struggling feet while a tremendous struggle took place above me. I knew they were fighting for possession of the gun, but I couldn't tell who was winning. I only hoped that Lois was well out of danger — hopefully calling the police to deal with the aftermath, whatever that turned out to be.

"Call the police," I coughed out to Lois, in case she was about to join the fray.

Tempus and Tilley continued to roll around above me; elbows and knees and feet all collided with me as I lay there, but I clung steadfastly to my position, partly through helplessness and partly through grim determination not to let Tempus escape. There were grunts and shouts, and then suddenly a deafening shot.

Time stood still.

My heart leapt into my mouth, and I prayed that Lois was safe. She hadn't been part of the struggle, as far as I knew, so unless she'd unwittingly stood in the path of the bullet, she should be all right.

Please let her be okay!

I wanted to leap up immediately and find her; check her all over and make sure she was safe, but the rock had weakened me so badly I couldn't move a muscle.

"Lois," I whispered.

"Clark!"

Her voice was the sweetest sound I'd ever heard. Her hands were on me, pushing me away from Tempus, who lay still beneath me. She rolled me onto my back, and I reached a hand up to her face. "Are you all right?" I rasped, not willing to give in to my own desperate hopes until I heard it from her own lips.

"I'm fine," she said, grasping my hand in hers. "What about you?"

"I'm okay," I replied, meaning I hadn't been shot. "What about the others?"

She looked across to Tempus, and I heard Tilley's flat voice announce, "He's dead."

"Tempus?" I asked, and Lois nodded.

I closed my eyes, a flood of emotions overwhelming me. The man who had just tried to kill me was dead. My trusted friend of twenty years was dead. The man who'd been slowly poisoning me all my life was dead. Lois was alive.

Consciousness began slipping away from me. The solid wall of pain was becoming too hard to resist and there was no immediate danger to fight against any more. My life-long struggle with ill-health, fear and despair was over, and now I drifted along the edge of wakefulness, glad that we were safe but powerless to resist the pull of darkness and endless sleep.

"Clark!" I felt her shake me roughly. "What's wrong?"

Wrong? Oh, the rock.

"Green rock," I mumbled. "Hurts."

"Tempus had it," I heard Tilley say. "It must still be here somewhere."

Lois left me, and a few minutes later I felt the wall of pain begin to recede slowly. I opened my eyes and found her looking down at me. "Better?" she asked anxiously.

I nodded. "Yeah. Thanks."

"Let me take a look at him." Tilley's square, mannish features loomed into view. She looked white-faced and unkempt, but nevertheless focused and determined. Before the fight, I wouldn't have let her lay a medical finger on me ever again, but now that I'd witnessed her battling Tempus to the ground on my behalf, I was more confident that I could trust her.

"What about Dr Tempus?" I said, thinking fuzzily that perhaps she should be double-checking that he was really dead or something.

"Not much anyone can do for him," she replied gruffly, picking up my wrist with one hand while the other felt my forehead. "Are you in any pain?"

"Some, but it's getting better. Mostly I just feel weak and dizzy," I told her, slipping back into the familiar nurse-patient routine we used to have before all this blew up in my face. If anything, it seemed easier to confide in her now than it had been for the last few weeks.

She nodded. "Do you think you can stand up if we help you?"

She leant back to give me some space while I tried pushing myself off the floor a little. Immediately a sickening wave of dizziness swept over me and I sank back to the carpet. "Not yet," I gasped, as the room darkened and sounds began to sound like they were coming from a long way down an echoing tunnel.

"Okay," she said, placing a very uncharacteristically comforting hand over mine. "Don't worry about it. Ms Lane, can you fetch some blankets and a pillow, then make him a good hot, sweet cup of tea, please?"

I heard Lois murmur, "Sure."

"You'll be fine," said Tilley to me. "You just need to rest and get some colour back in your cheeks. You've a touch of shock as well as the effects of that rock."

I closed my eyes. "Hence the tea. Thanks, Tilley — and thanks for stopping Dr Tempus from shooting me." Tilley was definitely okay, I decided — misguided and often not a great people-person, but her heart was in the right place.

"It was the least I could do," she mumbled, moving to untie my laces and remove my shoes.

***

And so that's where I was when the police arrived — lying on the carpet next to Tempus's dead body while Lois sat beside me holding my hand. I'm sure I wasn't the only one in shock; we were all shaky and nervous when the police started questioning us.

For my part, I felt very silly lying on the floor talking to police officers. I was asked if I needed an ambulance, and decided that the best answer to that was to sit up, which I did without too much trouble. Soon, I was sitting on the sofa huddled in my blanket and sipping another mug of Lois's tea.

It seemed to take ages for everyone to ask their questions, record their evidence, and clear things up. Eventually, though, Tempus's body was zipped up into a body bag, and Lois and I were left alone with just a dark brown stain on the carpet and a mutual sense of disjointed reality.

"Know any good carpet cleaners?" I said after a bit.

She shuddered next to me. "No, but I'll find one. I don't suppose you want to clean that up, and I certainly don't."

I nodded. "I still can't quite believe it happened. If it wasn't for that stain, I'd think it was all a bad dream."

"Yeah," she agreed. "So do you think he always wanted to kill you?"

"He could have done that when I was a kid — it would have been much easier for him then," I pointed out. "No, I think killing me was a last resort. What he really wanted to do was make me suffer for as long as he possibly could. He gave me just enough kryptomide to make me ill without actually killing me."

I closed my eyes to blot out the sight of the stain. Even dead, Dr Tempus was like a dark shadow lurking on the edge of my consciousness — I knew now that he was the unseen evil I'd sensed for so many weeks as we'd unravelled the truth about him and the clinic. That day in the kitchen, which seemed like a lifetime ago, when I'd remembered the tortured boy in his wheelchair at the clinic — that was when I'd first sensed the evil. Ever since then it had hovered in the background, a presence darkening my perception of the world. My blood ran cold when I thought of the trust I'd placed in Dr Tempus; how vulnerable I'd been and just what he could have done to me — what he did do to me!

Suddenly I was angry — no, furious! What an unmitigated brute he'd been, deliberately ruining my life so cold- bloodedly. How dare he? How dare he come into my life — into my parents' lives — and wheedle his way into our confidence, playing up to our fears and uncertainties? He must have known that my parents were devastated by Sarah's death, and he must have used that against them. Knowing that hurt me more than anything he'd done to me. My parents were good, kind people — they didn't deserve the misery he'd inflicted on them. And he'd pretended to be so caring and sympathetic — we'd thought him philanthropic; one of a kind. Well, he certainly was one of a kind. An evil, malicious, amoral bastard.

And his blood was defacing my carpet.

I stood up, letting the blanket fall off my shoulders.

"Where are you going?" asked Lois.

"To find something to cover that," I muttered, storming into the bedroom to find an old rug I knew was rolled up inside my wardrobe. Gathering it into my arms, I strode back out to the living room and arranged it over the stain.

Satisfied that I'd blotted him out of sight, if not out of mind, I straightened up. The room tilted slightly but I quickly regained my balance and checked that the rug looked okay.

"Are you all right?" asked Lois from the sofa.

"I'm fine," I replied, although just at that instant, the room lurched again. Impatient with it — this debilitating weakness — I shook my head to clear it and promptly lost my balance again.

She was beside me before I realised she'd moved, steadying me with a hand on my shoulder. "You're as white as a sheet," she said. "Come and sit down."

"I'm fine," I insisted stubbornly, resisting her attempts to move me.

"Come back to the sofa," she urged, "before you fall over."

I looked down at the rug again, the hidden stain still clear in my mind. It was like a symbol; he'd left his mark on my apartment just like he'd left his mark on my life. Maybe I wouldn't get it cleaned after all — I'd get the whole carpet replaced instead.

My knees buckled unexpectedly but I managed to stay upright by grabbing onto Lois.

"Clark, please."

The anxiety in her voice cut through my thoughts and prompted me to look directly at her. Lines of tension and worry etched her normally clear face and I suddenly realised I was the cause. I felt a stab of guilt — none of this was her fault and it wasn't fair of me to take my anger out on her. Relenting, I let her usher me across the room, sit me down, and wrap the blanket around my hunched shoulders again.

"I'm sorry, Lois," I said. "It's just that I'm so mad. What he did to me — and worse still, to my parents… We trusted him and he just laughed at us behind our backs, making us suffer and no doubt enjoying every minute of it. Mom and Dad didn't deserve that — they're good people! They didn't deserve a monster like Tempus corrupting their kindness and twisting the knife every time he came to visit. I remember now — he always pretended he was putting a brave face on things. The medicine he was prescribing would help, he'd say, but we'd have to face the fact that I'd never be able to lead a completely normal life. I even remember him sizing up the width of our doors for wheelchair access and saying how convenient it was that we had a spare bedroom downstairs." I shook my head bitterly. "He must have known exactly how much all that would tear my parents apart."

I felt her rest her arm across my back. "Well, you know I was always suspicious of his motives. He just seemed too good to be true."

I nodded. "I should have listened to you. But he was like a family friend — you don't suspect your friends of trying to kill you."

"No — or poison you slowly over almost two decades." Her hand circled over my back. "Like you said, he was an evil monster. You can't expect to understand someone like that."

My eyes settled on the rug again. "You know," I said, "in a funny way, I wish he wasn't dead. I wish we could have brought him to justice — made him suffer for what he did to us. Dying is the easy way out."

"True, but he pretty much sealed his own fate by pulling a gun on you. It was either kill or be killed." She sighed. "Personally, I glad he's dead, because it means we can get on with our lives right away without having to worry about a long court case." She put a hand on my knee. "I'm looking forward to that…Clark, you're shaking."

I shrugged. "I'm angry. People shake when they're angry."

"Maybe." She bit her bottom lip. "But why don't you lie back and try to relax a little? You don't want to start getting sick again."

I sighed — I'd had enough of pandering to illness. Besides, I didn't feel that bad. "Again?" I said disgustedly. "I was never sick in the first place — only poisoned by that…that monster."

"Okay, then how about this — less than an hour ago you were lying on the floor, too weak to sit up, let alone stand. Don't you think you owe yourself some recovery time?"

"I'm not an invalid," I insisted. "I've left that life behind."

She persisted, though, pulling me backwards with a quiet, "Come on." In the end, it was simpler not to argue, and I supposed she could have a point — I really didn't want to get sick again. I'd gotten used to feeling fit and healthy these past couple of weeks; had forgotten how it felt to be weak and shaky and scared to overexert myself lest I exacerbate my illness. So I leant back into the sofa cushions and closed my eyes for a few minutes.

"That's better," she murmured. "Tilley said you should get plenty of rest. Talking of whom, I'm willing to bet Tempus even chose her because of her lack of bedside manner."

I nodded. "She turned against him in the end, though. And she was pretty brave to go diving at his gun like that."

"Yes, she did okay, didn't she?"

We fell silent. It had been a long, traumatic day and we were both exhausted. My anger, which had flared so quickly, ebbed away until all that was left was weariness and an aching sadness — for what, I wasn't sure; I was too tired to analyse it.

"Are you all right?" I asked Lois after a while. Now that my anger had dissipated, I was remembering my fears for her when the gun had fired. She seemed to be okay, but I wasn't the only one who'd suffered a horrible shock tonight. "That must have taken some nerve to come up behind him like you did, without a gun."

"Hey, I earn my living pulling stunts like that," she replied spiritedly. "The part I didn't like was that 'junior reporter' tag he gave me. I could have killed him for that."

I smiled. "And I'm sure you would have if you'd been armed with more than…well, what exactly did you stick in his back, anyway?"

She paused. "Well, let's just say it's not something you'd ever carry around. As a man."

"Lipstick?" I suggested.

"No, Clark. Use your imagination — what do women need that men don't?"

I pondered it for a second. Barrel-shaped objects which only a woman would carry around in her purse…

"You're kidding!" I said, surprise wiping out any embarrassment I might have felt. "You held up Tempus with a tamp-"

"Yes."

I grinned. "'I know how to use this thing?' I believe that's what you said."

"Well, it was true, wasn't it?" she said defensively.

I chuckled. "Only you, Lois, would do anything so crazily outrageous. I'm proud of you."

"Why, thank you."

"But really," I continued, sobering up. "Are you sure you're all right? I didn't see what happened to you after I fell on top of Tempus's feet."

"I was helping Tilley fight him, of course!" she said indignantly. "Trouble was, they were moving around so much it was difficult to hit him without hitting her instead. Then the gun went off and I knew she'd shot him because he stopped struggling."

"Sounds like you were lucky not to get shot yourself," I observed.

"I was not!" she answered. "I knew exactly what I was doing."

I smiled again — there was no shaking her confidence that she'd been totally in control. Privately, I still felt sick inside when I thought where that shot might have gone. Lois's solid determination and spunky self-confidence, however, were two of the biggest reasons I loved her, so I supposed I couldn't and shouldn't really expect anything less from her.

"Well, thank you," I said. "If it wasn't for you, I'd be dead by now."

She shrugged. "Next time, you can save my life."

"I sincerely hope there is never a next time!" I said emphatically.

"Oh, there's always a next time," she said breezily.

I shook my head helplessly — again, there was no point arguing with her. Besides, I was too tired to chase the subject around any more. We stopped talking again for a while. I sipped tea, and Lois held my hand between hers, stroking her thumb over my fingers in a relaxing, soothing pattern. After a while I shifted, slipping my arm around her shoulder instead and pulling her sideways so that she was leaning up against me. The closeness felt comforting and safe after the traumatic events of the evening.

However, a minor problem remained to be solved. "Lois, you can't sleep in here tonight."

"No," she agreed.

"So where do you want to sleep?" I asked. "Maybe you'd prefer to go home?"

"And leave you alone with that?" she exclaimed, nodding at the stain. "No way! I guess you could come home with me, though," she suggested.

I shook my head. "I'm a lot better than I was, but I don't think I'm up to the journey."

"Guess that leaves only one answer, then," she said, looking up at me. "Promise me you'll be gentle with me," she murmured in my ear.

I laughed. "Lois, believe me, I'm in no shape to do anything other than sleep tonight."

"What a shame," she said, kissing the side of my face. "Come on, sleepyhead, let's get you to bed."

She stood up and pulled me up off the sofa, and together we ambled slowly into the bedroom, arm in arm.

***

Chapter Forty-Five — Bedtime

Waking up in bed next to your girlfriend has to rate as one of the best medicines in the world. We'd both been too tired the previous night to care that we were sharing the same bed for the first time ever, but this morning was entirely different. As soon as I started drifting out of sleep, I became aware of her presence beside me and a warm sense of contentment swept over me. When I finally opened my eyes, I found her gazing at me across the pillows.

"Hey you," I murmured. "What are you doing in my bed?"

She smiled. "I believe I was invited." She reached over and caressed the side of my face. "How are you feeling?"

"Pretty good. How about you?"

"Oh, I'm okay," she answered softly. Her fingers trailed slowly down my neck and across my shoulder, her touch tender and gentle. "This is nice," she said.

"Yes," I said. "We should do it more often." I shifted closer and put my arm around her. Our faces were only inches apart. "Do you remember the last time we were like this?"

She nodded slightly. "At the hospital. I was so embarrassed when that nurse came in."

"Me too. Fortunately, we're on our own this time." I closed the short distance between us and pressed my lips lightly against hers. It was a delicate, tentative kiss, testing the waters of an exciting new stage in our relationship. Lois responded with a similar caution, withdrawing and then coming back to kiss again, until we settled into a pattern of many small, gentle kisses. We were discovering each other anew, I think, finding out what it felt like to be close and intimate with only a couple of thin layers of clothing separating us.

After a bit I became aware that we'd somehow gotten much closer, and that my body was reacting to this in very obvious and embarrassing manner. This had been happening quite a lot lately, but usually Lois wasn't close enough to be able to notice. I began to shift awkwardly away from her, but she stopped me by tugging me closer again.

"It's okay," she murmured. "I was enjoying that."

A flush of desire flooded over me. "Oh, Lois," I said, my voice suddenly dropping down an octave. I kissed her again, but this time it was a deep, long kiss. I ran my hand over her body, discovering that I wanted to touch her everywhere all at the same time. Her feminine curves seemed to fit under my fingers perfectly; were moulded beautifully and lusciously to my touch.

When we finally broke off the kiss, we were both panting. Lois recovered before me. "I think we've moved on from 'nice' to 'wow'," she said, her eyes dancing.

"Wow doesn't even begin to describe how I feel," I rumbled. Everywhere she touched me my skin tingled; every stroke was like the caress of a hot flame over my body. I dove in to kiss her again, and this time, she brought us even closer by hooking her leg over my hip.

Desire knifed through my body. When she began to rub herself against me, I couldn't help but moan softly with pleasure.

"Lois," I gasped. "If we don't stop this soon, I'm not sure I'll be able to control myself."

"Good," she replied with a sly grin.

My heart did a flip — did she just say what I thought she said? "So…so you want to…?" I asked, seeing the desire in her eyes but needing to hear her say it.

"Oh, yes, I want to," she said. "Don't you?"

"God, yes," I replied, crushing my lips hard against hers. We kissed passionately, shattering the remaining boundaries between us; letting our hands roam anywhere and everywhere and allowing desire to control our bodies. I'd never felt such intense closeness before; so strong I could feel her heart beat as strongly as my own.

I broke off after a bit, an important matter rising hazily in my passion-fogged mind. "Lois, I don't have anything," I warned, hoping fervently that she was better prepared than I was.

"It's okay — I'm on the Pill," she replied quickly, diving back to attack me with her lips again.

Relieved, I relaxed and returned her kiss just as enthusiastically, eager to experience the most wonderful moments in my entire life.

***

Chapter Forty-Six — A New Beginning

And so here I am, scribbling down this entry before the taxi arrives to take us to the airport. We're on our way to visit Mom and Dad in Smallville. I'm looking forward to it, mostly, because of the good news we've got for them. I know they'll be really pleased when I tell them that I'm one hundred percent fit and healthy and never expect to need kryptomide or any other treatment ever again. I'm sure they'll take some convincing, but when I tell them the incredible things I've discovered I can do — and Lois backs me up — I don't see how they won't be able to believe me.

It's a pity I won't be able to show off to them, of course. Dr Klein thinks it will be a few more days before the effects of Dr Tempus's rock wear off and I'm back to where I was a few days ago — oh, and by the way, he's pretty sure that rock was made of pure kryptomide. He's still analysing it, but he says it's definitely not from Earth, and may even be from my own planet. Isn't that ironic? The only link with the planet I would have called home if I hadn't ended up on Earth turns out to be lethal to me. Maybe that's a sign that I really do belong here and not there.

Anyway, back to Mom and Dad. The bad news is that I'm sure they're going to be as devastated as I was by Dr Tempus's death — maybe even more so, because they never shared my recent doubts about him. Not only that, but I know that when I tell them what he did to me, they'll blame themselves. They, after all, were the ones who took me to see a doctor that first time my weird abilities started to work. That, in turn, was the start of the chain of events which led to Dr Tempus becoming my physician. Personally, I don't blame them at all — they just thought I was falling ill in the same way as my sister Sarah, so naturally they wanted to make sure I didn't die like she did. But they won't see it like that — they'll feel incredibly guilty for assuming I was sick and not just different.

I just hope Lois doesn't get caught in the middle of all this. They've disapproved of her just about all the way through, and while I know Mom and Dad wouldn't usually turn against someone for all the wrong reasons, emotions will be running high this weekend. I'll make it clear to them, of course, that Lois is the main reason I'm free of illness, so hopefully that will stop them saying or doing anything rash that I know they'd regret later.

Personally, I'm still having a hard time dealing with the knowledge that I've been…well, abused, for want of a better term, for the best part of twenty years. It was bad enough when I thought I'd been misdiagnosed, but now that I know the truth about Dr Tempus, it's even harder.

I don't want to dwell on that, though. With Lois by my side, I know I'll get through it, however bad it gets. She's my anchor. She's also my best friend, my girlfriend, and now, I'm thrilled and pretty pleased with myself to report, my lover.

My lover.

Two words I never expected to write side by side.

That morning when Lois and I made love was the beginning of a life I'd never dared to hope would be mine. When I began this journal, I was writing from the depths of depression. I was alone, chronically ill, and expected to end up as a helpless vegetable in a wheelchair — if I didn't die first. I'd trained myself not to hope for too much, and certainly not to have a steady girlfriend who loved me despite being alien and suffering from an incurable illness.

Now I'm healthy, and I have Lois. What more could any man want?

Well, the taxi's here, and Lois will be yelling at me soon to quit whatever I'm doing on the computer and get my butt in gear, so I'd better sign off for now. I haven't decided yet whether I'm going to add more entries after today, but there's still plenty of space left on my hard disk, so who knows?

I guess the best advice I can give you, my anonymous reader, is to watch this space…

THE END

(to be continued in Misery II: Man or Superman?